The Return of the Baffler

by Henry on May 8, 2012

The Baffler, one of the great little magazines, is back again in a new print incarnation. And, for the first time (I think), it has a proper website. The US Intellectual History blog has run a short round table on the issue – contributions, in order are here, here, and here, with a reply from the new editor, John Summers, here. George Scialabba is an associate editor, and Aaron Swartz a contributing editor (both, of course, are long time members of the CT community). Readers are warmly encouraged to subscribe and/or to donate to the magazine’s Kickstarter campaign, which ends in only a couple of days.

The theme of the new issue is capitalist innovation and its problems. Quoting the framing piece by John Summers:

The fable that we are living through a time of head-snapping innovation in technology drives American thought these days – dystopian and utopian alike. But if you look past both the hysteria and the hype, and place the achievements of technology in historical perspective, then you may recall how business leaders promised not long ago to usher us into a glorious new time of abundance that stood beyond history. And then you may wonder if their control over technology hasn’t excelled mainly at producing dazzling new ways to package and distribute consumer products (like television) that have been kicking around history for quite some time. The salvos in this issue chronicle America’s trajectory from megamachines to minimachines, from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals, and raise a corollary question from amid all these strangely unimaginative innovation: how much of our collective awe rests on low expectations?

There are some startlingly close parallels to the aspirations of the USSR, as described in Red Plenty, which I’ll be talking about at greater length in my contribution to the forthcoming seminar. There are also some claims that I disagree with. I’m not at all sure that this introduction has the diagnosis right. Much like the old Baffler, there are some good and excellently entertaining criticisms of specific elements of techno-boosterism, but also a little too much emphasis on the cultural rather than the political dimensions of techology.

In form, the new Baffler is different from the old one, which systematically refused to have truck with new technologies nearly up to the end. It not only has a website and a Kickstarter campaign, but a Twitter feed, Kindle and Nook versions, and online PDFs. Still, it rather awkwardly carries over some of the old attitudes about the technologies that it uses to communicate. The old Baffler was good at talking about how new economy boosterism served as an intellectual veil, obscuring real relations of power inequality. But it didn’t take any very particular care to distinguish new-technology-as-obfuscatory-rhetoric fron new-technology-as-phenomenon-shaping people’s lives. Sometimes, this worked. The last issue of the old Baffler had a lovely photo-essay on how the etherial Internet (more recently dubbed the ‘cloud;’ a term whose etymology deserves an essay in itself) was based on the squat physical reality of server farms. Sometimes, it didn’t. Like a bizarro-world Thomas Friedman, it seemed to lump new technology together with Nasdaq, globalization, free markets and financial capital. All were interlocking, all mutually reinforcing, all propelling us towards a future of misery and inequality.

This shared perspective (but reversed valences) allowed it to serve up a withering critique of the Friedman view of the world, and its underlying assumptions. It also made it hard to create a practicable alternative agenda. The old Baffler was great on the culture of capitalism, but not nearly as strong on its material underpinnings. It also, I think, systematically tended to misunderstand technology, treating it as a symptom of the culture wars, rather than as a phenomenon in itself.

The new Baffler is better on all of this (not that the old one wasn’t good – it really, really, was, but it had its limits too), and seems to be trying to figure out a different line of attack. That said, as the USIH seminar contributions suggest, it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Again, when it’s good on critique, it’s very good indeed. Moe Tkacik’s piece on the Atlantic Conventional Wisdom Festival isn’t quite as strong as it could be (a couple too many personal hatchets to bury; some difficulties in capturing the transition from a world in which you have to have the CIA buying cultural institutes, to a world where private enterprise can do the job itself). Rick Perlstein’s article on Ronald Reagan is unsurprisingly excellent. But others don’t work. Will Boisvert’s attack on the MIT Media Lab is surprisingly unimaginative. The critique of Stupid Things That Nicholas Negroponte and His Mates Say could have been made any time in the last couple of decades, by more or less anybody who cared. And when Boisvert says

Last year, MIT posted a list of the Lab’s all-time “Top 25 Products and Platforms: …. Number 3 is Lego’s Mindstorms, a robotics kit beloved of school science fairs and adult hobbyists. Number 2? Guitar Hero. Yeah, they made that, one of the best-selling throw-away video games ever. Number 1 is the e-reader technology in Kindle, so give the Lab its due: it has spawned a subset of the video screens that are destroying the Republic of Letters.

he’s mistaking personal aesthetic peeves for general arguments. I’ll give him Guitar Hero if he really wants it (although I expect there’ll be dissenters in comments), but Mindstorms is as good a tool for engendering creativity in young folks as one could imagine. And e-reader technology as a destroyer of the Republic of Letters … really???

There are a couple of pieces that set out a more positive agenda. David Graeber’s piece I’ll mostly pass over, for fear of more unpleasantness – I think it’s fair to say that it’s provocatively Fourierist-utopian in both the positive and negative senses of that term. Kim Stanley Robinson provides an excerpt from 2312 that makes me really want to read the book – but while the solution to late capitalism may lie in quantum computers solving the socialist calculation problem (again: Red Plenty – Robinson has a joke about the “Spuffordized Soviet cybernetic model”) we probably can’t count on this happening in the near-to-immediate future.

In short, the new Baffler is very strong on describing the stunted possibilities of innovation under the current system, and the ways in which the rhetorics of globalization, the new economy etc cover over this stuntedness. It is less strong on describing alternatives, and has no very clear idea about how to get from here to there. Of course, it’s always much harder to come up with feasible alternatives than to describe the problems with the current system. But also, the new Baffler is still haunted by the ghost of the old one, with its generally dyspeptic attitude towards information technology as well as its more dubious prophets. This makes it harder to think through the relationship between innovation and change.

I’d be very disappointed to see the Baffler becoming techno-utopian, not that that’s at all likely. Still, I would like to see it publishing less articles that seem to dislike emerging technologies on principle, and more that try to figure out the precise circumstances under which they might help or hinder the process of moving towards a better society. For example: my dream Baffler would somehow magically persuade Richard Sennett to go to Foo Camp, and write a piece (likely partly critical, but also engaged) about the relationship between maker culture and his ideals of craftmanship. It would take on some of the hazier arguments about the joys of Government 2.0, but also talk to some of the very interesting things that e.g. the Sunlight Foundation is doing.

To put it a little differently again: the Baffler is right to keep pushing the case that technological rhetoric is no substitute for political and economic equality. But even if new technologies under actually-existing-capitalism are not (as some boosters would have it) inherently radicalizing and choice-enabling, they are not necessarily oppressive or choice-narrowing either. They can cut in either direction. It would have been nice to have had someone in the issue, who argued that technological innovation could be a lever for change in current society. Very likely they tried (putting together an issue of a low budget magazine depends a lot on who has the time and inclination to write for you). That Aaron Swartz is aboard suggests that they are aware of this skein of debate and want to engage with it.

