Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution

by Corey Robin on May 8, 2014

What follows is a talk I gave at the University of Washington this past weekend on my working paper “Smiling Faces Tell Lies: Pessimism, Originalism, and Capitalism in the Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.” The paper is still incomplete. I only managed to write about Thomas’s theories of racism and how they intersect with his philosophy of constitutional interpretation. In the coming months, I intend to expand the paper to talk about Thomas’s views on capitalism, and how they inform his jurisprudence about the Commerce Clause, the Takings Clause, and more. Ultimately, this paper will be published by the University of Chicago Press in a volume on African-American political thought, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner. Other contributors will include: Cedric Johnson on Huey Newton, Nikhil Singh on Malcolm X, Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison, Michael Dawson on Marcus Garvey, Naomi Murakawa on Ida B. Wells, Jason Frank on Langston Hughes, Tommie Shelby on Richard Wright, Danielle Allen on Ralph Ellison, and many many more. It’s going to be fantastic. But until then, here’s my talk on Clarence Thomas. If you’d like a copy of the paper, email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

• • • • • 


Yesterday, Nikhil Singh said that more than any other figure in the African American canon, Malcolm X is someone who everyone thinks they know. Clarence Thomas, I’ve discovered in the past six months, is also a figure who everyone thinks they know. In the interest of dispelling that expectation, which many of you may share, I’d like to present five facts about Clarence Thomas that perhaps you didn’t know.

  1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to Washington, DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.

  2. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind,” he said in 1985, in the third year of his tenure as head of the EEOC. “I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.” Or, as he told Juan Williams in 1987, “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”

  3. When Clarence Thomas was in college he memorized the speeches of Malcolm X; two decades later, he could still recite them by heart. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told a libertarian magazine in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

  4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas that’s called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

  5. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he’s not allowed to listen to Carole King.

Now, the truth is that there’s nothing all that surprising about the fact that Clarence Thomas is black and conservative. There’s a long tradition of black conservatism in this country. And from Edmund Burke to Ayn Rand, conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders, men and women who hail from the peripheries or margins of the national experience.

Nor, in the end, is Clarence Thomas’s early engagement with black radicalism all that surprising. After all, one of the great clichés of the twentieth century is the young left-wing radical graduating to middle-aged conservatism. And as Cedric Johnson, Michael Dawson, and other scholars have reminded us, there’s a deep affinity between conservatism and parts of the Black Power/Black Nationalist tradition.

But here, I think, is what is surprising about Clarence Thomas: First, he’s a Supreme Court justice who has managed in his jurisprudence to incorporate rather than repudiate some of his early commitments to Black Nationalism and Black Power; I think it’s fair to say no other Supreme Court justice has done that. And, second, Thomas is a constitutional originalist, and a rather radical one at that. Unlike any other justice—not Scalia, not Roberts, not Alito—Thomas wants to restore the Constitution to the meaning it had in 1789.

How Thomas has been able to marry an incredibly bleak vision of the black past, a vision rooted in black nationalism, to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative black future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead: that is the basic puzzle of Clarence Thomas and what makes him, I think, more interesting than many of us realized.

In my paper, I document both Thomas’s involvement as a younger man in the broad milieu of Black Nationalism and how that involvement carries over into his jurisprudence. I use the phrase “broad milieu” deliberately [this graf’s for you, Bloix!]. I don’t want to overstate the depth or intensity of his involvement. Nor do I want to posit a specificity, a precise location, to that involvement, when none is there. Reading Cedric Johnson’s paper on Huey Newton, which Cedric presented yesterday, one sees this deep texture and particularity to the different arguments within the Black Power movement that you simply don’t see in Thomas. Instead you see someone who breathed in the broader atmosphere of Black Power and Black Nationalism, and never, I argue, stopped entirely breathing it. Or at least never stopped breathing part of it.

Specifically, what I think Thomas took away from that early engagement are two ideas. First, not only is racism a perdurable element of the American experience—and I want to stress that Thomas’s concern, unlike that of more internationally minded figures like Newton, Malcolm X, or Angela Davis, is with racism as an American experience—but it is also a protean and often hidden element of that experience.

Thomas believes that racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you’ll never be able to remove it. You see this belief in quiet, throwaway lines in his opinions that you can easily miss if you’re reading too fast. In 1992, in one of his early cases, Georgia v. McCollum, Thomas stated, “Conscious and unconscious prejudice persists in our society. Common sense and common experience confirms this understanding.” The point was so obvious and self-evident to Thomas it didn’t need elaboration or explanation. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he wrote, “If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination’s effects.” That “if” is a conditional only in the grammatical sense – that is, it governs the clause that comes after – but not in the historical sense. For Thomas thinks that society cannot in fact end discrimination.

Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul, as I’ve said, that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.

In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:

At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [Northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.


If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:

 

 The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.


You’ve got the same animal imagery; the same moral emphasis on deceit and insincerity as the crucial marker of difference between liberal and conservative; the same emphasis on whiteness as the essentialist ground of vice and violence.

And here we come to the second idea that Thomas develops from his early engagements. And that is that the evil of the color line lies less in the hierarchies of white privilege and the humiliations of black subordination than in the deception and deceit that racism imposes upon blacks and whites alike. Unlike many in the Black Power tradition, or even in the black conservative tradition, Thomas seems never to have developed a political or economic analysis of racism. His is primarily a moral account of racism. Racism is shape-shifting, often hidden; that is its poison. The antidote to racism, the moral answer to it, is race sincerity: being truthful with and to oneself, and seeking truth, in however malignant a form, in and from one’s enemies. The goal is not, and never can be, color-blindness. The goal is racial candor or race sincerity, achieving a congruence between inner feeling and outward form.

For black Americans, that means giving up on the idea of racial authenticity, that there’s an official way to be black: i.e., liberal, Democrat, etc. Hence, the black conservative who listens to Carole King. “How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?” Now that nod to segregation can sound pretty cheap. But I think it’s a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism: that it imposes a false, outward self upon the true, inner self.

For white Americans, race sincerity means owning up to the racism that lurks within. Particularly among white northern liberals, who find in programs like affirmative action a more palatable way to express their racist condescension toward blacks. So many of Thomas’s opinions about affirmative action have far less to do with any commitment to state neutrality or color-blindness—or even a formalistic comparison between the use of race under Jim Crow and today—than they do with a belief that affirmative action is really just the sneaky face of contemporary racism. As he wrote most recently in the Fisher v. University of Texas decision, which was in 2013, “The worst forms of racial discrimination in this Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities.”

While Thomas’s two beliefs—in race pessimism, a belief in the perdurability and protean quality of racism; and race sincerity, the need to be on the outside what you are on the inside—come out of the black freedom movements, the role they assume in his political theory and jurisprudence reflect the waning power of those movements. Like many counterrevolutionary arguments, Thomas’s beliefs about race are symptomatic of a movement in recession or retreat. In three ways.

First, coming to consciousness at the end of the Black Freedom struggle, Thomas had and has difficulty seeing the achievements of that struggle as black achievements. In Thomas’s eyes, civil rights, affirmative action, integration: these were not the work of African-Americans, acting on their own behalf, wrangling power from a power structure that refused to give it to them. They are instead the poisoned apples of white liberals who prefer to give handouts rather than to cede power. Like many counterrevolutionaries (Tocqueville comes to mind), Thomas came too late to the revolution, too late to see the self-formation and self-assertion at work in movements of collective struggle. All he can see is a movement in retreat, and to his mind, the class of passive black dependents, waiting on the largesse of their white patrons of state, that the movement has left in its wake. As he said of his sister, in one of his nastier and truly vicious remarks, “She is so dependent [on the state] that she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check.”

Second, Thomas doesn’t believe in political or collective action. The answer to the persistence of racism is to accept it and to figure out a way around it. A way, however, for individuals only: In Georgia v. McCollum, which I mentioned earlier, the answer to the persistence of white racism in society is to give individual black criminal defendants the right to strike down potential white jurors merely because they are white. Trying to organize collectively to defeat or even confront and call out racism is hopeless. As he told Juan Williams in 1987:

Blacks are the least favored group in this society. Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win?…Which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.


Third, the only space for African-American agency is in the market, particularly in the labor that each generation performs on behalf of the next. Where politics is a sphere “you don’t have any control over,” individual action in the market—which Thomas believes, it’s important to stress, can be performed on behalf of the black community—is a space where you can say, “I am in control of what I do today.” This is not an enlarged or particularly hopeful conception of agency; it’s radically circumscribed and contained. The political realities of race cannot be overcome; the best you can do is make your way within those constraints, and whenever or wherever possible, apart from those constraints. That “apart” explains Thomas’s willingness to indulge and support, even at the level of the state, all-black institutions.

This is not the sunny face of Reagan; it’s not morning in Clarence Thomas’s America. It’s twilight: we’re still living in the shadow of Jim Crow. The two most consistent words you’ll find in Thomas’s work are “sustain” and “survive.” The story of black America is a story of black people surviving centuries of horror, from slavery to Jim Crow, by taking care of themselves and each other, and trying to keep away as much as possible from the cruelty around them.

And this, I think, may be why Thomas has such faith in the project of originalism. Where other voices in the Black Freedom struggles either rejected the Constitution or found faith in its evolutionary openness—that is, in the interpretive distance the country has traveled since 1789—Thomas finds a glimmer of hope in the return to its original meaning. The Constitution may be the document of a slave society, but African-Americans survived slavery. By returning to the original meaning of that document, perhaps they’ll find the tools to survive the “afterlife of slavery” as well.

{ 230 comments }

1

shah8 05.08.14 at 4:13 am

This part, I disagree with:

I think it’s fundamentally insensible to claim that a person never develops a political or economic analysis of racism, and then say that his is a moral account. Morality is embedded in politics, and the choices outlined by how you organize work and income are closely aligned to morality–from religious obligation to charity to the nature of Adam Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments and how it feels so attached to Wealth of Nations. To talk of what Clarence Thomas thinks of, as moral arguments, is more like lisping through ill fitting dentures.

Thus:

Pushes forth a misapprehension. You cannot explain Clarence Thomas without explaining his alienation from the rest of whom he considers black, and explain how he considers himself alienated! In that light, I believe that Clarence’s awareness of his own mediocrity fuels his bitterness, the bitterness he feels towards his sister, and the bitterness towards everyone else he believes to look down on him. With the weight of his narcissism on that pen of his, he seeks authenticity, and what better way to purity troll everyone than embrace that foundational paper in an obsequious way? No need to honor any internal logic, that would demand wit that he doesn’t possess, and doesn’t want to show the lack of, but simply take the branding, a few words, and some broad brushes of connective logic that supports so little.

That light at the end of the tunnel ain’t hope, man…

2

shah8 05.08.14 at 4:15 am

Oh wow, total blockquote fail…managed to quote my own words!

This part, I disagree with:
“And here we come to the second idea that Thomas develops from his early engagements. And that is that the evil of the color line lies less in the hierarchies of white privilege and the humiliations of black subordination than in the deception and deceit that racism imposes upon blacks and whites alike. Unlike many in the Black Power tradition, or even in the black conservative tradition, Thomas seems never to have developed a political or economic analysis of racism. His is primarily a moral account of racism. Racism is shape-shifting, often hidden; that is its poison. The antidote to racism, the moral answer to it, is race sincerity: being truthful with and to oneself, and seeking truth, in however malignant a form, in and from one’s enemies. The goal is not, and never can be, color-blindness. The goal is racial candor or race sincerity, achieving a congruence between inner feeling and outward form.”
—-
I think it’s fundamentally insensible to claim that a person never develops a political or economic analysis of racism, and then say that his is a moral account. Morality is embedded in politics, and the choices outlined by how you organize work and income are closely aligned to morality–from religious obligation to charity to the nature of Adam Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments and how it feels so attached to Wealth of Nations. To talk of what Clarence Thomas thinks of, as moral arguments, is more like lisping through ill fitting dentures.

Thus:
“For black Americans, that means giving up on the idea of racial authenticity, that there’s an official way to be black: i.e., liberal, Democrat, etc. Hence, the black conservative who listens to Carole King. “How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?” Now that nod to segregation can sound pretty cheap. But I think it’s a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism: that it imposes a false, outward self upon the true, inner self.”
—-
Pushes forth a misapprehension. You cannot explain Clarence Thomas without explaining his alienation from the rest of whom he considers black, and explain how he considers himself alienated! In that light, I believe that Clarence’s awareness of his own mediocrity fuels his bitterness, the bitterness he feels towards his sister, and the bitterness towards everyone else he believes to look down on him. With the weight of his narcissism on that pen of his, he seeks authenticity, and what better way to purity troll everyone than embrace that foundational paper in an obsequious way? No need to honor any internal logic, that would demand wit that he doesn’t possess, and doesn’t want to show the lack of, but simply take the branding, a few words, and some broad brushes of connective logic that supports so little.

That light at the end of the tunnel ain’t hope, man…

3

Ed Herdman 05.08.14 at 6:15 am

It’s very different to say that economic and political realities have a connection to a moral argument, than to demonstrate that someone has not incorporated those forms of grounding into their moral worldview. It may be that Thomas has actively resisted taking such a view. Moral philosophers will happily point out cases where judgments spurred by primitive (even reptilian! hindbrain!) emotions do not fit coherently into a framework inclusive of those other modes of analysis.

Most people think like this, and it’s not clear to me that efforts to create a more sophisticated moral calculus are anywhere near sophisticated or inclusive enough to replaced “going with one’s gut.” The argument collapses, essentially, into scoffing at the unredeemed savages.

For most people, an encounter with Law is a time of primal terror, unredeemed by the slightest recourse to reason. Thomas’ views might seem downright hokey, but in light of this review I don’t think he can be accused of writing law for the sake of law.

What strikes me about the original passage is the identification of a very Catholic style of the search for fusion of the inner and outward forms of the person.

4

Metatone 05.08.14 at 10:54 am

It seems to me that the key difference between “conservatives” and others (in a US sense) is illustrated well by Clarence Thomas.

Conservatives believe, think and analyse in terms of the individual.
Others believe and try to think and analyse in terms of systems and groups and collectives.

Thomas constructs racism around the individuals involved. As with any “individualist” analysis, it has some truth, but it robs us of all avenues for change in the face of stubborn individuals…

5

William Burns 05.08.14 at 11:04 am

What I’m not seeing in this analysis is the Clarence Thomas who married a white woman, about as radical a personal break from Black Nationalism as can be imagined.

6

SamChevre 05.08.14 at 11:38 am

I would disagree fairly strongly with the paragraph:

Thomas doesn’t believe in political or collective action. The answer to the persistence of racism is to accept it and to figure out a way around it. A way, however, for individuals only… Trying to organize collectively to defeat or even confront and call out racism is hopeless.

I think a key distinction here is the distinction[1] between a “public” (a group of everybody) and a “community” (a group of us, for some definition of us). Thomas is convinced that there’s no way of defeating racism in the public (a critique that ties well to the idea of institutional racism), but I don’t see him, or the Black Nationalist tradition, falling back on the individual; his goal is to preserve the ability of communities to have institutions that are not for the public, not controlled by the public–to have their own institutions.

