Tag: democratic governance

Crisis–and Civil War

I have just finished reading Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society by Reinhardt Koselleck (MIT Press, 2000; although the book was published in Germany in 1959).  I was pointed to this book by my friend Philip Wilson; I would never have come across it otherwise.

Koselleck is a follower of Carl Schmitt and I may, in a future post, have something to say about the lineaments of conservative thought as found in Schmitt and as articulated in this book.

For the moment, however, I just want to pick up on two nuggets from the book that gave me new ways to think about the current mess in the United States.

First, Kosseleck’s definition of crisis.  “It is in the nature of crisis that problems crying out for solution go unresolved.  And it is also in the nature of crisis that the solution, that which the future holds in store, is not predictable.  The uncertainty of a critical situation contains one certainty only—that it will end.  The only unknown quantity is when and how. The eventual solution is uncertain, but the end of the crisis, a change in the existing situation—threatening, feared, and eagerly anticipated—is not” (127).

That the US is a society and a polity currently incapable of “resolving problems” seems obvious to me.  Environmental disaster is already upon us and only going to get worse.  Homelessness, childhood poverty, maternal mortality, and other symptoms of social and economic inequality go unaddressed.  A concerted assault on democratic procedures for the assignment and transfer of state power is underway in full view. And the scourge of racism continues to afflict just about every aspect of American life. 

On the one hand, what I see is a society that is paralyzed, frozen in stasis. The ability of government to act effectively—or even to act at all—has been undermined, partly deliberately by the party hostile to government, partly by a kind of bureaucratic sclerosis.  Institutional inertia makes change just about impossible. Transmitting directives down through the multiple capillaries of huge corporate or governmental structures means constant watering down or simple evasion of new initiatives.  The operative metaphor has always been turning around an ocean liner.  Settled habits, routines, prejudices, combined with resistance to doing things in new ways, all work against solving the problems that stare us in the face.

In short, I don’t share Kosseleck’s confidence (very German; think of Hegel and Marx) that a society that can’t solve problems in unstable and doomed to a short lifespan.  Muddling along through a combination of willful blindness, aggressive denial that the problems exist, calculated distractions of public attention to other issues (rising crime!; immigrants!; inflation!; transgender people!; welfare cheats!), and simple economic interest (changed policies will threaten your livelihood) are more than enough to stabilize dysfunction.  Jared Diamond’s tragic view that societies will obstinately stick to their prevailing practices all the way to extinction seems apposite.

And yet.  It would be very foolish to think nothing has changed since 1980.  Even as government has been paralyzed (unable to address even obvious problems like gun control, massive tax evasion, and securities fraud along with other forms of corporate malfeasance), change initiated by non-governmental agents has been everywhere.  The shifts in economic production (global supply chains, outsourcing, the destruction of unionized labor, the creation of precarity and the gig economy, the full emptying out of economic activity from rural America, the continued growth of industrial agriculture, the movement of vast amounts of commerce on-line) and in social organization (the “big sort” which clusters people in like-minded communities; the increasing segregation of public schools along with the growing private education sector; the outsized influence of Fox News; the privatization of various parts of “the commons”) have hardly been insignificant.  The world my children (now in their early 30s) have had to navigate differs greatly from the one I encountered in the late 70s leading up to 1983 (the year I turned 30).

So the crises of 2022 America is not exactly about standing still.  It seems more to be a crisis generated by a) a failure to come to terms with several looming problems through either ignoring their existence, or denying their existence, or by adopting a cynical/fatalistic conviction that nothing can be done about them and b) the loss of any sense of a collective agency that identifies the government as the place where that agency can be mobilized.  Instead, everything is left to non-governmental actors, who (predictably enough) pursue their own interests, grabbing from the commons whatever they can.  The American version of kleptocracy.

What keeps this situation stable, it seems to me, is that the kleptocrats let enough crumbs fall off the table to keep lots of people in fairly decent economic shape.  The mystery of the years since 1980 is that the kleptocrats are so unhappy; they keep yelping that their haul isn’t big enough.  Being a millionaire no longer counts for anything.  Only a billion will do.  To increase their haul, they have beaten down wages, ended anything like job security, and taken ever larger chunks of any profits resulting from increased productivity.  One effect of increased economic insecurity for wage earners (a result of “loss aversion”) is the desperate attempt to cling on to what I have—making me fearful of change, liable to vote for the shitty status quo rather than take the risk of endorsing change.  So sclerosis can be endorsed at the voting booth.  But you would think there would have to come a tipping point, a moment when the steady immiseration of the wage earners would generate a backlash against their economic overlords.

