Leverage

Back to Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance (Polity, 2015) after a long hiatus.  And when he gets to a discussion of how nonviolent movements can succeed, I find a good way of thinking about my earlier expression of skepticism about the usefulness of mass marches in DC or elsewhere.

Basically, a social movement’s success (May is drawing on the work of Gene Sharp here; another source identifies Sharp as the leading proponent of the “pragmatic” as opposed to “moral” school of non-violence advocates) depends on its understanding power in its given society.  “Leverage refers to the ability of contentious actors to mobilize the withdrawal of support from opponents or invoke pressure against them through the networks upon which opponents depend for their power” (This is Sharp, not May, but taken from page 93 of May’s book).

The premise is that power is something given to certain people or certain institutions by voluntary obedience, by consent. Power, therefore, is dependent on the cooperation of those who we normally think of as subject to power.  At least in theory, a government cannot sustain itself in the absence of such consent.  Laws against drinking alcohol or having homosexual sex prove unenforceable in the absence of voluntary obedience.  (It’s an empirical question as to what the “tipping point” is.)

The non-violent movement, then, is working to promote wide-spread disobedience.  It must represent certain laws—or the government tout court—as morally reprehensible, illegitimate, or unacceptably oppressive.  It will succeed when it makes a specific policy—or, again, a whole government—unsustainable.

Two things follow from understanding the ultimate goal of the movement this way.  Again, quoting Sharp:  “Two basic conditions must be met for a challenge to contribute to political transformations: 1) the challenge must be able to withstand repression and 2) the challenge must undermine state power” (92 in May).

How can the movement “sustain itself during the inevitable repression that will result from a challenge to state power” (92)?  Sharp’s answer is that the movement’s resilience is tied to “decentralized yet coordinated organizational networks, the ability to implement multiple actions [in multiple modes from persuasion, to noncooperation, to intervention] and the ability to implement methods of dispersion as well as concentration, and tactical innovation” (92).  Sharp has a wonderful list of 98 types of non-violent action.  Multiple forms of action greatly increases the opportunities for participation by people of varying degrees of commitment (from general sympathy to obsessive commitment).  Plus those multiple modes of action keep people involved over time, instead of just getting them into the street for one-off demonstrations.  And having acted multiple times increases people’s commitment, so they won’t wilt away at the first sign of push-back from the opponents.

What Sharp and May don’t take up is that protest is not cost-free.  It is getting a critical mass of people to the point where they put something real on the line that’s the hard part.  Demonstrations are cost free—as, for the most part, is getting arrested one time.  But the movement is going to collapse in the face of repression unless a significant number of people are going to accept fairly serious trouble.  It’s been a fairly long time (really since the early 1970s) since we have witnessed that kind of commitment on the American scene.

On to point two: leverage.  In theory, the contest is played out in the court of public opinion.  In a democracy, ideally, you are working to convince a majority that your view, not the opponents’, is the right one.  You are soliciting their vote (minimally), but, more substantially, their withdrawal of consent from the policy or practice that is being protested against.

And that is still somewhat the case.  But the leverage points in American politics are way more complex than that—and not a reason for optimism.  For starters, politicians are very insulated from the popular vote.  (I won’t get into this is worse now than it was fifty or a hundred years ago).  But between the first need to raise huge amounts of money to run on to the dynamics of primaries and of gerrymandering, it is quite obvious that our elected officials are much more beholden to and frightened of certain power brokers than they are to the public at large.  The spectacle of a Republican party nearly passing a health law supported by 20% of the population is just one proof of that point.  Our absurd gun laws is another.

So a successful protest movement today has to develop a realistic appraisal of where power resides in our plutocracy and a strategy for leveraging that power.  Demonstrations are not going to do the trick.  Boycotts seem to me much more likely to be effective—both because they hit power where it hurts and because they are sustained over time (or need to be in order to work).  One instance is the fact that corporate pressure and high-profile actions like moving the Super Bowl from one state to another have been much more effective in blocking certain kinds of discriminatory statutes than citizen protests.  That’s a lamentable fact, but it’s a fact.  So perhaps our protest movements should aim more at corporate power centers than at political ones—and then try to move those corporations to bring pressure to bear on the politicians.