Engagement is not agreement – there’s a lot to be said too for the culturally conservationist skepticism of e.g. George Scialabba (a debate between Geo and Aaron on these topics would be a lot of fun to watch). But this kind of engagement, which would differ a little from the Frank-era Baffler, might allow the magazine to keep what was really great about the old incarnation, while updating it for different times. The mission of the magazine, as Summers sets it out is:

to debunk the dogmas that discourage the intuitions of experience from fully forming in a critical intelligence. But we do not aim to conciliate any person, party or philosophy. We aim to unsettle, and, if necessary, to irritate.

And hence, presumably, to spur argument. I’m happy and excited that the Baffler is back, and look forward to being much unsettled, occasionally irritated, frequently delighted and often spurred to argument by reading it. Again, I encourage readers to subscribe, or to Kickstart, or both, as takes their fancy. I’ve missed it while it’s been away – it’s good to have it back.

{ 71 comments }

1

js. 05.08.12 at 9:24 pm

Saw this in a small bookstore recently and picked it up. Haven’t read too much of it yet, but agreed that the Perlstein piece is “unsurprisingly excellent”. Also, and again unsurprisingly, I thought Ehrenreich’s piece on the “animal cure” was great.

2

William Timberman 05.08.12 at 9:56 pm

There are some startlingly close parallels to the aspirations of the USSR, as described in Red Plenty, which I’ll be talking about at greater length in my contribution to the forthcoming seminar.

You’ve made my day. I was thinking something very like this throughout the reading of Red Plenty, and considered saying so on the seminar announcement thread, but figured I should probably save it for the seminar itself. When I hear people saying things like it’s not a left thing or a right thing anymore, it seems to me that this is what they’re groping for. There just has to be a huge failure of the imagination involved in using the powers we’ve acquired in the past couple of centuries exclusively to a) make a priori determinations in the central planning bureau how much pig iron working people in Minsk need, as opposed to how many pairs of shoes, or b) decide that the sole function of capitalist prosperity is to put a Lincoln Terminator in every wage-earner’s garage.

What’s worse, this failure of the imagination is merely the one that people of good will have fallen prey to. We haven’t even begun to discuss what’s up with the Molotovs and Hilary Clintons of the world, much less the Jamie Dimons and Silvio Berlusconis.

I look forward to hearing what the rest of CT has to say. I have the feeling that it’s gonna be kinda like Christmas in July….

3

chrismealy 05.08.12 at 10:01 pm

Yeah, I’m happy that it’s back, but Tom Frank still owes me for three issues he never put out. I told Graeber on twitter to cool it with the flying cars but it’s right there on the cover (My idea of techno-utopia is a smooth bike path along a tree-lined canal). I still bought it.

4

chrismealy 05.08.12 at 10:02 pm

5

BillCinSD 05.08.12 at 11:25 pm

Isn’t the Kindle destroying the republic of letters through DRM, not because it’s an e-reader?

6

Alex K. 05.08.12 at 11:33 pm

“I told Graeber on twitter to cool it with the flying cars”

But we _do_ have flying cars !

Ok, it’s actually a plane which you can drive legally from the airstrip to the garage — but it’s enough to refute any silly thesis that the reason technology is not that advanced is because we live in “a form of capitalism that systematically prioritiz[es] political imperatives over economic ones.”
The economical rewards for bringing piece of “The Jetsons” into reality are enormous — it’s just that the technology is really hard to get right.

(The quote is from David Graeber’s piece (which I did not read) as found in a DailyKos review — so I may be missing nuances, but then again, maybe I’m not)

7

Matt 05.09.12 at 1:46 am

Kim Stanley Robinson provides an excerpt from 2312 that makes me really want to read the book – but while the solution to late capitalism may lie in quantum computers solving the socialist calculation problem (again: Red Plenty – Robinson has a joke about the “Spuffordized Soviet cybernetic model”) we probably can’t count on this happening in the near-to-immediate future.

Computers solving the socialist calculation problem was part of the background for Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. But of course the space socialists had to do it with mechanical (nanotech?) computers, because the space libertarians polluted Jupiter with dangerous virus spewing remnants of the AI they used to build the stargate they fled through.

8

LFC 05.09.12 at 1:55 am

W/r/t e-readers and “the republic of letters”: according to Timothy Egan on the NYT Opinionator blog (post from late last month called “The Renaissance of Reading”), people who buy e-books also buy more traditional books. Personally I can’t see using an e-reader (though I may change my mind), but then I also don’t have a smartphone, Ipad, etc etc.

…and I don’t know what DRM means, though I’m guessing the D stands for “digital.”

9

Satan Mayo 05.09.12 at 3:53 am

…and I don’t know what DRM means, though I’m guessing the D stands for “digital.”

You are correct!

10

chrismealy 05.09.12 at 4:58 am

But we do have flying cars !

I know. My hometown’s claim to fame was Molt Taylor’s Aerocar, first built in 1949. It’s still a terrible idea.

11

Phil 05.09.12 at 8:09 am

Debord on traffic (from 1959) is still relevant, I think:

A mistake made by all the city planners is to consider the private automobile (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transportation. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout the society.

*Flying* cars would be, if anything, the same only more so. If there’s a symbol of the leisure & plenty which both capitalism and Communism failed to deliver, flying cars aren’t it. (Bikes and tow-paths sound good to me. Acoustic music in pubs. Quiet libraries with lots of people using them. Open seminars. Proper bread, proper cheese. The future is in fact here, it’s just not evenly distributed.)

12

Alex 05.09.12 at 8:21 am

This sounds a bit like this year’s version of Non-Fiction Micro-Hit: Why New Stuff Is Evil, as regularly discussed here.

13

Del Cotter 05.09.12 at 1:11 pm

Everybody laughs at the silly prognosticators, but they got the bit about massive increase in productivity per person right. They just didn’t realise that the mildly social-democratic societies of Nixon’s America, Wilson’s Britain, and the European countries would not continue on their trend of passing the wealth of the workers increasingly to the workers, but that the rich would stage a successful coup (Reagan, Thatcher) that saw productivity going back into their pockets again. History is hard, especially about the future.

14

Del Cotter 05.09.12 at 2:07 pm

See for example this graph from talkingpointsmemo.com.

15

Aaron Swartz 05.09.12 at 2:58 pm

Anytime CT wants to host a debate between me and Geo, I’m there!

But I think Summers is right that the Baffler is primarily a forum for critique, and I would feel very out of place arguing “that technological innovation could be a lever for [positive] change in current society” in its pages. Negative change, though…

16

Tim Wilkinson 05.10.12 at 7:58 pm

Ownership and control of the physical substrate of the internet – and indeed and in tandem, of semantic content – is certainly something that tends to be under-emphasised by premature Gibsonian utopians (insert some sneering generalisation about lattes and laptops).

