After the dead horses

by John Quiggin on April 25, 2010

We’ve had a fair bit of fun here lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (one using the same, maybe Oz-specific, phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.

It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.

First, considered in intellectual terms, there is very little remaining on the political right (particularly in the US, but this point applies to most of the English-speaking countries, and to a large extent elsewhere) that is worth engaging with in terms other than the derision employed here. It’s not that, as rightwing pundits go, people like Douthat, Goldberg, Krauthammer and McArdle are soft targets. Compared to, say, Powerline or the cast of Fox News, they are paragons of reasoned and reasonable discourse.

The same goes for the thinktanks and quasi-academic institutions that are supposed to provide some kind of rigorous basis for thinking about policy. AEI, Heritage, Heartland and the rest offer little more than partisan hackery. Increasingly, the same is true of Republican-aligned academics. There is simply no room for independent thought.

Overall, as I said on my blog a while back, the scene is one of complete ideological incoherence. Market liberalism has run out of steam, libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties (to be fair, Obama has also failed here) , and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

The best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, from climate change to health policy, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

Second, though, even if intellectual engagement is impossible, we can’t ignore the fact that the right remains politically powerful, and is currently resurgent in both the US and (in a rather different form) in Europe. Furthermore, the established conventions of political discussion in the US take it for granted that there is in fact a debate going on in which the contributions of the two sides (as defined by the two major political parties) are more or less equally worthy of attention. It is necessary to criticise this convention and hammer home the point that the right has become totally disconnected from reality and rational argument.

The same point needs to be made to the (shrinking, but still significant) group of intellectuals of a conservative or libertarian disposition. Regardless of the abstract merits of ideas there is no way to remain associated with the political right and maintain any kind of intellectual integrity. The list of issues on which no dissent from the party-line talking points is permissible is so long (a string of inconsistent justifications for the Iraq war, voodoo economics particularly on anything related to budget deficits, anti-science views on just about everything) that even maintaining a discreet silence amounts to intellectual dishonesty.

The right is becoming aware of these things, as the debate launched by Julian Sanchez recently showed. But it’s certainly important to hammer the point home.

Third, important though it is to kill off intellectual zombies, that can only be the beginning of a response to the failure of the right. It’s not as if we have a left-progressive program and movement ready and waiting to fill the vacuum. The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century has eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions.

Practitioners of this kind of managerialist quasi-social democracy have found themselves unable to handle the challenge posed by the irrationalist right, whether in the form of Tea Parties and militias in the US, or slick advocates of xenophobia like Pim Fortuyn in Europe. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax. While competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. Again, this is one of the reasons I think we need to offer hope, in the form of goals that can excite enthusiastic commitment to a progressive alternative.

Fourth, while I don’t see much, if any, benefit in engaging with actually existing conservatism, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore conservative, and libertarian, ideas. You don’t have to be an unqualified admirer of writers like Burke, Popper or Hayek to concede that they made valid criticisms of the progressive ideas of their day, and to seek a better way forward. Some examples of the kind of thing I have in mind

  • Popper’s critique of historicism. After thirty years in which teleological claims of inevitable triumph have been the stock in trade of Fukuyama and his epigones, the left should surely have been cured of such ideas, but their centrality is evident in the very use of terms like “progressive”. It’s important to recognise that beneficial change is not an automatic outcome of “progress”
  • Burke and his successors on the need for beneficial reform to be “organic”, in the sense that it reflects the actual historical evolution of particular societies, rather than being based on universal truths that are applicable in all times and places
  • Hayek on the impossibility of comprehensive planning. No planner can possess all relevant information or account for all possible contingencies. We need institutions that respond to local information and that are robust enough to cope with unconsidered possibilities. In some circumstances, but certainly not all, markets fit the bill.

Fifth, equally, we need to reconsider Marxian and other left socialist critiques of social democracy. The central burden of most such critiques is that the welfare-state and similar interventions offer no possibility of transforming society or substantially mitigating the inequality of wealth and power inherent in capitalism. The last time this kind of debate had any relevance beyond setting out the correct viewpoint from which to deplore the advances of the right was back around the 1970s. At that time, there was a serious belief in the possibility of a revolutionary alternative in relation to which social democratic reforms were at best a distraction, at worst a deliberate obstacle. This belief (I assume) has now completely dissipated. So, the standard Marxian critique of the 1970s now amounts to defeatism: social democracy can’t change capitalism and neither can anything else. But radical movements can make space for lots of of different ideas, particularly in relation to organisation and mobilisation, and local ‘bottom-up’ policy initiatives. At least some of the time currently spent on combating the right ought to be devoted to more engagement with these ideas.

Some similar points can be made in relation to the green movement, though I think there has been much more progress in aligning greens and social democrats, both intellectually and as political movements.

Finally, as I’ve said before, the left has to stand for something more than keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements. We need to offer the hope of a better world as an alternative to the angry tribalism that threatens to engulf us.

That’s more than enough from me, and I’m keen for better ideas and analyses than what I’ve offered. So, comments please.

{ 186 comments }

1

Yarrow 04.25.10 at 5:09 am

I’m fond of David Graeber (the anarchist anthropologist). Some links: The Shock of Victory (“The biggest problem facing direct action movements is that we don’t know how to handle victory”); The Machinery of Hopelessness (“If two people are fixing a pipe and one says ‘hand me the wrench,’ the other doesn’t say ‘and what do I get for it?’”); and Debt: The first five thousand years (“in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call ‘the economy’”)

2

christian h. 04.25.10 at 5:13 am

No, revolutionary socialism does not at all amount to defeatism. There are defeatist tendencies on the radical left – strands of postmodern leftism fetishising hegemony come to mind – as well as tendencies given to magical thinking like the various kinds of anarchism sadly ascendant on the US left – but revolutionary marxism isn’t one of them. Its ideological concepts and strategies of struggle are still vibrant in much of the world, even if we are currently abominably weak in most Western countries.

3

Joshua Mostafa 04.25.10 at 5:39 am

Excellent post. There is a deplorable defeatist tendency among many on the left, a hope deficit that has (in the UK anyway, but probably elsewhere also) allowed a new consensus on the right, to replace the postwar consensus of social welfare. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a period, not of conservatism but of radical neoliberalism, of ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ (in the words of a Tory patrician dismayed by the Thatcherite project), and New Labour is a testament to the failure of social democrats to mount any kind of challenge to the new consensus.

It’s important, therefore, in efforts to construct new alternatives, not to reject Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system, but both: 1.) to take lessons from the failures of the Soviet Union and other communist states, rather than to retreat into a Trotskyist ‘communism has never been tried’ head-in-the-sand echo chamber, and 2.) to draw from–as you say in your post–a (small-c) catholic range of sources. Epistemic diversity.

I wrote a post recently suggesting that representative democracy has proven itself insufficient to represent the interests of the people:
http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/04/24/rethinking-democracy-more-fundamentally/

I wonder, are you aware of the Reimagining Society Project?
http://www.zcommunications.org/zparecon/reimaginingsociety.htm

PS “Flogging a dead horse” isn’t Aussie – you got it off us poms :)

4

Ben Alpers 04.25.10 at 5:47 am

Not to sound like a broken record on this, but don’t you want some praxis to go with your theory?

The failure of Obama and the Democrats to “produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties” (which is an awfully polite way to describe their adoption of the Bush administration’s positions on these issues) is not an intellectual failure, but a political one.

Yes, the left could–and should–work on producing a larger, coherent political vision, but on a number of the most vital issues we face–e.g. healthcare, climate change, civil liberties, torture–the more pressing problem isn’t that we don’t have solutions, but that those solutions are systematically marginalized by our political system and our political culture.

We already have better ideas. But we can’t even get the supposed party of the left to take them seriously. Though refining those ideas can’t hurt, how do you propose to get those ideas to make any difference whatsoever in the real world of power and politics?

5

Jim Harrison 04.25.10 at 6:06 am

I think even rightists sense that capitalism doesn’t work very well without an opponent–the technocrat moderates that occupy the place of the left in contemporary politics don’t fill the bill, no matter how earnestly the Republicans endeavor to make them the desired enemy by yelling at the top of their lungs that Obama et. al are a bunch of socialist/communist/etceterists. Nothing would cheer the Conservatives up more than a good sharp rap on the nose, but it beats me who is supposed to supply the requisite knuckles. As it is, the best conservative intellectuals can look forward to is a white trash republic of tea-party protesters, a prospect that can’t be a lot more attractive to them than it is to us. On the other side, the glacial triumph of a vague liberalism, won merely through the dumb weight of sheer demography, isn’t especially appealing either. As they say of certain very badly played chess matches, I don’t see how either side can save the game.

6

Rich Puchalsky 04.25.10 at 6:25 am

I think that there are certain difficulties talking about this on this blog. Since it is, in general, a place where engagement with the right is narcististically demanded, because otherwise the moderates just wouldn’t feel right.

But let’s assume for a moment that a conversation can be had without the civility brigade. In general, I agree with the above comment by Ben Alpers. There are plenty of suggested solutions that appear to be physically and economically possible, from transitioning to a non-carbon-based economy to universal health care to income supports that actually support the people that our system supposedly demands must remain unemployed to, well, civilization, in the form of peace of various kinds, including peace in the drug war. If people can’t buy in to a positive program of peace, prosperity, and a healthy world for their children, I don’t know what sort of positive program could possibly be offered.

Are the political mechanisms that could get us there healthy? No. Emphatically no. I don’t really know enough about non-U.S. systems to comment, but the U.S. system is broken, from a Supreme Court that everyone knows is purely a political instrument, to an outdated Constitution that locks out majority decision-making almost mathematically, to a President who is as “liberal” as we can reasonably expect to get who has just ratified an assassination program and more or less adopted the Bush executive system. The entire thing is rotten from top to bottom.

Everyone I know who works in vaguely left politics is working as hard as they can right now. And we’ll see what we can get. But really, the overall task of the left-of-center in America right now appears to me to be trying to influence the course of decline of the American Empire so the aftermath looks more like Britain post-Empire and less like Rome. The left in other countries is going to have to take the lead.

7

m.carey 04.25.10 at 6:50 am

I don’t have any good ideas for the way forward, BUT, I do want to be something of a Cassandra here, and seriously worry about the abundant “angry tribalism”. People who thought they were previously ‘on top’ but now no longer are- are dangerous !. With a tradition of militarism and domestic terrorism fresh in their minds, there are plenty of folks who are now planning to take things into their own hands.
We have not yet seen Peak Wingnut, and it won’t be pretty.

8

Jim Harrison 04.25.10 at 7:06 am

Ben Alpers posted while I was typing away. While I’m in sympathy with his suggestions–there are surely obvious practical steps that need to be taken–I’m rather pessimistic. Thing is, the political classes in the U.S. and Europe are so mingled that no new administration can prosecute the crimes of a previous administration without implicating itself. How does the Obama administration go after Goldman Sachs and the rest when so many of its members used to be on the boards of these companies? And since Clinton’s people began the practice of rendition and originated or continued other abuses, how could a prosecution of Bush era war criminals focus on them solely without being merely partisan and unfair? Again, there are real differences between Democrats and Republicans, but the two parties are equally hostile to democracy. Technocrats or plutocrats, nobody is interested in actually consulting the people in any meaningful sense.

9

Marc 04.25.10 at 7:50 am

The role of the media is an essential question. What makes modern conservatism so pathological is the closed nature of the system – from TV to radio to the internet it’s entirely possible to never leave the bubble. I’d add that progressives have a much milder form of the same syndrome – the left blogosphere has a tendency to focus on some particular outrage of the day in a deeply tribal fashion – and this is mainly controversial on the left because these tactics are now sometimes aimed at Obama, who has defenders in the progressive tribe, rather than Bush who did not. (To forestall a pretty predictable response, this doesn’t contradict the numerous occasions where Bush et al. really did do something outrageous. But a lot of the “outrage of the day” episodes, from Bush through Obama, really do amount to readings of events that range from strained to tendentious .)

I bring the latter up not in the interests of some abstract balance, but because I’m wondering aloud whether tribal fragmentation is inherent in our media system – and if so, what can be done about it. Gatekeepers of some sort are essential, and we lack trusted ones.

10

alex 04.25.10 at 8:34 am

Very well-put, esp. points 4 and 5 – but in so doing, indicating the depth and breadth of the problem, both intellectual and practical, in moving anywhere.

And @4 – capitalism seems to be doing very well, latest reports indicate that the UK’s richest people are up to 1/3 richer than before the recession…

11

Hidari 04.25.10 at 8:47 am

‘The role of the media is an essential question.’

This is obviously true, and brings up the essential ‘chicken and egg’ question of modern Leftist politics. The media spew out right wing propaganda 24/7, hence the reason (or one of the many reasons) a radical left wing alternative can’t even get started, and yet without such a movement the media will never change. What to do? I must admit I haven’t the faintest idea, especially when you consider that it’s not just the news programmes but almost all the media (‘lifestyle’ programmes, ‘reality TV’, adverts, X Factor and its clones etc., trashy (i.e. almost all of it) pop music, Hollywood superhero movies etc.) have either a centrist or explicitly or implicitly right wing political bias. It’s an all enveloping system. Our education system should provide some kind of balance to this but (at least in the UK) generally doesn’t. I have no idea whether things have changed since I was a kid, but at my school the curriculum (especially as regards ‘Modern Studies’ and ‘History’) leaned right: possibly ‘worthwhile in the abstract’ subjects like ‘Media Studies’ are generally worthless in practice.

Again: what to do? And here it’s important to pause and realise that the hopes that many of us had for the internet have not been realised. I had hoped that the internet might have formed an autonomous or quasi-autonomous ‘realm’ away from the corporate media in which real issues might be discussed and implemented. It’s clear (and Obama’s campaign shows this) that this has not happened. ‘Old’ money, tactics, strategies, ideas and structures have won out whenever they have come into conflict with the new ideas and practices of the internet. Likewise, the internet has become parasitic on old media, rather than the other way round. YouTube is a classic example. Whereas the idea was that ‘anyone’ can set up their own TV station (essentially) and broadcast their own thoughts, actually the most popular clips are extracts from ‘old’ media or mindless virals.

This is the problem in a nutshell. And it’s difficult not to feel pessimistic. The recent financial collapse was, quite simply a vindication of the left wing critique of ‘casino capitalism’, and proof of of the unreality of the assumptions of ‘neo-liberalism’ but despite this, if there is any political movement (at least in Europe) it’s towards the extreme Right. Certainly recent election results in Hungary and Austria give little grounds for optimism. (Admittedly, outside of Europe/North America and Australasia the picture is slightly less bleak, but I’ll wager that most readers of CT live in those areas).

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.25.10 at 9:04 am

I don’t think 5 is well put. There are other possibilities between technocratic social democracy and revolution; namely grass-roots organizing.

13

Sebastian 04.25.10 at 9:55 am

“After thirty years in which teleological claims of inevitable triumph have been the stock in trade of Fukuyama and his epigones, the left should surely have been cured of such ideas, but their centrality is evident in the very use of terms like “progressive”. It’s important to recognise that beneficial change is not an automatic outcome of “progress””

I think this is a the flip side (and better put) of what I was trying to say in the progressive history thread. Just because you call yourself the ‘progressive’ party, doesn’t mean you get to survey history cherry-pick the progress you like and claim it as part of the history of your party. And looking forward, you have to be very careful to remember that ‘change’ is not the same as ‘good progress’.

I’ve identified myself as conservative in temperament for a long time. But if the left is going to seriously consider things like organic growth and Hayek’s planning criticism, I could be interested, because heaven knows I’m not for the ridiculously intrusive security state that US conservatives seem to be supporting.

14

Hidari 04.25.10 at 10:04 am

‘But if the left is going to seriously consider things like organic growth and Hayek’s planning criticism’.

The Left has always considered these issues, especially if one considers the Anarchist tradition as being part of the mainstream of the radical left (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), as I think we should.

Also, one shouldn’t be fooled that the Stalinist version of Marxism that got developed in the 1930s bore any real relationship to what Marx actually did or said. Cyril Smith, amongst others, has done important work to show (for example) that Marx owed a lot more to Hegel (I mean a lot more) than is commonly assumed, and shared his concerns and interests. For example, Marx (to the best of my knowledge) never proposed a fully ‘planned economy’ (which is what Hayek was attacking). Some people did back in the day, but have not for many decades. Certainly one could peruse many recent back issues of the New Statesman, the New Left Review, Red Pepper etc. for the last few years (or decades) and I would be surprised if you would find even one article proposing that the economy of advanced capitalist states should be ‘centrally managed’ by technocrats. Nor do many people nowadays propose violent revolution as the solution to capitalism’s ills.

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/index.htm

15

Ken Lovell 04.25.10 at 10:15 am

‘If people can’t buy in to a positive program of peace, prosperity, and a healthy world for their children, I don’t know what sort of positive program could possibly be offered.’

But that’s pretty much what we’ve already got, or at least what many people believe we’ve got, which for the purposes of this argument is the same thing.

If most people have effectively disengaged from politics, which I believe is the case, it should perhaps be chalked up as an outstanding achievement. You can label it a victory for state intervention or for capitalism, it doesn’t matter much which; the point is that the condition of the vast majority of people in many countries is now comfortable enough that they don’t get personally involved in political arguments. They are neither sufficiently deprived to risk anything of substance in the fight to improve their lot, nor persuaded (after decades of bumbling ineffectual bureaucracy) that the state can make any significant improvement in their lives. They are satisficed, in other words.

In one course I teach, students sometimes have to discuss the decline of trade union density in Australia. Many say it’s because the work of unions is done, and they can honourably retire from the fray. Perhaps their insights are more reliable than mine.

None of this of course goes to the question of what it means for an individual human being to live a good life. Regrettably, progressives largely stopped talking about that a long time ago in favour of other arguments, most to do with money and material possessions.

16

Joshua Mostafa 04.25.10 at 10:15 am

Well said, Henri. Renewal on the left cannot depend on its supposed champions in the capitalo-parliamentarian system; and we all know what happens when a vanguard takes over and tries to impose socialism from above. Equality is never in the interests of an elite.

17

Joshua Mostafa 04.25.10 at 10:22 am

Ken Lovell. The comfort to which you refer is bought directly at the expense of exploitation in the Third World. And how could it be the business of politics to comment on what makes a good life for an individual human being? I think I must have misunderstood you. As your fellow countrywoman would say: ploise exploin.

18

Nico 04.25.10 at 10:48 am

Mr. Quiggin,
As a libertarian-ish person (increasingly skeptical of ideological certainty, but moved to libertarian sympathies for liberal reasons), I’ve found your critiques of libertarianism thought provoking and often of considerable merit. I do wonder, however, whether it’s really constructive to mock people. One should, of course, happily point out absurdities and bad faith where one, in good faith, sees them, but it does seem to me that the tone you and other ideologically motivated writers occasionally take mainly serves the purpose of asserting higher status in a rather tribalistic way.

I think I and many others like me are fairly open to persuasion on many points by those on the left. I’ve learned a lot from lefties about foreign policy and racial politics, just to name two. But I think many are put off by the tone some progressives take, often equating skepticism of government intervention with moral callousness or worse. Conservatives nowadays are much worse, but that isn’t enough to drive some of us to total solidarity with the left. I think if lefties presented their ideas in the spirit of humanity and intellectual generosity, many people would be open for a fruitful dialog and even alliance on many issues. I think we’re already seeing the beginning of this, but everyone might do better to cool off and be a bit more generous with each other. It seems like this ought to flow naturally from the liberal spirit. Am I missing something? Am I being naive?

19

SeanG 04.25.10 at 11:48 am

Professor Quiggin has shown overreach with this post. How can his critique square with think tanks such as Reform, ResPublica, Policy Exchange, BrightBlue, Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies? All these are centre-right think tanks which are exploring new areas. Maybe Professor Quiggin should investigate a little more before producing such a blanket post.

20

Ken Lovell 04.25.10 at 11:49 am

Joshua I can’t easily imagine a conception of politics that is not intimately concerned with what it means for individual human beings to live a good life, but you may view it differently.

21

Alice de Tocqueville 04.25.10 at 12:16 pm

Noah Millman at The American Scene:
The conservative movement was born in the 1950s, …
Oh, really! I……achhh!
And another thing. It’s pretty clear that the conservatives/libertarians that you’re debating here either are not in touch with the rank and file of the movement, or they are seeking not to be associated with them. It’s pretty clear that they don’t go to tea party gatherings. (All the ‘probing’ of the polls that show that these people are birthers, etc.) Somebody asked for a similar poll of the left! (Notice he doesn’t take the trouble of doing his own research.) Well, good luck finding someone who’s conducted a poll of leftists, much less one that’s reported on every MSM channel and discussed every night for a week. Just try to imagine night after night of pundits talking about what makes CodePink tick. If only!