This idea is very recognizably conservative (echoing Burke’s “little platoons”), but it’s also very recognizably Black Nationalist. And it’s NOT individualist; it’s a distinctive communitarian/institutional analysis with the state as an inevitably hostile institution.

1) I learned it from Wendell Berry, although I don’t know that it’s original with him.

7

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 12:30 pm

“What I’m not seeing in this analysis is the Clarence Thomas who married a white woman, about as radical a personal break from Black Nationalism as can be imagined.”

Why does this matter ? People can adopt positions/ beliefs from a variety of political movements, or ideologies etc, without adopting every single position that X (black nationalism) 101 would demand.
They can adapt it to suit their circumstances, (or unknowingly), and as they do the positions can evolve and change as the person (specifically) builds a series of beliefs and positions (from various sources) and develops a personal, and somewhat idiosyncratic, set of political positions.
Afaict what the OP is saying is the C Thomas was influenced by black nationalism, and that those influences (in some way) shape his politics today. Not that he’s Marcus Garvey reincarnated.

8

Barry 05.08.14 at 12:49 pm

Metatone 05.08.14 at 10:54 am

” It seems to me that the key difference between “conservatives” and others (in a US sense) is illustrated well by Clarence Thomas.

Conservatives believe, think and analyse in terms of the individual.
Others believe and try to think and analyse in terms of systems and groups and collectives.”

Bull. Conservatives have no problem thinking in terms of groups, systems and collectives. Start with ‘tradition’, and work onwards from there.

And right-wingers (what we have instead of conservatives) do it even more.

” Thomas constructs racism around the individuals involved. As with any “individualist” analysis, it has some truth, but it robs us of all avenues for change in the face of stubborn individuals…”

What is that ‘construction’ that Thomas does? Corey, what philosophy does Thomas have?

IANAL, but as far as I can tell, in general Thomas looks at the situation, picks a desired outcome and then makes sh*t up. For example, he recently stated that the first amendment doesn’t apply to states, while signing on to a ruling that when a legislative body picks preachers, that is not ‘legislative’ but ‘public’. From whose a$$hole was that legal ‘principle’ pulled? That decision pretty much ignored the clear original intent 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which were to rein in state abuses. He also ignored the original intent of the 14th amendment in Shelby v. DoJ.

However, he also overturned a Montana law on the grounds that that *state law* restricted first amendment rights.

And that’s just what I know, as somebody who doesn’t seriously follow the SCOTUS, from the last year alone.

9

Barry 05.08.14 at 12:59 pm

SamChevre:

“Thomas is convinced that there’s no way of defeating racism in the public (a critique that ties well to the idea of institutional racism), but I don’t see him, or the Black Nationalist tradition, falling back on the individual; his goal is to preserve the ability of communities to have institutions that are not for the public, not controlled by the public–to have their own institutions.”

In what decisions has he tried to ‘ preserve the ability of communities to have institutions that are not for the public, not controlled by the public–to have their own institutions’, where those institutions were not white institutions which were deliberately or accidentally racist?

10

JH 05.08.14 at 1:04 pm

Great essay.

I don’t think there’s any contradiction in his marrying a white woman as an expression of Black Power. It was clear from the Anita Hill hearings that he views sexuality as a more-or-less open expression of often-violent power; in this view, his marrying a white woman is an expression of resistance against the emasculating effects of racist oppression and slavery’s legacy.

11

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.08.14 at 1:53 pm

I think I see what you are saying about Thomas with regards to race, Corey.

But I question: And this, I think, may be why Thomas has such faith in the project of originalism.

I don’t believe any of the Federalists on the Supreme Court are consistent in their application of orginalism.

Example 1. Example 2.
~

12

John Garrett 05.08.14 at 2:26 pm

Corey, this is the first thoughtful essay I’ve ever read on Thomas. Excellent work, and I really look forward to the book. I’d also like to believe (but don’t) that Thomas might actually read your article and the comments, and more unlikely still, might respond!

JG

13

LFC 05.08.14 at 2:41 pm

Haven’t read the entire OP yet, but as a tangential — albeit off the topic of black nationalism — pt of interest, and as further evidence of Thomas’s jurisprudential radicalism (or the radical-ness of his jurisprudential ‘conservativism’), I’d point to the town-council-prayer decision handed down just the other day (Town of Greece [NY] vs someone-or-other [I forget the appellees’ names]), in which Thomas wrote that he doesn’t think the Establishment Clause, which of course is part of the First Amendment, applies to the states. In other words, he thinks the state of New York (or any other U.S. state) can declare an official state religion without violating the First Amendment. (SCOTUS settled quite a long time ago that the Bill of Rights applies to the states via the 14th Amendment.)

I don’t want to derail the thread off the topic at hand; I just thought this was worth noting.

14

LFC 05.08.14 at 2:44 pm

P.s.
I see Barry @8 already mentioned this.

15

LFC 05.08.14 at 2:47 pm

P.p.s.
Though I don’t completely agree w Barry’s gloss that “in general Thomas looks at the situation, picks a desired outcome and then makes sh*t up.” He doesn’t have a lot of respect for stare decisis (i.e. the value of SCOTUS precedent) where he thinks the precedent is wrong — that’s the way I wd put it.

16

jake the anti-soshal soshalist 05.08.14 at 3:13 pm

I do think there is a tendency to underestimate Thomas.
I sometimes wonder how or why minority conservatives come to terms with
race. I have usually thought that for Thomas Sowell and others, social and economic
conservatism trumped racial issues. Though, sometimes it seems to be cynical pandering on the part of some.

17

Sebastian H 05.08.14 at 3:28 pm

This is a very interesting take on Thomas.

I almost want to stop there because the rest is arguing on the margins. But here we go:

“Second, Thomas doesn’t believe in political or collective action. The answer to the persistence of racism is to accept it and to figure out a way around it.” The second sentence is correct, but the first is a repeated error in your analysis of conservatives. There are churches and companies and families, and conservatives like all of them to act. Conservatives are more conservative about what types of collective action are good, when they are appropriate, and how often they get captured by bad influences. But they certainly believe in and understand them.

18

Sebastian H 05.08.14 at 3:34 pm

Ack. Pushed submit too soon.

The error is magnified in the comments:

“Conservatives believe, think and analyse in terms of the individual.
Others believe and try to think and analyse in terms of systems and groups and collectives.”

Churches companies and families. If churches don’t come into your theory you certainly aren’t understanding modern US conservatism at all. Conservatives understand systems and groups and collectives just fine. They just disagree about how and when they should be used.

19

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 3:51 pm

Corey, great stuff. I think it is very important (to political strategy) for the left to understand that the right is not essentially racist. The right is “hierarchist” and “individualist” (as opposed to “egalitarian” and “communitarian”, using the corresponding two oppositions of the group/grid distinction). It is not inconceivable that a black person would adopt this position as a route to overcoming racism, and thus promote the original authority that has countenanced the racial improvements so far. But I see two problems for Clarence Thomas:

1. Hierarchism and individualism are individual preferences about how things should work, how to respond to risk, and so, they serve to characterize a person’s belief about how the economic system should operate. For this reason (and as we should all know by now), economics is not a value-free science, it is politics in disguise — economists infuse their own personal preferences into what they preach (“markets are always better,” blah blah blah), and thus the response to the financial crisis was to disable the necessary fiscal response, due to ideological belief. And that hurt a lot of lives. Similarly, Thomas has joined in with bad economic rulings.

2. The right has gone into an intense tribal mode, and I made a list of some of the concomitants here, under a post by John Quiggin– http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/30/right-wing-tribalists-a-lost-cause/#comment-525389 –This causes a lot of other intellectual failures, due to the in-group identification, because the in-group has low cognitive motivation and large existential fears. The question here is, how does Clarence Thomas handle this? Does he think he can remain immune from this pervasive, cohesive mechanism of right-wing tribalism?

20

Corey Robin 05.08.14 at 4:00 pm

Sebastian H: “but the first is a repeated error in your analysis of conservatives.”

If you’ve read my analysis of conservatives, you’ll know that I don’t in fact think conservatives are at all opposed to political or collective action. (One of the big themes of the second half of my book is all about the centrality of warfare to the conservative imagination, which is hardly anti-political.) What they are opposed to is the political action of a subordinate class seeking its own emancipation. I’ve never made the argument that conservatism is an individualist project; in fact, I’ve repeatedly argued that even libertarianism, and neoliberalism in its conservative veins, is not about atomistic individualism. I’ve made that fairly clear, over and over again. In Thomas’s case, however, he is in fact opposed to many many modes of political and collective action. Not in the name of individualism — as I say, the individual action in the market, he thinks, can be and should be oriented to the broader needs of the black community — but it does entail an emphasis on individual action. I’d say his model here is his grandfather, the patriarch who protects his family. So yes, an individual acting, but no, not for himself but for the sake of the community he’s protecting.

21

godoggo 05.08.14 at 4:04 pm

I’m a little embarrassed to be citing this book yet again, but what the hell: one of the non-silly points in Sowell’s Ethnic America is that those groups that have tended to be more successful owe much of their success to ethnic-based philanthropic organizations.

My understanding is that the sort of “collective action” that Thomas rejects is action meant to put pressure on Whites in order to get help from them, rather than to Blacks directly aiding one another in an organized way.

22

godoggo 05.08.14 at 4:05 pm

cross-posted

23

TM 05.08.14 at 4:26 pm

“conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders”

Strong, sweeping statement. Little, very little, evidence to support it. Why start out with an obviously false or at best exaggerated claim? I know Corey you have studied this and I respect your expertise but the claim just doesn’t hold up to reality. “Always and everywhere”, please. This could only be true if you adopt a peculiar definition of conservatism that a priori excludes all conservative mainstream figures, or if your definition of “outsider” is totally vague (in some sense certainly everybody is an outsider relative to something – that is trivial).

24

TM 05.08.14 at 4:31 pm

Not directly relevant but a terrific new study demonstrates how ruthlessly biased the conservatives on the Supreme Court rule. See my earlier comment http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/30/right-wing-tribalists-a-lost-cause/#comment-526623 (Thomas isn’t the worst offender).

Predictably, the study has been misrepresented in the “both sides do it” mold. The evidence clearly contradicts that.

25

Glen Tomkins 05.08.14 at 4:39 pm

Disaster Tourism

Thomas is not at all interesting, just very depressing.

He pretty obviously has an enormous self-hatred. While this is not at all uncommon anywhere you might look, it’s an occupational hazard for members of a hated minority. Thomas believes that anti-black prejudice is basically correct, blacks are inferior. No mystery at all why the majority is racist — they’re right.

His way out of living with being a member of what he agrees is an objectively inferior group, is to believe that he is one of the exceptions. There is a bell curve to everything. Blacks could, as a group, have their peak several standard deviations to the left of whites, but when the data set is made up of millions of people, that still leaves plenty of room in the far right tail of the black bell curve for Thomas to be better than 99.9% of all you crackers.

I really don’t see anything more there than that. The man really enjoys being smarter than 99.9% of you crackers, and having made more of a success of himself than 99.9999% of you. The rest of his ideology is just details, where he had to go achieve his present position in the 0.0001%.

26

Barry 05.08.14 at 4:47 pm

LFC: “He doesn’t have a lot of respect for stare decisis (i.e. the value of SCOTUS precedent) where he thinks the precedent is wrong — that’s the way I wd put it.”

And how does he come to think that a given precedent is wrong?

27

Barry 05.08.14 at 4:51 pm

Corey (and others) – you post and a lot of the discussion here assumes that Thomas is dumb, that he’s carrying out some odd ideas, with no idea of what really happens in the world.

How about if he’s not dumb, and knows what he’s doing? That Citizens’ United was intended to shift political power to the right, and towards a small group of billionaires? That Shelby v. DoJ was intended to allow the white right-wingers who currently control a number of state governments to maintain and extend their control? That the Green case was intended to carve a massive loophole through the Establishment Clause, by facetiously declaring things to be ‘public’, but not ‘legislative’?

28

LFC 05.08.14 at 5:03 pm

Barry:
And how does he come to think that a given precedent is wrong?

This opens up the question of his originalism etc, which, sorry to duck this, I don’t have the time (or competence) to discuss. You think he’s entirely results-driven, and I suppose one cd make a case for that, as one cd make a case for practically anything when it comes to a lot of the Justices. But I’m not going to go into this further.

Corey (and others) – your post and a lot of the discussion here assumes that Thomas is dumb
Corey doesn’t assume Thomas is dumb, and nor do most of the comments. He is clearly not dumb. As has been discussed here previously in other threads, he was not qualified to sit on the Supreme Court by most conventional yardsticks, but that’s an entirely separate issue.

29

Corey Robin 05.08.14 at 5:03 pm

Barry at 27: “Corey (and others) – you post and a lot of the discussion here assumes that Thomas is dumb, that he’s carrying out some odd ideas, with no idea of what really happens in the world.”

That is just about the most diametrically opposed interpretation of what I take myself to be saying as I could possibly imagine.

30

Mark Field 05.08.14 at 5:06 pm

SCOTUS settled quite a long time ago that the Bill of Rights applies to the states via the 14th Amendment.

This is a bit imprecise. SCOTUS has never incorporated all of the BoR. To this day, some provisions are not incorporated (e.g., the grand jury clause). Therefore, it remains an issue whether a particular clause has been incorporated.

The Establishment Clause was incorporated in Everson, but Thomas, as you correctly state, refuses to recognize that.

31

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 5:08 pm

“How about if he’s not dumb, and knows what he’s doing? That Citizens’ United was intended to shift political power to the right, and towards a small group of billionaires? That Shelby v. DoJ was intended to allow the white right-wingers who currently control a number of state governments to maintain and extend their control? That the Green case was intended to carve a massive loophole through the Establishment Clause, by facetiously declaring things to be ‘public’, but not ‘legislative’?”

This is just a very, very strong statement of homo economicus, isn’t it ? That absolutely nothing except uber rational self interest could drive CT’s belief system ? (Not that I’m neccessarily objecting to that line of argument (although it prob only goes so far)..)

32

LFC 05.08.14 at 5:17 pm

Mark Field:
This is a bit imprecise. SCOTUS has never incorporated all of the BoR.

You’re right, thks for the correction.

33

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 5:21 pm

..the above being a genuine question, not a gotcha, as Im just wondering (on the back of objections to Gary Becker and rational actor theory) what the difference is between similar arguments the left use. (about (usually) political opponents who are calculating, self interested, far sighted etc)
Also, sorry for going off topic.

34

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 5:29 pm

Corey #20: “What they are opposed to is the political action of a subordinate class seeking its own emancipation…. I’ve repeatedly argued that even libertarianism, and neoliberalism in its conservative veins, is not about atomistic individualism.”

I think that both of these need qualification. It is not pure individualism; it it the sway and the cant of the existing institutions. Conservatives are opposed to political action of a subordinate class which would create either collectivist or egalitarian institutions, alongside the ones which already exist: family, church. Meanwhile the “individualism” of libertarianism or neoliberalism is strongly subordinated to the market institutions of contract + consumer choice (+ whatever you can get away with, without getting caught). Thus “individualism” is a type of institution that can be entirely consonant with hierarchy.

35

zeke 05.08.14 at 5:31 pm

Interesting read. Thanks!