2 CT-related points: 1. there was recently a rather unseemly outpouring of encomia for Steve Jobs (note to any readers post about 2030 – he was some businessman). Given that Apple stuff is very ‘upmarket’ but otherwise vanishingly different from competing products, this particular weird form of boosterism was notable for the fact that it celebrated something that was only available to very few. That in turn suggests a couple of things: that this kind of technology is particularly apt to mislead people into supposing that their own experience is widely shared (because it is very much down to experience, and unlike say a Cadillac, not particularly easily observable – and the mode of observation is via the very technologies in question, so that there’s a built-inb selection bias – everyone on twitter has access to Twitter, etc.); and second, that the constant updating and increased pace of new releases exhibited by this kind of technology – and Apple in particular – feeds into the desire treadmill, the ‘early adopter’ mindset, the upward-looking (‘aspirational’) felt deprivation (do not complain of this externality, for Envy is deadly sin) and all the rest of the peculiar logic of capitalist supply-led consumerism.

For some there’s a ‘cool stuff’ (oh puerile phrase) factor – they enjoy keeping up with latest developments and being in command of the latest jargon etc (early adopter rhetoric plays a part), but f0r less fashion-led and technology-besotted people who just want something that works, this is just a source of transaction costs.

Worse still, software gets massively bloated with new, mainly cosmetic, features and a lack of backward compatibility and support means there is considerable pressure to keep up. This bloat expands to fill the latest hardware capabilities affordable to some relatively rich representative consumer.

(Also note Apple’s control-freakery w.r.t. software and various proprietary aspects of its technology which relates to para 1.))

2. the exaggerated response (compare the indulgence Watson Ladd tends to be granted) to ponce’s not-entirely-unreasonable comment about physics. One example provided of the great strides made by this most expensive and prestigious of sciences was some recent minor tweak to methods of magnetic storage on moving media (currently the ‘hard disk’) – which remains a crummy technology on a number of counts, notwithstanding that it is now much smaller and faster than it was in the 60s.

One other thing: in 0ne of those reviews, there is talk of Twitter not causing the Egyptian revolution (such as it is). Which reminds me that there seems to be lots of talk (pro and anti) about ‘Twitter revolutions’, but very little about Wikileaks revolutions – but at least the first one, in Tunisia, seems to have been at least in part catalysed by certain Wikileaks revelations about (IIRC) the regime’s opulence and arrogance, which seem to have crystallised pre-existing but inchoate dissatisfaction into common knowledge of concrete facts.

17

Metatone 05.11.12 at 1:28 pm

Perhaps ironically in light of the Baffler’s position, my theory has been that it’s not so much the infrastructure/technostructure of capitalism that has killed imaginative innovation, as a cultural shift.

(Though, to be fair, I think there are problems with the infrastructure of capitalism too.)

That cultural shift might be termed the triumph of the Hayekians (followers of Hayek, rather than the man himself) who have raised the notion of local knowledge into a fetish that leads to a learned helplessness. Effectively “no good trying to innovate, no-one can make anything that makes an impact, knowledge is too distributed/fragmented.”

Notably, several people involved in what should be the next technology of human organisation, propelling us forward (complex adaptive systems) have basically thrown in the towel and just preach minimalism (Paul Ormerod is a particular culprit here.)

18

Henry 05.11.12 at 1:30 pm

Metatone – if that’s the problem, Cosma Shalizi and I have a paper in the making which advances a very different way of thinking about things …

19

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 2:07 pm

Effectively “no good trying to innovate, no-one can make anything that makes an impact, knowledge is too distributed/fragmented.”

Is that a consequence of Hayekian thinking because believers in local knowledge are too stupid to simply hire somebody who does have that local knowledge?

Then again, perhaps it’s the link between Hayek and the claim that “[ it's] no good trying to innovate” that has zero value.

20

Henry 05.11.12 at 2:23 pm

I’ve just finished reading a very annoying Russell Hardin chapter on how Hayek was teh awesome, which may color my views unduly. But here goes anyway, I think that the basic Hayekian claim is based on an inadequate sociology of knowledge. He assumes that local knowledge trumps everything, and that local knowledge is mostly tacit and incommunicable – hence, the need for the market, as a way of producing an index that can make this knowledge actionable without otherwise having to render it explicit. But this assumption about the incommunicability of most forms of knowledge is not only strong but wrong. Good knowledge is usually based on social forms of discovery, which require explicit argument between human beings, not simple coordination through the price mechanism. And ways of organizing society which emphasize the Hayekian virtues of markets are _ipso facto_ likely to skimp on the actual processes of social and often _democratic_ communication, through which the discovery of good knowledge, especially about complex social problems, proceeds. People who throw in the towel because it’s Just All Too Complex are missing the point entirely – searching across rugged landscapes, so as to discover better and more attractive optima will proceed best when it _harnesses appropriate mechanisms of communication_ (i.e. democracy) that maximize exposure to diverse points of view. Sorry if this is too compact and dense to seem to make much sense at the moment (I think it will make better sense in the larger mss ).

21

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 3:14 pm

[Hayek] assumes that local knowledge trumps everything, and that local knowledge is mostly tacit and incommunicable – hence, the need for the market, as a way of producing an index that can make this knowledge actionable without otherwise having to render it explicit.

Once we differentiate between what Hayek says and the strongest form in which Hayek’s argument can be made, your criticism becomes inadequate.

Local knowledge does not need to be tacit or incommunicable in order to be a unassailable hurdle for a central planner. It’s enough that there are barriers to that communication — for instance: you might need years of living in a community before you understand even important aspects of that community’s needs and habits; you might need years of studying math before you understand Perelman’s proof of the Poincaire Conjecture; you might need years of practice in writing compilers before you understand all the quirks of the trade, etc. All of this is communicable information.

In the case of the market, an extra hurdle comes from the transitory nature of the usefulness of some information: a guild may hold a hard to communicate knowledge about what works in a given context, but once that context changes (because of technology, changes in social mores etc.) that knowledge may become worthless. So the speed with which the knowledge can be communicated becomes important.

Good knowledge is usually based on social forms of discovery, which require explicit argument between human beings, not simple coordination through the price mechanism. And ways of organizing society which emphasize the Hayekian virtues of markets are ipso facto likely to skimp on the actual processes of social and often democratic communication, through which the discovery of good knowledge, especially about complex social problems, proceeds.

But this form of communication 1) usually happens within a certain guild, a guild that is not accessible without extra years of study; and 2) it has only indirect effects on the actual makers and sellers of widgets: on the road between a general and easily communicable idea and the actual practical application of that idea, you find many pockets of specialized local knowledge that is hard to communicate.

Also, Hayek can be improved in that it is not just prices that the market communicates: it also communicates stories of failure and success, indicating what to copy and what to avoid.