I can remember recoiling in disgust at MSNBC’s trying to out-right-wing-fanatic Fox thruout Bush’s reign; it was only as Olberman seemed to catch on, and it became obvious that McCain would lose big that they turned about and added Rachel Maddow, and Ed Whats-his-name. Who owns NBC? Still GE, with their nuclear triggers. No reason they can’t sell a ton of ad time.
Does anyone remember any of these noble opponents of ‘statism’ decrying warrantless searches and arrests, peaceful protests being broken up with batons, journalists arrested just for being there? just for a start on what I consider undue ‘statism’.

I can’t help wondering why, after thoroughly beating glue to death, you’ve found the flimsiest excuse to do it some more. It could give a person the impression that you really care what these apologists for feudalism think, and have time to waste. After all, are these the movers and shakers of anything? I doubt whether the shock troops even read this stuff. They get their red meat on the MSM. They can watch it.

Speaking of statism, the very last post on the flogging eugenics thread is mine, and I really wish someone would read and comment on it, since it pertains to now, “BIO-ENHANCED WARFIGHTERS” and “Transhumanism.” As well as re-writing the ethical codes for biomedical experiments. But perhaps you guys think 100 years ago is more immediate. Libertarians, any comments?

22

Sage Ross 04.25.10 at 1:13 pm

Your point from Burke, that change must be organic, suggests that culture wars are where the good fight is. The political focus should then be on issues that will create structural advantages for promoting the cultural values of the left (freedom, self-reliance, diversity, voluntary cooperation, equality of opportunity). The left should focus on activities/industries/lifeways that both embody those cultural values and have a good chance of competing with their prevailing counterparts on their own terms. Socialism in action, one aspect of society at a time.

The free culture and free software movements–in which civil society is retraining itself to create, share and enjoy its own art, entertainment and informational products rather than looking to industry to provide them–are maybe the lowest hanging fruit. And obviously that struggle would go a lot easier, and further weaken the competitive position of old culture industries, with some IP law reforms that give people back some of the freedom that modern patent and copyright law have taken from them.

Hackerspaces and the “maker” ethic are making some headway in bringing those ideals into more concrete arenas. And combine hackerspaces (broadly construed) with the argument of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and you’ve got a compelling formula for promoting the cultural values of the left in forms that seem benign even to tea partiers–while systematically pushing back against big business.

Also, socialists need to pry the rallying cry of “Freedom!” from the cold, intellectually dead hands of the right. Socialism seems to me primarily a political philosophy of freedom–much more so than right-libertarianism, anyhow.

23

Phil 04.25.10 at 1:21 pm

the standard Marxian critique of the 1970s now amounts to defeatism: social democracy can’t change capitalism and neither can anything else. But radical movements can make space for lots of different ideas, particularly in relation to organisation and mobilisation, and local ‘bottom-up’ policy initiatives.

Yes. This relates to what I’ve come to realise is my political bedrock: the belief that the good society will necessarily be radically unlike this one – so that “we don’t do it that way” or “we don’t think about it like that” should never disqualify a radical critique or practice from consideration. Rather, radical movements should be in the business of cranking the range of permissible thoughts and practices that bit wider. (One more link at the risk of mod limbo – see my book for some radical movements which tried to do just this, and a left-wing political party which dedicated itself to cranking it shut again.)

24

Phil 04.25.10 at 1:21 pm

(Three links is OK, then? Who knew?)

25

Anderson 04.25.10 at 1:55 pm

has eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism

Kinda where I am, quite honestly, as an American center-left Democrat. It seems like democracy — the worst system, except for all the others.

So I’m interested in this thread, particularly any reading pointers.

26

Henry 04.25.10 at 2:00 pm

Phil – first time I’d seen that you’re using my “review”:http://crookedtimber.org/2009/05/15/historic-compromises/ to blurb the book. Feel free to change “This is a valuable little book … recommended” to “This is a valuable book … recommended” if you like (in case someone mistakenly takes the ‘little’ bit as damning with faint praise). On the substantive issue of this post – I’ll try to get a follow up written for Monday.

27

Henry 04.25.10 at 2:03 pm

And the follow-up will be specifically on Anderson’s reading pointers question. I think that the claim that praxis has to be the crucial part of this is right – but as an academic, praxis is not my long suit (there are of course other academics, with a different self-conception, who can do better on this).

28

Miracle Max 04.25.10 at 2:13 pm

Hidari — sorry to go off-topic, but pls send me an email. I lost your name & address and need a word with you.

29

bob mcmanus 04.25.10 at 3:08 pm

A wonderful post for a Sunday morning. Thank you, John.

What is to be done? Praxis is also theory. The defeatism even on this thread is frustrating.

Watched Beatty’s Reds again last night, and then did a little research, because I had forgotten who Floyd Dell was. Before Dell moved to Chicago, he wrote for something like, I forget, the Tri-Cities Daily Worker. Leaving aside programme and organization, this is how they did it the first time. A little newspaper in every neighborhood, someone handing pamphlets on every street corner, someone attending every public meeting in every village. Not rocket science, just dedication. And humility. Max Sawickt said “We don’t make policy.” We do politics. The public option or Quantitative Easing is not for us ever a policy debate on substance but only a possible political tool.

1) Stop reading, engaging, writing about the right. Stop watching the MSM.
2) Stop reading, engaging, writing about the center. Abandon the big blogs, perhaps including this one.
3) Spend much less time talking to yourself and each other.
4) Find a (metaphorical) soapbox or street corner. Be annoying to most and a revelation to a few.

30

bob mcmanus 04.25.10 at 3:18 pm

So 1st, if Quiggin and anybody else who posts here is interested, I would ask them to stop paying any attention to the first two on my list of four and link and engage what leftist blogs are out there. Scialabba is still writing, possibly foolish or brilliant stuff.

31

bob mcmanus 04.25.10 at 3:25 pm

I’ll start.

A Very Public Sociologist

Linked partly because he often provides linklists of British leftist blogs. Dozens of them.
Partly because he is young and smart and active.

32

Ben Alpers 04.25.10 at 3:38 pm

bob mcmanus @30 writes:

So 1st, if Quiggin and anybody else who posts here is interested, I would ask them to stop paying any attention to the first two on my list of four and link and engage what leftist blogs are out there.

But, bob mcmanus @29 writes:

3) Spend much less time talking to yourself and each other.

FWIW, I think the ten-minutes-earlier version of bob mcmanus had it right:

4) Find a (metaphorical) soapbox or street corner. Be annoying to most and a revelation to a few.

A serious conversation about how to practically go about doing that (or some alternative organizational vision) still seems to me to me a more pressing concern than looking for the most interesting leftist blogs and reading them. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading interesting leftist blogs. But doing so is just talking to each other.

33

bob mcmanus 04.25.10 at 4:02 pm

32:Well, I am humble enough to remember that earlier leftists did spend a lot of time talking to and about each other. It may have been a mistake.

Last night Reds very early had the scene of John Reed, back from Eastern Europe, attending a meeting of the Portland powers-that-be. “

“What is the war about, Mr Reed?”
Reed rises, “Profits”, sits.

5) If you feel compelled to visit the right or center, do so with middle finger extended.

34

christian h. 04.25.10 at 4:02 pm

It’s bit hard to take part in the conversation since after years of commenting here still every post of mine lands in moderation. And no, every post of mine does not contain the s-word. Anyway a couple points:

“We all know what happens when the vanguard takes over…” (Joshua): this seems like lazy history to me. There was nothing pre-ordained about the descent of Soviet Russia into bureaucratic dictatorship. (Also let’s not forget what happens when the vanguard does not take over – the Onion captured it well with “US flag recalled for causing 143 million deaths”.)

“Change has to happen organically…”: Not sure what this even means. But if it means slowly that’s just wrong. Social change is often fast, revolution is (historically) the common way for it to occur. Societies can get into a potentially revolutionary situation quickly (or at least it appears to be quick – after the fact it may be easier to notice the subtle changes that happened earlier). And yes, such massive change often goes along with violent upheaval. I think the Spart-style call for “violent revolution” and “workers’ militias now” are absurd, but let’s not kid ourselves that the ruling class will give up their privilege peacefully.

35

alex 04.25.10 at 4:14 pm

@33 – #5: hmm, are you assuming you are a majority, or entitled to act for one? If your attitude to everyone who is not ‘left’ is a literal ‘Fuck you’, what is your strategy for making sure that doesn’t come right back at you on a bullet or a billy-club, for example?

I think first you should actually do something to construct a movement that actually represents a majority, and is understood to represent them by that majority, before you decide that aggressive confrontation with everyone else is a good move.

36

Sebastian 04.25.10 at 4:41 pm

“The comfort to which you refer is bought directly at the expense of exploitation in the Third World”

That frankly isn’t true. It is an unhappy fact that if the Third World suddenly became inacessible (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) the 1st World would barely notice. If Africa, for example, suddenly vanished, it would change the economic course of the 1st World almost not at all. Which should not be seen as a laudable moral fact, but it argues strongly against the idea that the comfort is bought at the expense of exploitation in the Third World.

37

CharleyCarp 04.25.10 at 4:59 pm

It’s interesting to wonder about the thinking right why They hate Us so much they’re willing to risk the white-trash republic. I don’t think it’s just profit or privilege, because surely there are better ways to both.

On balance, though, I’m afraid I’m with Bob on engagement with Right media (including right blogs): you can’t interface with them without patronizing them, and, in the case of paid media, patronizing them because they say outrageous things just gets more of the same. McArdle is in the same business as Limbaugh, and neither will get a dime more from or on account of me.

What to do is a more serious question. I happen to think that the reversal on detention issues (to take as an example something I follow) is not so much, as say Bob would say, a matter of Obama having been dishonest on the campaign trail. Rather, I think the policy articulated by the candidate, and in the first day executive orders, ran directly into the potential for mutiny in the armed forces. The national security/intelligence establishment has substantial influence, and is willing to play dirty. In the end, we couldn’t have a government with both our existing officer corps, and Mr. Craig & Mr. Carter. In practical effect, then, what happened is that people who did not vote for the President and do not care a whit if his promises are kept — who indeed much prefer that he “recognize” that the prior Administration was right, and what they, the officers, have been doing for the last 8 years was necessary — were allowed to run the policy.

I can wish they’d made the choice differently. I can’t say though, given the political situation, that they didn’t make the only choice reasonably available to them.

38

geo 04.25.10 at 5:19 pm

Sebastian: I have a question about your last comment, but don’t want to risk taking this excellent thread off-topic. Would you mind emailing me (scialabb@fas.harvard.edu)?

PS – I’ll understand, though, if you’d rather not.

39

alex 04.25.10 at 5:43 pm

@36 – while risking flippancy, I’d say that, since 70% of the world’s chocolate is made from West African cocoa, people would definitely notice the absence… One could also mention gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, and of course the infamous coltan…

40

bob mcmanus 04.25.10 at 6:11 pm

38: I am gently reproved? Not about me, unless I make it so.

Apologies, if necessary, for a possibly undesired association.

41

Hidari 04.25.10 at 8:17 pm

Max
I’ve lost your email too. Is it the one hosted at verizon net? (That’s the only one I could find via Google). The one from your old website bounced.

42

Cuchulain 04.25.10 at 8:30 pm

I think America needs a remedial lesson in math. Literal and metaphorical. And it needs to relocate its idea of “freedom” and “liberty” in the real world. We have finite resources. If the few have unchecked powers to hoard the vast majority of those resources, obviously, the rest of humankind is not “free” and does not enjoy “liberty” to do the same, much less partake of those resources in any semblance of a fair or rational manner.

Math.

Marxist theory is great in this regard, because it points out the obvious. The entire point of capitalism is to push surplus value up to the very top of the food chain and keep it there. That means very, very few people “win” and most everyone else “loses”. There is no capitalist transaction that occurs without a winner and many losers. It’s actually impossible to ever get a win/win, if “profit” is a part of the deal.

I recently had a conversation with two coworkers, both of whom identify themselves as “libertarians.” I suggested that there should be a cap on how much CEOs and owners can keep for themselves when it comes to ratio between owners and rank and file. They understand that that ratio has exploded since the 60s, and is now more than 430 to 1, when it used to be roughly 26 to 1. I also told them that Orwell suggested 10 to 1 as a “fair” range.

(I’d probably go with 25 to 1)

They were against the cap, and didn’t really get that the ability of the owner or the CEO to have unlimited wages acts as a cap on rank and file wages (and hiring in and of itself), which have been stagnant since 1973. Why would Americans be okay with a cap on their wages, but find a cap on the rich somehow “unfair”? They see restraints on the rich as unfair, but seem to miss the fact that the rich restrain rank and file wages and freedom and liberty without restraints.

Our current system is a mess, and one of the reasons I’m not very hopeful is because our political conservation is now basically limited to centrist and right wing points of view. We have a centrist president, who would have been a Republican in the 70s, given his policies, and we now have a Republican party that would have been rejected in the past for being the rough equivalent of the Birchers. Market fundamentalism has been embraced by both parties, and it’s now accepted “wisdom” that the government should help spur business growth with more and more tax breaks and more and more deregulation, even though we got into this mess primarily because of voodoo economic theories and Reaganite/Thatcherite deregulation binges. It’s now conventional wisdom to use failed policies to counter the effects of failed policies.

Even in the age of Obama (when we thought things would be different), no one on the MSM could possibly put forth a truly socialist/Marxist POV, even though that is so obviously what is needed. Keynesianism isn’t even given much favor, though Obama did a little bit of it with the Stim package. Too little, of course. We live in a bizarre time when a centrist president, who espouses conservative policies often, is seen as the second coming of Mao by all too many Americans. How can the left fight back when we so clearly see someone to our right being pilloried as a far left radical? When did the center become the radical far left? How is that even possible in a sane nation?

Judging from the tea party/GOP movement, this is not a sane nation at all.

I think our only hope is to play some massive judo. As in, we need super-wealthy lefties — wherever they are — to sacrifice some of their wealth to build left-wing infrastructure on a grand scale. In our age, money talks. No way around that. That money would go toward Media, think tanks, and a third party. We need to use the system to get a foothold and then radically change it. My own desire is for Democratic Socialism, with a mixed economy to fund social justice change. A much larger public sector, and a private sector that, while vibrant, no longer controls the public sector in any way, shape or form. A public sector that ensures a rational distribution of goods and services that meet the fundamental needs of all citizens, from clean air and water, to health care, to education. A dismantling of our empire, an end to the war on drugs, an end to the surveillance regime, a government that gets out of the lives of individuals (is great on civil liberties), but protects the level playing field. It helps create the environment for all of us to achieve our highest heights, regardless of economic status. It sets the table, then gets out of the way, and stays out, as long as the folks at the table can meet and eat on equal terms.

But I don’t think any of that is possible with our two party system. The Dems and the Republicans are committed to inequality. We have to radically alter that dynamic.

43

John Quiggin 04.25.10 at 8:52 pm

Thanks, everyone, for lots of useful comments. I agree on the importance of praxis, but also with what I understand Bob McManus to mean when he says that “Praxis is also theory”. Looking at the failure of social democratic parties to make anything out of the global financial crisis, my diagnosis was that they are competent enough at a particular kind of managerialist praxis, but have lost sight of ideals and goals that might inspire some kind of political and organizational renewal. The world has changed radically since the last time there was a real opportunity for political progress, so we can’t just drag the good old left ideas out of the bottom drawer. If we are to make practical progress, we need to think more about where we are going, which is difficult when we have spent so long in a defensive mode.

The Internet, despite its disappointments, provides a space to articulate and debate those ideals and goals, as well as a venue for organizing and an important part of the new reality we have to respond to. I’m keen to see more discussion about these opportunities and how (if it is in fact possible) the outcomes of independent/grass-roots debate and activism can be translated into a movement for change and renewal of social democratic/progressive/socialist political parties.

44

Alice de Tocqueville 04.25.10 at 8:58 pm

Bob McManus @ 29: I think your list is great. Engage with the people who want to hear. At least don’t spend all your time talking to people who don’t want to hear.

Obama is a corporate tool. Else explain why he ordered his grassroots organization to stand aside while he went behind closed doors to -what’s the word for the way the health care bill was handled – to take just one example of corporate tooling.

But the people who voted for him are a majority, assuming the election wasn’t fixed like the last two.

The MSM and the political parties mitigate against any way into the public discussion from the left. Just one example: poll questions tend to ask a simple yes or no on an issue, the health care bill, for example. So those who oppose the bill because it doesn’t go far enough are lumped in with those who are worried about ‘death panels’. We have no voice in a media market where the Dems are the far left. Come on!

We have to change that, but not through the corporate games; we can’t win there, because we don’t own it.

That’s really the problem. They own everything, and they’ve got nukes.

45

John Quiggin 04.25.10 at 9:02 pm

@SeanG#19, I must admit that I don’t know much about what’s happening on the right in the UK – the days when the Australian right drew its thinking from there are long gone. I do get the impression that there is more of interest there, at least more potential for constructive engagement, than is the case in most places. But a grab-bag list is not all that useful. Can you point to some more specific examples of interesting work being done by the UK centre-right?

Thanks to others who’ve provided links. I’ll follow them up, and hopefully post something about my responses.

46

Alice de Tocqueville 04.25.10 at 9:13 pm

I also agree with not watching the MSM; they never tell you what you need to know.
Some better news sources:

counterpunch. org
informationclearinghouse.org
counterspin.org
fair.org

47

Rich Puchalsky 04.25.10 at 9:20 pm

Nico, Sebastian, et al: it’s not up to us to educate you. You’ve spent the last decades being wrong. Our dialogue now has to be among people who spent the last years being more or less right, not wasting time with people who want to be coddled and flattered into seeing what they should have seen a long time ago.

Now, to more serious things. Again, the problem with discussing praxis here is largely one of venue. The people who know something useful about politics are the people who work in politics, and they mostly aren’t here. That isn’t to say that they are right, or that they know what to do, or that I’m advocating some kind of political technocracy. But if you were going to build a house out of bricks, you’d want someone around who had actually worked with bricks before, in a real-life experiential sense, not someone who opined about bricks because everyone is supposed to have an opinion about them (as with politics). Work in politics is real work, like any other kind of work, and it devalues it to imply that there’s no difference in knowledge between people who do it and people who don’t.

And on praxis, the people here seem to be nicely divided between chiding people for pessimism and chiding people for magical thinking. Praxis is to a large extent limited by the system in which you are in. If that system is set up so that pessimism is a realistic appraisal of your situation, yet an attempt to think outside of the system is silly anarchism or some such, then you’re trapped.

Personally, I think that ideas from anarchism are what we’re going to have bring in at this stage. (Oh, all right: Sebestian & co, if you want to read something against central planning that isn’t a propertarian tract, you could go all the way back to Bakunin and his fragment/pamphlet “God and the State”, which is just as much against liberal technocrats and Communist ideologues as it is against religious rightists.) In particular, I think that the anti-work stuff of the late 20th century was promising: with increasing material productivity, why should we be particularly concerned about whether people are working or not? The people who want some idea of what the good life is individually are going to be led back to anarchist ideals in some way, I think, although social democracy seems to me to be the next possible expression of those ideals.

But to go back to the present: you can’t just tell people working in left-of-center politics to stop being defeatist and work harder. The reasons why Obama is seemingly the farthest left we can go are structural, in the sense that they are largely inherent in how the U.S. electoral system is set up. That system can’t be changed because it requires a super-majority to do so. Revolutionary political support just isn’t there, and in any case, if there was a break at this point I’m really not sure who would win. Grass-roots organizing sounds fine, but, you know, I’ve done some, and it’s not something you can just ramp up. It’s exhausting and often doesn’t really compensate for mass-media “organizing” going the other way.

I don’t think the mass media are really the most important factor either, although they are important. What’s most important is that the people who think that the Third World could vanish (including China? who would buy our debt?) and the U.S. could go on as usual are, of course, deluded. The system is set up to buy most of society off. It’s eventually going to break. I’m not talking about historical inevitability or anything like that, but the signs of breakage seem pretty apparent: there are some things in economics that you look at and say, well, that can’t go on forever, and things that can’t go on forever, don’t. The question of what to do has to be informed by the actual situation that we’re in.

48

Alice de Tocqueville 04.25.10 at 9:27 pm

What he said. #46 Thank you!

49

Cuchulain 04.25.10 at 10:27 pm

The financialization of monopoly capitalism is going to eventually lead to another crash. It’s inevitable. I don’t believe in History with a capital H. I think the left has been wrong in following Hegel and Marx to that degree. There is no Telos. There is only Cause and Effect. But we have more than enough cause to produce the effect of that crash.

The horrible thing is that, as usual, it’s going to be the middle and the poor who take the brunt of it. The rich will find a way to protect themselves.