The general point, I assume, is clear.  Moving public opinion is a good thing (although I see little evidence that demonstrations do that very often).  Building up your fellow travelers is also a good thing—and demonstrations may help with that.  But applying pressure at the right places is really, really crucial.  And, for now, I don’t see the left as having a good game plan in that regard.  Like it or not, our opponents are not going to do the right thing because we convince them that we occupy the moral high ground.  Things are only going to change when they are made to pay a price they find unacceptable for keeping things the way they are.  Leverage is about finding the ways to make them pay such a price.  In the meantime, pushing to get to that point requires our side having a sufficient number of people willing to pay a price for initiating and sustaining a protest against the way things are.

More to say about this in subsequent posts, specifically about counting on the courts for help and about constitutional crises.

 

 

Your Trollope for the Day

Two passages from Anthony Trollope (pulled out of Amanda Anderson’s Bleak Liberalism [U of Chicago Press, 2016] which I am reading in order to review).

The first is Trollope’s description of his aim in writing The Way We Live Now; the passage comes from Trollope’s Autobiography.

” A certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.”

The second is one character in that novel, Mrs. Hurdle (an American and, hence, inevitably morally suspect and drawn to magnificent dishonesty), explaining her admiration for the deceitful banker Melmotte.  The crux, of course, is how dishonesty appears as a higher form of honesty.

“Ah,–you mean that he is bold in breaking those precepts of yours about coveting worldly wealth.  All men and women break that commandment, but they do so in stealthy fashion, half drawing back the grasping hand, praying to be delivered from temptation while they filch only a little, pretending to despise the only thing that is dear to them in the world.  Here is a man who boldly says that he recognizes no such law; that wealth is power, and power is good, and the the more a man has of wealth the greater and stronger and nobler he can be.  I love a man who can turn the hobgoblins inside out and burn the wooden bogies he meets.”

 

 

Independence and Freedom Not the Same

“It would be wrong to muddle independence with freedom.  No one is less independent than a free citizen” (269, footnote 46, in The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution).

No statement in Tocqueville more succinctly captures the difference between his version of conservatism and the hyper-individualistic ideology that passes as conservatism in contemporary America.  I sympathize with the Corey Robin point that conservatism is always about protecting privilege, that Burke’s corporate conservatism and Hayek’s individualistic conservatism may look different in various ways, but, au fond, they are both about preserving power and wealth in the hands of thems that already gots.

That’s why republican virtue is perhaps the best tradition to attach Tocqueville to. He is against liberal individualism if that means vigorous pursuit of economic prosperity; but he is all in favor of individual rights, seeing the protected civil liberties are essential—and that they should be extended to all.  In that respect, he is not a conservative.  He has no truck with privileges being granted to only one class of citizens.  He is an egalitarian.

But . . . He also believes that there should be a political class that takes on the responsibility of managing public affairs.  It is that class which truly enjoys “freedom,” but which lacks independence precisely because of its great responsibilities.  Self-government (which is freedom) is not an exemption from the collective; it is, rather, action within the collective.  That’s where he is not liberal—and where he tends to conservatism because he is an elitist about this political class.  But it is also where he is most at odds with contemporary American conservatives for whom independence is the essence of freedom—the very mistake that Tocqueville deplores.

Two complications.

1. “The aims recommended by the reformers were many and varied but their methods were the same.  They wanted to borrow the strength of central government and use it to smash everything and rebuild it according to a new plan of their own devising.  Such a task could, they thought, be accomplished only by the central power” (77).  This is the liberalism of fear (Judith Schlar’s term.)  Fear the accumulation of power.  Build in checks and balances; disperse power so it resides in several locations.  Yes, he wants a political class—but he also wants to hem in its power by various institutional safeguards. Revolutionaries are to be feared both because they want to smash everything, want to rebuild according to a plan grounded solely in unrealistic theory, and because they are all about accumulating power into their own hands.  They are the quintessential centrailizers.

2. Not completely clear in Tocqueville what he sees as the optimal relation of the legislative to the executive power. He is very clear that local assemblies, the more local the better, should legislate.  But he also seems to say in various places that a truly free people executes its own decisions.  The doing should be done by the people who are also the beneficiaries of those actions.  So he can seem a very radical proponent of direct or participatory democracy at times—even while at other times he relies on a distinct political class to alone be the political actors.  So he can write with despair about a situation in which “no one imagined that an important matter could be brought to a successful conclusion without the involvement of the state” (77)—suggesting that his ideal is when the state proves unnecessary because the people take matters into their own hands.  But he will show a deep distrust of the people in other places.  And, of course, his anti-state bias in favor of a republican mode of citizen involvement has all the classic scale problems that afflict the republican tradition.  The emphasis on the local works against any larger political entity—but empire and, subsequently, the nation-state are persistent historical forms that swallow up small-scale city-states and their like.

