Economic Power/Political Power

A quick addition to my last post.

The desire is to somehow hold economic power and political power apart, using each as a counterbalance against the other.  To give the state absolute power over the economy is to insure vast economic inequality.  Such has, generally speaking, been the lesson of history.  Powerful states of the pre-modern era presided over massively unequal societies.

But there is a modern exception.  Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe did produce fairly egalitarian societies; in that case, state power was used against the accumulation of wealth by the few.  There still existed a privileged elite of state officials, but there was also a general distribution of economic goods.  The problem, of course, was a combination of state tyranny with low productivity.  The paranoia that afflicts all tyrannies led to abuses that made life unbearable.

But (actually existing) communism did show that it is possible to use state (political) power to mitigate economic inequality.  Social democracy from 1945 to 1970 was also successful in this direction.  Under social democracy, the economy enjoys a relative autonomy, but is highly regulated by a state that interferes to prevent large inequities.

Where there is some kind of norm that political power (defined as the ability to direct the actions of state institutions) should not either 1) be a route to economic gain or 2) be working hand-in-glove with the economically powerful to secure their positions, the violations of that norm are called “corruption.”  The Marxist, of course, says that the state in all capitalist societies (the “bourgeois state”) is corrupt if that is our definition of corruption.  The state will always have been “captured” by the plutocrats.

What belies that Marxist analysis is that the plutocrats hate the state and do everything in their power (under the slogan of laissez-faire) to render the state a non-player in economic and social matters.  Capitalists do not want an effective state of any sort—either of the left, center, or right.  A strong state of any stripe is not going to let the economy goes its own way, but will (instead) fight to gain control over it.  I think it fair to say that the fight between political and economic power mirrors the fight between civil and religious power in the early days of the nation-state.  The English king versus the clergy and the Pope.

The ordinary citizen, I am arguing, is better off when neither side can win this fight, when the two antagonists have enough standing to prevent one from having it all its way.

Our current mess comes in two forms, the worst of all worlds.  We have a weak state combined with massive corruption.  What powers the state still has are placed at the service of capital while politicians use office to get rich.  We have a regulatory apparatus that is almost completely dormant.  From the SEC to the IRS, from the FDA to the EPA, the agencies are not doing their jobs, but standing idly by while the corporations, financiers, and tax-evading rich do their thing.

The leftist response is to say that the whole set-up in unworkable.  We need a new social organization.  I have just finished reading Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia (Verso, 2016).  Interestingly enough, Jameson also thinks we need “dual power” in order to move out of our current mess.  The subtitle of his book is “Dual Power and the Universal Army.”  More about Jameson in subsequent posts.

Here I just want to reiterate what I take to be a fundamental liberal tenet: all concentrations of power are to be avoided; monopolies of power in any society are a disaster that mirror the equal but opposite disaster of civil war.  Absolute sovereignty of the Hobbesian sort is not a solution; but the absence of all sovereignty is, as Hobbes saw, a formula for endless violence.  Jameson says the key political problem for any Utopia is “federalism.”  That seems right to me, if we take federalism to mean the distribution of power to various social locations.  Having a market that stands in some autonomy from the state is an example of federalism.  There are, of course, other forms that federalism can take.  All of those forms are ways of working against the concentration of power in one place.

Liberalism (Yet Again)

In his London Review of Books review (February 6th issue) of Alexander Zevin’s history of The Economist magazine, Stefan Collini makes a point I have often made-and which I presented at some length on this blog some eighteen months ago.  To wit, the term “liberalism” is used in such a loose, baggy way that it comes to mean nothing at all—or, more usually, everything that the one who deploys the term despises.  If John Dewey and Margret Thatcher are both liberals, what could the term possibly designate?

My take has always been that there are a number of things—habeas corpus, religious tolerance, social welfare programs, freedom of the press—that in specific contexts can be identified as “liberal” in contrast to more authoritarian positions, but that the existence of these specific things are the product of different historical exigencies and do not cohere into some coherent, overall ideology.  They may be a family resemblance among the positions that get called “liberal,” but there is no necessary connection between habeas corpus and religious tolerance.  You can easily have one without the other, as was true in England for several centuries.