America really blew this, going back to 1945 at least. We should have refused the dubious honor of hegemon, and concentrated on building this nation and aiding the world non-violently. No Korea, no Vietnam, no Central and South American little wars, no Africa, Iran, Iraq, Asia, etc. etc. We would have been golden.

Even with all of our mistakes, we had a tremendous middle class expansion for nearly thirty years, ending in 1973. Since then, we don’t make anything anymore, which means workers don’t have jobs with foundations and they don’t have the extra income needed to invest in the only thing that is growing in our economy: asset management. So we transfer real jobs, based on real goods, into the sphere of speculation and paper and speculation about paper. The only “winners” are the folks who manage that paper, and since all of that is a house of cards and a giant ponzi scheme, with nothing real underneath of it, it’s going to collapse again.

The only answer is to put in place a true “people’s government” that spends directly, creates real jobs, based on the production of real goods, and produces only those goods that have lasting value and are sustainable and beneficial. As long as we think the private sector will save the day, we’re just believing in unicorns. And I don’t think any politician alone will change this. It has to be a movement, and a unified, organized, mobilized and well resourced party voted into power to make that change.

Our slide to the right has to stop. Not only for America, but for the rest of the world. It’s extremely dangerous for the most powerful country on the planet to be reactionary.

I despair of what we’ve become and hope we can create the necessary paradigm shift soon.

50

KFB 04.25.10 at 10:28 pm

Well written post, Mr. Quiggan, and a good follow-up on your previous post, “Hope”. I find the elements layed out in the current post useful in guiding my thoughts, too, about a vision that can inspire hope and, by extension, be a call to constuctive action and problem solving. I only wish I could be, at this time, of greater assistance to you in acomplishing your objective, for I have definite notions and strong feelings on how to proceed. However, I am not, yet, very good at articulating my own intuitions and ideas into a program or set of goals. Your post reminds us all that the left, too, needs to reflect upon it’s ideas in light of recent events. It is not only the Right who’s underlying political and philosophical assumptions need clarification. Beyond that, points 3 and 4, remind us that the way we think about a new program of ideas and actions should be pragmatic and sceptical of “systems”, and open to ideas from opposing camps. I could not agree with you more.

Some of us view current events as fertile ground and as a stimulating opportunity to move towards a more promising future. Some of us feel that the responses by the Obama administration are mostly appropriate in terms of scale in regard to immediate and inherited events, but we are frustrated and saddened that this tremendous investment of resources is employed absent of a as yet unrealized vision of hope. Ideally, efforts to re-employ millions, to reform economic, political, and societal institutions would be done within some definite and hope-inspiring new context. However, the old context is still coming undone(“loosening”), assumptions are surfacing, and appropriate questions are beginning to be formulated. I am not a prophet, but this could be a watershed for all of us. One senses that this, in part, is the work that Mr. Quiggan wishes to address in some way, beginning with his last two posts–a prolegomenon of sorts.

If I am being to presumptive, I apologize. Either way, I’ll continue to monitor this post, continue to feel my way forward on this issue, and hopefully next time I’ll be able to be more specific and constructive in my contribution to this conversation.

51

Cuchulain 04.25.10 at 10:31 pm

Mr. Scialabba, wanted to thank you for your excellent What are Intellectuals Good For? It’s had a big impact on me. Sent my back to a review of earlier readings (from my distant past) and the discovery of new sources.

Thanks to CT itself for that excellent seminar on your book. I got a great deal out of it.

52

Cuchulain 04.25.10 at 10:45 pm

Sebastion,

Americans do not really see how their wages have been restrained for nearly forty years, primarily because we have access to cheap goods from the so-called third world. If we lost access to it, that would end. Aside from all of those cheap goods, the bulk of mineral, metal, spice and a host of other commodities comes from there. That was the main reason for European colonization of those areas. Their resource-rich and previously un-exploited lands.

Take all of that away, and all of our expenses instantly skyrocket, and we wouldn’t be able to continue many of our modern practices, because energy sources would be off limits.

We need to face facts. We depend on the third world far more than it depends on us. It’s not even close. It’s always gotten the raw end of the deal. And when a capitalist in the West makes money off the backs of workers in Asia, he or she steals from them in every sense of that word. We all benefit from that theft, from their dirt poor wages, from that colonization going back centuries, and from every single economic transaction that touches the non-white world.

It works by extension. Capitalists rip off American workers and consumers. They rip off foreign workers. We in the West benefit from that ripping off, when we remain inside that equation, even while we’re being ripped off by the same people.

There is no gain without a loss, and workers and the non-rich carry the vast majority of the loss. Within the subset of workers and the non-rich, third worlders carry an inordinate load.

It’s pretty incredible that in 2010, there are still people who don’t see that.

53

Sebastian 04.25.10 at 11:21 pm

“Americans do not really see how their wages have been restrained for nearly forty years, primarily because we have access to cheap goods from the so-called third world.”

What a strange thing to say. You seem to be saying that wages would have been higher but that everything would be more expensive. But I’m not sure why you would want higher wages if everything were equally more expensive.

“Take all of that away, and all of our expenses instantly skyrocket, and we wouldn’t be able to continue many of our modern practices, because energy sources would be off limits.”

I strongly suspect that if it really came to that, one of the modern practices that the US would abandon is its reluctance to use nuclear power. Then oil/natural gas would function mainly for non-rail transportation. In any case I did mention Saudi Arabia.

“There is no gain without a loss”

That is flat out wrong, and exactly why it is difficult to have real world talks with leftists.

54

Sebastian 04.25.10 at 11:21 pm

I should have said many leftists.

55

Alex De Tokeville 04.26.10 at 12:21 am

Agency–the creamy nougat of the progressive candy bar. Once the secret ingredients are revealed–why brand X agency provides mo’ pleasure than brand Y (aka quantify rationality), and then like apply yr findings–you’ll be on yr way to a petite bourgeois-liberal paradise–Rawlsville

56

Nick 04.26.10 at 12:59 am

“There is no gain without a loss, and workers and the non-rich carry the vast majority of the loss. Within the subset of workers and the non-rich, third worlders carry an inordinate load.”

That is perhaps the deadest horse thats been flogged on this thread so far; the paradigmatic zero-sum fallacy. It is wrong on its face because it implies there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, but we know that people have got much wealthier and live materially better lives than they have done in the past, from a position in which no one had much wealth at all: http://oxlib.blogspot.com/2008/12/tom-palmers-talk.html

As a matter of fact, your story about depredation has plenty of factual accuracy to it. Special and poweful interests both in the West and elsewhere conspire to impose costs and rents on ordinary populations everywhere, but people in the West at least have relatively powerful democratic Governments that pursue some of their materal interests just so long as they don’t get in the way of their own rent seeking. Hence, they are exploited but in turn get to exploit. But: that exploitation and depredation doesn’t explain much at all about how that wealth is created, only how it is seized and distributed by the powerful.

57

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 1:07 am

I’m saying that we would notice our stagnant wages a hell of a lot more if we lost access to cheap goods. It would all suddenly hit us like a ton of bricks that we’ve been getting ripped off for decades, if we had to do without the end products of people making pennies on the dollar. That’s just common sense. When things were going well for the middle class — from 1947-1973 — when we were actually gaining some ground on the rich, we didn’t have Walmart and we still bought a lot of American products, things made here. As we lost market share and then whole industries, we turned to cheap goods overseas. We went from a net exporter to a net importer. From a net lender to a net debtor. And our wages flatlined.

There is no justifiable reason for that stagnation. The rich have received several decades now of tax cuts and deregulation. Their profits have skyrocketed while worker productivity has soared. We have done everything asked of us and more, and our wages remain flat. The rich have gotten everything they’ve asked for, and they just keep hoarding a greater and greater share of national and international wealth. America has never had such a high level of inequality, and still the right calls out for more of it. They actually want corporations to receive tax breaks when 2/3rds of them pay no tax right now. Exxon and GE, for example, made billions in profits last year and paid nothing.

Nearly forty years of stagnant wages for the rank and file, and the rich keep getting richer. Our bosses take home a greater and greater share of the fruits of our labor with each passing year. CEOs went from taking $26 dollars for every dollar they paid workers to 430 to 1. In the 100 largest corporations, the ratio is more than 1000 to 1. Their gain was our loss, obviously. That’s math. There’s no way around it. The more they take for themselves, the less we workers get in return for our labor. Again, that’s just math.

The more American corporations take for themselves, the less they pay us. The less they pay us and the more they outsource overseas, the more they gain and we all lose.

There can be no win/win when it comes to capitalism. It’s impossible. If you have employees, the only way you make a profit is to screw them over to some degree. You have to create surplus value by paying them less than they produce, and/or work them longer hours without overtime to gain your surplus that way. And, since monopoly capitalism has been radically financialized, the gap between the rich and the poor grows even faster. People with access to capital make more of it. Wages are being artificially restrained, thus preventing 99% of us from investing in that financialization boom. The fat cats take the lion’s share of winnings and leave the scraps for others. They lie and cheat to make billions, and when they fail, they get the government to step in and backstop them.

Now, if you really think that capitalism can work with everyone winning, please explain why there is such a huge amount of inequality in America right now. Please explain why, in nations with a greater social safety net and stronger checks on capital, there is far less inequality.

Capitalism, if left unchecked, creates a few winners and a ton of losers. Again, there is no way around that. It’s just math. If someone gets to grab most of the pie, by definition, that leaves very little pie for the rest of us.

Would love to read your explanation of how capitalism can yield egalitarian outcomes.

58

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 1:36 am

Nick, comparing current levels of overall material “wealth” to the past is bogus. It’s a very old right wing trick to distract people from current realities. It doesn’t matter that we now can buy cell phones when once we couldn’t. What matters is the growing gap between rich and poor and all economic strata today. What matters is the level of inequality we face now, here and now. We can’t do anything about the gap between today and yesterday. We can’t go back and help people in the past catch up to us. But we can make changes today to move toward egalitarian outcomes today and for the future, and we should.

To me, it’s a cheap and cowardly move when the rich try to brainwash the poor and the middle by trumpeting their access to “stuff.” Stuff isn’t wealth in the first place. Stuff doesn’t bring about true freedom and independence. And all of our stuff won’t prevent us falling through the cracks if we get sick and lose our job and our insurance. We may have more material goods now than ever before, but we’re actually more dependent than ever on our paychecks from week to week, and our bosses are racing much further ahead of us all the time in material and physical well being.

The rich live longer, healthier lives in general. They keep taking a larger and larger share of the pie.

And our gains in material goods come at a price. As Norman Mailer wrote in the pages of Dissent in 1959, workers in the 19th century, while exploited more and paid less, at least could go home and not have capitalism follow them there. We can’t today, if we also buy all of that “stuff” you seem to think makes us “wealthy.” Capitalism follows us home. It gets into our house through the TV, the radio, the Internet our cell phones, and all our gadgets. We are collectivized at work and collectivized at home by capitalism. It’s getting harder and harder to escape. Pretty soon, we’ll all be walking with our personalized advertisements wherever we go, like that scene in “Minority Report.”

There is a huge difference between real wealth and “stuff.” I think you’re confusing the two, badly.

59

red. 04.26.10 at 1:49 am

Excellent post.

To the first point, I’d add only that the laissez-faire and libertarian strains of thought that have infected our discourse these last thirty years were never coherent ideas and were, in any case, never argued in good faith. It is absurd that owners of capital as a class were the ones to champion free markets — after all, free markets preclude economic profits. What they were after were not free markets but deregulated markets.

A second, related point: I agree with you that the left has no coherent vision or program of action, incremental, organic, or otherwise (cf. Brown’s Labour, Obama’s Democrats). Today’s social democrats are indistinguishable from the rightists of the day before yesterday. Why? The right has succeeded in rendering old-fashioned such notions as equity and isonomy unspeakable and even unthinkable. This has been their great achievement. An example (and perhaps a test): Ackerman and Alsott’s Stakeholder Society is, in my view, a feasible, practicable, (economically) efficient, and dramatic proposal to enhance social justice. Whether you agree with their proposal or not, can any one of us imagine the left and center-left rallying around such a proposal today? Can we imagine left and center-left politicians legislating it?

60

Anderson 04.26.10 at 2:42 am

I think the number of people likely to be persuaded by the Rich Puchalskys of the world could be counted on the fingers of one hand, with a strict definition of “thumb.”

If the Left is not going to be a self-satisfied club of internet super friends, I think there’s going to have to be a little more caring and a little less self-satisfaction. I have seen Sebastian’s comments here and there for years, and if *he* is finding a mature leftism worthy of attention, then that is a very good sign. Not, I contend, an opportunity for territorial pissing.

The fact is that, for various reasons (n.b. the remarks about the media above), very few people in America, at least, have any clue what “the Left” really thinks or has to offer, so that its spot in our mental space is filled with ideological caricatures. One can always say “oh, use the internet,” but there are obvious difficulties in educating oneself on such a subject from a position of near-total ignorance, and most of us — this should be a valid point in any discussion of leftist politics, I trust — have day jobs. Some (apocryphal?) materialist critic once remarked that Tom Jones is inescapably bourgeois simply because the average person has no time to read anything that long. Leaving the merits of his aesthetics aside, it would surely be a valuable leftist goal to descend from the mountaintop?

That’s why I’m happy to see this post & thread, and looking forward to more posts on this topic (esp. Henry’s post on relevant reading). If the entire blog starts to move in this direction, it will have a great potential to offer something, AFAIK, “materially” different. Tho heaven knows, don’t lose the snark entirely. Keeps us sane in an insane world, some days.

61

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 4:09 am

Oh, poor poor Sebastian. And people like me are so self-satisfied, so — dare I say it? — elitist. Anyone who didn’t convince themselves during the Bush years is not someone looking to be convinced. They’re looking to be a concern troll.

Once more: this isn’t a thread about convincing people, much as you’d like to pull all the oxygen out of it with pissy little demands for “more caring”. It’s a thread about thinking about where to go next. You: wrong about everything. DFHs: oh they’re so mean — right about everything. Deal with it.

62

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 4:11 am

Yes, the left could—and should—work on producing a larger, coherent political vision, but on a number of the most vital issues we face—e.g. healthcare, climate change, civil liberties, torture—the more pressing problem isn’t that we don’t have solutions, but that those solutions are systematically marginalized by our political system and our political culture.

Got it in one. That’s why this meme “I was wrong but for the right reasons” is so nasty. I recall that McArdle at one point magnanimously admitted that she and others like her were wrong (for all the right reasons of course) about Saddam having WMD’s . . . and then she was quite obviously and genuinely taken aback that, rather than acknowledge her generostiy, a good chunk of the readers were outright peeved. We ignorantly thought that to the victor went the spoils (that’s what the right had been saying for years at any rate), and that being right about something so visible and so high stakes would – ha ha – entitle us to having a seat at the table with the grownups. Didn’t happen, of course.

Because, after all, politics is just about who gets how much of what (sound familiar?) And that is where you make pragmatic connections. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. When you can connect “liberalism” with that simple mantra, you’ll get a lot of the little people on your side.

63

Charles S 04.26.10 at 4:36 am

Americans do not really see how their wages have been restrained for nearly forty years, primarily because we have…

The problem with this is not the part I didn’t quote that Sebastian disagrees with. the problem with this is that this part is false. Americans know perfectly well that their wages have been constrained, that their lives have become more precarious, that they live one pay check away from poverty in a way that their parents didn’t. They just don’t know a) why, or b) what to do about it.

64

Alice de Tocqueville 04.26.10 at 4:58 am

“….the left has no coherent vision or program of action, incremental, organic, or otherwise (cf. Brown’s Labour, Obama’s Democrats).

Obama and the Democrats are not The Left. They aren’t even ‘left.’ They only seem that way because, as some have pointed out above, this country is so reactionary, and the public sphere is dominated by the right. The Congress is a bad joke, a wholly-owned subdidiary of multi-national corporations. Barack Obama works for Goldman Sachs. They’ve backed him from his first campaign for the Senate, and they gave him at least a million dollars for his presidential campaign.

The statement excerpted above, isn’t true. There are people working every day to implement a coherent vision that is incremental, organic and otherwise. They just can’t get much traction in this mess.

65

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 5:07 am

Charles S, I don’t think most people do. I think most people have naturalized the way things are, thinking it’s the norm and the way things ought to be. That if they’re not making more money, it’s their fault, not the fault of the greedy bastards who decided they need to suck up a far greater portion of the total pie than ever before.

Judging from years of conversations about this, I don’t think people actually realize that things were far better decades ago on that score. Worse, of course, in other ways. But far better when it comes to wages and jobs in general.

My observation is that people really don’t put two and two together. They just don’t think it’s fair to put constraints on earnings at the top end, which means they don’t understand that unlimited money for the top means far, far less for them. I don’t think they get that no limits at the top end means wage constraints are put on the rank and file.

What I see in our culture is this. Unlike most countries, Americans identify with the class they will never be a part of. There is really no class solidarity among the working class. We’re always looking to get out of the cave, to escape our chains. And even for those who talk solidarity with their fellow workers inside the cave, the second a person gets out, he or she almost never looks back. Our society is organized around the idea of escape, not reform. From the lottery to our obsession with celebrity, few Americans really want to do what is necessary to bring about a more egalitarian society: putting some limits on the top end. Taxing the top end more. Redistributing some of that top end back into the entire society. Lifting up the bottom and the middle via a redistribution from the top down.

All too many Americans say that’s not fair!! Why should you tax “success”!! Why, that’s socialism!!!

Most forget that the wealthy didn’t get there on their own, and the vast majority inherited it. There is still a bizarre connection in America between wealth and virtue. It’s assumed. And people don’t want the virtuous “penalized”.

I’ve had countless conversations with people who don’t think it’s fair that hedge fund managers, making billions in profits, should have their taxes raised, even though they pay less than their secretaries, as Warren Buffett mentioned. Again, they tell me that penalizes “success”.

Americans have been conditioned into thinking this way through decades of bombardment by the rich. Not just through the usual “greed is good” channels like Limbaugh, but by our entire culture of consumption and excess. Again, I just don’t get how anyone thinks this way in a supposed “democracy”, but they do. They are satisfied with the potential, as remote as it may be, that someday, they too could live in a mansion, have servants, pay them crap wages and live like a king or queen.

Perhaps the most important disconnect is that the more people are able to concentrate wealth in fewer hands, the more they hoard it and prevent others from getting their piece of the national and international pie, the less likely “the people” will ever be able to reverse this course. Because with that accelerating wealth comes accelerating political power, so that limiting the ability at the top end of the wage scale has the obvious benefit of limiting the concentration of political power in fewer and fewer hands.

And the kicker: It’s actually terrible for business for fewer and fewer people to control more and more wealth. That’s obvious as well. Even Henry Ford understood that. If he paid his workers enough to afford to buy his cars, he would make out better. It’s far better for manufacturers to have a million people with disposable income than a thousand.

In short, there are more than enough good reasons to set limits on wealth accumulation, raise taxes on the rich, and expand our Commons. There are basically no reasons to continue our present course. And I just don’t think people “get that.”

66

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 5:37 am

I agree with Alice here, but I’d like to add to what she says. What kind of “coherent vision or program of action” is the left supposed to have that is more coherent than what it does have? I see another two-sided trap here — either the left is going to be described as hopelessly vague, or as some kind of vanguard party working off of doctrine.

Remember, the electoral rules in the U.S. effectively mean that there can only be two parties, and the one that wins has to get something near 50% of the vote. (In years, unlike Clinton’s, when there isn’t a third party in the process of flaming out.) Obama won. Therefore, he appealed to people somewhere near the 50% line. Unless he’s a rare President who actually willing to lead, which he decidedly is not, he can’t be the leader for “the left”. What he does can not be what “the left” does.

Personally, I’m very much in favor of the lesser of evils, because people suffer whenever the lesser of evils is rejected in favor of some long shot, or, worse, in favor of disengagement. (If the long shot isn’t really long — well, then, it becomes the lesser evil.) I voted for Obama as the lesser evil, and would do so again. Although I wouldn’t vote for him in the primary over Clinton again: I don’t think she would have issued an assassination order. But whatever: “the left” has to support Obama in some fashion, because the alternatives are worse. That does not make Obama’s Democrats the left in America.

67

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 5:44 am

The statement excerpted above, isn’t true. There are people working every day to implement a coherent vision that is incremental, organic and otherwise. They just can’t get much traction in this mess.

This suggests that it might be instructive to know what is or has ever been considered a “coherent vision”, both the “liberal” kind and the “conservative” variety. Then we could do a compare/contrast.