Political Liberty and Material Comforts

A long passage from Tocqueville that captures one essential theme of his work, followed by a short comment by me.

“I have often wondered where this passion for political liberty comes from—a passion which, throughout all ages, has inspired men to the greatest accomplishments of human kind—and what feelings feed and foster its roots.

I see quite clearly that, whenever nations are poorly governed, they are quite ready to entertain the desire for governing themselves.  But this kind of love for independence, which has its roots only in certain particular and passing evils brought on by despotism, never lasts long; it disappears along with the accidental circumstances which caused it.  They seemed to love freedom; it turns out they simply hated the master.  When nations are ready for freedom, what they hate is the evil of dependency itself.

Nor do I believe that the true love of liberty was ever born of the simple vision of material benefits it makes available, for this vision is often hidden from view.  It is indeed true that, in the long term, freedom always brings with it, to those who are skilled enough to keep hold of it, personal comfort, wellbeing and often great wealth.  But there are times when freedom briefly disturbs the enjoyment of such blessings; there are others when despotism alone can guarantee a fleeting exploitation of them.  Men who value only those material advantages from freedom have never kept it long.  What has tied the hearts of certain men to freedom throughout history has been its own attractions, its intrinsic charms quite separate from its material advantages.  It is the pleasure to be able to speak, act and breathe without restriction under the rule of God alone and the law.  Whoever seeks anything from freedom but freedom itself is doomed to slavery.

Certain nations pursue freedom obstinately amid all kinds of danger and deprivation.  It is not for the material comforts it brings them that they appreciate it; they look upon it as such a valuable and vital blessing that nothing else can console them for its loss and when they experience it they are consoled for all other losses.  Other nations grow tired of freedom amid their prosperity, which they allow to be wrenched from their hands without a fight, for fear of compromising, by making an effort, the very wellbeing they owe to it.  What is missing to keep such nations free?  The very desire to be so.  Do not ask me to analyse this lofty desire; it has to be experienced.  It enters of itself into those great hearts which God has prepared to receive it.  We have to abandon any attempt to enlighten those second-rate souls who have never felt it”  (167-68; end of Book III, Chapter 3 of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution).

Lots to say here, but I will try to restrain myself.  “Freedom” in Tocqueville is as content-less as it is in Arendt—and requires love.  It must be pursued for its own sake.  And the ability to pursue it in such purity is a gift from the gods, is a function of grace.  And there is also the familiar Christian paradox that you’ll get other rewards (namely “material comforts” in this case) if you don’t pursue such rewards directly.  You are aiming for salvation, but you must have faith or do good works (depending on your version of Christianity) for their own sakes, not because you want salvation.  A pure heart is everything.

Also the persistent—unto our own day—association of vulgarity with the pursuit of money.  “Great hearts” have other things on their mind.  Leave it to “second-rate souls” to be the business men.  Almost everyone I know (as my generation reaches its fifties and slides into its sixties) wants to write a novel.  A surprisingly large number of them has actually done so.  Art is today’s way of avoiding vulgarity, of attending to things that matter, of having an ambition one needn’t apologize for.  Tocqueville’s idea that politics can be so lofty is, in our day and age, risible.  Politics is even dirtier than business.  At least in commerce there is some possibility of an honest day’s work honestly done.  The desire for purity persists; the ability to find a place to experience such purity (outside of art and the private realm of family and friends) recedes.

Tocqueville’s conservatism lurks beneath the surface, especially in the way that “freedom” in his view always brings “order.”  He is of “the party of order” despite his not feeling comfortable with many explicit paeans to that virtue.  It’s rather a neat rhetorical trick to praise “freedom” when, in many cases, what you really admire is order.