“to discover better and more attractive optima will proceed best when it harnesses appropriate mechanisms of communication (i.e. democracy) that maximize exposure to diverse points of view”

I think Hayek would agree 100% with that quote, once you exclude the parenthetical remark. He would just say that the market is the best mechanism for communicating obscure knowledge, for which we can get only partial information, like prices and failure and success stories.

Also, unless by democracy you intend to say something really idiosyncratic, I just don’t see how democracy is a good mechanism for communication. Southpark put it best when it described large scale democracy as the choice between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. Of course, compared to cowering for fear of a tyrant’s whim, choosing between a giant douche and a turd sandwich is a right to be cherished and a right worth fighting for — but a great mechanism of communication it is not.

22

Henry 05.11.12 at 3:37 pm

Alex K. – thanks for the response. I’m not trying to defend the role of the central planner here – more arguing that markets are an inadequate means of discovery. I disagree with you about Hayek’s take on tacit knowledge. Following Michael Polanyi, his arguments really do imply that processes of deliberate articulation and communication are at best going to be pretty inadequate. Hence, I think, his repeated emphasis on slow processes of evolutionary accretion as a path towards change, and his ferocious hostility to planning and collective endeavors of all sorts. And it isn’t the “market” that “communicates” stories of success or failure – the market doesn’t have any voice for Hayek, beyond the price index. One could make a more subtle argument that the market, as an evolutionary process, _provides information_ through differing death rates of firms and so on, but this isn’t Hayek’s argument, and in order for this information to be made useful, it has to be gathered and aggregated via statistics etc in processes quite unlike those that Hayek ascribes to the market itself.

23

geo 05.11.12 at 3:37 pm

Southpark put it best

This is a priori very unlikely. The Sayings of Southpark would be an unbeatable compendium of glib asininity. In this case, the silliness is in taking our current plutocracy as a plausible basis for issuing mindless snark about the hopeless stupidity of “large-scale democracy.” Our version of electoral oligarchy bears roughly the same relation to democracy as “really existing socialism” did to socialism. Not a thought within the compass of the ten-year-old mind, however.

24

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 3:49 pm

I disagree with you about Hayek’s take on tacit knowledge
[...]
it isn’t the “market” that “communicates” stories of success or failure – the market doesn’t have any voice for Hayek, beyond the price index
[...]
One could make a more subtle argument that the market, as an evolutionary process, provides information through differing death rates of firms and so on

As I said, I see my argument as attempting an exposition of a stronger form of Hayek’s local knowledge argument, not as defense of the particulars of his argument.

25

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 3:50 pm

Our version of electoral oligarchy bears roughly the same relation to democracy as “really existing socialism” did to socialism.

What would an ideal large scale democracy look like?

26

Metatone 05.11.12 at 4:13 pm

@Alex K.

Please note I specifically talked about “Hayekians” rather than Hayek himself.
There has been a huge effort to carry on the work of Hayek and Mises and others. And many of those involved in that effort have taken extreme viewpoints on the communicability of knowledge, some positing that markets are the only thing that can communicate knowledge and others positing that any knowledge that a market cannot communicate is not valid.

To describe the cultural implications of this would be a blog in itself, so I won’t go further in derailing the conversation. What I will note is that if we lived in a Hayek style utopia one can see ways in which these attitudes to knowledge would not impact innovation. However, in the world we live in, where many resources sit in large organisations, they do affect the propensity to invest in breakthrough ideas.

27

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 4:27 pm

“However, in the world we live in, where many resources sit in large organisations, they do affect the propensity to invest in breakthrough ideas.”

That large, bureaucratic entities –including corporations– tend to stifle unorthodox ideas is a phenomenon quite independent of Hayek’s popularity. The attractiveness of the culture of covering one’s ass is to blame here.

But as long as the corporation makes efforts to avoid cover-assism, they do invest in possibly breakthrough ideas: Google invests in self-driving cars, virtual reality goggles and apparently in robotics.

28

Yarrow 05.11.12 at 4:29 pm

Henry @ 20: “searching across rugged landscapes, so as to discover better and more attractive optima will proceed best when it harnesses appropriate mechanisms of communication (i.e. democracy) that maximize exposure to diverse points of view. Sorry if this is too compact and dense to seem to make much sense at the moment (I think it will make better sense in the larger mss ).”

Pithy and succinct, rather. Possibly I think so only because it expresses a view I find congenial, but Alex K. seems to have taken the point without at all agreeing with it. I’m looking forward to the paper.

29

geo 05.11.12 at 4:47 pm

What would an ideal large scale democracy look like?

Excellent question. It’s remarkable how seldom public figures, political scientists, eminent pundits, passionate libertarians, or anyone else addresses him/herself to it.

In a large-scale democracy worthy of the name, there would be continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of current political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc. These groups would make use of information about these issues collected by public agencies and made available on the Web, information equal in quality and depth to the information available to policymakers and industry lobbyists. The meetings of these groups would be regularly attended by public officials, including elected officials, who would have plenty of time to do so because they would be released from the time-consuming obligations of fund-raising by sensible campaign-finance reform.

The local discussion groups would communicate regularly with one another, sharing information and conclusions, and would join in formulating plans to instruct officials and make demands both on current legislators and on political candidates seeking their support. They would also send delegates to state and regional citizens’ groups, which would conduct many of the negotiations with groups from other regions or industries (unions would have a parallel structure of member involvement, unlike today) and with national policymakers. These delegates would be in continual contact with the smaller bodies that sent them, and would be readily recallable, as would elected officials at all levels.

The groups at all levels, particularly the higher-level ones, would also monitor and criticize media coverage of issues that interest them, exactly as industry and other (eg, religious) interest groups do today. They would commission, and in some cases, write, articles for the media — which, unlike the continuous stream of corporate propaganda that largely constitutes present-day “reporting” in many local and regional newspapers, would be openly acknowledged — and would propose guests on radio and television discussions of contentious issues. And just as advertisers boycott publications or media programs considered ideologically unsound, the citizen/worker groups would orchestrate pressure, including boycotts, of chronically biased outlets.

This is a bare framework. Other notions can be found in Ralph Nader’s excellent (though widely and foolishly dismissed) Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and in the practice of current activist groups. The fundamental principles are citizen involvement, accountability, adequate resources for all sides of a debate to make their case, and broad economic equality in the society at large. And, of course, freedom for those who don’t give a damn to blow it all off, though their neighbors will be equally free to call them what the Greeks did: idiotes.

30

William Timberman 05.11.12 at 5:16 pm

A long, long way from here to there, geo. And why, so far, has this vision seemed so out of reach? Must we wait until everyone is wise before we have a genuine shot at it bringing it to pass? Peering out over the top of my idiotes foxhole, I see Jamie Dimon and Hilary Clinton on the other side of the wire, and behind me, everyone from Rick Santorum and Joe Arpaio to the Taliban. And some asshole keeps sandpapering their sociopsychopathies, and giving them guns to boot.