68

Robert 04.26.10 at 6:34 am

The media are multinational corporations. Last I looked, something like 20 companies own 90% of all mass media in the USA. This may have something to do why so many reactionaries can make a career out of spouting lies and nonsense. And why almost no leftists appear on it. So I’m not sure where productive debates between leftists and liberals will occur.

69

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 7:04 am

“Anyone who didn’t convince themselves during the Bush years is not someone looking to be convinced. “

Convince themselves of *what*? Surely the Bush years didn’t prove that everything you ever thought at any point was right, did it?

“You: wrong about everything. DFHs: oh they’re so mean—right about everything. “

Oh, I guess you do think that. I can’t see how that level of self assurance could ever be problematic. Practically fundamentalist.

70

Jack Strocchi 04.26.10 at 8:05 am

Pr Q said:

there is very little remaining on the political right (particularly in the US, but this point applies to most of the English-speaking countries, and to a large extent elsewhere) that is worth engaging with in terms other than the derision employed here…The same goes for the thinktanks and quasi-academic institutions…

and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.

…Practitioners of this kind of managerialist quasi-social democracy have found themselves unable to handle the challenge posed by the irrationalist right, whether in the form of Tea Parties and militias in the US, or slick advocates of xenophobia like Pim Fortuyn in Europe.

You were going along quite nicely until you lost me with the knee-jerk liberal reaction to “the various other elements that have re-emerged as forces on the Right”. If you want to seriously engage with the non-liberal side you will need to honestly appraise the faults, falsities and fallacies the Left-liberal side. “Practioners of managerialist quasi-social democracy” bear some of the responsibility for these policy failures.

Lumping every criticism of the failed/stalled Left-liberal cultural agenda into the “tribalist hatred of others” nut-job grab-bag just won’t wash any more, either amongst competent life scientists or the general public. Left-liberals need to improve their own scientific and political game or the attempt to kick start progressive politics will suffer “failure to launch”.

Shorter summary of the Culture War: dumb Left-wing cultural minority policy calls forth nasty Right-wing cultural majority politics. Longer summary to follow:

Its a bit rich to accuse people like Pim Fortuyn or Theo van Gogh of “slick advocacy of xenophobia” when they wound up being killed (!) for their beliefs by assorted diversity celebrants. Exactly who is guilty of “tribalist hatred of others” here? Their ghosts might plausibly claim that assassination is grounds for “phobia” about some “xenos”.

More generally, if one wants a progressive polity then one needs to immigrate or inculcate progressive-minded people – and firmly oblige them to conform to civilised community standards. Thats obviously not working out in many parts of EU, for any one bothering to observe at mean street level.

Its pretty lame to put up some flimsy contrivance called “Christianism” as morally equivalent with Islamism. Apart from the contained (and now answered) “Irish Question”, modern Christians have not practised fundamentalist religious terrorism, not counting the occasional odd-balls running around American forests in cam suits. Who have not yet gone through the formality of actually blowing anything up.

There are some devout Christians who are guilty of having an old-fashioned view on personal morality. They include many of the readers grand-parents, who perhaps know a thing or two about bringing up children. Perhaps they “hate others”. More likely they just yearn for a quiet time, which does not seem too much to ask at their stage of life.

Likewise, “anti-feminism” is an ideological offence whose prosecution will cause more hate than it will cure. It will also keep the thought-police busy rounding up most of the pre-menopausal female gender, going by the allergic reaction that girls-about-town and child-less career women have to being designated as “feminists”.

Second-wave feminism more or less ran out of useful things to do around the mid-eighties, once child-care centres, domestic violence safe-houses and work-place anti-harassment programs were up and running. Since then “feminism” presents as the degenerating farce of womyn’s studies, “raunch culture”, “riot grrl” and palimony bonanzas. Its tendentious to brand as “misogynous” those tactless enough to point out that “feminism” has now gone beyond the point of diminishing returns, as biological clocks began their race against time during the endless “[Alpha] man drought”.

Pr Q seems to have overlooked indigenous affairs and gay rights. He was wise to not open the former can of worms, which was “tribalist” alright but not the sort he was referring to. As to the latter, as a self-appointed spokesman for cultural conservatism I will come out for gay marriage. Marriage certainly keeps formerly single men on the straight and narrow. Logically that goes double for two gay bachelors.

Have we missed anything? Oh yes, “aggressive nationalism”. I guess this is a liberal code word for those citizens who favour strict “border protection” by the authorities legally entrusted with this job. That demographic encompasses 55-75% of the voting population, depending on the porousness of borders at any stage and the latest outrages by illegal aliens. Undoubtedly some “tribalist other-haters” there.

But there are some painfully re-constructed liberals who are looking to un-recontructed liberals for some sign that recent lessons have been learned. Especially the old one that national citizenship is still the foundation of civil statehood. Until that is forthcoming I suggest that “defensive nationalists” would be a fairer nomenclature.

No one is suggesting we roll back the cultural clock to 1965. But nudging it a lot closer to 1985 would be a start. Otherwise there will “be little point” in treating Left-liberal pretensions to progressivism “in terms other than…derision”.

71

Anarcho 04.26.10 at 8:25 am

“Also, socialists need to pry the rallying cry of ‘Freedom!’ from the cold, intellectually dead hands of the right. Socialism seems to me primarily a political philosophy of freedom—much more so than right-libertarianism, anyhow.”

Some of us have never denied that socialism must be based on freedom, that was the whole point of the libertarian socialist (anarchist) critique of state socialism. For example, Bakunin:

“We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”

I would suggest that history confirms Bakunin’s point, plus his critique of state socialism (Brian Morris wrote a good book on Bakunin and his ideas called Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom).

Surprisingly, the term “libertarian” was first used by the left, by anarchists, since 1858. That is why the left should be stressing that “right-libertarianism” is propertarianism and that (to quote Proudhon) “property is theft” and “property is despotism”

I would argue that socialists, the left, need to stress freedom and stop the right appropriating it for their authoritarian agendas. I would, however, stress that there is a section of the left who never stopped stressing freedom.

72

Tim Worstall 04.26.10 at 9:06 am

“and of course the infamous coltan…”

Moving deftly off topic…..not really. While coltan (“columbo-tantalite”) is important to the feeding of the violence in Eastern Congo/Rwanda etc in terms of global availability of either tantalum or niobium it’s irrelevant. The vast majority of supply comes from Brazil, Australia (from the delightfully named mineral wodginite) and Quebec. The global metals industry would hardly notice the lack of supply from central Africa.

About the only people who would would be the people fingerprinting the stuff (analysing the residual elements in the coltan to see where it comes from) to try and stop the so called “blood coltan” entering the supply chain.

73

Donnie 04.26.10 at 9:44 am

I, a 33 year old, who grew up in the Reagan/Thatcher era and has followed politics keenly since age 5, am no longer interested in US politics.

You’ve done well to highlight the intellectual failings, the collective absolution of rational thought & the blind march screaming the equivalent of allahu akbars (death panels!, Socialist!), but that’s not my problem.

The Republican party is the one that has failed. They are no longer serious….ever since the day they nominated the ass-stupid George W. From then, on through to the cynical handling of the Iraq War & the response to the banks’ assault on world economic well-being, the Republican party have shown they can not be trusted and can not be taken seriously.

I simply have no taste for the party of Glen Beck, even though I could actually construct sound defences of Reagan or Bush Snr.

I can’t pretend that a party that would nominate Sarah Palin has any credibility. The problem wasn’t nominating what the British would call a numpty, the problem was in asserting that she really isn’t that, and the fact that we see her as that is because we hate ‘hardworking Americans’.

The tragedy is that the American system relies on two parties that seek the middle ground. That’s why I’ve lost interest. The American political system needs the Republicans to get their senses back, and it’s a long way away from happening unfortunately.

74

JoB 04.26.10 at 9:57 am

Anarcho, I think you’re right in argueing that anarchism is not a dead horse and that the left is wrong in not engaging in that thinking (if anything it is a good path towards some of what John had in his point 4). But I think you’re wrong to stress the revolutionary and moralizing element out of that tradition as examples. This anti-authoritarian (and hence anti-democratic-nations) feeling is quite compatible with the optimism of breaking down power institutions (mainly now big multi-national firms and some non-wellfare state agencies) and leaving a remainder for the administration (e.g. regulation of finance industries) on the principle that no organization is to be big enough to pay for the lobbying that is required to remove restrictions to it growing. The insistence on localization, grass roots movements and participative democracy inhibits a sane, and global, administration of what we have grown to see as minimal elements of the free human society: individual rights, social protection, limitation of working hours, …. and the temporary nature of any position of power. On most of these things there is such a general agreement that it is no longer a part of election campaigns (in the rich West, admittedly), which means that the election campaigns or more and more just a selection of a temporary administrator.

Anyway, probably most of what I said is wrong, but at least it would be good to leave the basic framework of political discussion of the XXth century – proposing something really new is the only function of the left. It all went downhill when the focus became the protection of the old.

75

Sage Ross 04.26.10 at 10:28 am

Some of us have never denied that socialism must be based on freedom, that was the whole point of the libertarian socialist (anarchist) critique of state socialism.

Indeed, freedom has long been a central part of a lot of strands of socialism, not just libertarian socialism. Which is why it should be a good opportunity to reclaim the concept in the public sphere, where it seems to be almost exclusively used by the right these days.

I tried to figure out what “property is theft” is supposed to mean by looking at Wikipedia. I read the article, but it was unhelpful (“What Is Property?” is somewhat better). But I did find a “popular joke” at the end of the article:

“Why do anarchists drink herbal tea? Because proper tea is theft”

“Property is theft” seems like a hard sell in the US, compared to the argument that free markets don’t ensure, and often hinder, other more important kinds of freedom.

76

ajay 04.26.10 at 10:52 am

Its pretty lame to put up some flimsy contrivance called “Christianism” as morally equivalent with Islamism. Apart from the contained (and now answered) ”Irish Question”, modern Christians have not practised fundamentalist religious terrorism, not counting the occasional odd-balls running around American forests in cam suits. Who have not yet gone through the formality of actually blowing anything up.

You may well be interested to know that Eric Rudolph a) was a modern Christian b) was an odd-ball c) ran around American forests and d) blew things up. (I am unaware of his state of dress while doing so.)
You may also have heard of the Ku Klux Klan and its views on Catholics and Jews. Or you may not.

77

Phil 04.26.10 at 12:00 pm

Well, neither the IRA nor their opponents practised ‘fundamentalist religious terrorism’, and the Irish Question hasn’t so much been answered as deferred indefinitely.

As for Christianism… ‘Islamism’ is shorthand for a range of Muslim opinion which is united by the claim that Islam answers all political questions, and by the use of Islam to justify extreme social conservatism, particularly on issues relating to sexuality and the position of women. A minority of Islamists believe in the imposition of theocratic government; a minority of that minority believe in trying to bring this about by violence.

‘Christianism’, on the other hand …

78

alex 04.26.10 at 12:43 pm

In the full knowledge of OT-ness, @69 – but the chocolate, think about the chocolate!

And if Africa is so unimportant, why is China buying so much of it, eh, eh?

Meanwhile, I thought I’d come back to something Rich Pulasky said above; if “this isn’t a thread about convincing people”, what is it about? because the only alternative to convincing people is forcing them. And how the hell are you going to do that?

Right now the “Left”, in any meaningful actually-proposing-structural-change sense, is an electoral force so insignificant that it barely registers. There are a lot of European social-democratic types that talk a good game, but generally turn out to be more interested in safeguarding the sweetheart deals of a powerfully-unionised minority than actually challenging capitalism. In the Anglosphere, nothing but the proverbial groupuscules.

79

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 1:20 pm

I see that according to Alex, all Internet threads must be about what conservatives want them to be about. People must be willing to drop a discussion among people on the left about what to do at any time when some conservative demands to be convinced — because otherwise, the alternative is force!

Sebastian also has an interesting point of view. According to him, the demonstrated proven-rightness of a certain group of people over the last few years about political issues doesn’t mean that, for instance, they’re more likely to be right about them in the immediate future. It means that any mention of this observable fact means that they are arrogant.

This is what the civility fetish really comes down to. Of course, as recently demonstrated here, it has nothing to do with ordinary civility — I’ve never yet seen a civility-ite who didn’t get insulting when what was really important to them, their own personal vanity, felt injured. What it really means is that when any member of what is after all a fairly marginalized political group in the U.S. says something “You know, we were actually right. Maybe you should listen for once” the reply is an endless, adolescent posturing about how, wow, if someone believes that their politics are generally right, they are just such super-meanies who will never get anywhere because no one will be convinced by those mean people anyways. It’s wholly not about the content of what has been said, it’s tiresome, and it’s a feature of CT.

80

belle le triste 04.26.10 at 1:40 pm

(I’m not exactly sure what symbolic role careful reading plays in Rich’s politics of the dickish-civil spectrum, but the alex and the Alex who post regularly on CT are different people with rather different politics: Alex hasn’t posted so far on this thread…)

81

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 1:47 pm

I didn’t mean to imply any identity between alex and Alex by capitalizing the word. It’s just a habit.

82

Dave Mazella 04.26.10 at 2:11 pm

Couldn’t Burke also be considered one of the founding figures of modern agnotology, in his mystifications about the nature of revolutionary “Jacobinism”? Burke may be “historicist,” but his “history” is not to be taken at face value.

83

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 2:21 pm

Sebastian also has an interesting point of view. According to him, the demonstrated proven-rightness of a certain group of people over the last few years about political issues doesn’t mean that, for instance, they’re more likely to be right about them in the immediate future. It means that any mention of this observable fact means that they are arrogant.

This is what causes me to pull my teeth and grind my hair. In the sciences, once something has been settled as proven or disproven that’s it and people move on. But now we have a new paradigm: apparently you can be wrong as often as you like, just so long as it’s for the right reasons, and you get to keep sitting with the grownups at the big table. Otoh, if you are right time after time, again and again and provably so, you can still be dismissed because you were “right by accident”[1]. Yes, people will say, you were right multiple times during the Bush years and the august and dignified elites and elite opinion-makers were wrong. But that’s only because you were hatin’ on Bush, so you’re still frozen out. Why do I get the impression there was a lot of this sort of thing going around at the court of Versailles?

[1] Once upon a time, “conservatives” and Republicans promoted themselves – and very successfully at that – as “better for the economy”. Cactus over at the blog Angry Bear did an excellent job of exposing this for the myth that it is and convincingly (to my mind) demonstrated that the economy by any number of measures performed better with a Democratic administration or Democratic-controlled Congress as opposed to Republican ones. No matter what the objection was – time delays, unique events, etc, controlling for them (one at a time, admittedly) demonstrated that the difference between the two parties in favor of the D’s simply couldn’t be explained away. What do you think happened? The issue was inverted by various pundits around the blogosphere and various “authorities” were crowing that the “liberals were just as bad” at advancing and sticking to untenable hypotheses, totally forgetting – by accident, of course – that the exercise wasn’t to show that Democrats were better for the economy, but rather that Republicans weren’t.

84

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 2:29 pm

“It means that any mention of this observable fact means that they are arrogant.”

No. You being arrogant is observable by other means. And additionally “You: wrong about everything. DFHs: oh they’re so mean—right about everything” is pretty much as fundamentalist/arrogant as it gets.

85

Steve LaBonne 04.26.10 at 2:48 pm

You being arrogant is observable by other means.

I love the smell of right-wing projection in the morning.

86

Anderson 04.26.10 at 2:48 pm

pretty much as fundamentalist/arrogant as it gets

Ressentiment,” Nietzsche called it. Beautifully exemplified here.

(I’m still boggling at the idea of a political movement whose slogan is, “it’s not our job to educate you.” Only on the internet!)

87

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 2:54 pm

To bring it back to the post, point four is an explicit rejection of Rich and SoV’s “We are totally right about everything” approach to politics.

88

Pat 04.26.10 at 2:56 pm

5) If you feel compelled to visit the right or center, do so with middle finger extended.

So after a week of harping on the Right for “epistemic closure,” the trend of this thread is to copy them?

On the media platform front, one striking difference about Canada is our Rupert Murdoch, Izzy Asper, is a Liberal. A right-leaning, libertarian Liberal, but a Liberal nonetheless.

I’m no American historian (so feel free to angrily correct me and disparage my mother) but looking at how the great liberal achievements were accomplished is more depressing than not. The New Deal came at a time when an actual Communist revolution was not unthinkable. I can be less glib about the Civil Rights Act/Great Society, but it was certainly a time of social unrest. (And it did include top-bracket tax cuts.)

89

Steve LaBonne 04.26.10 at 2:57 pm

(I’m still boggling at the idea of a political movement whose slogan is, “it’s not our job to educate you.” Only on the internet!)

I can’t speak for the people who wrote things that could be interpreted that way, but FWIW I read such comments as expressing merely a lack of interest in the (hopeless) task of educating right-wing ideologues. I really don’t think I can blame them.

90

Anderson 04.26.10 at 3:05 pm

I read such comments as expressing merely a lack of interest in the (hopeless) task of educating right-wing ideologues

The comment I criticized was in response to a comment by a right-winger who was sounding rather disenchanted with right-wing ideology, and who was pleasantly surprised to hear that any points by Burke or Hayek are taken seriously by the left. Perhaps because, as I and others have noted, not many people actually know what’s happening on the left. Maybe that’s because of this quaint notion that leftists write only for fellow leftists, and that any curious person coming from a different political persuasion had better bugger off.

Unfortunately, I think that Mr. Puchalsky and his cohort are only too successful at discouraging interest in leftist politics, and may well have scored another success here.

91

alex 04.26.10 at 3:06 pm

Rich, there is nothing, repeat nothing, the Left can do that doesn’t involve persuading a whole lot of people, who don’t currently show any interest in their politics or their projects at all, to not only take an interest, but to agree with them, and to help them carry those projects out. Otherwise being on the Left will remain just a hobby for a tiny minority of isolated idealists. You have no reason slandering me as a ‘conservative’ for trying to point that out. If you think I’m actually wrong on the facts, give me some controverting facts: please, it would cheer me up immensely.

92

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 3:07 pm

Since both Anarcho and I have mentioned Bakunin now, it may be worth while to look back and see what part of his project is salvageable. I agree with JoB that “it would be good to leave the basic framework of political discussion of the XXth century” — the left, at least as I understand it, is not about rehashing old ideas — but Bakunin in his conflict with Marx was pretty much right, wasn’t he? Anything that helps the left jettison the relic of Marxism is all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing worse than a historical science of human development that is not a science.

Going back to “God and the State”, it’s useful — although Bakunin writes like someone writing in a comment thread, which to me is a point in his favor — because it really is a coherent attack on technocratic liberalism as well as the right. There are all sorts of problems with it, of course. He’s writing in the 19th century, and the piece has the standard ration (well, less than some) of 19th century racism. More troublingly, it also has a 19th century belief in a sort of evolutionary progress that is not supported by actual evolution as a model. When people evolved out of other hominids, that wasn’t part of a natural progression upwards to a more perfect state. This implicitly does a lot of work, for Bakunin, in implying a degree of basic agreement among the people in an anarchy that avoids some of the difficult questions about how disagreements are going to be resolved.

What’s useful about it? Well, it’s an optimistic view of individual human potential. If we manage to avoid some kind of global ecological catastrophe, the future course of civilization in general is going to be something like as described in Hirsch’s _Social Limits To Growth_. Physical wealth is going to be less and less of a limiting factor. (Well, people in the U.S. are attempting to keep it so, in order to keep people working at crap jobs, but they have to go through more and more absurd contortions in order to do so.) Relative social rewards are really going to preoccupy more people.

And that’s a very bad situation for a technocracy in which the basic purpose of people with specialized knowledge is to tell other people what to do. The ideals from something like Bakunin would usefully inform the left, I think, as we try to transition to a society in which everyone has an empowered life.

93

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 3:12 pm

To bring it back to the post, point four is an explicit rejection of Rich and SoV’s “We are totally right about everything” approach to politics.

I’m probably going to regret this, but hyperbole aside, on what big issues was “the left” (read, the non-”conservatives”) wrong about? That the Iraq invasion would be a disaster and that it was predicated on a manufactured and completely fictatious case? That tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy would result in a decrease in revenue over what would have been collected otherwise, or that this would add substantially to the deficit? That Roberts and Alito were idealogues who would use their position to advance a partisan agenda (and were every bit the “activist judges” that conservatives supposedly decried)? And on and on and on.

So what, supposedly, did the non-right get wrong? I’m genuinely curious if this is something that can be objectively verified, or if this is yet more equivocating over the word “wrong”.

94

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 3:15 pm

“(I’m still boggling at the idea of a political movement whose slogan is, “it’s not our job to educate you.” Only on the internet!)”

Anderson’s view here is that the individuals posting on this thread constitute a political movement, and that their reluctance to be concern-trolled is a perfect reflection of the public relations of that movement.

