One of the most important points that Nancy MacLean makes in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is that the Koch-funded project of libertarian thinking is responsible for negative views people–on the right and the left–have about “identity politics.” As I discuss in my last post, Buchanan–the Koch-supported Virginia-based economist–and his cadre aimed to cast doubt on efforts of ordinary Americans to seek redress of past injustices and inequalities by collective appeals to the government. Instead of recognizing these efforts for what they were, they were framed as the efforts of special interests to put a chokehold on government. Buchanan and those he drew into his orbit used the language of defense of democracy to limit the extent to which the government and government officials could be made answerable to these collectivized efforts of unions, of coalitions of Black Americans, of government employees (government jobs being the avenue toward the middle class for Black Americans, particularly Black women because the government was explicitly barred from racial discrimination in hiring practices). This effort to cast aspersions on identity politics was so successful it has extended to cynicism within liberal and leftist projects that find themselves wary that identitarian concerns compromise projects that aim for universal emancipation. Read more
Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category
In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean explains that those who wanted to reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism realized in the mid-twentieth century that democracy and democratic institutions and practices were a threat to their efforts. In the wake of the New Deal and Great Society, Americans had grown to expect the government to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens–the poor and the elderly. The government was regularly called upon to rectify historical wrongs, as in the case of racially segregated schools where schools for Black children were not equal to schools for white children. Labor unions sought collective rights to bargain for better contracts. Environmentalists sought government regulations to protect water and air and other natural resources from contamination and against climate change. Americans saw the government as a source of positive change.
In my last post, I lay out MacLean’s case for how libertarians like James M. Buchanan and Charles Koch sought to sow the seeds of nihilism, suggesting that politicians, scientists and educators were not aiming to serve the public good, but for their own interest and therefore should not be trusted. In this post, I address the recognition that these folks came to have that their dreams of capitalism without restraint were at odds with democracy, and the ways that they employed the rhetoric of democracy to undo the democratic gains of the twentieth century, especially in the areas of civil rights, labor unions, health care and social security, and public support for those in poverty.
As MacLean explains, average American citizens had come to realize that they could have power to influence government by joining their voices into a collective. Buchanan aimed to break the power of these collectives by casting them as undemocratic special interests. Following his notion of “public choice theory,” where politicians’ goal is only to be re-elected and not to do what is right and just for the common cause, Buchanan argued that politicians had become beholden to “special interests” of labor unions, including teachers unions, and civil rights organizations who would work to defeat them in elections if they did not do what they asked. In this way, Buchanan and his cohort turned the process of making politicians accountable to their constituents into a situation in which politicians were held hostage to those special interests. This rhetorical move is particularly ironic given the Koch brothers active efforts to defeat politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act. MacLean traces this strategy back to Brown V. Board of Education, when Black families sued counties and states that refused to integrate and were then cast as seeking special protections when what they wanted was equal protection under the law and equal access to high quality education. This move culminated in Pres. Reagan casting recipients of assistance for poor families as “welfare recipients” who were taking advantage of the government.
By making collective appeals to the government–the only appeals that were effective for those who were historically excluded–by calling these appeals those of special interests, they were able to turn the tables for how to influence government back to those individuals who had the wealth to do so. If collectives were suspect, and only collectives could make a difference for the working class, then making collectives seem undemocratic returned the power to the undemocratic moneyed individuals who could then use the same “public choice theory” that politicians only cared to keep their jobs to threaten politicians that they would lose their jobs if they voted in support of the collective interests of the common people.
In Politics III.8, Aristotle says that democracy occurs “when those who control [the constitution] do not have much property, but are poor” (1279b18-19). With this definition of democracy, Aristotle points out the very problem that Buchanan and the Kochs encountered: democracy wants to address the concerns of the poor, who outnumber the rich. Outnumbering the rich, the practioners of democracy are at odds with the rich who aim to produce wealth without restraint or concern for others and without having to support the community in which such wealth is produced. The only recourse for the rich is to make the democratic practices themselves suspect and to replace them with the force of their wealth, which is in fact the current state of affairs.
Herein lies the ruse of libertarianism, whose view of freedom is not unlike the view of freedom that Aristotle associates with the democrats: to do whatever they want without license. Aristotle implores them to recognize that the law is not slavery, but salvation, as I explicate in a recent article. The law is considered slavery when it is viewed as coming from somewhere else. Law is recognized as coming from somewhere else when government is seen as otherwise than the citizens, which is what Koch et al want — to be the source of government and law at the expense of the democratic many. To the extent that they want to be free of government, they want to be above the collective determination of what is good. Outnumbered, they alone want to say what is good. Their wealth has made them think that they are not dependent on others and so it has made them, like the Cylcops, as one who is “clanless, lawless, and homeless” (Pol. 1253a4). Following the association of wealth with virtue that can be traced back to the ancient oligarchs, who thinking themselves unequal in one way, supposed they were unequal in all ways, they think that their wealth makes them as the one who is so outstanding in virtue that they should not be a part of the city (1284a4-7). As MacLean shows, they aren’t really opposed to the city and the law altogether, but they want it to divide the city in such a way that the government serves only their interests rather than that of the democratic majority. Arguing that the collectives are undemocratic, they aim to make the government undemocratic for their own ends. They are willing to put their wealth to work to turn the law and government from the public good to their own private goods. They do this because they suppose they are better than the democratic majority, but it is worth noting that Aristotle will go on to say that the multitude is stronger, richer and better, when taken as a collective (1283a39-41).
The libertarian critique of government works as a ruse: it criticizes democratic efforts as undemocratic in order to undo democracy. It works to encourage the majority to think it is undemocratic for the government to restrict those trying to make the community undemocratic. This stealth move puts democracy in chains.