1) There seems to be a lot of overlap b/w your characterization of Thomas’ position–regarding specifically race pessimism and race sincerity–and the insights arrived at by the Invisible Man in Ellison’s novel. Indeed, the only potential way forward that Ellison’s narrator can bring himself to believe in is to say yes to the principle on which the country is founded in spite of the cruelty of those who founded it and continue to dominate it, which dovetails with your account of CT’s originalism. The novel might be useful to work into your essay.

2) I’m a little sympathetic to the thrust of Barry at 27’s comment for the following reason: If CT is so committed to the free market, many of his decisions fly in the face of such a market’s possibility. A market in which some people have power over the government because of their enormous resources is not free. If politics and “society” are incorrigibly racist, then blurring the lines b/w the public, political sphere and the market is just as likely to corrupt the market with racism as cleanse politics of it.

But perhaps I’m not reading your account of CT’s position correctly here.

36

Ed Herdman 05.08.14 at 5:34 pm

I think that answers a question I had. So the unspoken assumption is that traditional organizations are better, and they also tend to be more responsive because they are more focused on small groups (not a criteria of acceptability, just a knock-on effect perhaps)?

37

TM 05.08.14 at 5:45 pm

“That absolutely nothing except uber rational self interest could drive CT’s belief system?”

Ok it is relevant now so I’m gonna repost an earlier remark (this follows the link at 24 concerning demonstrated political bias of supreme court judges):

On reflection, I have to correct the above statement: this is not evidence of tribalism but rather of crude ruthlessness. I don’t believe for a minute that the extremist judges rule the way they do due to “unconscious” biases. They know exactly what they are doing.

Tribalism may to some extent be a useful description of what happens at the hapless base of the right but it completely misses what is going on at the top. The leaders of the movement are ruthlessly focused on conquering power and they just do whatever they have to do. That is the real difference, the one that matters, between the modern left and right and all the talk about tribalism, cultural cognition, and scientific illiteracy is just a distraction.

38

Plume 05.08.14 at 5:56 pm

Thomas is the perfect “useful idiot” for the ruling class. Though he’s not an idiot. Far from it.

The ruling class has far, far too much power, and is far too well organized and, yes, “collectivized” for average people to stand up to on their own. It’s impossible for the average Joe or Jane to go toe to toe with them as individuals. The only way they can achieve any kind of justice is through their own organizing, collective actions, solidarity.

This is too obviously the case to even need repeating, but it seems that with the rise of right-libertarianism in America, it’s not obvious to a huge number of people . . . . and, tragically, a goodly bit of that number consists of young Americans. As in, right-libertarianism is on the rise among the young.

Thomas, by supporting the suicidal ideal of “man against the state” does exactly what the ruling class wants him to do — and, ironically, that includes those northern white liberals he apparently despises. There are few more pernicious messages than the one that says we need to just accept things as they are, keep to ourselves, remain apart, don’t organize, never attempt collective action . . . . except for the one that says we should actually shout those things down and demonize them.

Oh, and the part about “being up front” about things? It’s been my experience, living in the south, that all too many southerners will smile at you and be incredibly polite to your face, and then, when you’re gone, bash you mercilessly. My experience, living in or visiting northern cities? People are far more upfront and direct about where you stand.

39

Bruce Wilder 05.08.14 at 6:18 pm

CT found a way forward and upward, to the highest levels, for himself, precisely by divorcing himself, and his identity, from the orthodox left-leaning political organization and political identifications. As a conservative and a Republican, he was able to find the means to have himself propelled upward.

One might argue that the orthodox left political organizations and identities offer some support for ambition and accomplishment, and perhaps broader support to the race as a group, but I doubt very much that they would offer a path to Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It’s far afield in some ways, but it might be noted that President Obama, too, found a path for enormous personal ambition, in opportunistic alliances with conservatives.

I get that someone can take something like a political philosophy as inferred from an experience of personal, pragmatic success in the world — changing world, by succeeding within it, as an individual, eschewing stereotypical associations and patterns.

It’s not a “moral account” of racism, anymore than it is a structural political and economic account. It is a personal, experiential account, constructed out of pragmatic success as an individual, step-by-step, circumstance by circumstance, at each step, tactically cutting one’s self off from the stereotyped associations, from the usual historical narratives and explanations, and having one’s tactics vindicated by rising in the hierarchy, a conservative success story. The rationalizations that grow out of these tactical maneuvers of ambition, to explain the law or to fill in where political philosophy would have an imperative, may appear unanchored at times. Their most characteristic quality, I suspect, might be their cruelty and contempt for those, who fail to rise, who fail to make their way, as individuals out of subordination, or even those, who plead, their ties to the support of the group and its prescribed identities still tethered about them.

40

Barry 05.08.14 at 6:19 pm

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 5:08 pm

(re: my question about Thomas perhaps not being dumb)

” This is just a very, very strong statement of homo economicus, isn’t it ? That absolutely nothing except uber rational self interest could drive CT’s belief system ? (Not that I’m neccessarily objecting to that line of argument (although it prob only goes so far)..)”

Wow. So very wrong. As an analogy, what I suggested is that people in a business aren’t stupid, and can see the direct impact of their decisions.

Let me rephrase it a bit for you – many of his decisions have rather clear impacts, impacts which laymen like us can grasp. I’m asking whether or not it’s likely that Thomas has at least a layman’s grasp of the impacts of his decisions.

41

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 6:28 pm

Barry, that’s a completly different (or at least very caveated) version of your initial comment.

42

Barry 05.08.14 at 6:39 pm

Barry at 27: “Corey (and others) – you post and a lot of the discussion here assumes that Thomas is dumb, that he’s carrying out some odd ideas, with no idea of what really happens in the world.”

Corey Robin : ” That is just about the most diametrically opposed interpretation of what I take myself to be saying as I could possibly imagine.”

I don’t mean to be harsh, but I actually am not sure of what you’re saying; I believe that your original post could use a lot of editing. I don’t see the connections that you see, or even what connections you are implying.

Let me put it this way – as far as I can tell, you are asserting that a lot of Thomas’ notable eccentricities come from a background in black nationalism. My view is that most of what he has is simply extreme hardcore right-wing beliefs, sometimes to the point where Bundy is probably better rooted in the law and history.

But in general, the theory that Thomas is an extreme right-winger explains a lot of what he does, probably most (subject to the usual quirks and exceptions which people have, as opposed to caricatures). So why not analyze his beliefs under that theory?

I think that a lot of liberals fail to emotionally realize that right-wingers believe right-wing stuff, and frequently extreme right-wing stuff. Thomas very likely wants and works for a world which would be a right-wing dystopia.

Now, there’s probably a huge element of self-service, ‘Eichmanian'[1] career advancement through banal evil, and such. But appeals to black nationalism aren’t necessary, and I don’t see the support.

[1] IIRC, Arendt made a comment about Eichmann not being anti-semitic; he wanted to advance himself, and Nazism was the fast-track path.

43

Barry 05.08.14 at 6:40 pm

Ronan(rf) 05.08.14 at 6:28 pm

” Barry, that’s a completly different (or at least very caveated) version of your initial comment.”

Then perhaps I wrote poorly. My point boiled down to that when somebody is doing right-wing things, it might be because they are right-wingers.

44

shah8 05.08.14 at 6:42 pm

/me lifts an eyebrow at comment 35…

What, exactly, or who, is a race optimist?

It’s hard to imagine, I think, that Ellison isn’t lampooning Clarence Thomas’ type via the Dr. Bledsoe personae.

“You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity — you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people — then stay in the dark and use it!”

Isn’t that what Clarence Thomas is fundamentally all about? That is true race pessimism, and the “race essentialism” and authenticity is merely a recitation of how social place is equivalent to your inner worth.

45

Plume 05.08.14 at 6:43 pm

Speaking for myself. I in no way think CT is dumb. Far from it. He strikes me as very smart, but quite misguided. Wrong on a majority of issues. But smart. It is easily possible to be both smart and wrong on the issues. It happens all the time.

For instance, I know a great many very smart right-libertarians, many of whom are fairly young. I think they are terribly wrong on economic and societal issues, but they’re “smart.” etc. etc.

We live in a very complex society, and the division of labor has taken us further and further afield, into fractions of fractions of particular fields. No one has time to be fully informed, much less “think” about the full array of events, repercussions, etc. etc. Someone can show a great deal of intelligence in one place, but virtually nothing in another . . . . . and being misinformed about X or Y all too often prevents smart people from smart deductions.

Some people must assume that “smart people” always make smart deductions and decisions across the board. Off the top of my head, Ezra Pound provides a great example of this not being the case.

46

Barry 05.08.14 at 6:44 pm

Bruce Wilder 05.08.14 at 6:18 pm

” CT found a way forward and upward, to the highest levels, for himself, precisely by divorcing himself, and his identity, from the orthodox left-leaning political organization and political identifications. As a conservative and a Republican, he was able to find the means to have himself propelled upward.

One might argue that the orthodox left political organizations and identities offer some support for ambition and accomplishment, and perhaps broader support to the race as a group, but I doubt very much that they would offer a path to Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It’s far afield in some ways, but it might be noted that President Obama, too, found a path for enormous personal ambition, in opportunistic alliances with conservatives.”

Krugman once made a comment about black conservatives, that they had an easy career path, with good jobs and publicity.

It’s quite likely that Thomas realized that being a black liberal, or just a black man, or just a man, even with a Yale JD in the 1970’s, wouldn’t offer him the advancement he wanted. Being the right-wing black guy willing use his blackness to harm other blacks was a valuable thing.

47

geo 05.08.14 at 6:45 pm

Two observations, both slightly off-thread, about the scandal of Thomas’s presence on the Court:

1) To claim that for the Senate Judicial Committee to take seriously a (very plausible) claim of sexual harassment against someone nominated to the Supreme Court was equivalent to a “high-tech lynching of an uppity nigger” was about as flagrant a demonstration as can be imagined of Thomas’s utter lack of judicial temperament.

2) Conservative Republican presidents since Reagan have made a habit of nominating young and fervently ideological but not particularly experienced or accomplished candidates (Thomas above all) to the Supreme Court, apparently to prevent the kind of (quite proper) scrutiny of their judicial record that Robert Bork received and also to insure a long tenure for them, violating the unspoken understanding in American government that the ideological complexion of the Court should very gradually shift in response to the electoral fortunes of the two major parties. Just one more of countless examples of conservative bad faith since 1980.

48

Plume 05.08.14 at 6:51 pm

One “solution” for all of this, of course, is to limit the time justices can serve. It never should have been “for life.”

The total number of years should be open to debate, but I would think something like 8-12 would be fine, and there should be a max age as well. Again, open for debate, but, say, 67 would be a good place to start. Judges would “retire” from the bench at that time, opening things up for new blood, etc.

49

Bruce Wilder 05.08.14 at 6:57 pm

Barry @ 46: Being the right-wing black guy willing use his blackness to harm other blacks was a valuable thing.

I don’t imagine he sees it that way. And, since his jurisprudence flows from how he explains his own experience to himself, that’s what, maybe, we should inquire, imaginatively, into, in trying to understand him.

I’m not the guy, who can articulate the deconstruction of “high-tech lynching of an uppity nigger”, but he pulled that out and used it effectively to get where he wanted to go. geo thinking it demonstrates “utter lack of judicial temperament” would probably just confirm Thomas in his own analysis of who opposed his rise, and why and how.

One man’s opportunities are another man’s corruption.

50

Plume 05.08.14 at 7:13 pm

Are we perhaps overdoing the use(and importance) of his own personal experience? Obviously, it’s important . . . but could it be that this is a subtle, unconscious form of . . . well, at least stereotyping, to expect this of CT to a greater degree than the other justices? Of course, no one is really saying the other justices don’t use their own personal histories . . . . but it seems to be emphasized more with Thomas.

From what I’ve seen of the Court, I’d say Scalia is the most beholden to his own ideology and personal story, not Thomas. Scalia, to me, seems to least able to make judgements based upon any kind of “empathetic” or open treatment of the law, though all of the conservative judges have problems with this, as do conservatives more generally.

This has been confirmed via repeated testing, btw. Conservatives (in the aggregate) have less ability to empathize with others than people to their left, and they tend to fear things more. That part of the brain seems to have greater dominance than in people to their left. The logical deduction from this? Conservatives should not be the first choice for governance and public policy, and they should be the last choice when it comes to positions “for life.”

51

Suzanne 05.08.14 at 7:15 pm

@10: Or he could have just liked ,or even loved, the lady for herself.

@49: No “deconstruction” required. He said something he knew would put the panel, particularly the Democrats, on the defensive (unlikely any liberal black judge would have dared use such inflammatory language). He was also quite satisfied to thus put Anita Hill, a black woman, in league with his would-be lynchers. He may all that talented but he’s shrewd.

52

Suzanne 05.08.14 at 7:21 pm

That should read “he may not be all that talented.”

53

Trader Joe 05.08.14 at 7:26 pm

“From what I’ve seen of the Court, I’d say Scalia is the most beholden to his own ideology and personal story, not Thomas. “

Justice Sotomeyer has been quite open in her proclaimations about using her personal experience as a yardstick for her opinions – perhaps since you perfer her stances on more things so you see this less, but she’s commented upon it regularly.

54

Plume 05.08.14 at 7:32 pm

Trader Joe,

If you mean relative preference, then, yes. I see Sotomayer as a moderate, and I don’t identify with moderates (or liberals, for that matter). I’m waaay to her left.

55

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 7:35 pm

TM #37: “…misses what is going on at the top. The leaders of the movement are ruthlessly focused on conquering power… all the talk about tribalism, cultural cognition, and scientific illiteracy is just a distraction.”

A distraction? How they get power is by USING that tribalism of the base. It doesn’t much matter whether the leaders use it 1. unconsciously because they believe it themselves, or 2. consciously and cynically because they really do not believe it themselves. Either way if you want to fight it, you not only have to know the leaders, you have to know the exact nature of the weapons that are being used, the weapons which they are doing their rhetoric with. Military Strategy 101. Rhetoric IS the battleground of our system. Thus, Point One: STUDY their tool, the weapon.

So what is their weapon? Well next, we note that sociologists and political scientists are doing solid work uncovering the dimensions of a certain socio-psychological disease, as real as any disease. It describes the logic at the heart of climate denialism, market fundamentalism, and Chicago School’s fiscal Pecksniffianism, all together. It doesn’t matter if you call it “cultural cognition” or “motivated social cognition”. I call it a “social cognitive bias”, but that isn’t any good either, because, while it does appear to be a mountain of individual cognitive biases of the Kahneman-Tversky type, which may cause irrational responses, the difference here is that the biases are all aligned, and this in turn has an emergent meso-causation property: “voting power”. Far from being a distraction, learning how this weapon works is a necessary condition for fighting back and defeating their leaders.

Corey Robin just took a major step in that direction, showing how it is falling out among a sector of the black community. Bravo Corey, tremendous insight. And you are a terrific writer.

56

geo 05.08.14 at 7:41 pm

BW@49: Plenty of blacks were disgusted by the shabby opportunism of Thomas’s statement. I don’t see how he could have believed it himself; it was very likely as much of a deliberate lie as his unqualified denial of all Hill’s charges.