That said, however, it is worthwhile considering the extent to which “order” does deliver “material comforts.”  I have always thought that there should be an “order” tax.  That is, when thinking about economic competition between nations, we greatly underestimate the extent to which investors crave order.  A well ordered nation does not need to match wages or other economic incentives 100% to attract investors.  That’s why—as Tocqueville shrewdly notes, even though it rather undermines his point–“despotism” can also provide material comforts.  (Think Singapore or China.)  And that “order premium” or “order tax” should underwrite stricter laws for capturing tax revenues from companies like Apple that free ride on US stability and rule of law while using shell games to claim their profits are generated in Ireland—or some such tax shelter.

Tocqueville does seem right in suggesting that fear of losing prosperity will lead to the sacrifice of freedom.  It does often seem to me that the “stability” of US democracy (which is, in actual fact, a plutocracy at this point, offering freedom of the Tocqeviullian sort to few, if any) boils down to the fact that people are managing to get by, and are more terrified by the thought of losing what they have than by any other thought.  People are grimly hanging on for sheer life—and can only imagine that any change would be for the worse.  They have no faith that politicians or the government could ever do better; they could only make things worse.  So they acquiesce, as Tocqueville suggests, in their unfreedom in return for getting by.  A very bad bargain, no doubt.

It is interesting that Tocqueville always writes as if freedom once did walk the earth.  It is always something that has been lost.  A skeptic like me would like to see some attempt to prove that point.  The middle ages just don’t appear to me a golden age of freedom.  But I must also admit that the same habit of thought pervades my thinking.  When I say the American people has made a bad bargain, I am basing my claim, in part, on the notion that the freedom that has been lost since 1950 has not come with economic benefits.  Except for blacks (and even there the record is very, very mixed) and for the top 10%, Americans today are demonstrably worse off economically than they were in 1965.  All the statistics about average wages and family wealth prove that point.  The erosion of the average American’s prosperity has been slow but steady since 1970.  So we have sold our freedom for a mess of pottage, not even for the real goods.

 

Centralization, Freedom, and Bourgeois Desire

Tocqueville mostly discusses political centralization, the collecting of power in the central state.  He shows how that centralization empties out the provinces in two ways: 1. It leads elites to move to the metropole and to the court, an especially severe problem in France because Paris becomes everything; and 2. It turns provincials into imbeciles because they have no responsibility for their own welfare or governance.  Strip people of any ability to shape their own destiny and of any responsibility to see that things actually function and you make them passive, sullen, apathetic, cynical, and bitter (perhaps not all five, but some combination of this soup.)

Tocqueville is less interested in economic centralization.  But he does recognize that economic inequality is a serious problem for any polity.  His way of thinking about this is curious. He believes that all Frenchmen are becoming increasingly alike.  His basis for this claim, never made explicit, seems to be that everyone now pursues economic gain. Self interest of the Adam Smith variety is now universal.  It is here that Tocqueville’s idealization of the “manly virtues” (a term he uses constantly) of the aristocracy is hardest to credit.  “The men of the eighteenth century were hardly aware of that form of passion for material comfort which is tantamount to being the mother of servitude, a feeling, flabby yet tenacious and unchanging, which is ready to fuse and, as it were, entwine itself around several private virtues such as love of family, reliable customs, deference to religious beliefs and a lukewarm and regular practice of established Christian ritual.  While this supports integrity, it forbids heroism and excels in turning men into well-behaved but craven citizens.  Those men were both better and worse.”  Against this timid middle class, always worried about its financial well-being and security, we get the “ancient idols” of the aristocracy: “Courage, reputation and, I dare say, generosity” (122 in the Penguin Classic edition).

But that aristocracy has been destroyed and we must acknowledge that “much more freedom existed then (during the ancien régime) than nowadays,” although Tocqueville admits that this freedom was “disjointed and spasmodic” and “almost never went so far as to provide citizens with the most natural guarantees they needed” (123).  I can only guess that by “guarantees” he means rights established in law and protected in practice.  The aristocracy’s “generosity” never extended so far as to provide such rights for “citizens” (a concept that was itself foreign to aristocratic thinking).

His view on economic inequality seems to be this: we need an aristocracy that is above economic worry.  But that aristocracy only gets that privilege if it makes sure the rest of the nation doesn’t suffer penury.  By not resisting the monarchy’s over-taxation of the non-aristocrats, using its power instead to secure exemption from taxes for itself, the aristocracy of the ancien régime created the conditions for the Revolution—and the intense hatred of the other classes for the aristocracy.  If, instead, the aristocracy had resisted the monarchy’s centralization of power by attending to the local communities over which it once held sway, then the old order would not have collapsed.  Once they ceded power over the local community to centralized government, the aristocracy no longer had a distinctive function—and they became just like everyone else.