Anderson, you’ve contributed nothing to this thread, except for repeatedly trying to derail it. If you want to try to turn it into yet another rendition of “Oh yeah people would totally consider leftist ideas if they weren’t so mean”, then you can, of course, but other people can judge you by the evident results of what you write rather than by your stated intent.

95

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 3:18 pm

Rich, there is nothing, repeat nothing, the Left can do that doesn’t involve persuading a whole lot of people, who don’t currently show any interest in their politics or their projects at all, to not only take an interest, but to agree with them, and to help them carry those projects out.

Exactly. I’d tie “the Left” – who are for the most part actually moderates – to the slogan “Jobs Jobs Jobs”. “Progressives” want everyone to have jobs with the benefits and buying power that were better than they had in the 60′s and 70′s. End of story.

Conversely, I’d tie “conservatives” to the idea that they want you to play Monopoly, but some people get to start with $5000 and two hotels on Park Place. So what if it isn’t fair? You can’t win if you don’t play ;-)

96

JoB 04.26.10 at 3:27 pm

Rich, I was pointing away from Bakunin for the very reasons you highlight. It is optimism that’s needed (yes, progress) not some kind of nostalgia for ‘pure’ original feelings (with an associated tendency to be rather uncivilized about, well, about anything really).

(and now this is going to become one of those Rich/Steve/Barry threads, quite apt in a thread in which title the concept ‘dead horses’ appears ;-) – so I’m outta here!)

97

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 3:36 pm

“Rich, there is nothing, repeat nothing, the Left can do that doesn’t involve persuading a whole lot of people, who don’t currently show any interest in their politics or their projects at all, to not only take an interest, but to agree with them [...]“

alex, let’s say that I agree with you. (I could argue that the course of historical events is what’s going to convince people, not whatever feeble propaganda the Left can put out against the mass media — people will be willing to reconsider “the left” once they’re turned jobless and broke by the system — but I’m not sure whether I actually believe that.) Let’s say that I agree. In which case, so what? This is not, as I understand it, a discussion about methods of persuasion. It’s a discussion about what we believe, what we should believe.

I’m tired of having every such discussion immediately turned into “But how will we convince people? If we can’t convince people, then all of this is useless.” Rather than being an isolated idealist, I’ve spent some parts of my working career working with DC-based nonprofits. Not as a public spokesperson, of course; I don’t have the right temperament for it. And there was years and years of concern about “framing”, “message”, all the supposed mechanics of convincing the public. It’s not ignored, and it’s also not what we do, where “we” means “random people chatting on a blog”. Why should we have recite one more time that we need to convince people?

98

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 3:48 pm

Just starting Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, and he puts things so well, I find my own writings on the subject quite inadequate in comparison.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/08/ill-fares-the-land/?pagination=false

An excerpt:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

A key finding in his book so far is that inequality itself produces terrible things, like increased crime, murder, reduced longevity, ill health overall, etc. etc. He takes much of his factual data from a recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. Right now, the united States, the UK and Ireland have far higher levels of inequality and much poorer records regarding health, longevity, crime, etc, etc,. than nations with less inequality like Norway, Sweden and Japan. The correlation is inescapable.

99

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 3:50 pm

Sorry, the above blockquotes should have ended after “contemporary affairs.”

I start again with “A key finding”

100

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 3:53 pm

I’m tired of having every such discussion immediately turned into “But how will we convince people? If we can’t convince people, then all of this is useless.” Rather than being an isolated idealist, I’ve spent some parts of my working career working with DC-based nonprofits. Not as a public spokesperson, of course; I don’t have the right temperament for it.

As a famous dead person once said, “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” I have no reason to disbelieve this nor the ever-applicable “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Depressing how often someone’s co-worker who is an absolute bastard suddenly becomes a great guy when they’re promoted to a position of authority over the person making the former criticisms.

Iow, reason will only get you so far. Even emotive sloganeering palls after a while. What you need to do is appeal people’s survival instincts with respect to their livelihood. If you can somehow convince people that your program will put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, you’re 90% there.

101

jdw 04.26.10 at 3:55 pm

Apologies for the incoherence with the above, here is a longer-term problem.

There are some common, underlying, inherited assumptions which need to be cleared away. For instance, mid-century, you could have had a debate involving, say, Wm Buckley and JK Galbraith, based on pretty much agreed facts, so that the debate would be “deliberative” in the special “deliberative democracy” sense, and plausible. But if you have a debate on bloggingheads today on, say, the correct response to political Islam, you are going to get something that the earlier style didn’t account for: Pig-ignorance about the facts, talking about protagonists whose language you are completely unfamiliar with, and capping that a failure to measure or grasp the intensity of feelings and views in a culture other than your own. I think part of what’s been happening on this blog in the last little while could perhaps be seen partly as a clash between the older “deliberative” scheme and the new more-global situation.

The reason I mention this here, is that the pig-ignorance part of it is pretty obvious, but in the same family of issues, there is this related point: There are big global issues in which the protagonists have non-European languages and non-European cultures, and where are the people in this discussion who have any ability to deal with that? The result is that the non-European piece gets treated as a residual, as if it didn’t require any understanding or analysis or appreciation of its own.

The recent “most-influential 10 books” lists posted here, if they included one single book originally written in a non-European language, I missed it.

There’s an underlying assumption that anything as remote and allegedly difficult as mastery (even basic newspaper-reading ability) in a non-European language must be as irrelevant to the important issues we have our “deliberations” about, as it is remote from our everyday experiences. Guaranteeing, I would say, of a superficial result.

Admittedly this is a long-term issue. But I think when launching out on any up-to-date re-construction of a left theory, it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.

102

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 4:10 pm

Socialism is freedom. That people see it as the opposite continues to puzzle me.

Our current system breeds massive inequality. How is a person born into poverty free in the same sense as someone born into wealth? How is a person who sees nothing but poverty around him or her, from the day they were born, free? Their environment locks in that unfreedom. Their schools are the worst in the land. Their access to health care and good nutrition the worst in the land. Their “prospects” the worst in the land. How is that person “free”?

We can create an environment of freedom by ensuring that everyone starts out with the necessary tools to make the most of their individual gifts. They are then much further along the road to freedom than if they receive no aid, despite their massive handicaps.

Socialism, basically, should get all kids up to the same starting line. I don’t believe in forcing equal results. I think that is bound to create new inequalities. But I do believe we need to force equal opportunities as much as possible, through providing the same tools for all Americans from birth, and there is no faster or more efficient way of doing that than through education and health care. Clean environments, access to safe, fast transportation, access to great museums, libraries and cultural centers follow closely upon that.

Socialism has great potential for increasing real “freedom” throughout the world. Unchecked capitalism has no such potential. It guarantees inequality, which means unfreedom for most people and freedom for a few.

103

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 4:23 pm

Scent of violets . . . I agree with that to some extent. But how on earth did Reagan or Bush ever convince “the people” that it made sense to cut taxes for the wealthy few? How did they not see through that nonsense? Why did so many people totally ignore economists, including some of Bush’s own, and buy into voodoo economics and the false feedback loop for those tax cuts?

I can almost understand them falling for it once, when Reagan did it, though it defies logic and math. But twice? And the Republicans are still pushing the idea. Palin and company, etc. Cut taxes, deregulate, and everyone gets a unicorn!!

Don’t touch Medicare, Social Security or Defense, but cut spending. Where?

I think this really comes down to the power of media. There has never been a more coordinated, organized and disciplined political machine than Fox News, Talk Radio and all of the additional wingnut welfare media outlets. The left has nothing like it in scope or size, and the left doesn’t like to be organized. Our diversity and our independence are a blessing and a curse. We’re not easily led. It’s herding cats, to throw in yet one more cliche. But the right? For all of their talk about “freedom” and “liberty”, they strike me as, in general, the most unliberated and unfree people in the land, from the point of view of independence of mind.

I fear this is a Fox Nation overall, and I think the only way to fight them is with bigger, more powerful media and infrastructure.

104

Lupin 04.26.10 at 4:27 pm

“…there is very little remaining on the political right (particularly in the US, but this point applies to most of the English-speaking countries, and to a large extent elsewhere) that is worth engaging with in terms other than the derision employed here….”

The unfettered arrogance of Americans and their worldview…

105

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 4:32 pm

JDW, good post.

I’ve been bad on that score as well, though for decades I’ve been a voracious reader of world lit. I learned a great deal about the world that way and want to add to that knowledge with far more traveling than I’ve done to this date. Nothing really beats “being there” on the ground.

I was lucky growing up in the DC area, going to school with people from all over the world, being amongst them on a day to day basis. But that is not really a substitute for seeing the world from the vantage point of their original home, and perhaps looking back at America from there.

But keeping in mind, as I mentioned earlier, the obvious is helpful. That pretty much everything we buy here (and most of what we do) impacts others across the globe. I know that’s old news. Very old news. But it’s often forgotten. I think a few posters in this thread appear not to even believe it’s the case. Western capitalism has greatly impacted the so-called “third world” primarily in a highly negative fashion. When we “win” here, they generally lose. When our capitalists win here, workers here generally lose. But it’s worse for poorer countries. Again, I know that’s hardly a revelation.

106

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 4:35 pm

“He takes much of his factual data from a recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.”

That probably isn’t a great place to take much of your factual data from. The book strongly critiqued:

Andrew Leigh

Lane Kenworthy

Tino Sanandaji

The most interesting critique being that Wilkinson and Pickett are right in their initial diagnosis (that it involves stress levels which changes eating habits and metabolic reactions to eating) but wrong about what causes the differences in stress (their thesis is that it is inequality but numerous other possibilities exist).

107

el_gallo 04.26.10 at 4:38 pm

@christian_h. — I’m always amused when Marxists accuse Anarchists of wishful thinking. After nearly 100 years of brutal Marxist dictatorships, with no Marxist state appearing that isn’t destructive of the place it rules, you still think that Marxism is a valid political course of action. And you accuse *us* of wishful thinking.

One of the truly good things about U.S. political culture is that Marxism has no place in it.

108

The Reverend 04.26.10 at 5:10 pm

Well said, John, especially on defeatism. A defining example, it seems to me, is that in the United States, much of the left has surrendered to its opponents the ownership claim to freedom. I don’t see how you avoid a contest over the meaning of the word, given its place in the American vernacular. But contesting “freedom” will require some form of positive vision.

Perhaps there should be some posts on the varieties of left defeatism?

109

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 5:14 pm

Sebastion,

Facts are facts. Countries with less inequality produce healthier societies, individuals with longer lives, less crime and more social cohesion. Those are the facts. Obviously, the rich will want to tear that down, because it runs counter to their best interests seen from a limited, short term angle. Their overall best interests, of course, are better met with more equality and far less selfishness.

A good review of the book can be found <a href="” title=”John Crace”>

110

jdw 04.26.10 at 5:15 pm

Cuchulain, sometimes I forget your point that the obvious is also helpful (hanging sometimes with the wrong crowd, is my excuse). And the basic openness and seeking-out all those other parts of the world.

What I also feel about a fundamental alteration in our world, where knowledge and familiarity with another culture and a strange language will be a mark of pride and prestige, and the narrowness we see in academia today will be nothing but an unpleasant reminder of a barbaric past–this is all utopian, I realize that. Better to put it the way you did, but I guess the point is the same.

111

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 5:16 pm

Still getting used to this forum. :>)

Here’s the link:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/mar/12/equality-british-society

112

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 5:39 pm

“Facts are facts. Countries with less inequality produce healthier societies, individuals with longer lives, less crime and more social cohesion. Those are the facts.”

Those aren’t the facts. You clearly didn’t read the links. They were straight up statistical analysis of the facts.

See for example:

Blogger Danne Nordling pointed out a strange fact about the book. Its measure of inequality, the most important factor in the book, is not gini, the standard inequality result. They seem to use 20/20 richest and poorest ratio. Why make this strange choice, when their source (UN Human Development Index) has gini? I smell data mining.

First for fun I did a simple regression of life expectancy on income inequality and per capita GDP for all countries the UN has data for. The correlation between inequality and health is not statistically significant.

Second I approximately redid the exercise in their book, I did a regression of inequality as measures by Gini and life expectancy for 28 OECD countries, again from the UN HDI. The result is not only that it again is not statistically significat, income inequality is positively correlated with life expectancy!

and

I’m about as anti-inequality an economist as you’ll find. But my own empirical work on the issue has convinced me that when you look at within-country changes, the picture that emerges is very different to what you see when you look at a snapshot across countries over time. For example, it’s certainly true that in unequal countries, lifespans are shorter and infant mortality is higher. But here’s what you get if you compare changes in inequality with changes in mortality (from a paper with Tim Smeeding and Christopher Jencks).

Yup, the graph slopes up. In other words, countries that experienced big increases in inequality saw bigger improvements in health than those where inequality stayed stable or fell. In most cases, the effect isn’t significant, but the data certainly don’t support the hypothesis that rising inequality harms population health.

From a policy standpoint, specifications based on changes must surely be more compelling than specifications based on cross-country snapshots at a point in time. Australia can never literally become the Netherlands, but we can see what happens when our level of inequality rises and theirs falls.

After working on inequality and mortality, I have had similar experiences in looking at data on inequality and savings with Alberto Posso (we find no relationship), and in looking at inequality and growth with Dan Andrews and Christopher Jencks (we find that inequality has no impact on growth over the period 1905-2000, and conclude that inequality is good for growth over the period 1960-2000). In both cases, I had begun the project secretly hoping to find that inequality was bad, and wound up reluctantly reporting no such thing.

Those are straight up, factual criticisms of the book.

113

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 5:40 pm

Argh, the blockquote didn’t take. For the record nearly all of that previous post consists of quotes from the first and third links I provided at #104.

114

The Fool 04.26.10 at 5:44 pm

@Nico

Nico asked, “I think if lefties presented their ideas in the spirit of humanity and intellectual generosity, many people would be open for a fruitful dialog and even alliance on many issues. ..Am I missing something? Am I being naive?”

Answer: Yes.

115

alex 04.26.10 at 5:46 pm

What you need to do is appeal people’s survival instincts with respect to their livelihood. If you can somehow convince people that your program will put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, you’re 90% there.

Not if you’re trying to agitate within a relatively prosperous developed economy, it won’t. Most people already have all the pots they can use. If the plan is to wait for the kind of shattering economic disaster that might make actual ‘survival instincts’ an in-play concept, you’ll be too busy dodging survivalists’ bullets to agitate for grass-roots solutions. And with respect to Rich, you’re just not getting it, are you? Yes, the tiny leftist minority can spend time and effort deciding what it ought to do, but if one of its priorities isn’t to come up with a meaningful plan for making the other 99.9% of the population give a damn, you really are wasting your time. What might be the plan for making people care about the information Cuchulain cites enough to do something about it? And why do you think that is not a good question to ask, except that you’re tired? We’re all fucking tired!

116

Hidari 04.26.10 at 5:48 pm

Reading Sebastian’s links I notice one viewpoint they seem to share is that it is only Wilkinson who is making these claims, that it’s some staggeringly original and novel viewpoint (one author even describes it as an ‘extraordinary claim’ requiring ‘extraordinary evidence’ (!)), and that the only source of information backing up the claims is Wilkinson and Pickett’s book.

But none of these claims are true. In fact, people have been making the ‘inequality is bad for you’ argument for years (if not decades). For example, cf Marmot’s The Status Syndrome. And both these books have bibliographies, drawing on numerous papers in peer-reviewed journals. And that’s because it’s simply common sense. The ‘extraordinary claim’ requiring ‘extraordinary evidence’ is not that inequality is bad for ‘us’, it’s that inequality is good for ‘us’. Now that might be true. But the burden of proof lies on the ‘pro-inequality’ side, not the ‘other’ side.

117

Steve LaBonne 04.26.10 at 6:04 pm

Reading Sebastian’s links I notice one viewpoint they seem to share is that it is only Wilkinson who is making these claims, that it’s some staggeringly original and novel viewpoint (one author even describes it as an ‘extraordinary claim’ requiring ‘extraordinary evidence’ (!)), and that the only source of information backing up the claims is Wilkinson and Pickett’s book.

They are typical ideological “critiques” i.e. cherry-pick a bit of data from one source (while ignoring an entire bibliography of others), run a quickie analysis of it, and declare “victory”. No wonder Sebastian is impressed. Which is more than I can say for many of the commenters on those blog posts, and rightly so.

118

Steve LaBonne 04.26.10 at 6:06 pm

And I should add that it’s almost always a popularization that’s chosen for such treatment, because that makes it easy to pretend that the scholarly work underlying the popular book doesn’t exist.

119

engels 04.26.10 at 6:23 pm

Alex, you’re not a right-winger? Could you please provide some evidence? Feel free to quote from stuff you’ve posted on this blog. Maybe your carefully argued conclusions from last week that unemployment benefits in the UK are too generous and cause ‘welfare dependency’ would do? Or the fascinating view with which you regaled us a month or so that the police beating up protesters is understandable…

120

Rich Puchalsky 04.26.10 at 6:36 pm

“Yes, the tiny leftist minority can spend time and effort deciding what it ought to do, but if one of its priorities isn’t to come up with a meaningful plan for making the other 99.9% of the population give a damn, you really are wasting your time. What might be the plan for making people care about the information Cuchulain cites enough to do something about it? And why do you think that is not a good question to ask [...]“

So, unless we can come up with a plan within this comment thread, we should just be quiet?

I think that you aren’t getting it, alex. Some people work on politics 9-5, every workday. It’s real work. If you want people to make plans for how to convince a broad base of people that the left should be listened to in this media environment, well, that is what those people are hired to do, or supported by their comrades (ooh, bad word I know) to do. Who has shifted the media environment, even slightly? Well, let’s take Duncan Black for example. Sure, he started out blogging on his own time, but once he proved he could do it, he got a job doing it.

The responsibility of the people commenting here is not to come up with a plan. That’s sort of like saying “Hey, you think something should be done about global warming? Then you have to come up with a plan for how the economy is going to be converted, because without that, it’s never going to happen.” Well, no. An economist like John Quiggin can work on that. Telling Jane Blog Commenter that she has to do it doesn’t do anything.

What it does do is close down the only thing that blog commenters as blog commenters reasonably have to offer — their opinions and ideas about where the movement should be going, about what it should be.

121

SeanG 04.26.10 at 7:10 pm

Prof Quiggin,

Absolutely – ResPublica think tank is run by Phillip Blond who styles himself as a “Red Tory” and argues that both state control and economic liberalism have failed as policies. Some ideas he has espoused including changing the ownership structure of public services to make them more responsive to communities, promoting mutualism etc (website: http://www.respublica.org.uk/)

Policy Exchange has been innovative in decentralising public services to local communities. They were formerly run by Michael Gove who is trying to bring in Swedish style “free schools” to the United Kingdom. They have also been very active in discussing societal breakdown and housing.

BrightBlue is part of the “progressive conservative” emerging thought within the party. They are trying to promote social action days and charities within the Conservative Party.

The Tory manifesto is trying to bring back the concept of mutualism and volunteerism in communities and local public services. There is the recognition that public spending will need to be cut but that it does not mean a return to 1980s individualism.

There is a very rich intellectual stream running through Conservative thought that incorporates old style One Nation Conservatism (UK variety, not Pauline Hanson), paternalistic libertarianism and liberalism. Ultimately, just because you are sceptical of the State does not mean that you are selfish.

122

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 7:29 pm

Sean G. I’m very skeptical of the state as well. But I view the private sector with alarm. The state at least has the potential to respond to the wishes of the public. A real democracy at least has the potential to “socialize” our collective dreams, goals and aspirations. There is no such chance for capitalism. Its goal is purely selfish. Its goal is to maximize profit for ownership. Workers are just means to that end. There is no democracy in capitalism, and few entities are more authoritarian or hierarchical than a business.

From Tony Judt’s new book: The CEO of Walmart makes 900 times as much as the rank and file there. The Walton family is now worth roughly 90 billion dollars. That’s as much as the total holdings of the bottom 40% of Americans. As in, the Walton family is worth as much as 120 MILLION Americans combined.

We as a nation have no say in what Walmart does, or the rich in general, and they have far too much say in our lives. In a real democracy, the state would negate that radical inequality of power and wealth. Rather than letting a tiny portion of the nation call all the shots, it would ensure that everyone had an equal voice. The many would rule, instead of the few.

Another interesting comparison. Our government has, by far, the most egalitarian wage structure in the nation. The top end is roughly in the 250K range, and rank and file government workers make in the 50 or 60K range. Overall, the ratio is roughly 5 to 1, management to rank and file.

In the largest 100 corporations, it’s more than 1000 to 1 and 430 to 1 overall.