57

geo 05.08.14 at 7:43 pm

PS – Left out two words after “denial”: “under oath.”

58

zeke 05.08.14 at 7:50 pm

@shah8

In the novel, Brother Jack is a race optimist, or a professed race optimist at least. And I think that leftist anti-racism has a history of race optimism, influenced by either its Christian or its Marxist universalism.

I don’t disagree with the comparison between CT and the character of Bledsoe, but Corey Robbin is making the case that CT is not so cynical as that, and there are striking similarities (as well as differences) between what Robbin characterizes as CT’s views, and the conclusions the Invisible Man reaches.

59

TM 05.08.14 at 7:56 pm

LAA, I strongly disagree that cultural cognition or tribalism or however one may call it “describes the logic at the heart of climate denialism, market fundamentalism, and Chicago School’s fiscal Pecksniffianism, all together”. The logic at the heart of these ideologies is the ruthless pursuit of power and profit by those who promote them. If you don’t start with that recognition, you have already lost the political contest, imho.

As to the “major step” that you think Corey took in the direction of “learning how this weapon works”, I am genuinely interested to know what you think that “tremendous insight” consists in and how it might help us “fighting back and defeating their leaders”.

60

TM 05.08.14 at 8:12 pm

I wonder why Corey takes the “originalism” claim seriously. What is the empirical evidence that Thomas (or anybody else on the court) cares sh*t about original intent if it doesn’t lead to the desired outcome? Most of the evidence that I am aware of belies the “original intent” theory. The 2nd amendment for example comes to mind. The dissent (which I read) was overwhelming in the detail of its historical, legal and linguistic analysis showing that the intent can never have been to establish a private right to carry arms. The majority opinion (which I read) had no plausible explanation for the “well-regulated militia” clause. Their hand-waving (based on where that comma happened to have been transcribed) was grotesque. They don’t care about original intent. They barely make an attempt to pretend. Are leftist analysts of the right last to get the memo?

61

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 8:30 pm

TM #59: “If you don’t start with that recognition, you have already lost the political contest…”

We start with that recognition. It is the first thing. But how does that make the rest of it a “distraction”? Climate denialism et alia proceeds along logics of risk assessment, in-group identification, cognitive and emotional complexes, misunderstanding of scientific method etc. The question, as always, is HOW you plan to fight the ruthless pursuit of power.

One of the insights of Corey Robin’s essay about Clarence Thomas is that some people who were originally outsiders, buy into this along a rather instrumental view toward hierarchical individualism.

And one way to fight that, among many other ways for example, would be by making sure that Obamacare is a success, which would undermine the part of rightwing tribalism that insists that government is always less efficient, always makes things worse, always causes more risk: thus undermines the tribalist beliefs a little more.

This leads to a question in the future of raising enough taxes to pay for government goods. Then most people will look around to see who has the money. And THAT is how social preferences change, no matter what the leaders say. If you have a better plan, let us please hear it.

62

Corey Robin 05.08.14 at 8:41 pm

TM: Actually, ever since Sandy Levinson came out with his 1989 essay on the 2nd Amendment, there’s been a current on the left that has argued that it does have an individualist component, which is rooted in the history and the text. Akeel Amar, also on the left, doesn’t quite go there, but he says the 9th Amendment and the 14th Amendment, transformed the 2nd Amendment into a more individualist dimension. I think Thomas even cited Amar at one point in one of his opinions. So while I’m not sympathetic to this argument, there’s quite a bit of debate on the left about whether the 2nd Amendment can be read strictly as a collective right.

On originalism more generally, you need to be careful: there’s original intent, original understanding, and original public meaning. Scalia, for example, is openly hostile to the idea of original intent and original understanding; he favors an original public meaning approach (which is completely indifferent if not hostile to how the Framers of the Constitution or the delegates to the Constitution understood what they were doing; Thomas moves in and out of all three registers, which gives him far greater flexibility to pick and choose what he wishes.

I’m not claiming that he’s a thorough-going originalist; no one on the Court is. He’s just gone much further than others have in being willing to overturn precedents in the name of an original meaning approach that he adopts. And that can lead to results that are not necessarily in synch with his political preferences (for example, he wants to restore an original meaning to the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, which was thoroughly gutted by the Slaughterhouse Cases; many on the left would have killed for such an approach throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; while it’s not clear how far Thomas would allow that to go, it’s opening up a floodgate, as he well knows, that conservatives have historically resisted and that the left has favored).

63

Plume 05.08.14 at 8:45 pm

It’s off topic, of course, but “Obamacare” is itself a right-wing answer to our health care crisis, and involves private, for-profit, market-based “solutions” when public, non-profit solutions are the only way to fix this mess.

The markets, in fact, created the crisis. To think that for-profit markets can be used to fix a problem they created is madness.

It’s tragic to think that the Heritage Foundation is apparently the furthest “left” we can go when it comes to government policy on health care. Full on Single Payer, all non-profit, all public, plus a massive expansion of non-profit, public clinics is what we need instead. The Dems, having morphed into the real “conservative” party, aren’t about to go that route, of course. It’s just too logical and would piss off too many of their big money donors, so they can’t do it.

In short, we have two right-wing parties . . . one center-right, the other increasingly hard right. Both are wrong.

64

Corey Robin 05.08.14 at 8:50 pm

Whenever I write about the right, I know to expect one of two reactions: 1) I don’t take their ideas seriously enough, i.e., I treat them as just hacks for hire; or 2) I take their ideas too seriously, i.e., they’re just hacks for hire. Never certain which one of these two reactions I’m going to get. Always fascinating to see which one I do get. Today, I guess, is a #2 Day.

65

LFC 05.08.14 at 8:51 pm

I think the OP, which I’ve now read — albeit starting from the bottom and working up, not the ideal way to read something — is generally quite insightful.

One caveat (cavil? whatever) I’d put in is that a belief in the ineradicability of racism, which the OP attributes convincingly to Thomas, need not, in itself, lead to Thomas’s conclusions. That is, one can believe racism will never be removed from whites’ souls and still think that society should reduce racism to the extent possible, rather than drawing Thomas’s conclusions that such societal efforts, e.g. affirmative action, are just a ‘deceitful’ face or form of racism.

Indeed, the OP’s emphasis on Thomas’s beliefs about the souls of white folk (with apologies to DuBois, whom I’ve not read) can cut both ways. Corey uses this argument to explain Thomas’s opposition to government efforts to help African-Americans, but equally one can believe that whites’ souls are racist to the core and still believe that their inner demons can be checked by government action, and that what someone believes privately need not infect how he/she acts publicly.

Thomas’s two beliefs as Corey sketches them here — the ineradicability of racism and the need for racial ‘sincerity’ — rest on an assumption that the ‘inner person’ cannot divorce his or her inner drives and demons from public policy, that public policy, in other words, must reflect the inner defects of those who make it. I don’t find this conflating of private and public convincing, but I can see how someone w Thomas’s personal history could have arrived at it.

(I read the OP, as I said, from the bottom up and perhaps not as closely as it deserved, so if I’ve gone astray in interpreting what it is saying I assume the author or someone else will tell me.)

66

Main Street Muse 05.08.14 at 8:52 pm

From OP:

“Trying to organize collectively to defeat or even confront and call out racism is hopeless. As he told Juan Williams in 1987:

‘Blacks are the least favored group in this society. Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win? Which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.'”

How does one go from a passionate admiration of Malcolm X to this state of hopelessness? That’s quite an arc he’s travelled.

[He is right in his statements expressed in Corey’s @2 point. And it never was morning in Reagan’s America, unless you were rich. Unions were busted up and spit out during his reign – that’s pretty much the last time most people got a real raise. Trickle down economic theory has been devastating.]

67

Plume 05.08.14 at 8:54 pm

Corey, is that where Scalia gets the absurd idea that certain modern weapons, like AR-15s, are covered under the 2nd because of “common use” or some such idiocy?

No where in the amendment is that language even remotely hinted. No where. The language clearly says that in order to supply and support the state militias, gun ownership and certain usage is protected. The original intent, of course, was to guard against rebellion and insurrection, especially slave rebellions . . . which is pretty much the opposite of the right’s crazed, surreal belief that the founders of a new government wanted to arm the populace to easily overthrow it. The 2nd was, in fact, intended to protect that new government from its enemies, foreign and domestic.

Scalia in Heller seems to have tried to split the difference between right-wing law and order types and right-libertarian “water the tree of liberty” types. A schizoid dance, to be sure.

68

TM 05.08.14 at 9:04 pm

CR 64: My preferred approach would be to take seriously what they do, not necessarily what they say, especially when what they say is in open conflict with what they do.

69

Metatone 05.08.14 at 9:04 pm

I doubt I’ll convince anyone, but just because conservatives have churches, communities, etc. doesn’t mean they believe in them as actors. They place causality in the hands of individuals – the pastor perhaps, or “a few good men” in a community. This is their model of how things happen.

70

Nick 05.08.14 at 9:09 pm

I find the picture of Thomas painted quite attractive. I sort of hope its true. In terms of political theory, it seems to have affinities to Chandran Kukathas.

71

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 9:16 pm

Plume #63: “’Obamacare’ is itself a right-wing answer to our health care crisis, and involves private, for-profit, market-based ‘solutions’ when public, non-profit solutions are the only way to fix this mess.”

In 2017, a provision in Obamacare kicks-in that allows states to design their own systems as long as they meet the same basic coverage requirements.

At least one state has announced the intention for a statewide single-payer, and a few others will quickly follow suit.

After that, the states with the single-payer (simple tax and transfer) systems will reduce healthcare costs, saving the 20% that the for-profits were taking for themselves (taking for themselves, in return for NO value added, by the way).

First thing that will happen is, people in other states are going to say: look at them! They got rid of the vultures, and now they are paying less!

But also at that point, all the other private businesses in those single-payer states will be having lower labor costs, thus becoming more competitive against other states and even in international trade. So THEN, private business in the states without single-payer (red states, let’s say) are going to complain, “We have to relocate to the single-payers, because our product prices aren’t competitive on larger markets.”

Game set match.

It is getting past time for people not to know that single-payer can be done sate-by-state from the ground-up. Private insurers knew that ACA was a kiss of death, as besmooched by the Senate: here’s a little grace period to cash out, and get in to another line of insurance…

Anybody who is FOR single-payer (and I think that is 56-57% of the total population, pretty consistently since 2009) should vote Democrat in this midterm to keep ACA on course. The most basic common-sense strategy to get to a single-payer is the kick-in of the 2017 provision, which is ALREADY LAW.

That the left continues to refuse to recognize this, much less promote it as a current campaign issue, is a very sad and alarming sign about the intellectual capacity, tactical perspicacity of the good guys.

72

LFC 05.08.14 at 9:21 pm

I find the picture of Thomas painted quite attractive

So you find the view that there is little or no difference betw the public and the private to be attractive?

73

Plume 05.08.14 at 9:29 pm

Lee,

All of that is pure conjecture. It’s all one big “if.” And your ideas, even if some states, like Vermont, do go in that direction, will take ages to reach fruition, if it happens at all.

Think about the shift to “right to work” legislation. The same thing was said about that. Supposedly, once people saw how much lower wages would be in those states, people would flock to states without those laws, thus making it all too apparent that those laws would be overturned.

Or, “stand your ground” laws, etc. etc. Or voter suppression laws. Or lax environmental laws and regulations at the state level.

In short, there is no evidence that reactionary governance in some states causes shifts in public opinion, revocation of existing laws or relocations overall, even though that would seem “logical.” There is no history of state laws in some regions forcing some kind of effective backlash more generally speaking. Would that this were the case.

Also, it makes no sense whatsoever, if one wants to move further left, to move further right first. History shows that just moves the Overton Window to the right, and then the new “furthest left” position is truncated even more.

Sorry, no dice.

74

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 9:47 pm

Plume #73, Labor markets and capital markets respond a very different rates. Labor follows business and if workers flocked to states with higher wages, they would lower those wages by oversupply. Some businesses prefer states with environmental laws for green advertising. I doubt the Overton window is a causative force, but anyway single-payer is already well within it.

Meanwhile the Obamacare provision kicks-in in 2017, not entirely a big “if”.

75

Collin Street 05.08.14 at 9:50 pm

Corey, is that where Scalia gets the absurd idea that certain modern weapons, like AR-15s, are covered under the 2nd because of “common use” or some such idiocy?

The US second amendment says the right to &c shall be protected, but it doesn’t actually say what that right is. “the right”, definite article, see: the right is protected, whatever that right is in 17whatever, and the constitution doesn’t say. Which means we’re back to the common law, which you have to work out from, yes, common practice. Same as “jury”, “habeus corpus”, etc.

76

Plume 05.08.14 at 9:53 pm

The big “if” isn’t the provision. It’s the far too rosy scenario you paint beyond that.

It’s far better to go for actually existing progressive legislation up front, instead of hoping against hope that some concatenation of events might, possibly, hopefully, maybe, perhaps, if all the stars align . . . . in the future, at some distant point on the possible horizon, etc. etc.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.14 at 10:03 pm

Plume #76: “It’s far better to go for actually existing progressive legislation up front, instead of hoping against hope…”

First off, you don’t know that. Because secondly, it might have to be an evolutionary turn of public opinion, through a series of steps. And third, we did not get “progressive legislation up front”, so which of us is hoping against hope?

78

Nick 05.08.14 at 10:28 pm

@72: That bit is not attractive, but it is realistic. Most national politics is conducted as a private matter between elites. If you acknowledge that and thinks its not directly amenable, then a greater role for private governance is attractive.

79

godoggo 05.08.14 at 10:41 pm

Lee A. Arnold:
“Conservatives are opposed to political action of a subordinate class which would create either collectivist or egalitarian institutions, alongside the ones which already exist: family, church.”

I don’t want to put in the time to go through these carefully at the moment, but here’s a quick search in Sowell’s book that turns up historical examples of institutions that might fit that description, which he supports.

80

godoggo 05.08.14 at 10:45 pm

Basically he supports any institutions that aren’t part of government. I’m guessing that Thomas’s ideology might be similar, but I don’t actually know that much about him.

81

TM 05.08.14 at 11:29 pm

CR 62 re originalism:

I understand that an originalist would say there is no right to abortion in the constitution. I respect him when he says (as Thomas did) that criminalizing anal intercourse is a stupid policy but not unconstitutional because the constitution doesn’t grant that right. But when that self-described originalist announces from the judges’ bench a right to corrupt the political process through the grotesque concept that “money is speech”, which is totally unsupported by any constitutional literature, when he invents out of thin air a limit on punitive damages that is nowhere to be found in the text of the constitution, when he claims against the evidence of his own eyes that the second amendment has nothing to do with state militias: there is no excuse, certainly no respect whatsoever for those acts of judicial contortion. These are acts of naked political cynicism that should not be dignified by pretending that they can ever be squared with any kind of principle. Any attempt at trying to “explain” them by recourse to conservative ideology or black nationalism or whatever is at best pointless and irrelevant and in all likelihood misleading.

Yes, I am all in favor of taking the opponent seriously, but that is not the same (in fact is the opposite of) swallowing their BS.