How to characterize “everyone else”?  Tocqueville understands the new reality of “equality” to mean that all the classes share the same desires—for “material comfort” as he puts it.  Thus, like Arendt much later, Tocqueville thinks the triumph of commercial society—and of the levelling that it produces by turning everyone into economic agents—also entails the destruction of a political class, a group of men (it’s always men) who pursue glory and honor, not wealth, and discover the “public happiness” of political effort.

Now comes the hard part.  Tocqueville believes that having different classes, ones with very different desires and ambitions (and, although he does not say it, very different duties and responsibilities), gives us more interconnection between the classes.  When each station has its duties, then we don’t get the competition of all against all, and we also don’t get the effort to be utterly self-reliant.  Each class needs the others—and will live amidst the others.  Paradoxically, then, less class division means less class interaction.  Once everyone is equal, once everyone is pursuing the same course of action, there is no need for interaction.  Instead, we get segregation, with like only dealing with like.

The big picture: we are all slaves to money.  We acquiesce in political centralization because we want to be left alone to pursue our fortunes.  And we have very little contact with our fellow citizens beyond commercial relations because we have no need to “associate” with them.  And, of course, just those local, small-scale “associations” are what Tocqueville believes provide the best security against the tyranny of centralization.

What he doesn’t see, of course, is the centralization of economic power.  Partly that’s because he is in deep denial about the aristocracy’s economic position even as he idealizes its political role.  He simply doesn’t seem to register economic coercion, the ways in which economic necessity tramples on freedom.  And he doesn’t see the rise of the corporation, of the urge to centralize economic power that is as much a threat as the urge to centralize political power.

Still, when we today are obsessed with the ways that economic inequality has undermined the interaction among classes (which it certainly has), it can be useful to think of the institutional and geographic formations of inequality along with tracking the dollars.  Instead of fixating on the billionaires, maybe we should think about the places—Wall Street, Silicon Valley—and the institutions—the Stock Exchange, Google—that reside in those places.  What happens when the rest of the country is emptied out—both of people and of economic resources?  Surely it is right to claim that parts of America are more foreign to each other in 2017 than they were in 1960.  Even as other parts of America—black America, gay America—are less foreign than they once were.

I know, I know: putting it this way implies “less foreign” to a certain segment of “privileged” white America.  Allow me that solecism for the nonce; I am in search of other game at the moment.  And, of course, “less foreign” hardly means anything like fully transparent.  But the point isn’t some kind of Kantian “universal communicability.”  It’s about opportunities for interaction, for daily collaboration in some common enterprise.  The Tocqueville and Arendt complaint is that we don’t have such opportunities except in commercial enterprises.  We don’t any longer govern our small communities together as places we must make work for all of us.  We have out-sourced that responsibility to central government—and, I am adding, we have also outsourced making the goods we need (food, clothing etc.) to large corporations.  In that way, the local food movement is a Tocquevillian project.

The larger point is the way that Tocqueville sees equality and freedom in tension (whereas we are liable to see them as complementary).  Freedom needs to be enacted—and, for Tocqueville, it is enacted through collective action: the making of the laws and social arrangements that we then obey because we have made them ourselves.  But equality discourages collective action.  (Here is where Tocqueville is absolutely distinct from Arendt, who firmly believes that equality enables, is a sine non qua, of collective action.)  How so?  Equality fosters individualism, the competition of all against all, even as it also generates a sense of the individual’s political powerlessness (this from Democracy in America).  How can my one vote make a difference?  Thus equality provides lots of incentives to being non-political, of simply not partaking in collective decision-making or collective implementation of those decisions.  Again, let’s just out-source those tasks.  We’ll hire our political servants to do that work for us.

The result is “thin” as opposed to “thick” democracy.  And a society in which different groups barely interact beyond commercial transactions.