We seem further than ever from that tipping point—which is why I am saying we live in a crisis that seems to be unending.  Yes, as Kosseleck says, we have multiple and highly visible “unresolved problems,” but that doesn’t seem to be unsustainable.  We can—and probably will—fail to address them (imagining “solving” them seems laughably naive) for quite some time to come.

As a conservative, Kosseleck identifies that tipping point with “revolution,” an event he deeply deplores.  He does so by deploying an interesting distinction between “civil war” and “revolution’—even as he eventually undercuts the difference between them (pp. 160-62, especially the long footnote on p. 160).  Basically, a civil war is when two factions fight over assumption of power within the current political structures.  Revolutions, by way of contrast, aim to abolish the current structures and replace them with something entirely different.  In Kosseleck’s mind, that means revolutions are always Utopian, trying to create a new social and political reality out of whole cloth and according to a blueprint that has been imagined in the isolation of the study.  Revolutionary dreams are delusory—and here’s where the distinction from civil war breaks down: revolutions always spur civil wars (think of the French, Russian, Chinese, even Irish, revolutions).  From the Utopian heights of revolutionary dreams are born the more mundane, but usually horrific, war of factions that is civil war. 

What Kosseleck comes close to saying, but never quite does, is that civil wars are reactionary (initiated by a faction that feels threatened by change and wants to insure that established privileges and possessed power/property are not undermined) while revolutions stem from the dispossessed, those at the bottom in current arrangements.  So, if revolutions cause civil wars, it is because those currently on top won’t go down without a fight. 

The American case seems more like Spain of the 1930s than either France in 1792 or Russian in 1921.  Our nineteenth century civil war was instigated by reactionaries who felt slavery was threatened even as the North (and Lincoln) told them slavery was constitutionally protected.  They thought they saw the writing on the wall in the efforts to keep slavery out of new territories and the growing demographic and economic strength of the North.  So they forced the issue long before they needed to if their aim was to preserve slavery—and foolishly started a war they could not win (except if they could convince the other side not to fight it).

The similarity to 1930s Spain stems from the fight of 1861 being waged against a legitimately elected government—and was made in the name of anticipated horrors that that government would enable, not anything that government had actually done.  And our current situation feels the same.  What did Obama’s government do that would justify the belief that a Democratic administration would be such a disaster that it must be fought at every level—to the point of overturning election results to insure that only Republicans take office?  [“Fought at every level” is meant to include: a congressional veto by Republicans on any measure, not matter how anodyne, that Democrats initiate; endless trumped up congressional investigations of supposed malfeasance on the part of the administration; attempted judicial nullification (sometimes successful) of any measures Democrats do succeed in establishing; rabid right-wing promulgation in various media (talk radio, cable news, on-line channels) of baseless accusations; aggressive gerrymandering and other ways of distorting actual voter preferences; the list could go on.]

As with the behavior of the kleptocrats, the question becomes where will the tipping point be reached.  We have the obvious political crisis of Republicans putting the machinery in place to steal elections.  Will they, by these “legal” means (since passed by state legislatures and unlikely—it would seem—to be overturned by the Supreme Court), install themselves in power without triggering a vehement response?  In other words, will they be able to achieve a bloodless coup—avoiding civil war.  Or will the power grab generate a more dramatic response?

Back to crisis.  We have, then, three sets of unresolved problems: 1. The threat to the democratic peaceful transfer of power from one faction to another. 2. The undermining of government as the agent of collective decision-making and action, thus leaving the powers that are transforming our society in the hands of private actors, including corporations, philanthropic foundations, and the like. And 3. The inability to address the looming problems of climate change, destruction of the commons, economic inequality and precarity, and the gap between whites and people of color. 

The reactionaries who are bringing us to the brink of civil war by undermining democracy (number 1 in the paragraph above) do so in service of resolutely ignoring numbers 2 and 3—the crippling of government’s power to act effectively and the continued refusal to face up to looming problems.  In fact, they want to hasten the crippling of government, and they, at times, aggressively want to exacerbate racial tensions/inequities, along with enabling the kinds of economic practices the increase inequality and precarity.  And they have no desire to acknowledge or do anything about climate change.

All of this in a world where the dream of revolution seems entirely dead.  The left is adrift because it cannot imagine—or find a way to work toward—effective collective action.  But that’s a topic for another day—and another post.


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.




I am reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, 2016).  Lots of interest here—and lots of scientific information that is simply new to me and sometimes beyond my ability to comprehend.  More on that, perhaps, later.

For the moment, I want to focus on a more political point.  Mukherjee devotes a few pages to a 1975 conference at Asilomar (near Monterey in California) in which genetic scientists hammered out an agreement to not pursue certain possible laboratory experiments and procedures because of the potential danger of loosing pathogens into the world.