82

TM 05.09.14 at 12:10 am

Re conservatism

Whenever I see a sentence that starts with “Conservatives” or “conservatism” followed by a verb, I expect something flat-out wrong or at best grossly exaggerated. And I’m rarely disappointed.

“conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders” (Robin).

“Conservatives believe, think and analyse in terms of the individual.” (Metatone)

“conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom.” (Chait)

Sorry, none of this conforms with reality. I’m gonna take my revenge by adding my own sweeping generalization: contemporary American self-described conservatives are not at all motivated by any recognizably conservative ideology in the sense of respect for institutions, respect for traditions, and aversion to social and institutional change. Rather, our right-wing leaders are ruthless (I like that word better and better) extremists who use conservatism as a respectable label while promoting quite radical change in pursuit of power. The “conservative” justices’ eagerness to overturn precedent (mentioned by CR) is a case in point. The militant hostility of this “conservative” movement to the very idea of “conservation” is another. Their willingness to accuse the whole scientific establishment (a conservative institution if ever there was one) of pursuing an anti-American conspiracy is another.

The mystery is why we still allow them to appropriate that dishonest label “conservatism”. Let’s call them what they are. Isn’t that what respect demands?

83

godoggo 05.09.14 at 12:25 am

Fine. Give me a word.

84

Watson Ladd 05.09.14 at 1:14 am

If you are a criminal defendant with a confrontation clause issue, Scalia is one of the justices most likely to help you: he takes the confrontation clause seriously. Or consider the raisin case: it is the “liberals” who, in their passionate concern for the poor, permit the confistication of raisins with the goal of rendering them expensive.

One could say the same about Zelman: the liberal wing condemning Ohio’s schoolchildren to substandard schools, denying them the right to move to a better school merely because it was a Catholic school. Both sides play the game of finding sympathetic plaintiffs: arguing that one judicial philosophy lacks sympathy won’t get you far.

As for Clarence Thomas and racism, how else are we to take the accusation of him advancing by ‘harming other blacks?’. In this worldview blacks are to be supporters of the Democratic machine, no matter how they believe the policies enacted actually impact them, or even if they don’t believe people should be apportioned by the color of their skin into castes for political purposes. There is a deep ugliness to beliefs that blacks will never achieve the same result without assistance in the form of affirmative action, and as a young conservative lawyer at Yale, I have no doubt that Thomas received the full brunt of it.

Slaughterhouse is an interesting one: most regulatory regimes at the state level would not survive P&I being incorporated against the states. I bet that the Milton Friedman club would cheer this result far more than the modern Democratic party.

As for the 2nd, the traditional Trot position was individual arms were essential for workers power: George Orwell was quoted as saying the rifle on the cottage wall was the sure defense of liberty. In a country 130 years after a tyrant was killed by populist army, freed by guerilla warfare against a professional army, should we be surprised that its founders had the same view?

85

Dr. Hilarius 05.09.14 at 1:20 am

I’m not a court watcher but do read USSC cases relevant to my practice. I don’t see much evidence that CT’s opinions reflect any coherent philosophy or legal structure.

He clearly doesn’t care much for precedent even when he tries to invoke it on his own behalf. His dissent in the Hudson 8th Amendment case complained about the 8th Amendment being unmoored from it’s historic roots. This, however, placed him at odds with the long line of 8th Amendment cases relied upon by the majority.

His 2012 opinion on the Confrontation Clause, Williams v. Illinois, holding that forensic evidence may be non-testimonial, and thus not subject to confrontation, if not sufficiently formal in its presentation, strives for originality and independence but is just quirky, odd and unworkable. It’s as if separating himself from the other justices was his goal and the opinion just a vehicle for that end. No matter which side of the court he supports, his opinions just seem cranky and idiosyncratic.

Sometimes there’s just no there there.

86

LFC 05.09.14 at 1:44 am

W Ladd
even if they don’t believe people should be apportioned by the color of their skin into castes for political purposes

a very inaccurate characterization of affirmative action

the liberal wing condemning Ohio’s schoolchildren to substandard schools, denying them the right to move to a better school merely because it was a Catholic school.

Since you’re mentioning cases (or at least one) involving schools, why not mention Milliken v Bradley? One of the worst decisions of the past 40 yrs. (I guess b/c it wdn’t support your argument that conservatives have the interests of disadvantaged students at heart.)

87

Greg Hunter 05.09.14 at 1:46 am

Thanks for the analysis and for the first time I think I understand CT and his ideology. He is correct about the Northern States as well the so called solutions. The implementation of the Great Society has been an abject failure and has caused more problems than people care to admit.

Blacks won the lunch counter at Woolworth’s but lost the War, when they achieved forced equality. Prior to that day the black community had a thriving middle class that was diversified, but once the victory was won and blacks could shop, sleep, eat and receive medical care from anyone the war was lost. The Walmart effect took over the Black businesses that catered to the Black Community. These businesses could no longer get prices for goods and services that would allow them to survive at a profit, due to the fact that they were not large enough to get buying power or the wholesale prices were probably raised on them due to being Black.

Busing – In the first place making children pay for the sins of their parents….wrong. Busing may have worked in community where schools and towns had single county wide school systems, but most busing missed areas where white flight had already occurred by whites setting up cities and then insured that no blacks lived in these suburbs therefore no busing. It also hastened the white flight as well as leaving the inner cities to be run by truly a first generation of African Americans that had very little mentoring or experience in running a City. The whites took their cash and built roads to separate blacks from whites during Eisenhower time and then later built roads to enhance the suburban travel and denigrate the black areas by continuing increase housing values in white areas while Black communities stagnated.

Minority Set Aside or the 8a Program – As a white boy I hate this program, which gives preferential treatment to minorities for government contracts. At first blush it makes sense to set aside contracts for minorities so that they may form companies and build capital in a society to pass down wealth; however, the implementation was diluted and devalued as a factor to aid the African American community. As I watched the program get implemented I noticed it did not provide former descendants of slaves to get contracts or American Indians, it was Naturalized Citizens from other countries that got most of the big technical money making contracts. These groups were better prepared by their own countries educational systems to take advantage of the contracts. For instance if you happened to be a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology and came to America, you could be eligible for a minority set aside contract. Now I can look through American History and I cannot figure out what my ancestors did to the sub continent Asians that allowed them to be treated as preferred status in American Government Contracting.

His embrace of the conservative values I finally think I understand.

88

LFC 05.09.14 at 1:57 am

G Hunter 87
Busing may have worked in community where schools and towns had single county wide school systems

Busing also might have worked across jurisdictional lines (central city/suburb), but the SCOTUS in 1974 prohibited it, unless there was a finding that the residential patterns resulted from de jure segregation rather than simply ‘white flight’ and economic/class disparities. (The case was Milliken v Bradley, one of the worst decisions, as I said above, of the past 40 years.)

89

Glen Tomkins 05.09.14 at 2:20 am

@64,

Well, rich and powerful individuals out for #1 is about the only ideology they have, so there is no real difference between criticizing you for taking a set of rationalizations for that position seriously enough to imagine that there’s any point to trying to pick apart its non-existent intellectual structure, and for not taking seriously that the idea that justifying whatever serves the interests of the rich and powerful is their very real, sole ideology.

I wouldn’t say that this makes someone like Thomas a “hack for hire”. If money was his thing, he could surely make more elsewhere. The reality is that Thomas has managed to become one of the ennearchy that runs this country. He and the other four members of the Federalist Society junta that runs the court run this country. There’s your “living Constitution”. The basic law of this country is whatever these five say it is.

So yes, the threat from these people is very real, what they believe is very important. But precisely because of that importance, they are not answerable to anyone for what they believe. They don’t have to give reasons for their arbitrary decisions that are anything but a mockery , so they don’t need any ideology, much less one you could take apart.

90

bjk 05.09.14 at 3:03 am

Wasn’t Thomas influenced by Jaffa? If you look at it that way, it makes more sense. In Jaffa’s version of the constitution, the original meaning of the constitution was only written in blood after the civil war, but the truth of the constitution, or at least of the declaration of independence, never changed. You find the same point of view from Alan Keyes. And as many people are well aware, there is no contradiction between Straussianism and racial nationalism.

91

Greg Hunter 05.09.14 at 3:37 am

Thanks LFC 87.

Great Stuff as Detroit and Dayton, Ohio (my town of birth, but my parents moved to Kettering, OH in 1964) are absolutely twins of each other in both policy and history. The advent of the Industrial Era and the Civil War collide in the early 1900’s when the beginnings of white flight take place. In Dayton, the Industrialists formed a city called Oakwood in 1913, reportedly to move away from the flood prone Dayton, but really that was a cover story so they could form a high income tax base and private/public school system so “their children did not have to go to school with the people that work in their factories”. In 1913 there was no thought of employing blacks in their factories, they were discriminating against an uneducated work force. Now as labor shortages in the factories became a factor in the growth of the auto business the owners sent school buses to Appalachia (KY an TN) to pick up white southerners to work in the factories. The Civil War continues in Dayton as does discrimination. Now Dayton and Detroit operate the same way, suburbs are formed with red lining and exclusion of the other by forming suburbs that are all white and not subject to the ruling under Milliken v. Bradley.

I was born in 1963 and in 1975 the whites of Dayton, under the influence of breathing large amounts of tetra ethyl lead (invented by Charles F. Kettering) were a violent bunch and shot the busing director dead on the court house steps. ( On September 19, 1975, Neal Bradley Long shot and killed Dr. Charles Glatt as he worked on a school desegregation plan in the federal courthouse. Long was arrested on the spot but it was discovered afterward that he was a serial killer who had randomly shot black people in Dayton during a four-year period, killing at least seven and wounding 12 others. Long was charged with the murders and convicted, receiving a life sentence.)

The SCOTUS is as terrible political body as is the remainder of the US Government.

92

Watson Ladd 05.09.14 at 4:04 am

@LFC: It might amuse you to know that I live in California, where racial discrimination against Asians has a long and sordid history. Chinatown is a working-class neighborhood. Imagine the reaction if we were, in the interest of righting past wrongs, to give Asians preferential access to the UC system.

I have no desire to defend Milkian. I will note that the state of Michigan could have equalized education funding as New Jersey has tried, and even if such actions are not constitutionally mandated, they are morally necessary. It’s not that I think conservatives are nice people: but I do think characterizing them as lacking a heart ignores the possibility that they think their policies are the right thing for the worst off. It’s lazy.

93

The Temporary Name 05.09.14 at 5:02 am

Imagine the reaction if we were, in the interest of righting past wrongs

Watson, you’re still not understanding what affirmative action is. But it’s super excellent that you’re Californian and thus know something or other.

94

Phil 05.09.14 at 9:28 am

Thanks, Cory – I like the idea of Thomas as a kind of quixotic pessimistic originalist, working in a spirit of “let’s find the places and times when this fundamentally unjust system worked about as well as it ever could, and draw what we can from those”. Note that this is not at all inconsistent with Thomas’s actual jurisprudence being wildly inconsistent, or with Thomas having deeply reactionary ideas of what it is for the system to work ‘well’, or with it being an all-round bad thing for Thomas to be in a position of public influence. It’s just (contra Dr Hilarius) putting the ‘there’ there.

95

Phil 05.09.14 at 9:28 am

Corey, even. Close-reading ya me.

96

Chris E 05.09.14 at 9:44 am

“I know to expect one of two reactions: 1) I don’t take their ideas seriously enough, i.e., I treat them as just hacks for hire; or 2) I take their ideas too seriously, i.e., they’re just hacks for hire. Never certain which one of these two reactions I’m going to get. Always fascinating to see which one I do get. Today, I guess, is a #2 Day.”

Saying that someones motivations a lot simpler than that posited doesn’t necessarily equate to 2.

and in this case that CT does right wing things because he is right wing makes a lot more sense than some kind of hidden but twisted explanation.

97

Ze Kraggash 05.09.14 at 10:25 am

“By returning to the original meaning of that document, perhaps they’ll find the tools to survive the “afterlife of slavery” as well.”

A simpler, less fancy explanation might be that originalism is just a way of rejecting paternalism. Some people don’t like it. Any manifestation of it.

98

politicalfootball 05.09.14 at 12:41 pm

Thomas has always been a puzzle to me. Scalia is a type. We all know blowhard authoritarians. But Thomas’s life experience is so radically different from mine, and what he takes away from that experience is so different from what I understand, that he resists my lazy efforts at pigeonholing. I liked this post a lot.

99

Kalkaino 05.09.14 at 7:14 pm

Dr. Robin goes so far out of his way to give Clarence Thomas the benefit, not just of the doubt, but of the vigorously rationalizing imgination, that his piece devolves into an academic’s self-parody. Thomas is a sociopath, pure and simple. He likes trying on different roles especially if they help him to manipulate/befuddle people (the sociopath’s purest pleasure) while also aggrandizing, enriching and immunizing Clarence Thomas. There’s no logical or historical consistency to his thought.

I don’t undertand what Robins is trying to make of this drivel:

“How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?”

This is supposed to mean something not utterly banal? All of us feel obliged to act in certain (sometimes disagreeable) ways from time to time. It’s called being a grownup, and it doesn’t make us unfree, and it is, I can only imagine, very different from “living under segregation.”

But Robin finds it ” a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism: that it imposes a false, outward self upon the true, inner self.”

Now Thomas himself is happy to adopt a false outward perjurious self when it comes to answering questions about abuse of office, sexual harrasment, use of pornography, his own victimhood, et cetera. But still, we’re supposed to believe in or even feel for his aggrieved authenticity. How tiresome.

As a sidenote: I’m with TM at 82

“The mystery is why we still allow them to appropriate that dishonest label “conservatism”.

We pretend that ‘conservative’ is just a sort of team name like Red Sox, White Sox, etc and value-neutral. As TM points out, today’s usage has Newspeak relationship to the traditional meaning of conservative (And wouldn’t you think “conservatives” would be all for the traditional and time-honored quiddity of the term?) yet it retains a congratulatory, honorific sense for the self-described conservative. With it he claims his place in a long line of careful (dead, white, male) thinkers, yet he doesn’t have to to any thinking at all. Fox tells him what to think and he thinks he thunk it up.

They’re mostly racist, warmongering, authoritarians which — pace Godwin — makes them fascists in my book. (Read your Umberto Eco on the subject.) But if we daren’t call them Blackshirts we should at least call them right-wingers consistently. Never concede the lie that they have some non-partisan (or non-larcenous) agenda. They don’t really. Exhibit A: the “thinking” of Clarence Thomas.

100

TM 05.09.14 at 7:52 pm

Wow. Thanks.

101

Ronan(rf) 05.09.14 at 8:19 pm

I think this is clearly the worst definition of conservatism every concocted : ) Why bother trying to understand your ‘political opponents’ when you can just label them evil ?

102

godoggo 05.09.14 at 9:00 pm

I suppose this makes me sound like a wishy washy liberal but I’m able to find his apparently sincere interest in Malcolm X and Richard Wright interesting even as I concede that he’s evil.

103

LFC 05.09.14 at 9:06 pm

Kalkaino @99
They’re mostly racist, warmongering, authoritarians

If you’d read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, you would know that Prof. Robin pretty much agrees with you about the “warmongering” part.