Tocqueville and the Revolution

Continuing my Tocqueville inquiries by reading The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.  A wonderful book even where it is wrong-headed.  Tocqueville is addicted to grand generalizations.  He, quite obviously, believes that there are “laws” of politics akin to natural laws—and sees his job as the discovery and articulation of those laws.  But no matter.  His desire to probe to the underlying forces, the correct causal account, is his strength as well as his weakness.  He is not a chronicler of events; he is a discerner of patterns and a moralist through and through.  Pay no heed to the fundamentals and disaster must follow is his mantra.

By temperament, of course, I want to apply his moralizing to current conditions.  But that only succeeds to a very limited extent.  The world he describes is so foreign to 21st century America that the parallels are faint.  Most important is his utter ignorance of—and disinterest in—capitalism.  His social world is comprised of a fading but reliably selfish aristocracy (content to take the nation down with it as it slips into the trash can of history), a middle class that, far from being Marx’s capitalists, are merchants and public officials, and the peasantry.  In other words, Tocqueville is not interested in (or is blind to) the production of goods apart from the agricultural.  He never once considers the economics of empire, the accumulation of capital, or the games of financial speculation.  For him, the French aristocracy has ceded its power (its actual ability to influence the course government—and the nation—takes) in return for tax exemptions, thus enabling the “centralization” of power in the hands of the monarch.

That “centralization” is the great theme of the book.  Such centralization, Tocqueville argues: 1. necessarily entails the diminution, even the complete loss, of freedom—and is the form that tyranny takes in the modern age; 2. motivates the revolution at the moment when the loss of freedom becomes too great to bear.  This mostly conservative thinker, astoundingly, writes (in an aside that belies the significance of the claim): “revolutions, which are the final safeguards of nations” (106 in the Penguin Classic edition); and 3. is evidence of the revolution’s failure.  The whole thesis of the book is that the centralization of power originated under the pre-Revolution monarchy, was what caused the Revolution, and, yet, was only intensified by the events subsequent upon the Revolution (namely, the reigns of Napoleon I and, in Tocqueville’s own time, the reign of Napoleon III, whom Tocqueville hated with admirable passion).  Thus, the continuity of French politics from 1700 to 1850 is more important, Tocqueville argues, than any other changes (decline in the power of the Catholic Church or the abolition of the Bourbon dynasty) that the Revolution did bring about.

I will get into details in subsequent posts.  But two more general, orienting comments, are in order here.  First, Tocqueville’s distinctive understanding of “liberty.”  For Tocqueville, the two great political truths of the modern age are the passions for liberty and for equality.  And the great conundrum faced by the moderns is how to make those two desirables compatible.  “Liberty” to Tocqueville means, in a very Kantian way, obedience to laws of one’s own making.  Liberty is always opposed to license in his thought.  Tyranny is being subject to laws made by others—or being subject to the license enabled by anarchy.  Liberty is the political ability to make the laws oneself—but entails the responsibility of then following (obeying) those laws.  No liberty without corresponding duties and responsibilities.

Centralization is thus the enemy of liberty because it takes the power to govern out of the hands of the people and places it in the hands of the central government.  In this respect, Tocqueville is akin to Jefferson in celebrating the town meeting and local assemblies of all sorts.  Centralization is, also, the enemy of equality because it gives some people power while depriving others of it.  Accumulation of power is, just like accumulation of capital, a generator of inequality.

But, because he is not an anarchist, Tocqueville is a believer in authority.  It is all well and good to claim authority (ultimately) rests in the people, in the demos, but there will always be wielders of authority, its functionaries.  And how to prevent a divide, an inequality, to develop between those who wield authority and those who are subject to it is a perennial problem.

This leads directly to the second point.  Tocqueville is firmly in the republican virtue tradition.  His only way of addressing the problem of the possible abuses of power, of the ill effects of power being accumulated in certain key persons, offices, or institutions is to appeal to the virtues required of the people in those offices and institutions.

I am increasingly coming to believe the virtue tradition is not wrong.  My negative way of phrasing it shows how uneasy this conclusion makes me.  But I think the alternative is very, very wrong-headed.  We are not going to devise, once and for all, a fool and knave-proof system.  There is not some perfect constitution, some perfect legal code, that is going to get things right once and for all.  Dreaming of a perfect fix is disastrous politically. (Why?  Because it encourages the idea that we just need to do the engineering, then walk away and let the machine function properly.  This is Marx’s delusion about the withering away of the state because only administrative details will persist after communism is installed.  Politics is the perpetual give and take among interested parties. To think it is not perpetual is to cede the field to one’s adversaries.)