Quoting from Mukherjee’s account:

“Extraordinary technologies demand extraordinary caution, and political forces could hardly be trusted to assess the perils or the promise of gene cloning (nor, for that matter, had political forces been particularly wise about handling genetic technologies in the past [a reference to forced sterilizations in the US and Nazi eugenics]).  In 1973, less than two years before Asilomar, President Nixon, fed up with his scientific advisors, had vengefully scrapped the Office of Science and Technology, sending spasms of anxiety through the scientific community.  Impulsive, authoritarian, and suspicious of science even at the best of times, the president might impose arbitrary control on scientists’ autonomy at any time.

A crucial choice was at stake: scientists could relinquish the control of gene cloning to unpredictable regulators and find their work arbitrarily constrained—or they could become science regulators themselves.  How were biologists to confront the risks and uncertainties of recombinant DNA?  By using the methods they knew best: gathering data, sifting evidence, evaluating risks, making decisions under uncertainty—and quarreling relentlessly.  ‘The most important lesson of Assilomar,’ [Paul] Berg [Stanford professor and key figure at the conference] said, ‘was to demonstrate that scientists were capable of self-governance.’ Those accustomed to the ‘unfettered pursuit of research’ would have to learn to fetter themselves” (232-233).

Except, of course, that they don’t—fetter themselves that is.  Oddly enough, Mukherjee doesn’t seem to see this.  He hails Asilomar as “a graduation ceremony for the new genetics” (235).  Less than ten pages later, as Mukherjee retails the story of the creation of synthetic insulin, we learn that the success comes from a private company, Genentech, which beats the Harvard team working on the same problem because unconstrained by university regulations and caution.  Later, Mukherjee treats Craig Venter, who creates a private company to compete with the government-funded Human Genome Project, much more kindly than many commentators do, while gingerly avoiding the issue of what corners Venters allowed himself to cut by stepping outside of a regulatory regime.

At issue, however, is not Mukherjee’s failure to develop a coherent stance on regulation.  Rather, I am interested in the whole notion of self-regulation—and in the paradoxes of regulation itself.

For starters, regulation is a tough one for people because it is not full-bore permission and it is not full-bore prohibition.  If I give my teen-age son a curfew, I am regulating his behavior, but not forbidding him to go out at night, and not granting permission for him to stay out all night.  Seems simple enough in principle—but it proves very difficult in practice.  The regulation sets a clearly visible limit which (as we know from the Garden of Eden) creates an immediate and powerful temptation.

With self-regulation, then, the limit setter and the tempted transgressor have to be one and the same.  Again, it is trivially true that learning how to regulate oneself, to set and abide by limits not externally imposed, is a crucial step toward maturation.  I am hardly saying that humans are incapable of avoiding “over-doing” something.

But the case is very different when strong social incentives are in place to reward going past a limit.  That situation appears particularly relevant in any competitive environment.  So, in sports, using performance enhancing drugs or even just over-training (to the point of self-harm) are such strong temptations because the rewards for success are so massive.  Similarly, in science, where getting there first is just about everything (to echo Vince Lombardi).  And the same is true, of course, in economic competitions, where various forms of unregulated or expressly forbidden, behaviors can reap one a market advantage.

George Bernard Shaw said “all professions are a conspiracy against the layman.”  By that, he meant that professions claim to have expertise and knowledge that the ordinary person does not possess.  One of the first consequences of that claim is that professions want to be self-governed, to get out from under any external oversight.  The outsiders cannot possibly understand the full complexity of our professional tasks—and hence can only muck things up by interfering.

I was in a room full of hedge fund managers and Wall Street financial guys (none of the finance people was a woman) shortly after the 2008 election of Obama in the aftermath of that fall’s financial meltdown.  To a man, this group lamented how the Democrats were going to cripple financial markets and the absolutely essential flow of capital by coming in and ignorantly regulating things.  There was not a single iota of self-doubt expressed by this group.  They were too focused on the image of themselves as victims of innocent politicians.

In short, it is hard to believe that any profession can ever successfully regulate itself. The reward structures internal to the profession are tied too closely to surpassing limits.  After all, regulation is about trimming back, about not letting everything that is possible be undertaken.  And the logic of the profession is to push relentlessly forward.

But, as Mukherjee’s anecdote about Nixon (making him sound remarkably like Trump) reminds us, are the politicians really in a better position to do the regulating?  When we watch the spectacle of our politicians denying climate change, endorsing nut-case theories about vaccinations and autism, and calling for a balanced federal budget and a return to the gold standard, aren’t we forced to agree that their ignorance should not be allowed to cripple the experts’ knowledge?