Here is a passage from Robin’s Ch. 8, “Remembrance of Empires Past” (which originally appeared in the 2004 edited volume Cold War Triumphalism):

Conservatives thrive on a world filled with mysterious evil and unfathomable hatreds, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the cosmic race against corruption and decline. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and an almost barbaric virtu, qualities conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity. (p.173)

In Ch. 11, “Easy to be Hard,” C.R. argues that conservatives get a thrill out of violence, provided it doesn’t come too close to their actual persons. He harks back, in an inferential or extrapolating way, to Burke on the sublime and the beautiful (even while acknowledging that Burke does not really address the questions Robin is interested in in this piece).

In short, C. R. comes very close to saying — actually, he does say — that conservatives love war and violence and dislike peace, which they find enervating and boring. Whether one finds this line of argument convincing or not (personally I tend to think it’s a bit overdrawn), it’s hardly the view of someone who is interested in minimizing the extent of conservatives’ ‘evil’. For what could be more evil than reveling in others’ deaths in order to give yourself, from the safety of an armchair, a sublime frisson?

104

Lee A. Arnold 05.09.14 at 11:10 pm

Members of the rightwing tribe tend to suffer existential anxiety — fear of death, especially from world threats — a finding that is well-established by sociologists and political scientists. If that is the case, the death of enemies is likely to seem “meet and right”. The reason why it ought to be drawn this way is because there are additional attitudes which are strongly correlated with existential anxiety, e.g stereotyping, and support for discrimination against same-sex couples. It is time to get a handle on the totality of what we are dealing with. Here is a list of general attributes from under a recent post by John Quiggin– http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/30/right-wing-tribalists-a-lost-cause/#comment-525389

105

J Thomas 05.09.14 at 11:28 pm

“For what could be more evil than reveling in others’ deaths in order to give yourself, from the safety of an armchair, a sublime frisson?”

Are you saying that people who like war stories are ultimate evil?

Does it matter if it’s eyewitness accounts or artificial military SF where imaginary characters get killed?

Does it matter if the victims (typically enemy combatants who asked for it by joining their military) are plain cardboard or if the reader gets a chance to see them as real human beings before they are squished? Which is worse?

Does it matter if along with the sublime frisson there’s a message that war is horror and we should never start a war unless the enemy makes it absolutely necessary by opposing our legitimate interests? Does the message make it better or worse?

106

LFC 05.10.14 at 12:09 am

@ Lee Arnold — that’s a long compilation of quotes, but I will read it.

@ J Thomas –
Are you saying that people who like war stories are ultimate evil?
I think it’s clear from the context of the comment that I’m not saying that.
the victims (typically enemy combatants who asked for it by joining their military)
“typically” is doing a lot of work there. (Everyone agrees that drone strikes, e.g., have killed civilians in non-trivial numbers. On the other side, ditto for certain tactics of ‘jidahist’ groups, to use a shorthand word I don’t much like, but for convenience.)

107

LFC 05.10.14 at 12:15 am

Also, of course substantial numbers of civilians have been killed, by both sides, in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (in Afghanistan, more civilians killed by the Taliban than ISAF, but that’s not the point here). The C.R. essay I referred to, “Easy to be Hard,” was written against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’ and the various associated conflicts. I don’t recall that he uses the word “evil” but he clearly thinks people who delight in actual, real violence esp while keeping a certain distance are not, let’s say, admirable human beings.

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Watson Ladd 05.10.14 at 12:44 am

@LFC: Was the liberation of Europe from Nazism worth the lives cost? What about Oliver Cromwell’s revolution? John Brown slaughtered men in their beds as they slept. Napoleon sent men off and knew they would not all return. Fighting the Taliban is not pleasant. It is not easy. It involves doing a great many immoral things. But thankfully we have an entire continent where our arsenals are safe from enemy attack, with the productive capacity to overwhelm any opponent. If we are to end the days when one man ruled over another by no right but force, there will be a great slaughter of innocent people among the guilty. No man could love that prospect. But the prospect of things continuing as they are is even worse.

109

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 12:49 am

^ booooooooo

110

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 1:17 am

^ ^ hiiiiissssss

111

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 1:23 am

^ ^ ^ *throws a punnet of strawberries*

112

godoggo 05.10.14 at 1:29 am

If you were one of the bloggers here, you could just post something like this.

113

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 1:40 am

Well Jason deserved that, in fairness. Though if I was a blogger here I’d shut down comments and use the blog as a vehicle to attack my enemies.

114

godoggo 05.10.14 at 1:48 am

I dunno. Didn’t someone just mention Cromwell?

115

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 1:52 am

I wouldn’t pay any attention to Cromwell or his supporters.

116

godoggo 05.10.14 at 1:54 am

Actually I like him. He was Good For The Jews.

117

godoggo 05.10.14 at 1:54 am

But I digress.

118

Ronan(rf) 05.10.14 at 1:58 am

who cares about the Jews ?

119

LFC 05.10.14 at 2:20 am

W.L.
Napoleon sent men off and knew they would not all return.

Watson, that is a rather breathtaking understatement, and one needn’t be an expert on the Napoleonic wars (which I’m not) to realize it.

If we are to end the days when one man ruled over another by no right but force, there will be a great slaughter of innocent people among the guilty. No man could love that prospect. But the prospect of things continuing as they are is even worse.

Really not entirely sure what this is getting at. Cd be I’m just tired. Sounds like you’re advocating an armed crusade to rid the world of all remaining dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, or something like that. No, I’m not on board w that.

Look, this is how things went down, in the comment sequence above. Kalkaino, in the course of criticizing Corey Robin on several fronts (incl his take on C Thomas), called conservatives “warmongers.” I merely pointed out to Kalaino that in Pt II of Reactionary Mind, “The Virtues of Violence,” Corey also calls conservatives warmongers. I thought Kalkaino might find that interesting.

Then you read me a lecture about the necessity of fighting the Taliban, among other things. What the f*cking f*ck? There’s a difference btw thinking something is or might be necessary, on one hand, and, on the other hand, joyously, rapturously hailing its advent as the greatest thing since sliced bread and a blessed redemption from the boring, dissolute, bourgeois ‘peace and prosperity’ (or perceived, relative peace and prosperity) of the period 1992-2000. Now Corey in Reactionary Mind argues that the neocons went batshit w joy about this (i.e. the GWOT) b/c they are in love with the *idea*, if not the actuality, of violence and struggle and etc. It’s a basically a psychological argument about conservatives and neocons’ attraction to the idea of agonistic, violent conflict. I think it is rather overdone, as I stated above, but if you read Pt 2 of Reactionary Mind, that is what CR argues.

What any of that psychological argument has to do w whether fighting the Taliban might or mightn’t be necessary escapes me. These are rather separate questions, istm.

120

LFC 05.10.14 at 2:26 am

And there is *some* evidence, of course, to support CR’s argument, such as that awful D Brooks piece, “This Age of Conflict” or whatever it’s called, that he’s quoted here previously in another thread.

121

J Thomas 05.10.14 at 3:03 am

LFC, I meant no insult. I just got interested in the question.

If revelling in other’s deaths to get a frisson is ultimate evil, does it become OK if it’s only simulated deaths? The same kind of person thinking and feeling the same way, but as long as it feels real but it isn’t…. Or if it doesn’t seem real….

Maybe this stuff is built into us, and when we sublimate it into reacting to ice hockey games and war porn, that’s a healthy outlet? On the other hand maybe it isn’t built in and that sort of thing helps build it in?

Maybe the ultimate evil is actually doing it, independent of how you feel about it? If you kill a bunch of people but you have good intentions, does that make it better?

Suppose like Watson you felt it was important to kill a whole lot of people to force everybody to get out of the mindset where somebody can rule over somebody else by no right but force…. We must rule over them for their own good, we have the right because the world as it is, is too horrible to continue. They have no right to resist us. The evil we are forced to do is really good because our noble goals can’t be achieved any other way. If they choose to do things which have temporary good results but the result is to delay our victory then that’s evil.

And then when someone says that our side — the good guys — are morally equivalent to the other side — the bad guys, when they say that good is equivalent to evil, isn’t saying that the ultimate evil?

122

shah8 05.10.14 at 6:04 am

You know, it strikes me that Marshall Petain was a counter-revolutionary, too… Much of his actions preceding WWII, during the French action, and during his “reign”, had everything to do with the concern about keeping the French Right on top and general anti-Communism as a first priority rather than French sovereignty.

123

Keith 05.10.14 at 1:25 pm

Corey Robin almost gets Clarence Thomas, but swerves away at the last minute, because Corey himself is overly enslaved to tribalism (or “social status signaling” more generally), while Clarence Thomas sees through the evils of tribalism and social status.

The reality is that Clarence Thomas (and Ayn Rand, for that matter) fundamentally get it, while most Crooked Timberists don’t: Human beings are tribal, and tribalism is awful in many ways. And liberty is the only answer to tribalism, because liberty gives a member of the out-group the chance to SHOW that they are right and a member of the in-group is wrong, and to even take money from a member of the in-group by virtue of being right. The point isn’t for everybody to be in some big happy collective, the point is for the black man to have the opportunity to WIN at the expense of the white man when the black man is right and the white man is wrong.

Thomas’s whole point, which is pretty easy to get if you’re not too tribal, is that fundamentally, white liberals and progressives will still rig the system against the black man if the black man does not buy into their tribal fantasies. It’s still white people who want people to live according to their tribal fantasies. Frankly, it’s still people in general who can’t stand it when people who reject their tribal fantasies turn out to be right. They can’t stand systems, like the free market, where a rational and systemic minority can have the freedom of action to demonstrate that they are right and the tribal majority is wrong.

Because progressives are locked in their own tribal fantasies, they must always fall back on some form of tribalism as the solution (usually through some extension of state power), which is merely trying to treat poison with more poison.

There’s been a lot of research on oxytocin (the hormone of “empathy,” a word that itself is tribalist propaganda), and it turns out that oxytocin, which is the hormone of bonding between people, also turns people into tribal pieces of garbage. Oxytocin decreases ability to perceive social deception, increases peoples’ willingness to lie for the group (even with no compelling moral reason to do so), and promotes ethnocentrism and other in-group biases, among other things.

At a more subtle level, what I see here is people like Lee Arnold even using tribalism itself as an excuse for their tribalism, with the questionable notion that the “other” side is more tribal, while ‘our” side is good. Sorry, Lee, once you’re thinking in terms of “sides,” you’ve submitted to tribalism.

Oxytocin is so fundamental (after all, it’s a big part of reproduction), that just about everybody will be distorted by it, and those who are not distorted by oxytocin will be perceived as arrogant, cold, unempathetic, and whatever else. This is the most ancient human bias, and the one that both Ayn Rand and Clarence Thomas correctly perceive. And the way to overcome this bias is to allow the arrogant, cold, unfeeling nerds, black and white, to show that they are right and the oxytocin-marinated tribalists are wrong, and this requires liberty and the free-market. After all, liberty and the free-market allow people to try things without needing permission from the tribal majority, and allow them to collect the rewards if they are right…and the rewards are disproportionately large to those who are right about something important when everybody else is wrong.

Or, to quote Fehr and Camerer (2006), from “When does Economic Man Dominate Social Behavior?,” explaining why prediction markets work better than conventional stock markets: Better-informed traders who express their confidence by making large trades can be sure to collect when an event either does or does not occur, at a known time in the near future. For example, if a better-informed trader knows that the asset
is undervalued (i.e., the event is more likely to occur relative to the prevailing market opinion), he will buy the asset from the poorly informed traders. Thus, substitutability again diminishes the impact of less rational actors.”

And that’s why Clarence Thomas sees the world the way he does (at least I think), and that’s why he’s more right than you think.

124

LFC 05.10.14 at 2:02 pm

J Thomas 121:
W/r/t your last paragraph, I don’t think anyone is making a moral equivalence argument here. W/r/t the rest of your comment, I agree that those are interesting questions but I’ll mostly have to save whatever thoughts I might have on them for another time. Everyday observation wd suggest there is a fair amt of individual variation in terms of what gives someone a thrill and what doesn’t. Even if one assumes a quasi-Freudian aggressive ‘instinct’ — which I’m not saying I do — it (and/or its sublimaton) can take various forms. I’ll leave it at that.

125

LFC 05.10.14 at 2:06 pm

shd read sublimation

126

Bruce Wilder 05.10.14 at 8:40 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 104

How people feel about cognitive activity — how motivated to engage in cognition, how distracted or preoccupied, how confident in their own powers of cognition, how tolerant of open, unanswered questions or conflicts — would seem to be central to the social dynamics and potential for social manipulation.

Critical or creative thinking about any complex subject is a highly trade-able good: whatever the combination of factors required for its original production — and the necessary combination may be a sufficiently mysterious technology to make valuable insights appear to be almost random, and an affront to the claims of branded authority — once an insight has made it into the common discourse, however great its value, its price falls, bringing it within reach of the cognitive budgets of much lesser minds. Opinions of glittering attractiveness, poses of social power, delightful metaphors, and great truths can be had by mere imitation. Further processes of distillation or re-manufacture may lower its price still further. But, all must still compete for budget, overloaded by the demands of daily life.

It’s that overloaded cognitive budget, which resists strongly ideas and information, which might break the budget, not by their own, trivial price alone, but by their displacement of previously valuable cognitive investments rendered obsolete or ineffective.

It’s those investments, which undergird a sense of self-worth, of safety, of belonging, of being able to manipulate at least that part of the world within reach, which will not be lightly traded away. The stock of durable good investments makes the cognitive budget sufficient against the demands of daily life, but an idea, however cheap, that discards those durable goods, brings existential anxiety to the fore. The cognitive budget is no longer sufficient to the demands of daily life. It’s disorganizing, threatens to eject the follower from a manageable place in an organization of social and economic life, into a chaos, which will make existential demands, which cannot be met.

On some level, being able to persuade people to change is a game of jenga with a person’s psyche: pulling out a piece or placing another, in such a way as to cause an architectural collapse and reconfiguration. That’s probably not a bad account of what a talented, caring psychotherapist tries to do in a clinical setting with an individual neurotic, and that example might highlight how hard that is to do, fighting against nothing more than the social dynamics, say, of a dysfunctional family or the ruts of personal habits.

On the much larger scale of national or global politics, it is a question of leadership, organization and ideology. The followership of followers is not the enemy. The struggle is a contest for leadership, a competition of organizational strategies, in which the loyalties of leaders to followers and followers to leaders is open to question.

Clarence Thomas is an odd figure, who highlights the fracturing of political organization, which followed the reaching of peak egalitarianism in the 1970s. If he’s a member of the conservative tribe, he’s an adopted member, acutely aware of his adoptive status, but his libertarian individualism might indicate simply that he’s alienated from the demands of tribalism, itself, without the capacity to free himself from the need for a tribe or an ideology.

I thought shah8, in comment #2, quite elegantly summed up the apparent role of CT’s resentments and how his personal alienation from tribal loyalties defined by race combined with a sense of personal cognitive limits (what shah8 labeled his defensiveness over a sense of his own mediocrity).

Social affiliations, generally, are at very low ebb today. Ideologies of any kind are held without much conviction — if conservative ideologies are unquiet faiths, this lack of conviction plays a part in how loudly the litany must be recited, and how little concern there is to make the theology of the litany make sense. The existential anxiety is close to the surface.