In a letter to the LRB, Zevin objects to Collini’s refusal to credit the more generalized use of the term “liberal.”  I find his objection cogent and thus offer it here:

“Resistant, in general, to overarching categories, he [Collini] seems particularly sensitive when it comes to liberalism. ‘When people ask me if the division between men of the Right and men of the Left still makes sense,’ the essayist Alain once remarked, ‘the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.’  When someone says, mutatis mutandis, ‘all you mean by liberalism’ is ‘not socialism’ and ‘there is no such thing,’ it is safe to assume the speaker is a liberal, defensively protecting himself.”

So, yes, guilty as charged.  I am a liberal—and do have something at stake in claiming that the term ‘liberalism’ is used in too loose a fashion to do much good.  I want a finer grained statement of what specific features of the political landscape are desirable, are worth fighting to preserve where they exist, and to introduce where they do not.  We should know what we are talking about—and what we are advocating for.  Zevin’s point (not surprisingly) is that the liberalism of The Economist encompassed its support of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars; Collini, no doubt, would argue that many liberals opposed those wars, whereas they were the brainchild of many to the right of liberalism, those often called neo-conservatives.  The right, in other words, was more solidly unified in its opinion on those wars than a sorely divided liberal camp. Yes, some liberals supported those wars, but hardly all.  And it is very hard to believe that a centrist like Al Gore would have led the US into that “war of choice” in Iraq.  To which, the anti-liberal leftist says I have two words for you: Tony Blair.

The left, it seems, needs to continually assert its distance from a detested center that it calls ‘liberalism.”  It also needs to constantly trumpet the sins of that liberalism and to mitigate its differences from the right.  For the soi disant radical left, neo-liberal and neo-conservative become equivalent terms, with no appreciable difference between them.  Hilary Clinton is no better and no worse than George W. Bush.  And somehow both are liberals.

My defensiveness comes from wanting to save the term “liberal” to designate a raft of values and positions I wish to advocate.  Maybe I should give that up, call myself a “social democrat,” and move on.  I resist that move because there are values captured by “liberalism” (especially those connected to rights and tolerance) that aren’t covered by “social democrat,” with its focus on economic sufficiency and regulation of market forces and market practices.

But how about the “not socialism” broad brush?  Michael Clune, in an essay entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2019, pp. 910—917), repeats the by-now familiar dismissal of liberalism’s individualism, its reduction of everything to “choice,” to “consumer preference.”  Even a cursory reading of 20th century liberals such as Dewey or Charles Taylor would indicate how sloppy a vision of liberalism such a charge demonstrates.  Not to mention that one standard conservative charge against liberals is precisely that they negate individual responsibility in their emphasis on the social determinants of behavior.  Which is it?  Liberals are full-scale believers in heroic individual autonomy, or they are apologists for the impoverished and the misfit, blaming social conditions for their perceived failures?

Still, Clune does make a concrete claim: “The liberal tradition supports the effort to correct egregious market inequities through policies that leave the market intact” (928).

Now we are talking.  I do think that the commitments I think of as liberal include an acceptance of the market.  That acceptance is, partly, pragmatic (in the vulgar, not philosophical, sense of that term.)  I think the chances of overthrowing the market and installing something different in its place are nonexistent.  In that sense, there is no realistic alternative at the current moment.  So, says the radical, you and Thatcher are the same.  Told you so.

Not so fast.  What I am saying is that the consequential political battles of our time are going to be fought over what kind of market we are going to have.  This is a real battle, with real stakes.  The right over the past seventy years has fought tooth and nail to discredit social democracy, to roll back any state (or other) regulation of the market, and any mechanisms (from unions to minimum wage laws to other forms of state involvement in wage negotiations) that would overcome the imbalances of power existing between employers and workers in an unregulated market.  We know two things: one, that the right has been largely successful in this battle; two, that the vast majority of workers in the West are worse off now than they were in 1960.  Social democracy was a better deal for workers than the present regime (call it neo-liberal if you like, although that term ignores the liberalism of the twentieth century in favor of the “classical liberalism” of the 19th).

Another (contingent) feature of liberalism is its distrust of concentrations of power, its desire to share power around, to create “checks and balances.”  Currently, that entails a recognition that economic power is over-concentrated; that we need state power to counterbalance it because the collective power of workers (through unions or other mechanisms) is hard (if not impossible) to mobilize under present economic conditions.