One thing that strikes me from Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is the way that James Buchanan and the Kochs and their cadre worked to cultivate in people a sense of political nihilism and self-interest in order to make their “stealth plan for America” more feasible. It came as a surprise to me that people have not always thought about politicians as self-interested actors but as civil servants, since, as a child of the Reagan Revolution, I was raised to think about government as something I should be suspicious of. The suspicion, MacLean makes clear, is not just of government’s capacity to work for public interest, but of the motives of those who work for public interest. MacLean documents how “public choice theory” as developed by James Buchanan encouraged people to think of politicians as self-interested where their interest is chiefly to be re-elected. The problem the “radical right” faced was how to achieve their tax-free dream when politicians, driven by their self-interested, supported efforts of historically powerless groups to achieve equality through government support and protection of labor, education, and the environment. By casting these groups as “special interests” and politicians as concerned with their own selfish ends, rather than the good of the community, Buchanan and the Kochs and their team were able to shift the views of the average American from the general respect of government and its capacities, and a general recognition that historical inequalities had to be put right, to seeing politicians as untrustworthy and those seeking rectification for wrongs as undemocratic leaches of the public purse.
I came across mention of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, and was taken with the notion that the character of the devil and the character of the witch can be understood through a genealogical method that shows how these characters were invoked, who was empowered by them, who invoked them and who was accused of these things. The question for Federici (as for Kotsko) is not was this person really a witch or a devil, but how did accusing someone of being a witch achieve certain ends in certain contexts? Federici argues that the accusation of being a witch was used to strip women of power during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, a process which was necessary for the success of capitalism.
Against the view that the persecution of witches was the last gasp of the superstition that accompanied feudalism, Federici argues that the charge of witchcraft was used to limit women’s power and to control the reproduction of labor so necessary for the success of capitalism. This persecution involved a steady indoctrination of the threat of witches and the characteristics of witches, a process which produced the notion of the strong independent woman as a supernatural threatening force antagonistic to the interests of even working class men. Federici argues that the targets of witchcraft were not crimes but previously accepted practices and individuals that needed to be eliminated for capitalism to become possible and to thrive. Evidence of this is that those who were accused were poor peasant women and those who accused them were wealthy members of the community, often their employers or their landlords.
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
Today brings news that the president shared classified secrets with Russia that had been given to the US by an ally that did not give permission to share such secrets. My social media is lit up with people who hope that this scandal is the scandal that finally brings down the president. This story requires us to believe and support the CIA, not unlike the last scandal, the firing of Comey, that required us to believe and support the FBI. These scandals do not appear to do much to change the order of things, but to allow them to be more stable.
I proposed on Inauguration Day that we ignore Trump the person and fight the political battles. Today, after more than 100 days, I find many many people seem to want to fight Trump on the scandals, and not the political battles. I get it. It seems easier to shut him down by showing him to be ill-fit for the office. But I think there is something characteristically liberal about that approach–liberal in the sense of concerned with procedure and the equal application of the law instead of justice and freedom for those who are oppressed. This approach sidesteps the political work of having to show how every policy and new cancellation of rules hurts poor people, black people, immigrants, LGBT folks, women and the sick and disabled. I worry that this approach makes it seem like the real scandal is the sharing of secrets instead of the moving of wealth to fewer and fewer people. It makes it seem like the real scandal is a president who has no attention span instead of making the lives of more and more people precarious. Read more
In her recent book Crowds and Party, Jodi Dean argues against the radical individualism that continues to characterize politics on the Left, recalling a scene from Occupy Wall Street in which efforts to organize break down because everyone is asked to make their own decision about what to do. She argues convincingly that the subject of politics is produced as the individual in a way that serves a market-based economy. On this account, expressions of political resistance can be commodified and monetized as free expression. In service to that marketization of politics, politics and political discourse require the individual be produced as the fundamental unit of politics and political decision-making. Political resistance breaks down because the individual remains privileged above the collective.
Dean argues that crowds produce possibilities, heretofore unrecognized, for resisting the ways that everything from social media to marketing efforts demand that we be individuals. Crowds are collectivities that are not yet communities. Crowds have no shared history or shared norms. I started reading this book right before the January Women’s Marches, and I was struck by the possibilities at work in this way of seeing the crowd:
Because the crowd is a collective being, it cannot be reduced to singularities. On the contrary, the primary characteristic of a crowd is its operation as a force of its own, like an organism. The crowd is more than an aggregate of individuals. It is individuals changed through the torsion of their aggregation, the force aggregation exerts back on them to do together what is impossible alone. (9)
Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on the medical check-up tour. I visited my general practitioner’s office, my gynecologist, my eye doctor and my dermatologist. I’ve given my family medical history many times. In the last visit, at the dermatologist, I realized when I had to check none of the boxes they were concerned with, that family-wise, I was in pretty good health standing. On the contemporary view of American politics, this situation should make me shrug my shoulders at H.B. 1313, which passed out of committee late last week, which would allow employers to penalize employees who decline genetic testing. While such testing might lead to higher insurance rates for employees who have certain genetic dispositions for illness, people like me might have little reason to refuse such testing (except that it’s a gross invasion of privacy). Read more
You may have heard–Mike Pence used private email servers and was hacked. Jeff Sessions may have lied to Congress about conversations with Russia. He may have called for impeachment against those who lie in an official capacity during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. And while he has recused himself from investigations into Russian tampering with US elections, very few people think he will be impeached. Democrats have responded by calling “hypocrite!” See Paul Begala, Bill O’Reilly for goodness sake, Salon who points out the racial hypocrisy of the “law and order” Attorney General, the list goes on. Read more