Same as it ever was, the pessimists say. That may be too grim an assessment, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I thought 40 years ago that were finally on our way to clearing many of the old obstacles out of our way. Of course, I was very young then, and well-sheltered by what had arisen, in my one charmed country, out of the last great outbreak of evil/return of the repressed. Blessed ignorance, I suppose.

I like what you see. I see it also, and I even think I understand how it might work. On the other hand….

31

geo 05.11.12 at 5:32 pm

Must we wait until everyone is wise … ?

By no means. As Henry has been arguing above, democracy will make us smarter. Stupid people (usually defined as people who disagree with whoever’s doing the defining) are welcome to the discussion. As long as all sides have roughly equal resources to make their case, then the best arguments will eventually win. (By definition, actually, if you’re a philosophical pragmatist, as I am.)

32

William Timberman 05.11.12 at 5:37 pm

Stupid people are welcome to the discussion. Well, yes, they have to be, don’t they? Otherwise we’re talking through our hats. On the other hand, I live in Arizona. Enough said, I think….

33

Henry 05.11.12 at 7:01 pm

One of the most fascinating pieces on argument that I’ve read (and one which we are pillaging shamelessly) is this one by Mercier and Sperber. The short version (as I read it) is that you can take human beings as they are, with all sorts of cognitive biases, refusal to admit that they are wrong etc, and still find that argument will help them reason much better. It only refers to Cass Sunstein’s arguments in passing, but seems to me to be a very convincing refutation of his broader claims.

34

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 7:09 pm

Geo,

The attractiveness of your vision depends on giving the impression—real or imaginary—of control, and this in turn depends on a crucial ambiguity about who controls the resources.

If resources are controlled locally, then your democracy would indeed be empowering. But some extreme version of this is not very different from libertarian utopian talk, especially if the rights given to idiotes include the right to use their own resources mostly as they see fit.

On the other hand, if resources are controlled centrally, then your description lends itself easily to a dystopian reading. When you say that ” the citizen/worker groups would orchestrate pressure [...] [on] chronically biased outlets”, in the context of centralized resources for mass media , this sounds ominous and a lot like political censorship . (I know that you don’t mean that—I do think that centralized resources for mass media would have as an unintended consequence political censorship and I’m explaining how your vision has crucial ambiguities in it)

I’m not going to continue because a detailed critique would need a more detailed proposal (I find your talk about committees and sub-committees coordinating with each other and with upper hierarchies quite alien to any form of self-empowerment, but maybe your detailed version solves the problems) and probably a different medium.

35

geo 05.11.12 at 7:39 pm

Sorry, Alex, but I don’t see your objections. No central control of resources is remotely implied. We have some idea of how to achieve greater society-wide equality of resources: unionization, progressive taxation, universal education and health-care, financial and other regulations imposed by democratically elected legislatures insulated from lobbying and campaign-finance pressures. Nothing remotely threatening here, I should think. Nor is any central control of mass media implied. (Do you have any objection, by the way, to the extreme concentration of ownership in newspapers, radio, and television at present, with all the possibilities — fully realized — for censorship and ideological homogenization that implies?) What you mean by local forms of organization aggregating into larger ones, over which they nevertheless retain control, being “alien to any form of self-empowerment,” I can’t begin to understand.

So, sorry, I think my outline was quite sufficiently detailed and that your refusal to discuss it in detail, while at the same time professing interest in exploring the nature of “ideal large-scale democracy,” signifies either plain incomprehension or bad faith.

36

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 7:51 pm

Geo,

Your description is not detailed because I don’t see anything substantial in it that can not be done _today_. Yet, you don’t like our present democracy, so I assumed there was more to your objection to current democracy than campaign funding reform.

What’s stopping people _now_ from ” continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of current political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc. ” and then writing letters to their representatives about their discussions?

37

geo 05.11.12 at 8:03 pm

I don’t see anything substantial in it that can not be done today

At the end of my account I wrote: “The fundamental principles are citizen involvement, accountability, adequate resources for all sides of a debate to make their case, and broad economic equality in the society at large.” You think the last two conditions are satisfied today?

In any case, why should it be an objection to a model of democracy that there’s nothing stopping people from beginning to implement it now, if they wished?

38

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 8:24 pm

“adequate resources for all sides of a debate to make their case, and broad economic equality in the society at large.” You think the last two conditions are satisfied today?

The first condition is in fact satisfied (that people don’t care to hear all sides of the debate is quite a different issue), the second condition sounds more like a result that you want rather than a precondition of democracy. I would love to have everyone own a small business, but I don’t put that as a precondition to my preferred political system.

In any case, why should it be an objection to a model of democracy that there’s nothing stopping people from beginning to implement it now, if they wished?

I objected to the idea expressed by Henry that democracy is a good mechanism of communication. A good mechanism of communication may well be a precondition for a working democracy — but a democracy by itself is a rather poor means of communicating the preferences of the citizens.

39

geo 05.11.12 at 8:30 pm

To follow up: in case my original comment didn’t make it clear enough to others beside Alex, I’d like to triple underline the dependence of genuine democracy on broad economic equality, meaning by the latter that 1) minimum economic security is universal, so that no one’s economic welfare can be jeopardized by political activism that may be anathema to his/her economic or political superiors; 2) gross inequality of resources does not give some political opinions vastly greater possibilities of publicity or promotion (ie, lobbying) than others, as at present; 3) the material prerequisites of political activity — leisure, education, at least modest disposable income — are universally available, if one is serious about universal participation (among those who care to).

What this means is that severe economic inequality is incompatible with substantive democracy, as opposed to the debased, largely symbolic form prevailing in the US today, which is more properly called plutocracy or electoral oligarchy. Those who don’t understand this — eg, the Republican Party en bloc, the Supreme Court, those who appointed and approved them, and all too many libertarians — have only the most superficial understanding of democracy.

40

geo 05.11.12 at 8:39 pm

We cross-posted, so I hadn’t seen this line from 38 when I wrote 39: The first condition is in fact satisfied. If I had seen it, I doubt I would have thought 39 worth writing, or anything else addressed to Alex. His notion that ordinary, unorganized citizens have adequate resources to make their case either to legislators or to other citizens, when the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the financial, energy, defense, insurance, pharmaceutical, and other industry lobbies, not to mention the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Frank what’s-his-name, and the other billionaires recently liberated by Citizens United, not to mention Clear Channel, News Corp, and the conglomerate owners of the major networks, deploy resources many orders of magnitude greater, is … well, a bit of a conversation-stopper, I’m afraid.

41

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 8:52 pm

” His notion that ordinary, unorganized citizens have adequate resources to make their case either to legislators or to other citizens”

But why talk about “unorganized citizens”? A substantial majority of the population _does_ have the means to participate in supporting various lobbying efforts, as they also have the means to get their information from non-mainstream channels. Yet they don’t do it.