How, in other words, are we to establish true accountability?  Some, of course, say we should rely on markets for that.  But the market’s decision is always (even when it does come—and it does not always come) after the fact.  The harm has been done.  Regulations are often also created after the fact, to prevent a disaster happening a second time. But regulations are also anticipatory.  My curfew for my teen-age son was not motivated by any particular incident.  It is just a rule that seems to fit the circumstances—and some possible issues.  So regulation is not just in order to hold people accountable; it is also about prevention.  Don’t do this because it will have bad consequences.

That still leaves the question of who is the best judge of possible bad consequences.  I don’t think the profession itself is.  Professionals have their minds fixed on other things—on success as their profession defines it, on pushing the limits, on following a line of thought or action out to all its logical and possible conclusions.  But no one else seems to be in a very good position to set the boundaries.  We reach here a fundamental dilemma in democratic governance.  The professions need to be governed by a demos that actually lacks good credentials for doing the governing.  We are stuck, I would say, with trial and error, with repeated attempts to regulate that will be resisted by the professions and yet still must be enforced, with (hopefully) continual revision as some regulations prove salutary and others harmful or useless.

Regulation will also have to be dynamic—no once and for all fix will ever be achieved—because the attempt to evade regulations will be endless, as will be the emergence of new possibilities and innovations. (I scorn the oft-heard conservative argument that regulations are counter-productive because they generate evasion.  No one uses that argument against the prohibition of murder or the regulation of prescription drugs.) Some of those innovations will have arisen precisely as mechanisms to evade regulation.  But others arise just because human ingenuity knows no bounds and things undreamed of in the current regulatory scheme become possible.  Trying to tailor old regulations (for radio and TV) to handle new media (the internet), to take just one example, is a fool’s errand.  But in an atmosphere of knee-jerk hostility to regulation, devising a whole new regulatory framework is almost impossible.  The result is the current patent mess, which cries out for a reform that seems beyond our political capability to enact.

So let me conclude by considering that wide-spread hostility to regulation.  Every one of us has experienced it: some bureaucratic barrier placed between us and just getting the job done.  “Enough to make me a Republican,” was my exasperated way of responding to HR hurdles in the days when I was trying to hire staff for the Institute that I directed.  It was fairly easy (in almost all cases if one could look at the thing impartially) to see why a certain regulation was in place, what possible abuse it was trying to guard against, but that didn’t lessen the hassle of having to abide by the regulation.

But it is also worth thinking about just what regulations disallow—or enable.  Our heroic individualists always claim regulations stiffly ingenuity, creative thinking, going beyond the current sense of what is thinkable or doable.  Nonsense.  Just like those who talk most loudly about risk are actually risk averse (businesses make bets when the odds are stacked in their favor), what really irks most people about regulations is that they assault their habitual ways of doing things.  Many of those HR regulations were about insuring a diverse applicant pool and avoiding the nepotism and unconscious biases that lead to all-white offices.  Similarly, requiring that professors deposit their syllabi with a central office prior to the semester’s start means they must actually plan their classes and inform their students about the course’s content and expectations.  Regulations are ways of intervening in shoddy professional practices, of trying to not let habit rule the roost.

And regulations are also reminders that you, perhaps, are not the best judge of your performance.  In my corner of the professional world, college professors, there is deep resentment against the introduction of notions like “learning outcomes” and attempts to measure whether those outcomes have been attained by students.  Finding the right metrics is, no doubt, very difficult, but there is absolutely no denying at this late date the well-documented findings that lectures and reading are a poor way to transmit information to today’s students.  But deny those findings my colleagues will.  It was good enough for them—and they are also damned sure their students are learning lots.  How do they now this latter fact?  They can just tell.

External demands that any profession actually demonstrate, actually prove, its worth can only be to the good, in my opinion.  I sure as hell don’t want an unregulated Wall Street.  So how can I, in good faith, then argue for unregulated professors? The give-and-take, the endless jostling and disputes, between the professions and those external to them that try to regulate them is never going to be resolved.  But that process is far preferable to the delusion that the profession will self-regulate.  Just recall that every time a new environmental or economic policy is bruited in our fair land, some industry group will step forward and say: “We will voluntarily adopt this standard.  Just leave it up to us.”  How many times should we fall for that ploy?

As Michael Bérubé puts it in Life as Jamie Knows It, “bioethics is too important to be entrusted to the bioethicists.”  The same goes for every profession.  It has to be kept on its toes by knowing not just that outsiders are watching, but also by knowing that outsiders wield regulatory power to intervene in its practices.  And when such interventions come, let the fight begin.