It makes sense to be skeptical of the state, definitely. But I think the evidence tells us we should be far more skeptical of unchecked capitalism. I think the smartest setup is a mixed economy, with Democratic Socialism being the frame. Nationalization of certain big ticket sectors, a bigger Commons overall, and set of sensible guidelines and laws to govern the private sector. A vibrant public and private mix.

I also think the government, in that case, should never spend one penny of public money unless it is in the direct and explicit interest of that public. Our vote. Our decision. And I would also keep as much as I could in house, when it came to goods and services. If outside contracts were necessary and desirable, I would give first dibs to non-profits, because it’s never made a lick of sense to me why we taxpayers should be supporting the lavish lifestyles of billionaires. The government should maximize its investment by not paying for mega-salaries and massive profits in the deal. Do what is right for the public in every single case, and do so efficiently and rationally.

123

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 7:47 pm

Scent of violets . . . I agree with that to some extent. But how on earth did Reagan or Bush ever convince “the people” that it made sense to cut taxes for the wealthy few? How did they not see through that nonsense? Why did so many people totally ignore economists, including some of Bush’s own, and buy into voodoo economics and the false feedback loop for those tax cuts?

I can almost understand them falling for it once, when Reagan did it, though it defies logic and math. But twice? And the Republicans are still pushing the idea. Palin and company, etc. Cut taxes, deregulate, and everyone gets a unicorn!!

A coupla points here: first, if I had to characterize myself, I’d say that I was an Eisenhower Republican, 21st century style. Iow, I’m like my dad but more up to date; my car doesn’t have fins and my superheros don’t wear capes :-) And – believe it or not – Republicans of that era could credibly claim to stand for fiscal responsibility.

I think this situation pertains to a lot of people, and it’s the same reason they bought American cars long past the time it was patently obvious that the foreign brands were far superior. Notice that while the American people fell for that blarney about cutting taxes on the wealthy the second time around, they were a lot more reluctant to do so. I don’t think they’ll buy it for a third time, any more than they continued to buy Ford or GM in the 90′s as opposed to Honda or Toyota.

I think this really comes down to the power of media. There has never been a more coordinated, organized and disciplined political machine than Fox News, Talk Radio and all of the additional wingnut welfare media outlets. The left has nothing like it in scope or size, and the left doesn’t like to be organized. Our diversity and our independence are a blessing and a curse. We’re not easily led. It’s herding cats, to throw in yet one more cliche. But the right? For all of their talk about “freedom” and “liberty”, they strike me as, in general, the most unliberated and unfree people in the land, from the point of view of independence of mind.

I fear this is a Fox Nation overall, and I think the only way to fight them is with bigger, more powerful media and infrastructure.

Ah, the wonders of modern technology. The situation here is that people of my Mom’s generation – and quite a few in my own – tend to get their information from the TV, and to a lesser extent, the surviving papers and magazines. Iow, these are the low-information voters. Right now, people my age and slightly above, say up to 70, are at the height of their power and influence. As these low-information voters die off, I think you’ll see this situation change. Very gradually, Americans are a conservative people after all (in the other sense of the word, and which doesn’t contradict them being center-left); but give it another quarter-century, and I think you’ll be surprised at just how far American attitudes and the American political landscape will have changed, and for the better at that.

124

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 7:57 pm

What you need to do is appeal people’s survival instincts with respect to their livelihood. If you can somehow convince people that your program will put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, you’re 90% there.

Not if you’re trying to agitate within a relatively prosperous developed economy, it won’t.

Where we would disagree, perhaps, is whether we (Americans) are living in a prosperous economy. Right now, conservatives and fear rule the day and people are keeping their heads down during this economic storm because while they’re taking on water right now and aren’t exactly happy about it, they’re terrified of being capsized outright. If “liberals” could run ahead of that and say that while they can’t promise that anyone can become a millionaire under their program, they can at least promise that voters will find and retain good jobs. That’s the problem with these get-rich-quick schemes the Republicans keep coming up with: yeah, when things are safe, people feel like taking risks. But the reality is that most people will trade a shot at the brass ring for sleepy security in a second. I’m employed in academia, for example, and friends who were crowing about their great jobs in the private sector just five years ago now look at me with envy and ask how they can get on the gravy train too. Oh, and they frankly admit they were idiots too.

125

The Raven 04.26.10 at 8:02 pm

Hmmm. It really wouldn’t do to repost 10% of my own blog posts here, but it does seem to me that I’ve been nibbling around the edges of this problem for some time. I also don’t want to spend the time right now to put together a more organized essay. At this point, I suppose it might have to be a book. So here are some disconnected notes.

First, “keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements,” sounds pretty good to me, if the improvements are steady. But matters are actually getting worse in much of the developed world; there are “incremental improvements” intermixed with dramatic failures.

It is a matter of physical reality that cannot keep what we have. Climate change is here. Environmental destruction continues at an ever-increasing pace. It is a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of our politics that we do not bend all our efforts to a creating a sustainable world. Like a family with a violent armed alcoholic member, we fight among ourselves, all the while ignoring our toxic and ultimately deadly way of life. Aggravating all these issues is our ever-growing population. For our current resource consumption and technology, we have too many people. Therefore, one of the first and best things we can do is educate women worldwide. This is not only a matter of justice, but a matter of need.

So: a broad feminist agenda.

I think historicism has largely been rejected. The word “progressive” is used because it has not yet been stigmatized like “socialism” and “liberalism.” Perhaps, however, we would be well advised to resurrect a weaker historicism: progress may not be inevitable, but progress is necessary. It is difficult to see how any human civilization can survive without world governance, world peace, and a healthy relationship with the natural world. So perhaps a reformed historicism is appropriate.

The need for beneficial reform to be “organic,” has, I think, been assimilated into general political thinking. Curiously, this conservative icon’s view has in this something in common with an anarchist view.

Improvements in information technology have vitiated Hayek’s critique of comprehensive planning. Information is no longer local any more, except in some very special cases.

Spirituality must be addressed. The current crisis is to a large extent a spiritual crisis: our understanding of our place in the world has become uncertain, and this uncertainty is a source of terror.

A few notes on some of the previous comments.

In the USA the working class is the undocumented aliens; the people who can’t ask for more wages, can’t negotiate for anything because their employers can have them deported at the drop of a hat. Anyone who’s working legally is of a higher class, even the people just scraping along. The USA has over ten million people in this class.

“If Africa, for example, suddenly vanished, it would change the economic course of the 1st World almost not at all.”

Except for the oil. And the metals. And the diamonds.

If one limits consideration to human activity, Africa is a poor choice for comparison. Instead, consider East and South Asia. It is not like working conditions are wonderful in China and India, though these places are developing.

“Socialism is freedom. That people see it as the opposite continues to puzzle me.”
Let me introduce you to Comrade Joseph Stalin.

“zero-sum fallacy”
You have heard of the laws of thermodynamics, no?

126

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 8:05 pm

From Tony Judt’s new book: The CEO of Walmart makes 900 times as much as the rank and file there. The Walton family is now worth roughly 90 billion dollars. That’s as much as the total holdings of the bottom 40% of Americans. As in, the Walton family is worth as much as 120 MILLION Americans combined.

We as a nation have no say in what Walmart does, or the rich in general, and they have far too much say in our lives. In a real democracy, the state would negate that radical inequality of power and wealth. Rather than letting a tiny portion of the nation call all the shots, it would ensure that everyone had an equal voice. The many would rule, instead of the few.

Yeah, that’s the problem with “capitalism” as practiced in the United States: I have absolutely no objection to anyone earning millions or hundreds of millions of dollars (provided that they actually earn it.) The problem is that instead of confining themselves to toys and concerns like funding museums, these people will turn around and use their wealth to leverage political influence.

Not cool.

127

engels 04.26.10 at 8:13 pm

I have absolutely no objection to anyone earning millions or hundreds of millions of dollars (provided that they actually earn it.)

I have no objection to people eating meat, as long as it doesn’t come from an animal.

128

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 8:17 pm

I have absolutely no objection to anyone earning millions or hundreds of millions of dollars (provided that they actually earn it.)

I have no objection to people eating meat, as long as it doesn’t come from an animal.

That’s right – Angelo Mozilo and Dicky Fuld earned every penny of their compensation despite presiding over companies that lost billions during their tenure. And of course, rent seeking never happens – the free market prevents it ;-)

129

Tim Wilkinson 04.26.10 at 8:20 pm

Of the issues in the OP, the central planning thing is the one. (Popper: “don’t be superstitious”; Burke: “don’t ignore problems of transition”.)

The neoliberal ‘ownership’ construct (with its extension – in the face of libertarians’ advertised individualist principles – to firms as legal actors) along with a de facto presumption of material self-interest are surely not the best design for an Invisible Hand (distributed) mechanism. Such a design is based entirely on the model of perfect competition, along with various reasons why deviations from perfection (taken one at a time) don’t matter.

In the current market system, rather a lot of investment decisions for any enterprise larger than a sole artisan are taken mostly either by experts employed by pension funds and lenders (thus not really decentralised), or by those who happen to be rich (thus not particularly likely to be efficient), or by short-term speculators, asset strippers etc. (…).

But until properly democratic institutions that stimulate innovation to some extent, make use of distributed knowledge and foster efficiency (from a humane and not a GDP-as-we-know-it perspective) are designed, the Hayekian ‘central planning’ argument in favour of a basically market system will have some force, by default.

130

Pat 04.26.10 at 8:25 pm

“If Africa, for example, suddenly vanished, it would change the economic course of the 1st World almost not at all.”

Except for the oil. And the metals. And the diamonds.

Oil, depends on whether you’re talking about Africa or the Third World, and how you define that. Diamonds, I think Russia and Canada could meet the demand for industrial use. Metals? No.

“zero-sum fallacy”
You have heard of the laws of thermodynamics, no?

And for your next trick, will you be applying Kepler’s laws to the Three Estates?

131

engels 04.26.10 at 8:31 pm

Isn’t it a bit odd to be scoffing at teleology and inevitabilitarianism in the same post that one announces that economic planning can not work and there is no systemic alternative to capitalism?

132

Cuchulain 04.26.10 at 8:34 pm

The Raven,

Stalin wasn’t a socialist. At least not a Democratic Socialist, which is what I mean when I use the word.

I think people associate the word, as you did, with its worst examples, which aren’t really examples of socialism at all. Totalitarianism can grow out of anything, and it actually has more fertile ground in capitalism than in real socialism, IMO. I think we Americans are a strange lot in that we only fear authoritarianism from one root, basically. And I think that’s a part of our conditioning. Our society has conditioned people to choose a team, rather than choose our own personal and collective best interests. Capitalism is perhaps unique in that it pushes us into missing the connection between the personal and the collective, and how important they are to each other. Throw in our American sense of “self-reliance” and exceptionalism, and you have a recipe for blindness all the way round.
The other team then becomes the source of all that is wrong with the world, and we are blinded by that.

To me, from a logical and rational POV, socialism provides the best framework for freedom and liberty and far better results along a host of metrics. Health, education, etc. etc. It fits in far more naturally with the natural connection between the personal and the public.

It’s all in how it’s done, of course. I think a mixed economy brings us the best of both worlds. A lopsidedness toward one team or the other creates far too many contradictions, disharmonies and inequalities. I think that lopsidedness is where all the trouble starts . . . and right now, the United States, the UK and Ireland, especially, are tilting way too far to the right, to market fundamentalism, and toward collapse. Again.

133

ScentOfViolets 04.26.10 at 8:45 pm

Stalin wasn’t a socialist. At least not a Democratic Socialist, which is what I mean when I use the word.

Would it be Godwinizing to note that the “S” in NSDAP stood for socialist? Or do we have to pretend ala Goldberg that these guys were really Socialists?

134

christian h. 04.26.10 at 8:48 pm

I don’t want to get involved in a spat with Rich and others on whether Bakunin was right (he wasn’t ;)) or whatever, so let me just post a link to a very good analysis in the new International Socialism

135

The Raven 04.26.10 at 10:03 pm

Pat, you’re evading the point. Switching sources of materials would change the economic course of the developed countries. The laws of thermodynamics are direly important in making energy policy.

Cuchulain, Scent of Violets, yes, yes. But the history of authoritarian socialism is writ large in the memory the world. Left as well as right will always have to deal with their history of totalitarian movements. A lot of socialists of the 1930s, helped by the machinations of Stalin’s covert ops agencies, saw the USSR has the hope of the world, as well, so we can’t even claim that “we have always rejected…” It’s not something that is going to go away.

136

Tim Wilkinson 04.26.10 at 10:15 pm

Raven @123: Improvements in information technology have vitiated Hayek’s critique of comprehensive planning. Information is no longer local any more, except in some very special cases.

Hayek’s critique is certainly much weaker than often supposed, but it does have some force, in the absence of some actual concrete illustration of how such planning is to be carried out in a way that takes proper account of individuals’ changing needs and preferences, (and, so far as this is actually applicable, avoids the supposed complacency etc that is supposed to accompany the absence of market ‘discipline’).

Not that this is necessarily a very difficult task, it’s just that it doesn’t (so far as my unfocussed and sporadic research can tell) get done very much, or in much detail.

137

Pat 04.26.10 at 10:17 pm

Pat, you’re evading the point. Switching sources of materials would change the economic course of the developed countries.

I wasn’t making a point, except that the majority of the world’s supply of base and precious metals don’t come from Africa.

The laws of thermodynamics are direly important in making energy policy.

This is a complete non-sequitur to your early point, which was applying a physical law to the concept of zero-sum economic growth. But even if I concede you some form of conservation of wealth, you still have to get the terms and the system closure right.

138

Kien 04.26.10 at 10:25 pm

In “An idea of justice”, Amartya Sen contrasts two ideas of justice: (a) just institutions (“let the world perish so long as justice is done”); and (b) just outcomes (“how does the world go?”).

Perhaps a similar comparison applies to capitalism. Much of modern capitalism is concerned with promoting good institutions, regardless of outcomes. But capitalism has an older tradition (of which Adam Smith is an early founding member) which is concerned with promoting good outcomes.

I’d like to see a version of capitalism that cares about outcomes, and engages in a reasoned debate on which outcomes are “more just” than other outcomes, accepting that we are unlikely to achieve perfectly just outcomes.

139

whitepup 04.26.10 at 10:57 pm

“or the Bush assault on civil liberties. (to be fair Obama has also failed here } Would not the statement better be read “or the Bush and Obama assault on civil liberties.

140

bianca steele 04.26.10 at 11:08 pm

I think Hayek’s point about local information is important, but there is a place for centralization. Otherwise, there are too many opportunities for arbitrage on a variety of levels. Perfect centralization may be impossible, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to try.

Tim W., I think, emphasizes getting financing at the expense of the other factors involved in setting up a new firm, and overemphasizes the centralized nature of financing. There are plenty of local VC firms, for example, who can invest using more local information (at least there were plenty until a couple of years ago).

141

bianca steele 04.26.10 at 11:10 pm

And the idea of conceptual arbitrage is why I think it’s pointless to keep engaging (in a place like this) with the hackier people on the right wing. There is an extremely large gap between what they should know in order to know what they’re talking about, and what they do know. The reason is that they are hacks, in particular well-funded hacks.

142

Kaveh 04.26.10 at 11:27 pm

Coming in rather late, but I got a lot out of the discussion so far.

Comments by Puchalsky, that politics is a real kind of work and we need to acknowledge this, and by jdw @100, that we are looking too narrowly at a Euro-American-Australian framework, especially struck me. In fact, even if you don’t read any non-European languages, just paying a lot more attention to the affairs of the day outside of Europe would, I think, drastically change the picture that I see people painting here. An awful lot is published in English (see: http://www.juancole.com ).

So far I think the discussion has remained too much at the level of abstraction and concern with economic issues in an overly narrow sense, and too disengaged from other issues, especially cultural issues. I think people here have mostly, implicitly, subscribed to the idea that what the left has to offer the public (American public especially) is prosperity, and progress on cultural issues is a kind of payoff we get for delivering prosperity. Instead, why not think of our main goal as creating a kind of cultural ideal? If there is anything that the left has an advantage in, it’s cultural capital, and we’ve been winning a lot of those fights, at least we have when we’re united. In the same way that conservatives deliver “family values” and “freedom” as a brand that signifies (among other things) white privilege and a comfortable, patriarchal social order, we need to have the confidence to assert our own vision and expect that people will be drawn to it. Because they often have, and they will.

Inflaming the culture war has been a main strategy of right-wing politics, but it is a strategy that is slowly but surely getting weaker, at least in its current incarnation in the US. Homophobia is increasingly becoming unacceptable, and Latinos are a growing demographic, which the right is increasingly alienating. Not to say that racism and misogyny are disappearing, but the specific position which the right has been, and for some time will still be forced to maintain by the Christianist far-right, are increasingly out of touch with majority opinion. Time is on our side, here.

One of the main culture war strategies that is still effective is the GWOT. What about that? That has been a main force pushing the whole US political spectrum to the right in the past decade and more, and it remains important. I think most people seriously underestimate how much of the construction of the GWOT in the media and in the cultural sphere it is actually driven by a very particular set of interests (at least in the US): the Israel lobby (or lobbies). While large corporations who benefit from wars are a major funding source for neoconservative think tanks that have had such prominence in the public discourse on Islam and the Muslim world, they would be crippled without the social capital provided by the large number of both influential and not-so-influential, but motivated, people who feel a strong connection to the state of Israel, and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Philip Weiss, journalist-blogger at http://www.mondoweiss.net and his colleagues have been writing on how special concern for Israel has dominated coverage of the Middle East in the New York Times. Weiss’ tone is often quite confrontational, and reading the blog often has the feel of eavesdropping on an old family quarrel (sometimes I think Weiss intends, actually), but I think he’s confronting a very important inconvenient truth. The consistent deference to Israeli views by many writers has extremely far-reaching effects for how foreign policy is discussed in the US. All the recent concern with Iran’s nuclear program is one case that is prominent and visible, but it goes beyond this one issue. Making serious progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and towards a viable Palestinian state (or coming to terms with eventually having a binational state), or at least taking a lot of steam out of the Israel-right-or-wrong cause by achieving a greater general awareness of the issue, would take away a huge source of Islamophobia and anti-Middle East hysteria in the American press, and really hurt the war party as we know it in a fundamental way.

Right now, the anti-war cause has to swim upstream against very prominent, and (to most people) credible groups like the Anti-Defamation League and even the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (the title is not hyperbole), which constantly editorialize in favor of aggression or against engagement with Muslim countries not completely under American sway. Abe Foxman of the ADL is notorious in this regard, too many cases to name. Mortimer Zuckerman, head of the Conference in the early 2000s, promoted the war against Iraq, and the Conference has recently been promoting sanctions on Iran. These organizations and their current form and activities are not merely a structural feature of late capitalism, they are the way they are because of a very specific conflict. It might be uncomfortable to see things this way, rather than simply seeing Islamophobia as a necessary consequence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex that would just as easily be replaced by another bogeyman, people need to do a better job of accepting their historicity.

The failure of the left (broadly-defined) to confront the Israel lobbies up to now is symptomatic of a constitutional defect. Cultural pluralism in “the West” has to a very large extent come down to asserting that ethnic, religious, or cultural minorities can be full members of the polity, and refuting the position that diversity leads to “dual loyalty”. The problem with this approach is that it ends up being hard to acknowledge that minorities really matter at all, in a political way, other than as vulnerable citizens in need of protection. In fact, “diasporas” can exercise a great deal of influence over, especially, economic, diplomatic, and cultural relations, especially WRT their countries of origin. To ignore this is to not be “reality-based”.

I don’t know European politics well at all, but I would guess that there has been a failure of the left to sell this culturally diverse outcome as something desirable in and of itself, rather than as simply a consequence of people’s right to migrate, or their constitutionally-guaranteed cultural freedom. The “great cities” of history, places like Constantinople/Istanbul, Paris, Baghdad, Chang’an, Beijing, London, New York, Samarqand, Rome, Alexandria, Delhi, all owed their cultural influence in part to cosmopolitanism. Why apologize for the fact that European countries are destinations for immigrants? Go reverse-”Rovian” and make this weakness into a strength.

Cuchulain @102: The left has nothing like it in scope or size, and the left doesn’t like to be organized. Our diversity and our independence are a blessing and a curse. We’re not easily led. It’s herding cats, to throw in yet one more cliche. But the right? For all of their talk about “freedom” and “liberty”, they strike me as, in general, the most unliberated and unfree people in the land, from the point of view of independence of mind.