Whatever system one devises is going to generate efforts to game it.  Eternal vigilance is always required because knaves are ever present.  A system must define what virtue is, must try its hardest to prevent knavery where possible and punish it when it occurs (as it inevitably will), and revise itself as new problems arise or new capabilities are needed.  The system can aspire to be better than the imperfect humans who implement it, but it should never delude itself that it can transform those humans into angels.  Without virtue any system will fail.  With virtue, perhaps most systems will muddle along.

Tocqueville, in this book, is concerned with the ways the system of the ancient régime actually encouraged, even rewarded, the lack of virtue.  That’s a rich vein of thought—and one applicable, with attention to relevant differences, to our own time.  How are we to understand a society that seems organized to produce vice, particularly selfishness?

One Tocquevillian thought: those who wish to accumulate political power are well served by granting to other citizens the opportunity to accumulate economic power.  A quid pro quo.  We’ll leave you alone in the economic sphere if you let us have our way in the political sphere.  I don’t think that’s what is happening in today’s America–mostly because economic and political power are so closely intertwined–but it is an interesting way to think about liberalism over the long run (i.e. from 1750 to 1980) and, thus, perhaps a way to distinguish liberalism from neo-liberalism (the post 1980 order).

Final Thoughts on Genetic Science

I highly recommend this essay by Matthew Cobb in the New York Review of Books.  It is a wonderfully succinct and admirably clear account of the current state of genetic science–and of the technical, moral, economic, and political issues that follow from what we can now do to genes.

I want to get down here some final reactions to the Mukherjee book, reactions also spurred by reading the Cobb essay.

  1.  Back to Down syndrome as a way of thinking about natural selection.  Mukherjee points out that natural selection works at the level of phenotype (the features of the organism), not at the level of genetics.  That is, natural selection works for or against what genes produce, but has no way of intervening in genes directly.  That’s why recessive traits can continue to exist despite their not leading to fitness.  But the case of Down syndrome is even weirder.  Down syndrome is a mutation, a random genetic event.  There are no carriers–although if a woman with Down syndrome has a child, the chances are about 50% that her child will have Down syndrome.  Males with Down syndrome are generally infertile, although now there have been some cases of Down syndrome males having children.  In sum, the actual incidences of Down syndrome persons having children are very low, but the former belief that Down syndrome came with infertility has now been disproved.

No matter.  The bigger point is that Down Syndrome, in the vast majority of cases and certainly throughout most of evolutionary history, has not been passed down from parent to child via genetic inheritance the way sickle cell anemia is.  Rather, Down syndrome is the result of a mutation.  But–and this is the remarkable thing–it is a mutation that, while random, occurs with a fairly regular probability that can be predicted.  About 1 in 1000 for a mother aged 20; about 3 in 1000 for a mother aged 45.  The regular process of creating human children predictably produces Down syndrome babies even though each of those events is random, just like each individual coin flip.  So here we have natural selection undermined by a stubborn, apparently ineradicable, mutation.  There is no way to argue that natural selection chooses Down syndrome, because Down syndrome persons do not reproduce (except in very rare cases).  But natural selection, which can only work through reproduction, also fails to eliminate Down syndrome because another naturally occurring phenomenon–a random, but still regular, mutation–over-rules natural selection.  My point is only that natural selection is not the only game in town; it doesn’t completely rule which mutations persist and which don’t.  Another blow to Darwinian reductionism.

2.  One fascinating thing about the history Mukherjee tells is that “the gene” was posited as a theoretical necessity before there was any proof of its actual, material existence.  Like the unobservables in physics, the gene was needed to explain certain phenomena even when the techniques needed to locate the gene did not exist.