In fact, it is a common place of the public choice critique of democracy that special interest groups who benefit vastly from a given policy will out-lobby the thinly distributed interests of the majority of the population.

Giving people minimum economic security does not change the logic of this criticism — it would just add to the already vast mass of people who could benefit from such lobbying but who don’t do it.

42

Data Tutashkhia 05.11.12 at 8:55 pm

I certainly agree that “that severe economic inequality is incompatible with substantive democracy”, but is the absence of inequality sufficient? The more diverse the population (industrial/agrarian/artisan/intelligentsia/bureaucracy, urban/rural), the less, is seems to me, a chance of it working in a substantive way, even without inequality. It seems unlikely that people with radically different life experiences would be able to agree on any universal, centralized actions and policies. Which is what I hear Alex K. saying.

43

geo 05.11.12 at 9:10 pm

Alex @ 41: it is a common place of the public choice critique of democracy

Ah, if I’d only known I was in conversation with someone who took public choice theory seriously, I would have made the appropriate adjustment, ie, kept my mouth shut. Really, Alex, it’s only fair to let people know up front if one is a creationist, or a climate-change denialist, or sympathetic to public choice theory.

But why talk about “unorganized citizens”? A substantial majority of the population does have the means to participate in supporting various lobbying efforts, as they also have the means to get their information from non-mainstream channels. Yet they don’t do it.

But … oh, never mind. Thanks for the workout, though.

44

Salient 05.11.12 at 9:47 pm

If resources are controlled locally, then your democracy would indeed be empowering. But some extreme version of this is not very different from libertarian utopian talk,

Nor from anarchist utopia. Disempowerment of the state’s coercive apparatus.

geo’s vision sounds like a hell of a lot more work for pretty much everybody (at the very least it dumps a lot more responsibility on each person), I don’t see how the envisioned society finds its way around NIMBY problems or protects minorities from hostile bigotry, and it doesn’t specify the means through which state coercion may be exercised to overrule and counteract the local democratic power structure, which is a dangerous means to leave ambiguous. (I don’t really see a way around all this, if we’re defining democracy in terms of individuals’ right to political agency rather than in terms of the state’s responsibilities to its constituent citizens. Individual responsibilities presented in the guise of individual rights assign moral culpability to those who haven’t the time and energy to defend themselves endlessly in open debate, and moral approbation to those of us who find those sorts of responsibilities a fun pastime.)

45

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 9:51 pm

“Ah, if I’d only known I was in conversation with someone who took public choice theory seriously”

I made a specific argument (that special interest groups generally out-lobby the general population, if the losses from a given policy are thinly distributed among the voting population). Seems like a perfectly sensible explanation for why people who do have the means, in the aggregate, to lobby, do not do so.

Just as you don’t have to believe in homo economicus in order to believe that competition exists, you don’t have to believe in the entire corpus of assumptions of public choice theory in order to find some arguments convincing.

But I guess imagining that democracy does not work because of Chomsky-esque reasons is just too fundamental to your worldview to challenge it. A bit like how the people watching mainstream channels don’t challenge their worldview too much — it may create indigestion.

46

geo 05.11.12 at 10:21 pm

Alex, what you actually said was that yes indeed, there were adequate resources for all sides of a debate to make their case, and that “a substantial majority of the population does have the means to participate in supporting various lobbying efforts, as they also have the means to get their information from non-mainstream channels.” I pointed out that the disparity in resources available to influence policy and public debate as between ordinary citizens in their currently atomized, unorganized state, on the one hand, and highly organized business interests on the other, is enormous and makes effective democracy impossible. Your response to this is, as far as I can make out, “Well, so what? That’s as it should be, because business cares so much more about the issues that it’s willing to spend more.”

This seems to me a ridiculous response, or non-response. People unable to get health care, or whose town drinking supply is polluted by PCBs, or who wish to support Ecuadorian Indians whose habitat has been turned into an infernal landscape of toxic swamps by Exxon, etc, etc, generally cannot, at present, do a damned thing about it because of the disproportionate power exerted by malefactors of great wealth and the legislators they own. In the comment which kicked off this non-discussion, I suggested some general forms and mechanisms whereby ordinary people might organize themselves and thus restore some substance to this society’s hollow democratic pretensions. I emphasized repeatedly that such self-organization had material preconditions: specifically, a much greater degree of economic equality than exists at present, and I tried to explain why this precondition obtained. “Means in the aggregate” are inadequate, and in any case aggregating them as you propose is precisely the wrong way to understand the deficiencies of contemporary American political culture. Of course, greater material equality is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of genuine democracy. People actually have to make the effort.
Is that truism what you’re trying to get across?

Salient: yes, it will be a lot of work. Matt Taibbi has (yet another) brilliant piece in Rolling Stone today on “How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform,” which ends: But money never gets tired. It never gets frustrated. And it thinks that drilling holes in Dodd-Frank is every bit as interesting as The Book of Mormon or Kate Upton naked. The system has become too complex for flesh-and-blood people, who make the mistake of thinking that passing a new law means the end of the discussion, when it’s really just the beginning of a war. Eternal vigilance …

47

Alex K. 05.11.12 at 10:40 pm

Geo,

I’m not saying “Well, so what? That’s as it should be, because business cares so much more about the issues that it’s willing to spend more” — that’s _not_ how it should be, it is just how it will be. And special interests will exist even if you manage somehow to get your broadly egalitarian society.

I am perfectly willing to discuss ways of ameliorating the plight of the poor — I just don’t agree that lack of resources on the part of the population is the reason democracy does not work well.

I am saying that the defects you see in the current democracy are mostly defects in democracy itself, and I’m bringing the present behavior of the middle class as Exhibit A in my argument. (This does not deny that you can make marginal improvements, like campaign finance reform)

48

ajay 05.14.12 at 6:05 pm

In a large-scale democracy worthy of the name, there would be continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of current political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc.

God, it sounds awful.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a debate about appropriate methods of local amenity funding, forever. And it would be forever, Winston…”

49

geo 05.14.12 at 6:25 pm

Civic participation is not compulsory , ajay. You’re perfectly free to leave the determination of social and economic policy to the tender mercies and sublime wisdom of the people Matt Taibbi writes about in the Rolling Stone article I cited above.

50

Luis 05.14.12 at 6:42 pm

You’re perfectly free to leave the determination of social and economic policy to the tender mercies and sublime wisdom of the people Matt Taibbi writes about in the Rolling Stone article I cited above.

And most people are happy to do just that, which is Alex K.’s perfectly valid point re social choice.