I have to say that the few CT scotus opinions I have read have left me disgusted with his lack of empathy, but also with some sympathy for his textualist originalism. He does want Constitutional interpretation to be less convoluted and esoteric, less layered with far-fetched elaborations. His commerce clause jurisprudence does align with his libertarianism, but it is not without hermeneutic reasons of its own, having to do with reducing the cognitive load. (I’ve been trying for years to work “hermeneutic” into a Crooked Timber comment; I probably didn’t do it right, even then.) His view of the Commerce Clause, if adopted by the majority, would be a nightmare for the organization and public regulation of a modern economy, but it would simplify interpretation of the Constitution. The current interpretation of the Commerce Clause is rooted in an historic conservative concession to the needs of the New Deal reforms, and New Deal progressive social movement and political ideology, which is, as another Georgian might say, . . . gone with the wind. The national solidarity that underwrote it is gone, unfelt.

127

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 12:17 am

Bruce Wilder #125: “On some level, being able to persuade people to change is a game of jenga with a person’s psyche: pulling out a piece or placing another, in such a way as to cause an architectural collapse and reconfiguration.”

Strongly agree with everything you wrote except this one. Strongly disagree for two reasons, tactical and psychological.

1. Tactical: What is the proper method for fighting a tribal organism within a democracy? and
2. Psychological: whether the individual cognitive budget is subtractive/additive only.

1. Tactical – Overloaded cognitive budgets only respond to stuff in front of their faces. Otherwise, the evidence shows that usually we CANNOT get people to change. Change usually happens in generational or evolutionary terms although with occasional breakpoints in the public discourse which sometimes are trivial considering the stakes.

If so, then the only way we might expect to make any headway will be a “second-best” solution: by chipping away at any part of the tribalism, any part at all — it doesn’t even matter if it is direct. I wish to propose a rule: Against a tribal meso-causation, attack at any, and every, point whatsoever.

For example, general support for Obamacare serves to program the possible future occurrence of individual direct cognitions (used to be called “intuition”) that, “Government doesn’t always do wrong.”

And since a 2017 provision will bring up the question of going single-payer, I think this is even a winnable fight, people. Although I know how you ALL need a Pure and Sure Thing placed in front of you, before you will condescend to sully your orbs… So shall not further digress…

Anyway — Just make a continuous assault on all fronts, just like the other side does.

2. The psychological point is a little different. I don’t think we can assume that cognition is merely plug-and-play, additive–subtractive.

Yes, the cognitive budget is fixed in attention-time, (and any KochBros. strategist would have learned by now this tactic: that keeping people poor and harried helps to “CONSUME” that particular budget, too).

But various other positive differences, like the growth of language and culture, show that there can be integratively-efficient advances, or else culs-de-sac, occurring inside or within the attention-span. Indeed tribal meso-causation is itself this sort of thing: perhaps it displays negative “integrative efficiency” from the viewpoint of public health, for example.

So let’s make a theory of cognition: All join in: Any socio-politico-economic model coming out of any brain, any brain whomsoever, including if that model is non-mathematical or even “folk”, is going to BE a multiple-box model. Thus even if it is non-mathematical, it falls prey to A) N-compartment indeterminism– it matters where you start to think about it, or compute it.

Not only that, any model out of any brain usually supposes that humans are creative and innovative (though, economists have a funny way of showing it…). Therefore, it contains B) new emergence.

Summarizing, our system is never going to be predictable, for two different reasons: A) N-compartment indeterminism and B) new emergence. (or perhaps it is only one reason, dualized by the hierarchic remove).

If so? Then again, the only way to deal with the tribal organism is to continually Analyze the beast (and now we begin to understand how someone like Clarence Thomas fits into the tribalism), while we actively Synthesize a broad spectrum attack upon it.

128

Suzanne 05.11.14 at 12:33 am

“All he can see is a movement in retreat, and to his mind, the class of passive black dependents, waiting on the largesse of their white patrons of state, that the movement has left in its wake.”

Not that this stuff would be possible to take seriously even if Thomas did live as he claims to believe (or as you present his notions here), but nobody caught him rejecting the (profoundly cynical) largesse of Bush Senior in the spirit of expressing “African American agency.” But of course, Bush was no slimy liberal sneak.

129

Bruce Wilder 05.11.14 at 1:52 am

Lee A. Arnold @ 126

I completely agree with your point about emergence. The doctor is not smarter than the patient, and the patient is not passively patient.

“Conservative” political forces, more often than progressives, exercise the superior strategy of never committing to defend anything. If the other side’s rhetoric works, they adopt it. If they lose to a reform, they don’t admit it, they immediately start in reforming the new status quo. If they choose, tactically, to argue for a restoration of past values or past practices — always a good pose — they never bother to check historical facts; they create a myth. One reason for the rhetorical success of conservative libertarians is that they are always defending a null, never an affirmative: they are against the proposed rule, but are in favor of “no rule at all”, even when it is obviously impossible to have no rule at all. Meanwhile, the wonky liberal is defending the trade-offs entailed by the proposed rule, saying how complex the problem is. Almost always, the conservative advocate is satisfying his audience’s desire for cognitive relief, for a simpler story, cast in moral terms.

Just to take up the Obamacare example, I wouldn’t count on people, collectively deciding that their experiences are positive. It is a very unlikely response, given human nature, let alone the complex design of the program. And, I wouldn’t defend the Obamacare reforms from whatever the mix of responses is. When responding to complaints, I would attack Obamacare as something shaped by Republican and business intransigence in every detail. Blame every failure on insurance company involvement. Say things like, “it may not be working, and we may have to eliminate insurance companies from the process”. If you have to abandon the President . . . well, he’s not running again, is he?

Conservatives win, because they give themselves a lot more strategic freedom than progressives have been accustomed to do. Progressives can be right to talk at times with the optimism of solutions, but a key is to keep to the plural and the tentative. Try many things, and be prepared, always, to abandon a position, if the opportunity to retreat forward arises.

Right now, on the peak oil / climate change front, the partisan divide is between urban areas and suburban/rural areas. Population density predicts voting patterns remarkably well in the U.S. And, that’s all about people, who are “conservative” because they see a way of life, dependent on cheap gas, threatened. And, they are being offered “fracking” as a solution. And, not much else, because so much of the Democratic Party is so willing to go with “racist!” — which, even if it is more than somewhat true, kind of gets in the way. This is one case, where a third party, if it split the rural/suburban vote, and began the search to a way to restructure rural life around alternative energy would be helpful.

130

mattski 05.11.14 at 12:08 pm

Bruce Lee (!)
a plea
for not
overthinking
:^)

131

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 3:35 pm

Bruce Wilder #129: “Just to take up the Obamacare example, I wouldn’t count on people, collectively deciding that their experiences are positive.”

“Accepting the moment” is a very good idea. In pursuance of which, it is very important to understand the opinion polling on this, because it shows that Democrats should NOW start telling voters that states can go single-payer in 2017.

The latest poll average on Obamacare is 52% oppose/41% favor (I think that spread is going to start shrinking a little, but that is beside the point here).

Here is what is important: of the 52% of the people who poll “against” Obamacare, about 1/4 of them (12-13% of the population) are “against Obamacare because they want a more liberal system” (i.e. a public option or single payer).

This portion has been quite a consistent size in the opinion polls since 2009: about 1/4 of the people in the “against” category, want a more liberal system.

Well Democratic candidates in some areas should start using this fact.

Once people learn that Obamacare already has a provision to start pushing for single payers (and once that ball is rolling, this will be a fait accompli in many states, for economic reasons) then some or all of that 12-13% will come over to the “in favor” side.

The poll average on Obamacare would thus be 54% favor/39% oppose.

In fact it will probably go much higher — 60% or more, in favor– or even end up with Medicare’s favorability rating.

132

Bruce Wilder 05.11.14 at 5:55 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 131

We’ve skewed way off topic, here.

I did appreciate very much your linked comment,
http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/30/right-wing-tribalists-a-lost-cause/#comment-525389
That clearly represents a lot of work, and I found it very useful and interesting.

My general view is that democracy has ceased to operate in the U.S., due to the paucity of mass-membership political organization, and the complacency of much of the politically aware upper-middle-class. Less than 15% of the polled combine a conviction in favor of single-payer with dissatisfaction with the emerging system — that’s pretty much all the political consciousness that’s possible without active membership organization. How far efforts to create mass-membership political organization can get, in a surveillance state, is an open question, but I am not optimistic. There are clearly some plutocrats, who are seriously worried about the potential for violent upheavals, and who may be willing to concede a higher minimum wage, subsidies for low-wage employers through EITC, and medicaid expansion, but it would be an understatement not to acknowledge a difference of opinion among plutocrats, with some taking a far darker view. A significant number of politically active plutocrats are sociopaths, and the sociopaths will dominate the financing of politics for the foreseeable future; the immediate consequences cannot be good — the reactive consequences are impossible to predict. That violence of all kinds, and political violence in particular, will rise for the rest of this decade in the U.S. appears to be designed in to political-economic trends. Some of this potential is related to the desperation of an increasingly large marginalized population — half of the population is in or near poverty, and a larger fraction is aware of being at risk of poverty. An increasing share of national income goes to “Capital”, and all the increase and more is drawn from parasitic activities. Some of this potential for violence is directly related to plutocratic promotion of open-carry laws and the gun industry’s promotion of right-wing paranoia as a marketing tool; the plutocrats have anticipated the rise of political violence, are fostering it, and intend to shape and control it.

133

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 6:51 pm

The topic was Clarence Thomas’ intellectual development and his place within rightwing tribalism.

Clarence Thomas would hold, I imagine, that racism is not a necessary part of the rightwing tribalism — that racism comes from somewhere else.

By extension, I think we might hypothesize that Clarence Thomas thinks that massive and increasing inequality is not necessarily a part of rightwing tribalism — that inequality comes from somewhere else.

Rightwing tribalism is not a “mass-membership political organization”, either. It is an amorphous socio-emotional organism that can be made to respond to hot-button issues.

The plutocrats are certainly aware of this — they are spending currently around a half-billion (?) dollars per year in OFF-ELECTION years, to try to program voters’ preferences. Much more money is spent in election years. The plutocrats would not be spending this money UNLESS they thought that they had something to lose.

This ought to prove that democracy has NOT ceased to exist in the U.S. — it is simply not operating on the easy terms that we would prefer.

And that doesn’t let us off the hook. We are not going to find a neat little intellectual fiat that everybody suddenly wakes up to, and that makes everything better. We agree on this already. There are occasional massive changes in the blink of an eye, but that stuff is rare — and dangerous.

So how do we fight it, instead? Well, it is very hard to tell how much economics Clarence Thomas understands. Or any of the rest of the Supreme Court.

Or rather, it is hard to tell how much they should be EXPECTED to understand. After all, half the Chicago school demonstrated rank ignorance of how to get out of the recession and help people, and those haughty nuts are supposed to be STUDYING economics. (Sometimes another form of anti-cognitive behavior, it could be argued).

Thus, how can we expect that the rest of the rightwing tribe will understand any better? There will never be any intellectual cognition.

So instead: put the fact right in front of them. Or two facts, actually: private insurers are still allowed to take up to 20% of healthcare dollars for their operations. But now, we can get rid of them, starting in 2017 — and save that money without harm to us, because they are taking that money for NO VALUE ADDED.

When it becomes apparent that we can do it less expensively and more easily, then we will have changed public preferences a little, without having to make the intellectual argument about it. That is why the plutocrats are spending so much money, now. (This strategy is even acknowledged explicitly, now and then, in rightwing op-eds.)

And THAT describes the battle against political tribalism, properly waged. Don’t even bother being optimistic or pessimistic. It wastes microseconds.

Understanding Clarence Thomas is another piece of the puzzle. I bet he will go along with single-payer, particularly if separate states choose it, first — and the results will teach him a little more about economics. He already likes Carole King, so he can’t be all bad.

134

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 7:35 pm

The whole “nigger” thing is beginning to make me laugh. I do see the historical teaching value and remembrance of suffering. But I was talking about a half year ago with a standup comedy pro who regrets that you can’t use “nigger” in comedy, unless you are black. Michael Richards went nuts, but it turns out to have rippled through legitimate standup. I responded it was getting all beyond me, too — I expected that in 20 years the local Catholic softball league will call themselves teh Stupid Honkies and teh Dirty Niggers. Because the kids are getting to the point of not accepting discrimination, of any type, whatsoever. (A recent vote in Quebec shows it, next — Late Postmodernism, for you). The kids just will not put up with all this holy-than-thou shit. No! Their Baby-Boom Parents instilled them well! Their father’s hell, did slowly go by. Thus upon quote of poetry I shall desist, in deference to comments on Corey Robin, and drivel on some other time, about how close it is to Schumpeter’s sniffing-out that Late Capitalism’s fatal flaw will be Boredom with its Premises (Premise Boredom?) –Hey Kids, Have Fun! Abandon the Historical Coloration of “Nigger”!

135

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 7:37 pm

And if Clarence Thomas doesn’t think that’s funny, then he’s a bigger pussy than I think he is!

136

john c. halasz 05.11.14 at 8:46 pm

” Well, it is very hard to tell how much economics Clarence Thomas understands. Or any of the rest of the Supreme Court. “

Law-and-economics? The Federalist Society?

Look it up.

137

mattski 05.11.14 at 8:50 pm

Don’t even bother being optimistic or pessimistic. It wastes microseconds.

There’s a lot of wisdom right there.

138

godoggo 05.11.14 at 9:09 pm

Since mattski mentioned Bruce Lee I’m going to take that as a cue to mention that I went and saw Yojimbo yesterday and they had a Q&A by the actor who played the guy with the gun. Cool, huh?

139

Lee A. Arnold 05.11.14 at 10:47 pm

John C. Halasz #136: “Law-and-economics? The Federalist Society?”

I have a copy of Law and Economics by Werner C. Hirsch (Academic Press, 3rd edition, 1998) across from me on my shelf — for 15 years now. From this, the answer to, “How much economics does the Supreme Court understand?” is almost zero. If that is the extent of it, then it is very bad news indeed.

140

Bloix 05.11.14 at 11:21 pm

“The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.”

My goodness, I go away for a few days and see what I come back to. You are utterly shameless, aren’t you, Prof. Robin?

141

J Thomas 05.12.14 at 12:02 am

” Well, it is very hard to tell how much economics Clarence Thomas understands. Or any of the rest of the Supreme Court. “

Economics is not a science to understand. Economics is a big bundle of different peoples’ tribal lays.

If you think you understand economics, I guarantee you somebody with different politics will be sure you’re wrong.

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And every single one of them is right!”

142

Bruce Wilder 05.12.14 at 1:20 am

Lee A Arnold @ 133

it is very hard to tell how much economics Clarence Thomas understands. Or any of the rest of the Supreme Court. . . . Or rather, it is hard to tell how much they should be EXPECTED to understand. After all, half the Chicago school demonstrated rank ignorance of how to get out of the recession and help people, and those haughty nuts are supposed to be STUDYING economics.

We are not going to find a neat little intellectual fiat that everybody suddenly wakes up to, and that makes everything better. . . . So instead: put the fact right in front of them.