3.  Eugenics are usefully defined by Mukherjee as any attempt to eliminate certain genes from the gene pool.  Early 20th century eugenics–both in the US and Germany–(like natural selection) worked at the level of features, of the phenotype.  Newgenics (as some people are calling 21st century eugenics) works at the level of the gene.  Again, we need to be precise.  We can eliminate the existence of Down syndrome persons if prenatal testing leads to the universal termination of fetuses with Down syndrome.  But we can’t eliminate the mutation that causes Down syndrome so long as there is human reproduction.  We can, if embryos are produced artificially, eliminate Down syndrome by controlling the reproductive process to such an extent that the mutation does not occur.  We can, however, eliminate hemophilia because it is a “one gene syndrome,” not a mutation, and targeted gene therapies can kill off that gene in its carriers.  Whether that elimination would be permanent is unclear–since presumably future mutations could bring it back.  But, at least theoretically, if an entire population was fully genetically tested, then the hemophilia gene could be eliminated in every one who possessed it. It is this fact, that we have now acquired the technical prowess for that kind of targeted gene therapy, that is at the heart of Cobb’s essay.

4.  Mukherjee’s definition (from Victor McKusick) of illness: “relative incongruence between a genotype and an evironment” (449).  Which means there are always two possibilities: working on the “patient” or working on the environment.  Disability activists often tell us that we don’t think often enough or creatively enough about amending the environment.  A reminder of old leftist arguments about psychiatry.  What proves I am crazy–and not this society in which I have to live?  As Mukherjee puts it:  “A child with a high-functioning form of autism may be impaired in this world, but might be hyperfunctional in another–one in which, say, the performance of complex arithmetic calculations, or the sorting of objects by the subtlest gradations of color, is a requirement for survival or success” (449).

5.  Cobb, more than Mukherjee, considers the dangers attached to the privatization of techniques developed by and even genes uncovered by the new genetic science.  Here we are back on Chris Newfield territory, the way in which public resources are used to produce knowledge which is then privatized.  In Newfield’s account (in Unmaking the University [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016]), the so-called public/private partnerships and the offices of “technology transfer” so lauded on today’s campuses are just a colossal rip-off.  A disproportionate share of  the risk and cost of research (the vast majority of which, after all, never bears any monetizable fruit) is borne by the university, but then, when a commercially viable result is produced, private corporations swoop in to license or patent it–and to begin to produce it for profit.  It is the scientific equivalent of the banks relying on the government to cover its losses (through the Federal Reserve and bail-outs) while they get to keep all their profits.  And this way of thinking about the issue doesn’t even touch the larger issues of a) our totally broken patent system which has allowed impossibly vague and far-reaching “ownership” of fundamental ideas and techniques that haven’t even been connected to actual production of anything yet and b) how privatization (as we have seen in spades with big pharma) leads to differential access to therapies that were developed on the public dime.  So everyone pays the first time around (through tax payer subsidies of research) and then the fortunate (those with enough disposable income) get to pay again the second time around, when they actually avail themselves of the results of that research.  Cobb tells us how Berkeley and MIT are engaged in a nasty patent fight over gene therapy–about which university’s scientists got there first and, hence, have the right to patent it.

6.  It’s a complex world out there.  The complexities of the genetic system are only matched by the complexities of political and social realities.  One thing comes through loud and clear in the scientific story: complexity is a short-term, but not a long-term, barrier.  Problems get solved.  Everything hopeful or fearful (often both) prophets of genetic science told us would someday be possible is just about at hand.  Things are generally more complicated than first imagined.  Nature is actually not all that elegant.  It’s more of a Rube Goldberg machine than some sleek Maserati.  Natural selection, like Donald Rumsfeld, has to work with the army it has, the materials at hand.  Plus (as I keep insisting) it doesn’t utterly rule the roost, so there are various compromises along the way.  But science really does seem up to the challenge of figuring it out.  Complexity itself is not going to prove a shelter for the romantics who cringe at the thought of full, disenchanted explanations.  Individual variation is a more hopeful shelter.  The introduction of chance–through mutation, incomplete penetrance, environmental differences and the like–still suggests limits to our predictive powers when it comes to saying what trajectory any individual’s life will take (even when we have a full map of his or her genetic makeup).  Still, science’s doggedness is impressive–and contrasts strongly with our inability (in the social sciences) to make much sense of our political and social realities.  Our lack of command over those scenarios seems more obvious every day.  John Dewey’s optimistic belief that the ways science has increased our comprehension of nature would be mirrored by a corresponding increase of our comprehension of society seems the least credible feature of his pragmatism. The advances made by genetic science wouldn’t be half as scary if we had any reason to be confident that we had the political capability of handling and controlling this new knowledge.  But just about everything we witness in our everyday world leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.  Neither the scientists nor the polis seems up to the task of using this knowledge either wisely or well.