51

geo 05.14.12 at 6:56 pm

Luis, Alex’s perfectly invalid point was this: the fact that people face what I’ve been pointing out (and common sense points out) are near-insuperable entry costs to full political participation — stress, lack of time, economic insecurity, and lack of relevant skills/training/experience or the resources to hire people who can supply them, as business routinely does — has no effect on their reluctance to participate, and that supplying them (through social-democratic social policies) with more of those resources and that security would not significantly increase their participation. Their preferences are straightforwardly revealed by their actions — no need to give the matter any more thought.

And look: you think people are happy to be continually screwed by elites and powerless to do anything about it? I think they’re seething. Not everyone, of course, but quite a few people.

52

Alex K. 05.14.12 at 7:04 pm

“near-insuperable entry costs to full political participation—stress, lack of time, economic insecurity, and lack of relevant skills/training/experience or the resources to hire people who can supply them”

This is nonsense — people can, _today_, donate to organizations that have a good track record for fighting on their behalf.

53

Alex K. 05.14.12 at 7:19 pm

And of course, Ralph Nader’s organization survived, and produced some good, entirely out of citizen donations.

54

Henry 05.14.12 at 7:20 pm

To what effect? There is an awful lot of political economy and political economy work out there that suggests that this is a decidedly poor substitute for actual democracy of the sort that George is looking for. Brady and Verba’s new _Unheavenly Chorus_ book on the inequalities of public representation is one take on this. Theda Skocpol’s work is excellent, as is Hacker/Pierson. And this sudden burst of optimism is decidedly inconsistent with your earlier arguments. You can either have your public choice account of the different propensities to organize of diffuse and concentrated interests. Or you can have your pluralist account of how donation-fueled representation is teh awesome. But you can’t have both, without contradicting yourself.

On the question of whether this is an attractive vision or not – it’s the old “the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings” problem. Whether or not it _is_ a problem depends on whether you think that political activity is a crucial aspect of citizenship or not. But even if you don’t, there are ways to mitigate the problem and retain participation – policy-making juries, for example.

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Alex K. 05.14.12 at 7:54 pm

You can either have your public choice account of the different propensities to organize of diffuse and concentrated interests. Or you can have your pluralist account of how donation-fueled representation is teh awesome. But you can’t have both, without contradicting yourself.

No. I can simply refute an argument (that all democracy needs is more resources for the people) by pointing out that there are enough resources for participating in the current democracy, it just does not happen.

I’m sure the reason why it does not happen is fairly complex, having to do both with the difference between diffuse and concentrated interests and with the difficulty of aggregating the preferences of millions of people in a political program.

But lack of resources does not appear to be a serious reason.

56

J. Otto Pohl 05.14.12 at 7:56 pm

I think most people would like a government that responds to their needs with minimal effort on their part. So George’s model is not very attractive. Really, in a utopian system there would be no need for any political participation since the needs of everybody would have already been met. The less effort needed to get my needs and wants met the better. If the US government had somehow nullified student debt, guaranteed employment at good wages, and provided universal health care do you think there would have been any OWS demonstrations? One of the weaknesses of democracy is that a procedure for meeting your needs is not as attractive as somebody actually promising to meet those needs.

57

Henry 05.14.12 at 8:43 pm

bq. No. I can simply refute an argument (that all democracy needs is more resources for the people) by pointing out that there are enough resources for participating in the current democracy, it just does not happen.

In the first instance, you don’t seem to understand the public choice theory that you would like to use. The point that public choice scholars are making is that the costs of representation are vastly lower for concentrated interests than for diffuse interests. Ergo, concentrated interests get more representation. This simply is incompatible with the genially pluralist picture that you present of a world where everyone could be represented if only they were bothered to get up off their arses (and the fact that they don’t get up off their arses demonstrates that they don’t care). These are fundamentally contradictory ways of understanding politics. In the second instance, people _do_, as George rightly emphasizes, lack resources – not only material resources, but educational resources (understanding how to represent your interests in a complicated system requires understanding the system in the first place, a level of understanding which is, to put it mildly, asymmetrically distributed in ways that correlate with income etc).

Even more importantly, you seem, rather oddly, to view ‘representation’ as being something that everyone can have, once they have more than a minimal threshold of resources. That isn’t how politics works. Actors are only properly ‘represented’ when they have some reasonable degree of persuading political actors that they, rather than actors with competing interests should prevail. Rather obviously, if actors with substantially greater resources tend systematically to win out over actors with very few resources, the latter can only be said to have been ‘represented’ in a nugatory, even derisory, sense of that term. To say that “lack of resources” is not a problem in US politics, is to suggest that you don’t understand (perhaps don’t _want_ to understand???) how US politics actually works

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Alex K. 05.14.12 at 9:41 pm

The point that public choice scholars are making is that the costs of representation are vastly lower for concentrated interests than for diffuse interests. Ergo, concentrated interests get more representation.

This is pretty obvious — you’re just pretending to see something else in my argument.
Also, it matters what those costs are: they are mostly information costs and structural problems like free-riding citizens. Without the free-riding problem, the information costs can be reduced by organizations like Ralph Nader’s. But you can’t solve a free-riding problem by just giving the citizens more money — hence it is not lack of resources that are to blame.

This simply is incompatible with the genially pluralist picture that you present of a world where everyone could be represented if only they were bothered to get up off their arses (and the fact that they don’t get up off their arses demonstrates that they don’t care)

Again, this is not at all present in my arguments. You were probably confused by my Ralph Nader argument. Here is the argument: _If_ it were possible to solve problems by more monetary resources, then we would see more organizations like Ralph Nader’s — that we don’t see them means that the problems run deeper than that. There is no contradiction whatsoever here.

I am explicitly claiming that the apathy is not a matter of people being stupid and/or lazy.

“not only material resources, but educational resources (understanding how to represent your interests in a complicated system requires understanding the system in the first place, a level of understanding which is, to put it mildly, asymmetrically distributed in ways that correlate with income etc).”

An uncharitable interpretation of the above is that for democracy to work, everyone needs to be an expert on the ins and outs of lobbying, campaigning and other political games. Obviously this will never be so, hence we need to concentrate on how various political organizations (citizen groups, consumer advocacy groups etc.) can represent the interests of citizens. But once you delegate the details of lobbying to some such group, then the educational requirements for representing one’s interests drop dramatically — it is enough to learn at one’s mother tit that supporting organization X is good, not supporting it is bad.

Secondly, I can make everything easier for myself by simply claiming that even educated people don’t have their interests properly represented by democratic processes — hence it is not lack of resources that is the problem.

Actors are only properly ‘represented’ when they have some reasonable degree of persuading political actors that they, rather than actors with competing interests should prevail.

I can’t parse this.

At any rate, there is no contradiction in my position.