Here too I think there’s a constitutional defect in the left, where we promote this ideal of “liberty”, according to which the goal is to make government into something like a machine that requires as little intervention from the public as possible, so we are free to go on living our lives. This is strictly-speaking more of a libertarian mentality than a liberal or leftist one, but I think we on the left often (unwittingly?) subscribe to it too. Instead of making simply “free collaboration” our goal, as Sage Ross @22 put it, we should come to terms with social obligation and recognition of our social obligations, whatever the larger social and economic situation of people around us is, as a thing we value, and not a necessary evil by which we ameliorate the deleterious effect of concentration of wealth on the politics of liberal democracies. We should make it a keystone of our political strategy to promote a culture of engagement and responsibility. People want to like their neighbors, I think, and we can use this to our advantage. My sense among American leftists is that most at least believe or accept this as a principle, but I don’t think it’s been mentioned here, instead there is lots of talk of freedom. Freedom means both more and less than I think we want it to, and accepting the near-exclusive emphasis on freedom as a cultural value is to capitulate in an important framing struggle.

143

Sebastian 04.26.10 at 11:46 pm

“They are typical ideological “critiques” i.e. cherry-pick a bit of data from one source (while ignoring an entire bibliography of others), run a quickie analysis of it, and declare “victory”. “

Using the UN Human Development Index on GINI differentials and life expectancy is cherry picking? Really? I’d think that it was almost the exact opposite of cherry picking. It is using the most authoritative sources with the very most standard indices on the point in question. And the analysis was the same that the authors of the Spirit Level ran, so they didn’t even cherry pick the thing to be measured.

144

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 12:29 am

bianca steele @139:
I think Hayek’s point about local information is important, but there is a place for centralization.
Coordination, planning, yes.

Otherwise, there are too many opportunities for arbitrage on a variety of levels. What does this mean?

Perfect centralization may be impossible, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to try. But that’s not much of a manifesto, is it.

Tim W., I think, emphasizes getting financing at the expense of the other factors involved in setting up a new firm
No: investment – resource allocation – not necessarily in the form of what we recognise as ‘financing’. I’d like to see financial markets eliminated altogether if feasible. They have no intrinsic value (except of course the negligible benefit of the kick that a lot of people get from participating in them). Likewise it’s not necessarily a matter of setting up a new firm.

…and overemphasizes the centralized nature of financing. There are plenty of local VC firms, for example, who can invest using more local information (at least there were plenty until a couple of years ago).

No, VC firms come under ‘those who happen to be rich’. If they are any good at picking winners, then a collective system of investment could employ them in that capacity. If their success is more to do with being rich enough to benefit from the ambient rate of viability of startups, then in my utopia they will have to do without the honorific ‘wealth creator’ title and get some other job (if they aren’t happy with a basic income…).

Some discussion of this kind of thing here ff.

145

alphie 04.27.10 at 12:34 am

“And the idea of conceptual arbitrage is why I think it’s pointless to keep engaging (in a place like this) with the hackier people on the right wing.”

Snow doesn’t refute global warming?

146

ScentOfViolets 04.27.10 at 12:50 am

What, Sebastian is evidently still listening in, but can’t tell us, precisely, on just what substantive issues the “liberals” were wrong during the eight years of the Bush administration? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you . . . Sebastian just doesn’t do that sort of thing! I must confess to being curious about his technique, but I don’t think he’ll post the details here. I would guess that if the times were picked right, you could get something like China, where inequality is rising but is matched with a general rising affluence both at the individual level and on the level of the state which thus ensures better medical care and hence rising life expectancy. Say Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain in mid-decade ;-)

147

ScentOfViolets 04.27.10 at 12:58 am

Cuchulain, Scent of Violets, yes, yes. But the history of authoritarian socialism is writ large in the memory the world. Left as well as right will always have to deal with their history of totalitarian movements.

Uh-huh. Doubtless Republicans regret the part their brand had to play in those Republics of Russia, and China, right? And God knows they gnash their teeth in shame for being against democracy, what with their constant warring with the Democrats. I thought adult people were really past all of this stuff.

A lot of socialists of the 1930s, helped by the machinations of Stalin’s covert ops agencies, saw the USSR has the hope of the world, as well, so we can’t even claim that “we have always rejected…” It’s not something that is going to go away.

Well, yeah, just like a lot homosexuals were members of the NSDAP in the mistaken notion that they would make things better for everyone. Own up to your endorsements, you Nazi homosexuals![1]

I hope that last was sufficiently over the top that no one can pretend their irony meters weren’t pegged.

148

bianca steele 04.27.10 at 1:04 am

Tim:

I take your point about VCs. I was thinking about your putting “pension funds” up front as the driver of most investment, which seemed surprising.

I don’t see a difference between “investment” and “resource allocation” if what you’re talking about is pension funds, VCs, and so forth. They don’t decide who will be hired, which vendors will be used, or to whom the product will be marketed. They don’t decide how resources will be allocated within the firm, for the most part, as long as the balance sheet looks good. They only decide who will have the cash backing to do all this.

By “arbitrage” I mean a difference in price, or in something analogous to price, in two different locations, which is unknown to the people in each of those two locations, but is known to some small number of people who use their knowledge to make a profit.

149

bianca steele 04.27.10 at 1:08 am

VCs do dictate in part who will be hired at the executive level, no more than about half a dozen people.

150

The Raven 04.27.10 at 1:34 am

Scent of Violets, yes, I think in in a generation or two the children of the right will be very much ashamed of the current outburst of authoritarianism. There already are people who regret–John Cole was mentioned above, and the editor of Little Green Footballs has broken with the radicals. And, I’m sorry, no–the popularity of Stalinism with socialists in the 1930s was not a minor matter, not a matter of a quixotic desperate minority convinced against its own interests. People who by and large could have known better just…didn’t. And didn’t speak out when it might have made a difference. The anarchists can claim some cred here: they did know better. But the mainstream of the movement was heavily influenced by Stalinism.

151

The Raven 04.27.10 at 1:35 am

Sebastian, you argue like one of those people trying to make all the deaths the USA caused in Iraq just…go away. For shame!

152

Sebastian 04.27.10 at 1:39 am

“Sebastian, you argue like one of those people trying to make all the deaths the USA caused in Iraq just…go away. For shame!”

So I take it you have a problem with the UN figures then? Maybe the UN is on a secret mission to make inequality look better?

153

ScentOfViolets 04.27.10 at 3:18 am

And, I’m sorry, no—the popularity of Stalinism with socialists in the 1930s was not a minor matter, not a matter of a quixotic desperate minority convinced against its own interests. People who by and large could have known better just…didn’t.

Admittedly, I’m not a scholar with regards to this sort of history. But the story I’ve always heard was that the socialists were dupes and useful idiots for the most part and had little to no idea of how bad things really were. I suspect this goes back to what we can reasonably expect the people of any given age to know. If Stalinism had occured in 2005 instead of 1935 this sort of ignorance would probably be considered both willful and inexcusable. But back then with their primitive consolidate print media and radio-only broadcasts. I’m minded to cut them a bit of slack given the inadequacy of the media.

Do you have any useful documentation of people prominent in Socialist circles who either should or definitely did know better but went ahead with the propaganda anyway?

154

roger 04.27.10 at 3:56 am

I sort of think that the zombie ideas are not only not zombies, but will be walking around and high fiving once the GOP takes the House – as they certainly look like they are going to.

In my own admittedly Marx influenced view, as long as capital is international and labor power – unions – are national, capital will mostly win. Of course, capital can be scared into concessions – as during the Cold War – and surely there is still a lot alliances of social movements and political parties can do to make for some increase in fairness – but in fact, Obama – the Dems – and the GOP – have just restored the financial services sector to the grossly exaggerated position they had in 2006, when they accounted for 40 percent of gross corporate profits. What I think we have learned is, if there is no organized resistance to the state working to make the richest people even richer, even at the expense of throwing millions out of work and allowing them to be victimized by the worst system of debt peonage since the British Raj in India – then there will be no resistance to it. We do seem set to replay the 00s at the moment, with the exception that this time, there is not even a pretense that something else – expanded credit, assets rising in value – can substitute for the shrinking wage. What will happen, as is happening with the popular targeting of teachers by the GOP, is the general attack on middle class (working class) incomes, which, we will soon learn, we can’t afford if we want to remain competitive. This, I think, will be the idea of the 2010s. How can we make the middle class accomplices in the third act of its immiseration? Divide and conquer. It is a fairly easy procedure.

The crisis proved that, throughout the world, we do not have the resources to support an oligarchy that is as wealthy, percentage wise, as the oligarchy of 1900, and at the same time support a welfare state built between the 30s and the 60s. There is no deficit crisis and no social insurance crisis – there is only the crisis that an incredibly few number of people have accrued an incredibly high percentage of the globe’s wealth. But those few have the will to defend it, and the means. They face nothing that should be too difficult not to roll over. That is pretty much it. One can intellectually deconstruct the system that led to this situation, but there is no social mechanism, right now, that will take it down by so much as a cubit.

155

The Raven 04.27.10 at 4:56 am

Scent of Violets, I’m years away from my study of this, but it wasn’t simply a matter of “useful idiots,” which described liberal defenders of communists (a phrase, by the way, coined by the fascinating Communist publisher, Willi Muenzenberg.) Since I don’t remember enough and this is rather off the main subject of this thread, will you perhaps accept anarchist Emma Goldman as at least one widely-available, credible source? Goldman wrote My Disillusionment in Russia all the way back in 1922-3. This was followed with the famous “There Is No Communism in Russia” in 1935, which contains an early use–perhaps the first use–of the phrase “state capitalism.”

156

Rafael 04.27.10 at 5:47 am

Since the discussion on political theory mentioned only in passing trends in other countries I would suggest a broader look at the Muslim world, where trends still allow for a functional alternative to Western capitalist-socialist paradigm (distinctive from modern ideas of a theocratic state which can be said to only mask the same dilemmas of post-Modern society by employing different rhetoric). While there are to argument to be made for a tendencies bordering on a welfare state (public dispersal of war spoils subsidised society in general and for many was the main if not sole source of income), government is generally desired to be limited and decentralised with the goals that it provide for courts, security, and tax collection — while the communitarian spirit of Muslim society (2.5% income tax collected solely towards poverty relief as a religious obligation) is endemic to it so long as religious sentiments are preserved in the society.

Of course other traditional (pre-WWI) models of society are also applicable to this category of unconventional alternatives, but there important lessons to be had: personal convictions and socially-enforced standards of conduct are perhaps more efficient means of regulating society to prevent social ills than government enforcement of contrived policies. Focusing on traditional family modules eases the burden the elderly, ill, & disabled have on society.

Of course it is beyond naive to assume that pre-modern social models can be easily replicated (if they are even desirable): there are many modern issues that demand new solutions (environmentalism, population sizes, resource strains, expectations of full employment), but in the quest for new ideas there may be something in rethinking the entire focus and foundation of our social constructs in a more coherent fashion that is currently attempted by some modern movements.

157

Hidari 04.27.10 at 6:46 am

‘Using the UN Human Development Index on GINI differentials and life expectancy is cherry picking? Really? I’d think that it was almost the exact opposite of cherry picking. It is using the most authoritative sources with the very most standard indices on the point in question. And the analysis was the same that the authors of the Spirit Level ran, so they didn’t even cherry pick the thing to be measured.’

Sebastian

does it strike you as being a bit odd that these authors have, apparently, come up with evidence that refutes a very widely held scientific theory, with huge amounts of empirical data to support it, and yet they don’t submit their ground breaking research to a peer reviewed academic journal, but instead post their ‘breakthrough’ on their (small, little read) blogs?

Does that strike you as…..strange?

158

Joshua Mostafa 04.27.10 at 7:22 am

Ken Lovell – the most politics can do is to look after people’s animal needs – to think we can second-guess their human needs is to cross the line into paternalism.

159

Sebastian 04.27.10 at 7:36 am

“does it strike you as being a bit odd that these authors have, apparently, come up with evidence that refutes a very widely held scientific theory”

It isn’t a widely held scientific theory. The Spirit Level was considered to break new ground. Which is why you see people citing it directly instead of citing underlying studies.

“and yet they don’t submit their ground breaking research to a peer reviewed academic journal, but instead post their ‘breakthrough’ on their (small, little read) blogs?”

The Spirit Level wasn’t published in a peer reviewed academic journal. Which research are you talking about?

Did you think that the Spirit Level was in a peer reviewed academic journal? Why did you think that? It would be interesting to know where that misinformation got introduced.

It was actually published by the Bloomsbury Press, which is well known for literary novels and the Harry Potter books, not academic pieces. Which of course is not proof that the book is bad, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be making appeals to authority via “peer reviewed academic journals” when talking about it.

160

Tim Worstall 04.27.10 at 8:14 am

“I wasn’t making a point, except that the majority of the world’s supply of base and precious metals don’t come from Africa.”

It depends upon which metal. Platinum, yes, S Africa is the dominant supplier. In gold it’s the swing supplier (the costs of deep mining, where they really are coming up against the laws of thermodynamics in the energy required to bring ore up from x miles down, means that the deep mines gear up again when the price rises). But for most of the others even Africa as a whole isn’t a major nor important supplier.

161

Anarcho 04.27.10 at 8:17 am

“Indeed, freedom has long been a central part of a lot of strands of socialism, not just libertarian socialism.”

The point being is that anarchists explained why state socialism would not achieve real socialism, free socialism. We stressed the need for decentralisation, federalism, workers’ self-management, mass participation against calls for centralised state ownership, “political action” and such like. History, I would suggest, proved our predictions right.

‘I tried to figure out what “property is theft” is supposed to mean by looking at Wikipedia. I read the article, but it was unhelpful (“What Is Property?” is somewhat better).”

This is summarised in the introduction to the new Proudhon Anthology.

““Property is theft” seems like a hard sell in the US, compared to the argument that free markets don’t ensure, and often hinder, other more important kinds of freedom.”

Even using the word socialism would be a hard sell in the US, so I would suggest we bite the bullet and just use expressions like “Property is theft.” As for markets (and property) hindering freedoms, that will also be a “hard sell” in the US but, I agree, one we need to make. Hence “property is despotism”…

That is the main contradiction with right-”libertarian” ideology (propertarianism), it proclaims liberty as the most important thing but happily suppresses on private property. There wage-slavery is to be defended, with no freedom of association, speech, etc., unless the boss (the monarch) allows it… The left needs to reclaim this concern for liberty — particularly as it is unfreedom in the workplace which allows exploitation (the main concern for Marxism) to happen.

162

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 10:02 am

Bianca: I don’t see a difference between “investment” and “resource allocation” if what you’re talking about is pension funds, VCs, and so forth.

The point was just to make it clear I didn’t mean investment in the sense of getting hold of private money, or necessarily any money.

They don’t decide who will be hired, which vendors will be used, or to whom the product will be marketed. They don’t decide how resources will be allocated within the firm All these are things decided in a straightforward way by employees – it doesn’t make any difference whose employees. If necessary you have the same people, doing the same jobs, possibly in the same place as you would have had under a private market system. You might even have local small-scale ‘startups’ (pilot schemes). The essential difference is that they are not financed by bank loans or venture capital, but get their resources from the collective scheme.

I think this may reflect a slight problem with the use of the term ‘centralised’ – which can be taken to cover quite a few different things:

1. The element of local information – bureaucrats are physically remote in location – this is not essential to a collective scheme, as adumb’d above, and as the Raven mentions, not an issue with current technology – but also not the main point of Hayek’s criticisms of Soviet-style planning (I’m not sure if Hayek is assuming that there would be far fewer people involved in a ‘centralised’ system of planning – if so he’s not comparing like with like.

2. the fact that they are not diverse actors with differing ideas – again, not a problem if say the collective scheme has a range of (possibly competing) units making investment decisions – the penalties and rewards for succes and failure don’t need to be big to get the benefits of a bit of healthy competition. This is really the point of mentioning the allocation issues currently dealt with by finance: a distinctive mechanism of the market is the brutal method of letting whole firms go to the wall – which on an analogy with Darwinian selection, is fine if you are interested only in having a well-adapted population, but not so clever if you are concerned about the horrible effects on those eliminated. (And trial and error is also a rather slow way of getting anywhere).

3. the absence of ‘price signals’. This is Hayek’s key point I think – again, based on criticism of the Soviet system. The idea is I think that there is no way of judging the efficient level of production of the various goods without assessing demand on the basis of consumer uptake at various price-quantity levels (on Planet Free Market, there is only one price, set at marginal cost IIRC, because competition). Again, this isn’t really a problem given current technology – and assuming the collective scheme isnlt undermanned relative to its market counterpart, never was since such decisions are taken are taken by employees in advance, then adjusted reactively. The really indispensable function of price ‘signals’ is that you can’t tell how socially valuable an inessential product is relative to other products unless people are forced to budget and choose what products they want at various prices. There is something in this – not because people would misrepreesent their preferences given only market research questionnaires but because those preferences may well be inchoate until the point of actual choice.

But I guess people would have some kind of budget, not just be allowed to have whatever they want – or think they might want, etc – and there’s no reason why the same kinds of production decisions wouldn’t react to consumption patterns much as they do now (except without the rich having their preferences given undue weight).

(not sure quite how Hayekian all this is – there’s probably some Popper, Nozick, et al in there – but this is not a history thread).

I donlt know to what extent arbitrage based on difference in price, or in something analogous to price, in two different locations (that doesn’t reflect the costs of transporting it) is a big problem, but that kind of price discrimination would indeed presumably be eliminated in a non-profit-driven system. Such elements of competition as were adjudged useful in providing incentives to those making investment decisions would just be based on quantity ‘sold’ at some ‘price’ based on marginal ‘cost’. There would be quantities corresponding to those: accounting and measures of value by some numeraire needn’t be eliminated, I don’t think.

That’s the kind of thing I had in mind anyway. Obviously one or two details to be worked out before the scheme is ready to be rolled out across the world.

163

Tim Worstall 04.27.10 at 11:21 am

“I donlt know to what extent arbitrage based on difference in price, or in something analogous to price, in two different locations (that doesn’t reflect the costs of transporting it) is a big problem, but that kind of price discrimination would indeed presumably be eliminated in a non-profit-driven system.”

Eh?

It’s normally taken that it is the pursuit of profits which leads to the arbitrage which reduces the price differences.

164

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 11:30 am

Anarcho – Yes, so far as the economic dimension is concerned, libertarianism uses a highly moralised (and tendentious) definition of ‘liberty’.

And ‘Property is theft’ – when printing those election leaflets, important to make clear that abolition of Property does not mean an end to personal property in the sense of stable possession of objects for one’s own use.

Not clear on the ‘decentralisation’ stuff though – what happens to economies of scale, interpersonal division of labour, etc? I’m not clear what Anarchism actually involves here. So far as local institutions are coordinated, isn’t the the resulting system a state of some kind? Or is this about the ‘right’ to punish? I’d like to see an end to punishment (and the threat thereof) but how realistic is this? More democracy good, but still has ‘cracy’ at the end.

165

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 12:53 pm

It’s normally taken that it is the pursuit of profits which leads to the arbitrage which reduces the price differences.

It’s normally taken that it’s the pursuit of profits that does everything in your world isn’t it. That could even be true – it wouldn’t mean that the same things couldn’t be done in other ways. It’s ‘normally’ taken that it’s the internal combustion engine that propels cars. So what?

166

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 1:15 pm

The arbitrage, as it’s called, is the extraction of profit resulting from a localised scarcity causing high prices – which results from consumers’ ignorance of the possibility of getting the same stuff cheaper – or practical inability to make the purchase – isn’t it? The supposed elimination (or reduction!) of the price difference would be done – much to the annoyance of the middleman- in your story by competition, not arbitrage per se.

But surely you have some better criticisms of my vague and exploratory ideas than that?

167

Tim Worstall 04.27.10 at 1:37 pm

“The supposed elimination (or reduction!) of the price difference would be done – much to the annoyance of the middleman- in your story by competition, not arbitrage per se.”

Well, the way I usually think of it is that it’s the competition provided by the arbitrage which equalises prices. For example, some thing I’ve actually done. Purchase secondary aluminium (ie, remelted scrap) in the Urals and ship it to Japan. I’m exploiting the price difference between the two places. This is arbitrage. At the same time I’ve (by however little) raised the price in the Urals, and lowered it in Japan, closing the price difference. And it’s my competition that has moved those prices: I’m the extra buyer in the Urals and I’m the extra seller in Japan.

I’m motivated to do this by profit.

Now, cut me out of the picture. The bloke selling in the Urals sells directly to the bloke in Japan. We’ve still got the same arbitrage going on, we’re still moving the two currently different prices closer together and we’re still relying upn the profit motive to do so.

I can imagine such things happening without me as the middleman, no problem. What I can’t imagine is such things happening without the profit motive. Why bother to go through the extra efort and grief (and there certainly is some) of getting stuff from the Urals to Japan if there’s no higher profit in it?

“It’s normally taken that it’s the pursuit of profits that does everything in your world isn’t it. That could even be true – it wouldn’t mean that the same things couldn’t be done in other ways.”