It is fair to say that the founders were more concerned about concentrated state power than about concentrated economic power.  It is a stretch, I believe, to see Jefferson as a laissez-faire classical economist, but his words and ideas can be wrenched in that direction (by historians like Joyce Appleby) because he wanted to establish sources of power outside of the state’s reach.

I think economic sufficiency does provide a citizen with some independence from the state.  Therefore, I am also willing to argue that acceptance of markets is not just a pragmatic expediency, but also justified in its own right.  Economic bases of power apart from the state are not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is overweening economic power, just as tyrannical state power is a bad thing.  Markets, like states, tend toward the abuse of power.  We need mechanisms, enforceable regulations and structuring rules, to curb market power.  We also need to identify various basics—like health care, education, transportation, clean water and energy—that are not well served by markets and create alternative institutions for their provision.  The best guideline for these alternative institutions is that old liberal standby: equality of access for all.

There are three very strong arguments against the market.  One, the market inevitably produces wildly unequal outcomes.  The liberal response: there are mechanisms, including unions, taxes, and redistributive policies that can combat those unequal outcomes.

Second, markets are inimical with democracy.  The liberal response: workplace democracy is possible, as is political democracy.  Its achievement depends on active mechanisms of participation which must be mandated as part of corporate and state governance.  But there is no absolute bar to the existence of such mechanisms.

Third, economic power always overwhelms political power—if it does not simply convert itself directly into political power.  The reforms that liberalism envisions as answers to numbers one and two never happen because the opponents of such reforms always already have power—which means the power to perpetuate existing inequalities.

That last argument is the killer.  It simply seems true—and then the issue becomes how best to diminish the power of the wealthy, how to turn plutocracy into democracy, and use the democratic state to rein in the inequities of the market (not to mention its environmental degradations).

At this point in the argument, I don’t think the leftist and the liberal have very different goals.  They just differ strongly on tactics.  Is it better to aim to win the way to reform of the market?  Or is it better to work toward the total overthrow of the market?  I don’t see any remotely realistic pathway to that second goal, which is why I remain someone committed to the re-emergence, in even stronger and better form, of social democracy.

Of Truth and Lies in the Digital Age

Colin Burrow has a thought-provoking essay (title: “Fiction and the Age of Lies”; link: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n04/colin-burrow/fiction-and-the-age-of-lies) in the most recent London Review of Books (Vol 42, No 4; 20 Feb 2020).

Two long passages (one that has introduces the key concept of the “algo-lie,” a lie that is targeted to the audience most likely to believe it via the by-now ubiquitous algorithms; the other passage a rebuke of Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, which I quoted a few posts back.)

“Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.”

Middle England (2019) by Jonathan Coe (b. 1961) strikes me as a classic instance of this problem. It’s a Brexit novel which offers comforting stereotypes – the xenophobic former Birmingham car worker, the wonderful Lithuanian immigrant cleaner – while not having anything to say about the technologies that now influence and distort the opinions of those types. A little texting and emailing is the deepest Coe’s characters get into the world of social media. Fiction that recirculates perspectives on the present which correspond closely to a particular strand of print or electronic media isn’t doing the job fiction should do. It knows what its audience wants to hear, and says it. The problem is that it will therefore sound like lies to those who don’t want to believe it. If the main literary consequence of this latest age of lies is to identify the audience for serious fiction with a small group with mutually sustaining and more or less identical political attitudes then we all should be very afraid for the future of fiction.”

I don’t think much in the way of comment is needed.  Burrow has a touching faith that novels are supposed to help us out of our mess by providing a thick analysis of the ways we (and truth) are manipulated using the new digital tools.  He ends the essay with a call for the “great British technonovel of the 21st century” (the British nationalism here must be noted) and the very last sentence of the essay is “But if our present age of lies has one good consequence it would be that book,” as if a great novel would be sufficient consolation for the general woe. Or is that last sentence a joke?  It doesn’t read like one in context.