59

geo 05.14.12 at 9:46 pm

Alex, the full-scale lobbying war launched by Wall Street on Dodd-Frank (described by Matt Taibbi in the article I cited) is absolutely typical of the day-in, day-out operation of the legislative process. Corporate money — billions of dollars yearly, from energy, defense, agribusiness, chemical, pharma, insurance, entertainment, and many, many other business lobbies — seduces, harasses, obfuscates, and intimidates. For every one-decibel message a Nader-type organization gets to whisper into a legislator’s ear (more likely an aide’s), the business lobbies inundate the legislator with hundreds, at vastly higher decibel levels. This is the basic fact of American politics. If you don’t know this, you don’t know anything about the subject.

And you say , notwithstanding the above, that for an ordinary American (median income $50,000 for a family of four), sending $50 or $100 a year to one’s favorite non-profit advocacy group counts as “full political participation”? And you wonder why Henry and I are exasperated with you?

Otto: If the US government had somehow nullified student debt, guaranteed employment at good wages, and provided universal health care do you think there would have been any OWS demonstrations?

Excellent point, Otto. I think that definitely would have taken the wind out of their sails.

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Alex K. 05.14.12 at 10:20 pm

And you say , notwithstanding the above, that for an ordinary American (median income $50,000 for a family of four), sending $50 or $100 a year to one’s favorite non-profit advocacy group counts as “full political participation”?

Let’s say we use our magic wand, and triple the income of every single American. How does that improve the political process? You think that the free-riding problem faced by groups trying to represent diffused interest disappears?

61

Alex K. 05.14.12 at 10:21 pm

interest = interests

62

Tim Wilkinson 05.14.12 at 11:09 pm

Stop political donations. Many right wingers seem genuinely blind to the fact that one dollar one vote is not an acceptable democratic principle.

63

Substance McGravitas 05.14.12 at 11:15 pm

Many right wingers seem genuinely blind to the fact that one dollar one vote is not an acceptable democratic principle.

I think their eyes are open.

64

Tim Wilkinson 05.14.12 at 11:23 pm

But dead like a shark’s.

65

Tim Wilkinson 05.14.12 at 11:23 pm

Or a squid’s.

66

Salient 05.14.12 at 11:30 pm

And you wonder why Henry and I are exasperated with you?

I’d be with you too… right up to the point when you propose that we should work toward an alternative that demands more time, attention, and energy from its constituents.

Seriously, geo, it seems to me like you were such a jerk to ajay (who was basically recapitulating the point I’d just tried to make). Do you think everyone should invest themselves in political discourse about as much as you and I do, and if they don’t, well then they can go rot? Why would you set up a dichotomy in which anyone not forever vigilantly investing themselves into the current current of political discourse is dismissed as doomed “to the tender mercies and sublime wisdom of the people Matt Taibbi writes about” — is it possible to be any more callous? Do you realize, by saying this, you are endorsing that dichotomy? Was it just a case of ‘friendly fire’ incorrectly aimed derisive sarcasm, or does it accurately represent how you feel about disinterested and disengaged constituents?

67

shah8 05.15.12 at 12:27 am

A most fascinating turn in the thread…

Okay, I’ve thought for some time that capital D democracy is dead as an attractive political structure. There are even reasons I think would appeal to various masses, and has done so for smaller city-statish polities…

The biggest elephant in the room that goes without discussion is the topic of griefers. People who want their profit in other people’s misery. People who expect the state to subsidize their specific notions of supremacy. People who bargain within the system, using every hypocritical, work to rulism, and passive aggressive tactics to work a democratic system such that democratic participation and redress are unavailable to their enemies. The on-going war on women is a classic example. Griefer teahadists bargain with big business to trade state infrastructure for punishing women, by removing access to things women need, or by destroying jobs that are predominantly held by women, so forth and on. They put up state amendments, lie like hell about it, and get them passed in an environment where people don’t quite grasp that they shouldn’t vote for things they don’t understand.

In this sort of environment, I am extremely, and deeply unsympathetic to *Salient* et al, about the labor expected of people who want to participate in a democracy. You all can go live in post-Tito Yugoslavia, with the worst right ahead of you, for all I care about those sentiments. Democracy does not work without informed consent. It hasn’t been an issue in the US so far because the US is so fabulously wealthy (for now), but long run? Dipshit idiots will destroy us all, and all of our children in the name of some completely insane ideology (whether that be only Romans gets to be citizens or something else). Just as they did the Gracci Brothers, before and since. Without informed consent, the elites will do the same thing they did back then, a whole bunch of temporary measures while they poison the crowd and dismember the organization. When the job’s done, the “liberal” measures are ended. If you think about it, that’s what happened when the US system was challenged by International Communism. Walkback happening now… Never mind that these measures are cut out of simple non-barbaric cloth. Those people shouldn’t have crap. The elites and their doofus suckers agree!

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geo 05.15.12 at 12:52 am

Salient: Do you think everyone should invest themselves in political discourse about as much as you and I do, and if they don’t, well then they can go rot?

Change “can” to “will, alas, given the unsleeping forces of plutocracy arrayed against us” and yes, that’s pretty much what I think.

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geo 05.15.12 at 1:17 am

Alex: if your question is “Will people who are incapable (perhaps from some genetic defect) of taking an interest in politics and self-government take any more interest in those things if their disposable income is tripled (actually far more than tripled, since as should be obvious, the cost of subsistence doesn’t rise in strict proportion to income — so say, “increased by 500 or 1000 percent)?” then my answer is “By definition, no.” If your question is “Will people who are now struggling in an environment of radical economic insecurity, often staggering under debt, with a fragile and threatened safety net, no political experience, few and dwindling voluntary civic associations like unions and political clubs, their sources of information limited to mass media owned by a small number of multinational conglomerates, have a better chance (no guarantees, of course) of at least beginning the long and painful process of breaking out of apathy and helplessness if their disposable income is increased by 500 or 1000 percent?” then my answer is “Yes, and I can’t believe you’re serious in asking such a question. Do you have no imagination, no power of empathy? Do you have no glimmer of understanding of what it’s like to be a disempowered, isolated citizen in a plutocracy dominated by ruthless, unscrupulous business lobbies with unlimited funding?”

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Alex K. 05.15.12 at 1:41 am

Will people who are incapable (perhaps from some genetic defect) of taking an interest in politics and self-government take any more interest in those things if their disposable income is tripled [...]

What is this genetic defect talk about? I am talking about the American population at large — what are you talking about?

“Will people who are now struggling in an environment of radical economic insecurity,[...]have a better chance?”

Of course poor people will have a better chance — this is not a point of disagreement. Current democracy does not well represent the interests of the population at large (not just the poor) hence I say that there is a systemic problem with democracy, which you studiously ignore, which has little to do with the resources of the middle class.

Feel free to cut the cheap rhetorical tricks about my lack of empathy.

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geo 05.15.12 at 1:54 am

Alex: sorry if I’ve persistently misunderstood you. In any case, I seem to have been repeating myself for a while on this thread, boring everyone else and probably boring you too, by now. So I’ll leave you the last word.

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