I’m absolutely certain that the pursuit of profit doesn’t drive everything in any version of the world let alone my highly ideosyncratic one. I’m also entirely open the idea that some of those things which are could and even should not be.

Just as I’m equally open to the idea that some of those which are not should be. For example, I’m highly receptive to the argument that currently illegal drugs like heroin should be taken out of the illegal and highly profitable markets they currently inhabit and be replaced with a not for profit government run distribution system (“you’re an addict, come get your heroin here at the hospital” sort of thing).

Similarly I’m receptive to the idea that education could or should be a for profit business. Even state financed education being run by profit making entities.

Which way things should be moving, from the profit motivated part of the world to the non- or vice versa is to me almost entirely a question of which works best? “Best” of course being difficult and contentious to define but something along the lines of “producing the most of what we want while using the least resources with which we could be doing other things”.

168

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 2:37 pm

Why bother to go through the extra effort and grief (and there certainly is some) of getting stuff from the Urals to Japan if there’s no higher profit in it?

Gains offsetting ‘effort and grief’ aren’t profit though are they. And the answer would presumably be (assuming there actually is a greater need for the stuff in Japan than in the Urals): because it’s your job.

169

bianca steele 04.27.10 at 3:02 pm

Tim W.: I didn’t mean investment in the sense of . . . money

Sorry, no, maybe you could explain what you have in mind. Investment is a transfer of money. What you’re saying doesn’t match anything I’m familiar with, and I’m mildly nonplussed by your vehement insistence that what I’m 99.9% sure is correct is absolutely wrong, and can only be corrected by taking into account your own unsourced and apparently unsupported argument.

170

Tim Worstall 04.27.10 at 3:59 pm

“Gains offsetting ‘effort and grief’ aren’t profit though are they. And the answer would presumably be (assuming there actually is a greater need for the stuff in Japan than in the Urals): because it’s your job.”

Profits *are* the gain from doing something. and whether we call it my job, my profit or a commission for undertaking an action doesn’t change the substance of what I’m doing,. Exploiting a price difference between two different places to trade and thus add value.

171

Cuchulain 04.27.10 at 5:54 pm

Kaveh,

I’m not advocating for a government as machine. In fact, I see one of the biggest problems with American government at present being that it has become just that. Many reasons for that sad state. A few decades ago, when we actually had a liberal consensus in this country, most Americans saw their government in a positive light. Now almost no one does. IMO, a big reason for that is that we’ve outsourced and privatized many things that could have provided positive outreach, and we’ve reduced government functions to more Kafka (the Castle) -like remoteness. Going direct to the people could reverse that issue.

Picture a well. The government provides safe, clean drinking water to a community. The manager of the well helps out on a day to day basis, is out in the community, provides a place to exchange ideas, encourages that exchange, etc.

Now, picture this being contracted out to Blackwater. It now controls the well, charges a lot of money for the water, shuts down the meeting place, takes no complaints or suggestions, and the community loses its connection (at least here) with its government — but actually thinks it is dealing with it. The government gets the blame, not Blackwater.

I see a kind of socialism that creates space for direct exchange among citizens, as they benefit from goods and services we’ve all decided are important enough to make public. We create this space, create new options, broaden the Commons, and encourage a vibrant interaction among fellow citizens. But we don’t follow them home.

Capitalism follows us home, as Norman Mailer showed us in the pages of Dissent in 1959. It, of course, has only gotten worse. I don’t want us to replace one kind of intrusion with another. But I do want us to increase space for people to gather and partake of mutually agreed upon benefits.

(Of course, Reagan followed us home, too, and subsequent presidents kept most of that intact, until Bush went beyond Reagan’s intrusiveness)

Mutually agreed upon benefits: museums, libraries, concert halls, lecture halls, national parks, schools, health care, green, clean public transportation and various forms of infrastructure and utilities.

IOW, the government would reach out in a positive way, create public space for citizens to gather, offer a multitude of non-profit or free options for goods and services, and then say goodbye at the end of the day.

They don’t follow us home. But we have more space in common to enjoy, and we’re encouraged to enjoy that space and those free or cheaper (because non-profit) alternatives. And the government heeds our requests to level the playing field for workers and consumers, and it heeds our request to end its support of the rich at all costs, so that most Americans can afford their own homes and inequalities are reduced significantly and we all benefit.

172

Cuchulain 04.27.10 at 6:26 pm

Tim,

Profit isn’t what you get paid in wages. It’s what is leftover after you account for expenses, take your salary, pay your workers, etc.

A worker doesn’t make a profit. He or she makes profits for their employer. This happens through underpaying those workers, overworking them, charging more for goods and services than they cost that employer . . . and, since the latter part of the 20th century, through financializing the whole process.

Profits are theft. I think that actually works better than “property is theft.” I don’t really have a problem with property per se.

But the way profits are created, especially in a nation that already has an exorbitant employer to employee wage ratio, is theft by definition. It’s really all a matter of how tolerant we are regarding that theft, and how we’ve been conditioned to thinking it’s actually normal and even virtuous.

A business can’t create profit without ripping someone off. It’s impossible. That’s just math. Creating “surplus value” involves some part of, or some combination of, paying workers less than their labor is worth; charging too much for products and services; cheating suppliers; cheating buyers and consumers; using debt and asset management to create artificial surplus value; using stocks to create artificial surplus value; speculating to create artificial surplus value; or speculating about speculation to create truly phony, artificial and dangerously volatile surplus value.

To me, about the only way to avoid all of that is to go back to one on one exchange. As in, I build a chair. I factor in my time and my costs and sell you that chair, directly. My “profit” is very close to “virtuous” in that case, because it’s very close to a one to one exchange of value for value. But once I hire an employee, and calculate how much I have to pay him or her to “profit” from their work, I’ve left the realm of the virtuous and am now in the realm of exploitation.

Individual artisans, artists, musicians, writers, etc. etc. can come very close to the virtuous (at least from an economic perspective), when they sell their creations. But I think business itself is always already a form of exploitation. That we in America seem to worship it and even admire business owners who makes huge profits has always baffled me.

173

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 7:13 pm

Bianca: Sorry, no, maybe you could explain what you have in mind. Investment is a transfer of money.

Allocation of resources – stuff that you currently get in exchange for money

What you’re saying doesn’t match anything I’m familiar with

That seems to be more of a problem for Worstall, if that’s any comfort.

and I’m mildly nonplussed by your vehement insistence that what I’m 99.9% sure is correct is absolutely wrong

I don’t know what this is referring to, but most of the propositions my comments could be construed as arguing against would be ones concerning what isn’t possible, if that helps at all.

174

Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 7:28 pm

Worstall: Profits are the gain from doing something. and whether we call it my job, my profit or a commission for undertaking an action doesn’t change the substance of what I’m doing,. Exploiting a price difference between two different places to trade and thus add value.

Profits are the gain in excess of the costs, including ‘grief’. Getting a wage for organising resource allocations is not the same the same as making a profit. In the former case, you are not exploiting a price difference, nor trading. Entertaining that your conception of the substance of what you’re doing includes the notion of exploiting a price difference.

175

Tim Worstall 04.27.10 at 8:41 pm

“A business can’t create profit without ripping someone off. It’s impossible.”

Ah, OK, we clearly have entirely different views of the world then.

Imagine this scenario (roughly what I’m looking at at present). A metal, one that most people haven’t heard of. As a result of changes in technology (in this case, increased demand from non carbon emitting energy generation technologies) demand for the metal has risen.

Supply of that metal hasn’t risen. Someone, somewhere, needs to increase supply of that metal. I am attempting to do so. I am attempting to do so by employing a few (a small number) of people at or above their alternately available wages to process a waste stream. That waste stream is something which is currently thrown away….quite literally, it’s landfilled.

Now, I, however wrong or misguided I may be, see that as an increase in general human wealth. I’m taking something which is currently thrown away and from it generating something of value. We all, collectively, have more value than we had before.

The distribution of that value, well, OK. But if those working for wages to produce that value are gaining the same or possibly even more than they would have done if I had not entered into this adventure, well, sorry, I don’t see it. I don’t see that I am ripping them off or anything. Nor do I see that the 15 years I’ve spent becoming expert (to the point of being on of the world’s few true experts in this very small field) in this metal and then employing my knowledge is ripping anyone off.

I see it entirely the other way around. If I risk my capital (as I will have to do, that money that I’ve made through my labour over the past 20 years) and I am correct in my analysis of the market, the process and so on, I simply cannot see that I’m taking anything from anyone else.

I will have contributed to non carbon energy systems being that little bit cheaper. Several people will have jobs….either jobs they might not have had or jobs at higher wages than the ones they did have (for of course I can’t get them to come work for me without offering them more than where they are now). The consumer benefits, the workers benefit….just who is it that I’m ripping off?

Assume success in this little adventure. The global collection of humanity is better off for my having done it. I get a share of that increase in global wealth as the entrepreneur/capitalist. I don’t get all of that increase in wealth, I don’t even get most of it. I just get some of it.

So, who have I ripped off?

“Profit isn’t what you get paid in wages. It’s what is leftover after you account for expenses, take your salary, pay your workers, etc.”

Well, yes, sorta. Many would say (as indeed was said above) that the income of the arbitrageur is profit. But as you point out, it can also be simple returns to labour (“salary” in your sense). My impression of the above was that even that return to labour afforded by trading was regarded as somehow “impure” in the sense of ripping someone off.

If we’re going to say that returns to arbitrage are indeed simple payment for labour then much of what is income to arbitrageurs is entirely justified of course…..

176

Alice de Tocqueville 04.27.10 at 8:49 pm

Having to just skim here, it seems that Kaveh’s post is outstandingly good. No one seems to have picked up on it, though. Don’t know why that is.

177

Anarcho 04.28.10 at 7:56 am

“the absence of ‘price signals’. This is Hayek’s key point I think – again, based on criticism of the Soviet system. “

Well, Proudhon raised this issue way back in 1846 against state socialist Louis Blanc:

“How much does [a product] sold by the [state] administration cost? How much is it worth? You can answer the first of these questions: you need only call at the first . . . shop you see. But you can tell me nothing about the second, because you have no standard of comparison and are forbidden to verify by experiment the . . . cost . . . Therefore . . . business, made into a monopoly, necessarily costs society more than it brings in.”

As for lack of local knowledge available for centralised planners, anarchists were arguing that long before von Mises or von Hayek:

Kropotkin, likewise, dismissed the notion of central planning as the “economic changes that will result from the social revolution will be so immense and so profound . . . that it will be impossible for one or even a number of individuals to elaborate the social forms to which a further society must give birth. The elaboration of new social forms can only be the collective work of the masses.” [Words of a Rebel, p. 175] The notion that a “strongly centralised Government” could “command that a prescribed quantity” of a good “be sent to such a place on such a day” and be “received on a given day by a specified official and stored in particular warehouses” was not only “undesirable” but also “wildly Utopian.” During his discussion of the benefits of free agreement against state tutelage, Kropotkin noted that only the former allowed the utilisation of “the co-operation, the enthusiasm, the local knowledge” of the people. [The Conquest of Bread, pp. 82-3 and p. 137]

So anarchists and other libertarian socialists were making these points against state socialism long before the “Austrian” school was invented. A key difference is that anarchists were aware of the authoritarian nature of the capitalist workplace and that as islands of central planning in the market they are subject to similar flaws as the “Austrians” pointed to as regards the state.

But then, the problems and restrictions of freedom in private property has always been a blind spot for the “Austrians” and other propertarians…

178

Anarcho 04.28.10 at 8:08 am

“Not clear on the ‘decentralisation’ stuff though – what happens to economies of scale, interpersonal division of labour, etc? I’m not clear what Anarchism actually involves here…

A big subject which cannot be covered here, but section I of An Anarchist FAQ does cover these issues (including decision making, crime, etc.) in some detail. There is also The Economics of Anarchy which summarises the main points.

179

Dan 04.28.10 at 10:34 am

But then, the problems and restrictions of freedom in private property has always been a blind spot for the “Austrians” and other propertarians…

It seems that a lot of what divides libertarians like me from libertarians like you is the issue of the permissibility of selling one’s labour (I think you guys like to call it “wage slavery”). So I’d be interested to know how you’d deal with two consenting adults who wish to engage in a transaction of that kind – would you prohibit them tout court (in the name of “freedom”, presumably), discourage it, or what?

180

Cuchulain 04.28.10 at 7:34 pm

There is, of course, the problem of local governments being oppressive and intrusive. That can happen as well. Decentralization isn’t automatically the answer.

The Civil Rights movement would never have gotten anywhere if power had been decentralized to the states and localities. Obviously.

A mining company in West Virginia can so own local governments that mountain top removal is guaranteed there. If the Feds don’t step in, the people suffer.

Of course, that works the other way as well. The Feds could push for something that obviously hurts localities. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for any of this, and it really comes down to putting the right people of office in all cases. It really comes down to eternal vigilance and an active polity, on all levels. We may want automatic governments, or automatic markets, so we can do our own thing, but when we take all of that granted, we’re going to pay for it.

States could push for slavery, and the Feds could fight it, so we would side with Federal power in that case. Or, localities could push for clean rivers and organic farming, but the state wants Smithfield Farms there. Or the Feds could push for some massive deregulation that hurts everyone, so you’d want to fight that power.

But power can’t be effectively defeated with far less power. We eventually have to decide where we want to throw our support, our weight. If we let “the markets” decide, and limit government in that area, we lose autonomy there. The markets have no interest in your interests. At least with government, there is the potential for participation and shaping our collective destinies. There is no such potential when it comes to markets. They are essential indifferent to your needs.

181

chris 04.28.10 at 8:42 pm

@179: I think the main philosophical difference is whether or not “If you don’t like this deal, you can go starve to death” is considered a form of coercion, in conditions where it is literally true.

@175: But if those working for wages to produce that value are gaining the same or possibly even more than they would have done if I had not entered into this adventure, well, sorry, I don’t see it.

Why do you own the increase in value of their labor? (If you can pay them more than they were making before and still make a profit, then the value of their labor must have increased. Well, unless they were *really* getting screwed in their previous jobs, I guess, but I think that has an infinite regress problem if you try to generalize it.)

In perfect competition, they could be hired away by people paying more than you did for the same work (and making correspondingly a bit less profit) until the profit was all competed away, but in real economies this doesn’t happen for various reasons. Since the profit is precisely the amount that shouldn’t exist in idealized competitive markets, the question of how to divide it can’t be answered by platitudes based on toy models.

Or to put it more simply, to the extent that you’re paying uncompetitive (in the idealized sense) wages but not having to face the actual competition because of market imperfections, your profit is unfair and doesn’t morally belong to you. (I think it is technically an oligopsony rent extracted from the labor market.)

Alternatively, all these economic analyses could be said to miss the point that when some people cannot produce economic value equal to the cost of perpetuating their lives and the wisdom of the markets states that it is therefore inefficient to perpetuate them, society demands a second opinion, and economic efficiency be damned. If nobody has to bargain from a position of privation, the market-clearing price of labor is VERY different — so what does that say about its “real” value?

182

Dan 04.28.10 at 9:12 pm

Or to put it more simply, to the extent that you’re paying uncompetitive (in the idealized sense) wages but not having to face the actual competition because of market imperfections, your profit is unfair and doesn’t morally belong to you. (I think it is technically an oligopsony rent extracted from the labor market.)

That’s quite a leap, it seems to me (and it’s libertarians who get accused of unduly idealizing perfect competition!). And anyway, if that logic were correct, surely the employer would have just the same kind of claim to any surplus that the employee received from the exchange (over and above the minimum reserve price for which they would be prepared to carry out the job).

183

chris 04.28.10 at 9:33 pm

And anyway, if that logic were correct, surely the employer would have just the same kind of claim to any surplus that the employee received from the exchange (over and above the minimum reserve price for which they would be prepared to carry out the job).

The conditions of *idealized* markets include perfect labor mobility. So the ideal price for which they would be willing to carry out the job is the price that would make them indifferent between carrying out the job at that price and *changing to a different industry*, under conditions where they can freely choose with no significant entry barriers. (That includes taking over *your* job or starting a company identical to yours, in the hypothetical.) That usually makes such a reserve price *higher* than the actual price of most labor, because a large amount of labor is done by people who can’t choose to change to different jobs that are both more pleasant and higher-paid.

P.S. Libertarians get accused of overgeneralizing conclusions based on perfect competition to situations that feature imperfect competition. So they try to keep at least one foot on the ground, so to speak. *Actual* perfect competition is a good deal more perfect than that!

184

Dan 04.28.10 at 9:50 pm

That usually makes such a reserve price higher than the actual price of most labor, because a large amount of labor is done by people who can’t choose to change to different jobs that are both more pleasant and higher-paid.

What? Nothing in the theory of perfect competition says that alternative jobs have to be “more pleasant” or “higher paid”. Suppose my job pays £10 and that if it paid £5 I would be indifferent between it and the next best alternative. Then by your logic in #181, the surplus of £5 that I pocket is “unfair, and doesn’t morally belong to me” – after all, under PC, that surplus wouldn’t exist.

185

Cuchulain 04.28.10 at 10:48 pm

Right wing libertarians typically generalize and idealize from the point of view of the capitalist, not the worker. They assume that everything is rosy for the worker in the bargain.

Stupid assumption.

If you hire a bunch of workers to make a pie, you, the owner, will pay the workers just enough so you end up with surplus value from that combined workforce, enough to allow you to own the pie in real terms, and far too little for your workers to share in the profits they create.

That’s exploitation.

It’s quite nearly impossible for a business owner to take a big salary, profit, and pay his or her workers fair wages. And we know that most businesses don’t. We know that because the ratio of ownership/management to worker salaries has skyrocketed over the last couple of decades. Again, in 1965 it was 26 to 1. It’s now 430 to 1, and more if it’s a large company.

How can that NOT be exploitation?

Orwell thought 10 to 1 fair. The CEO of Walmart makes 900 times as much as the rank and file. That is THE biggest source of wealth inequality in America. Second is our tax system, which is no longer progressive. Third, is the huge gap in educational quality. Health care and environment are up there as well, as is the vast difference in nutrition.

But the real heart of the matter is worker exploitation. It’s in hyper, ultra, mega-mode.

186

chris 04.29.10 at 8:07 pm

Nothing in the theory of perfect competition says that alternative jobs have to be “more pleasant” or “higher paid”.

Indeed, just the opposite — in perfect competition, a more pleasant job is *lower* paid because people have to trade off the economic and noneconomic rewards. (Actually, people have different ideas of what is pleasant, but I think that’s usually assumed away in idealized models.)

However, in the real world we observe the opposite of what happens in the ideal world — people who scrub toilets make *less* money than CEOs, surgeons, or lawyers, even though the latter also get lots of noneconomic compensation such as status. This suggests that the dynamic is driven primarily by inefficient allocation of labor — people in low-paying jobs are there because they *can’t* effectively move into a different segment of the labor market, not because they prefer the jobs they have or are indifferent between them and another job.

This is where the economic Calvinism usually enters the picture. I can move into better segments of the labor market and they can’t because I’m better than them in some way and therefore deserve the better outcome. (This doesn’t hold up to close examination of the actual drivers of economic success, but economically successful people are *very* eager to believe it uncritically.)

Suppose my job pays £10 and that if it paid £5 I would be indifferent between it and the next best alternative.

Ok — then, assuming the noneconomic factors aren’t that different, the alternative is paying about 5 GBP (I don’t know how to make the pound sign here). Probably this means that someone else is actually working that other job (or one substantially similar to it) and pulling in that 5 GBP. So why *do* you deserve to make double what he makes? He doesn’t have your job, in substantial part, *because* you have it. You keep other people out of it by filling it yourself. (This is most obvious with *really* scarce jobs like CEO.)

Then by your logic in #181, the surplus of £5 that I pocket is “unfair, and doesn’t morally belong to me” – after all, under PC, that surplus wouldn’t exist.

Technically, you and the poor sod getting 5 GBP would engage in a bidding war for your job, which would probably end up with both of you getting somewhere in the middle (the other guy’s employer would have to bid to keep him or hire a replacement).

But because of the existing distribution of job compensation in real economies, if this kind of job-desirability-leveling were to actually take place, almost all workers would be net gainers — it’s just that the few rock stars, CEOs, people with “Mellon” as their middle name, etc. would find that many people would love to take over their jobs for 1/10 of their current salary or even less.

Ultimately, I think the whole exercise shows the folly of trying to derive *anything* from idealized models. The idea of an economy where anyone can change to *any* job is just too alien to have any usefulness. But it does at least serve to rebut the idea that the current market-clearing price of (a particular variety of) labor is its “true” value in some objective and unassailable sense.

Value comes from an evaluator. There’s no honest way to wash your hands of that.

Comments on this entry are closed.