Fathers and Sons

I have just finished reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (published in 1862).  I first read the novel some thirty years ago (I really have no idea when, but it must have been somewhere between 1974 and 1984).  I was not very impressed by it, and filed it away in my mind in the bin labeled “overrated.”  Then, for reasons completely obscure to me, I re-read it sometime in the past ten years.  This time I was very moved.  Bazarov, the main character, is a self-proclaimed “nihilist.”  But, in fact, the novel shows that he is a very intelligent, very energetic, very talented young man from a lower middle class background (in so much as that terminology makes any sense in the Russian context).  Through education, Bazarov has acquired what is a perhaps exalted sense of his talents, but his self-conceit (the novel’s term) is justified by the strong impact he has on others.  He is a force.  But he is a baffled force because Russia offers no outlet for his talents.  Turgenev portrays a paralysed society, one that is in the process of dismantling its feudal past.  The novel is set in 1859, even though it was written in the wake of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs.  It clearly presents Russia as incapable of making the transition to modernity, to a rent/wage system of labor, even as Turgenev holds no truck with serfdom.  What moved me was the portrait of a well-meaning (even if boorish) young man frustrated (in the deepest sense of that term) by his dysfunctional society.

So I decided to teach the novel.  My recent re-reading is for my class–and I will be interested to see how they respond to it because, perhaps in the effort to see it through their eyes, I have found the novel less satisfying this time around.

Paralysis certainly seems to describe the US today.  Yes, it is true we live in turbulent times.  But all the sound and fury really seems to signify nothing since our dysfunctional neoliberal order only becomes more entrenched, more immune to any reform or revision.  Our public discourse barely attends to our society’s ills: homelessness, racism, declining wages, ecological disaster (the list could go on).  And the openings for the talented young are being eroded away.  No jobs for our PhDs, for our lawyers, for our idealistic young.  Politics is no place for someone with a conscience, and neither is business.  Where does one get a purchase on this disaster we are inhabiting?  This semester, in both my classes, my students exhibit a world-weary cynicism that alarms me.  They expect nothing from our politics and our society; they view it as rotten to the core, and take attaining their own separate peace, their own precarious niche within it, as the only path forward available to them.

Reading the novel this time, I found it meandering.  True, I now find E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End too formulaic in its presentation of the alternative paths open to England in 1910.  Turgenev, like Forster, is writing a “condition of the nation” novel that ponders its future in relation to question of who shall inherit it.  (Hence the generational focus of the title.)  Unlike Forster, Turgenev offers a much more muddled portrait of the issues.  His characters are harder to allegorize as representatives of concrete alternatives, and his interest in thwarted love affairs undercuts the analysis of larger social questions.  In short, Turgenev can seem as baffled as his characters, lacking himself a clear vision of the social scene he is trying to portray.  Since, like Chekhov, he mostly presents characters who are unable to act, and unlike Joyce in Dubliners, he suppresses any contempt for his paralysed protagonists, the result is a wide-ranging sympathy that seems ineffectual both as a narrative stance and as a political one.  His novel, I think, is not angry enough, is not shot through with indignation.  Even Bazarov tends to me more angry with himself, with his failures to be as tough in reality as he is in imagination, than he is with his society.

Joyce seems cruel because he blames the victims in Dubliners, never really zooming out to consider the social conditions that feed their paralysis, their despair, their pathetic stratagems for getting through the day.  What Turgenev gives us instead is a kind of melancholic despair; he can see the social mess clearly, but sees no way to amend it, and is not inclined to blame anyone for it.  Most everyone in the novel is well-meaning even if ineffectual.  His satire is reserved for social climbers.  And he quite frankly–in a remarkable passage–admits that the peasants are completely incomprehensible.  They exist in a separate universe, their motives and psychology an utter mystery to their betters–and to the novelist himself.  That gulf is unbridgeable in either direction–and seemingly insures that no progress, no planned change, can ever be achieved.

The parallels to our own time are real enough.  There is certainly a gulf between Trump voters and the social worlds that I inhabit.  The economic powers that be have managed to date to reap the whirlwind of racism, xenophobia, and class resentment, have managed to keep the essential structures that underwrite their power in place.  I dislike apocalyptic scenarios, the ones that rely on a day of reckoning to give the “establishment” (as we used to call it) its comeuppance.  Climate disaster is only the latest in a long list of such apocalypses that radicals look toward.  Yet it is impossible to read Turgenev and Chekhov, to inhabit their tales of social paralysis, without thinking of how that paralysis led to 1917.

Right Wing Sensibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Spirits Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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