J. Thomas @ 141

Economics is not a science to understand. Economics is a big bundle of different peoples’ tribal lays.

Economics is one of those academic fields most necessary to the staffing of a liberal, democratic state. You cannot manage the performance of the economy without competent technocrats with the appropriate expertise, able to inform political debate and implement policy intelligently. Turning much of mainstream policy economics into an esoteric religion and degenerate research project was a highly successful project, from the point of view of the plutocracy and corporate executive class. Instead of knowledge, we get the deliberate production of ignorance.

The deeper implication — that the part of the elite with dominating power thinks that it benefits itself, when society as a whole is badly run, when a mediocrity like Clarence Thomas serves on the Supreme Court, when the most prestigious economists are corporate shills, and most establishment pundits are unconcerned and politicians just see the opportunity for fund-raising talking points, but no policy imperative — is alarming. If you cannot psychologically handle alarm, then, maybe, it is pessimistic, and if you cannot handle pessimism, then it is time to cruise the Nile.

143

Keith 05.12.14 at 1:51 am

“Economics is one of those academic fields most necessary to the staffing of a liberal, democratic state. You cannot manage the performance of the economy without competent technocrats with the appropriate expertise, able to inform political debate and implement policy intelligently. “

And yet the most important insight is that economists cannot substitute for markets, as economists are still tribal (being human and all), and markets, when functioning well, punish excess tribalism.

144

Keith 05.12.14 at 1:55 am

“A significant number of politically active plutocrats are sociopaths, and the sociopaths will dominate the financing of politics for the foreseeable future.”

By the way, words like “sociopath” and phrases like “lack of empathy” as exactly how tribal liberals try to niggerize Clarence Thomas for his lack of tribalism. I am not in full agreement with libertarians, but libertarians are the only ones who truly understand that the evils of tribalism imply that we must limit the power of the political process itself to control our lives.

145

Lee A. Arnold 05.12.14 at 2:48 am

J Thomas #141: “Economics is a big bundle of different peoples’ tribal lays.”

Exactly. It is in the current jargon a matter of “preferences”, individual and social preferences about how people should work and trade.

With regard to little things, e.g. consumer choice about consumer goods, market economists would say the preference is “exogenous” — it comes from outside the market, and is borne in consumer demand, and thus brought to interact with supply to make the price, thus conclude in an allocation.

But wait a minute — what about the big things? Well, the institutional structure of markets and welfare economics is an exogenous preference TOO. Here on this point, economists waffle a good deal more.

All economists have a preference to organization that they bring from outside — in the case of rightwing tribalism, it is virtually a religious certitude.

There is no non-normative market economics. Oh, they try to “prove” its virtues, with “science” about market efficiency and freedom, but these proofs are carefully construed to rely upon static conceptions and one-equation syllogisms. In terms of intellectual functionality, it isn’t much different from medieval scholasticism, although the scholastics were often more interesting and are sometimes still relevant.

By contrast, any N-compartment account, dynamical into the future, would be far more equivocal in support of market economics. (Note that Hayek hoped to use a dynamic concept in support of anti-government, market economics, but he fell into the error of assuming that “spontaneous order” is positive, not normative and indeed illusory.)

146

LFC 05.12.14 at 2:55 am

From the OP:

First, coming to consciousness at the end of the Black Freedom struggle, Thomas had and has difficulty seeing the achievements of that struggle as black achievements. In Thomas’s eyes, civil rights, affirmative action, integration: these were not the work of African-Americans, acting on their own behalf, wrangling power from a power structure that refused to give it to them. They are instead the poisoned apples of white liberals who prefer to give handouts rather than to cede power.

All he would really have to do, arguably, is open one of the several superb (judging from their reputation and reviews) histories of the civil rts mvt to see that civil rts was in large part a mvt from below and indeed the work of African-Americans.

The OP continues:

Like many counterrevolutionaries (Tocqueville comes to mind), Thomas came too late to the revolution, too late to see the self-formation and self-assertion at work in movements of collective struggle.

If Tocqueville had been before the French Revolution instead of after it, but into the same aristocratic family, do you think he really would have had a different view of the Revolution? If T. had been born in 1770 instead of 1805, would his views really have been any different? Did Thomas “come too late to the revolution” or is he willfully uninterested in informing himself about what happened during the revolution? Wasn’t Burke, the severest critic of the Rev., alive during the Rev.? Wasn’t Maistre alive during the Rev. (I don’t know his dates)? I don’t particularly get this he-came-too-late-to-the-revolution line.

147

LFC 05.12.14 at 3:01 am

Two amendments:
1) civil rts the work of African-Amercans and various allies

2) I think it’s *possible* Thomas’s views might have been different had he been born earlier. But I kind of doubt that applies to Tocqueville (though I’m no expert on him). So I guess what I’m questioning is the Thomas-Tocqueville analogy.

148

Bruce Wilder 05.12.14 at 3:05 am

Keith @ 143

The first point would be that “markets, . . . functioning well” is not going to happen without a well-administered infrastructure of public good investments.

The second point is that there are very few actual markets in our so-called “market economy” — “market” is a metaphor at best, and an outright lie at worst.

Keith @ 144

Power in society is a product of organized social cooperation. There’s not a fixed amount of power, to be distributed in a zero-sum game, between state and individual. A more organized society and political economy produces more power. To make the individual more powerful may require a more powerful state, in a more organized society.

The liberal theory is that power is a by-product of social cooperation and cooperation entails, always, conflicts of interest over terms, and the task of politics is to mediate the fair regulation or resolution of those conflicts in a general or public interest. A careful balancing of conflicting and competing interests in a distributed and mixed (public and private) system frees the state from capture, and the public from oppressive and arbitrary legislation, as rational argument is necessary to identify the public interest in fair resolutions.

In my experience, many conservative libertarians are closet authoritarians, who want to limit the authority of the democratic state, in order that the lives of most of us can be better controlled by business corporations and plutocrats. They want to eliminate or weaken the labor union, the demand for environmental protection, or consumer protection, or worker safety, labor and hours regulation, or fraud protections. They want to introduce “competition”, but only when it would create opportunities for parasitic financial drains on the provision of pensions, social insurance, or public education. They want everywhere for-profit, to the exclusion of all other political and economic organization. It is an ideology that blends seamlessly with public corruption, prescribing the very rent-seeking it excoriates.

149

Keith 05.12.14 at 3:13 am

“First, coming to consciousness at the end of the Black Freedom struggle, Thomas had and has difficulty seeing the achievements of that struggle as black achievements.”

Actually, this is what Robin gets wrong. Thomas sees the extent to which at least some of these things are black achievements, and the extent to which white liberals won’t cede that these achievements depended on the forceful exercise of power by blacks. For example, black World War II veterans armed themselves and provided protection for many Civil Rights leaders. White liberals forget the importance of people exercising their 2nd Amendment rights as part of the struggle for Civil Rights. Thomas doesn’t forget.

But Clarence Thomas rightly sees that once you had the government intervening in private property for “good,” then you ended up with a government that can violate property rights of the dispossessed and minorities, particularly under the excesses of the Drug War and the abuse of Eminent Domain. And which groups lost out under those?

Thomas gets it, while so many commenters here don’t. Individual freedom is the key, as part of the classical liberal social contract. Once you violate the classical liberal social contract, even ostensibly to benefit a dispossessed minority, you’ve set a machinery of savage tribalism into motion, as politics is inherently tribal.

Thomas gets it.

150

Corey Robin 05.12.14 at 3:21 am

LFC: On Tocqueville, I wasn’t trying to argue that he would have supported the French Revolution had he been born before it. Though there were in fact liberal aristocrats who did support the Revolution, Tocqueville’s family wasn’t among them. His great-grandfather in fact defended Louis XVI at his trial and then lost his own head not long after. No, my point was that one of Tocqueville’s great critiques of the French Revolution was that it didn’t do much of anything; it all would have happened anyway; that the society created by the Revolution was not that different from the society that preceded it; that indeed France had been heading in this direction for centuries. It was all pointless. France after the Revolution was a lot like France before the Revolution. That critique was quite different from Burke’s, say, or Maistre’s, both of whom thought the Revolution did quite a bit. Quite a bad bit. But Tocqueville had a bit of sympathy with the revolutionary passion and fervor; he liked the idea of politics on a grand stage. So his sympathy with the idea of revolutionary heroism and action was balanced by his jaundiced view of the Revolution’s accomplishments. Anyway, it struck a chord with me as I was reading Thomas. Not an identical case, but similar in that Thomas simply can’t see what anyone who went through the heroic phase of the Civil Rights Movement would have seen. Yes, he could have read a book, sure. But his type of critique — what Albert Hirschman calls the “futility” critique of reactionaries (it all would have happened anyway; it was all pointless; nothing really changed) — is quite common among a later generation, the one that comes after the Revolution.

151

Corey Robin 05.12.14 at 3:37 am

Keith: “Actually, this is what Robin gets wrong. Thomas sees the extent to which at least some of these things are black achievements, and the extent to which white liberals won’t cede that these achievements depended on the forceful exercise of power by blacks. For example, black World War II veterans armed themselves and provided protection for many Civil Rights leaders. White liberals forget the importance of people exercising their 2nd Amendment rights as part of the struggle for Civil Rights. Thomas doesn’t forget.”

Do you have any citations where Thomas talks about this? In his major 2nd Amendment case, for example, where you’d think you’d see some mention of it — it’s a really long opinion — there’s nothing about black WWII vets defending civil rights protesters at all.

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Keith 05.12.14 at 3:42 am

Bruce @148

“markets, . . . functioning well” is not going to happen without a well-administered infrastructure of public good investments. “

True but too vague to be meaningful. Anybody can CALL something a well-administered infrastructure of public good investment…but whether it actually is, well that’s the question, ain’t it?

“Power in society is a product of organized social cooperation.”

“Power” is not a word that lends itself to rational discourse.

“The liberal theory is that power is a by-product of social cooperation and cooperation entails, always, conflicts of interest over terms, and the task of politics is to mediate the fair regulation or resolution of those conflicts in a general or public interest. “

False. Classical liberal theory is that the state frees us from the tribe, by making our physical protection and the protection of our property merely dependent upon citizenship. I.e., it’s a social agreement that says that the rest of society cannot physically violate you based upon mere social disapproval. It’s a social agreement to limit the use of state power on one another. Liberty is the first and primary public good that the state provides, and that liberty also inherently limits state power.

And the main task is to minimize the sphere of our lives that is determined by state decisions, to allow people to be as free from (public) politics as they wish to be. That’s the part you’re missing, and that’s really the important part.

The “liberal” in liberal democracy is about guarantees of liberty, and that’s central. Heck, even if you just want sustainable democracy, you have to include guarantees of liberty, simply to keep your democracy from descending into winner-take-all warfare.

“as rational argument is necessary to identify the public interest in fair resolutions.”

No, the precondition to rational argument are hard limits on what the state can do to the individual, based merely on social disapproval. “A government of laws and not of men.” Note, this does not preclude collective action or pursuing public goods, when a high burden of proof is met.

“In my experience, many conservative libertarians are closet authoritarians, who want to limit the authority of the democratic state, in order that the lives of most of us can be better controlled by business corporations and plutocrats.”

That’s not experience. That’s a tribal devil theory. That’s why we have liberty, to minimize the influence that people like you (and I, for that matter) can have over more rational people, so the rational people have the freedom to identify and solve social problems that the rest of us can’t. Most problems can be identified and solved through the entrepreneurial process. A small class of problems require a high enough degree of universal and explicit coordination to belong to the sphere of state action. The formalisms of “public goods” in economics provide a pretty good first cut in identifying likely candidates.

“They want to eliminate or weaken the labor union, the demand for environmental protection, or consumer protection, or worker safety, labor and hours regulation, or fraud protections. “

Yeah, sometimes these are good, sometimes these are bad. In my own view, you’re generally better off with narrow and specific definitions of the behavior you won’t allow (like fraud), and have a small and independent government doing it. Now, we have much broader classes of things the government is supposed to do, and a much greater bleeding over between the government and private sector, in a way that generates a lot of capture, a lack of “good” regulation, and a surplus of “bad” regulation.

“They want everywhere for-profit, to the exclusion of all other political and economic organization. It is an ideology that blends seamlessly with public corruption, prescribing the very rent-seeking it excoriates.”

Settle down, Beavis.

153

Keith 05.12.14 at 3:45 am

Corey @151

You caught me in full-blown mood affiliation, dude. Now my buzz is totally harshed.

154

LFC 05.12.14 at 3:46 am

Corey:
This is interesting/clarifying, thanks, and I’ll have to think about it.

I read The Old Regime and the Revolution a very long time ago and didn’t apparently get that much out of it — or didn’t remember it well, which amounts, I guess, to the same thing. (I did, however, open my copy of it at random years later and found a passage that I managed to quote in a footnote of my dissertation. But that passage didn’t have to do w/ his view of the Revolution.)

155

Bruce Wilder 05.12.14 at 4:53 am

Tocqueville was a liberal, a Catholic, and very much a bourgeois reformist in many ways. I don’t think he was a fan of arbitrary government or royal absolutism. An essential part of his argument was his contention that France needed the politics of representative assemblies, but lacked the popular cultural habits to make it work.

He does argue that the rationalizing impulses of the Revolution in administration did reflect a continuation of an impulse evident in the practice of the Royal intendants, and he identifies its continuance and elaboration as a great strength that carried France through the chaos of its long revolution and later upheavals at the center. He also argued at length for the proposition that Languedoc, with its relatively powerful legislature, was the best governed province of the ancien régime.

But, he most certainly did not argue that the Revolution was futile. His tact was the the Revolution was inevitable, a response to some very real, very advanced diseases of the old regime, which left the society chock full of resentments. As I recall, he takes Burke to task for not understanding the degree to which the old regime had left Frenchmen alienated from one another and from a sense of shared responsibility for their country and nation. He thinks the Revolution went wrong — as it certainly did, in almost anyone’s evaluation — because the French were so little prepared socially and culturally for the deliberative politics of popular and representative assemblies, and so accepting of venality in public life. This was also the didactic theme of his earlier Democracy in America: here, my fellows, see, this is how the republican future is done, this is public-spiritedness.

156

Corey Robin 05.12.14 at 12:07 pm

Here’s what I said above: “No, my point was that one of Tocqueville’s great critiques of the French Revolution was that it didn’t do much of anything; it all would have happened anyway; that the society created by the Revolution was not that different from the society that preceded it; that indeed France had been heading in this direction for centuries.”

Here’s what Tocqueville wrote in The Old Regime and the French Revolution: “Radical though it may have been, the Revolution made far fewer changes than is generally supposed, as I shall point out later….Even if it had not taken place, the old social structure would nonetheless have been shattered everywhere sooner or later. The only difference would have been that instead of collapsing with such brutal suddenness it would have crumbled bit by bit. At one fell swoop, without warning, without transition, without transition, and without compunction, the Revolution effected what in any case was bound to happen if by slow degrees.”

157

Barry 05.12.14 at 12:29 pm

Keith:

” Actually, this is what Robin gets wrong. Thomas sees the extent to which at least some of these things are black achievements, and the extent to which white liberals won’t cede that these achievements depended on the forceful exercise of power by blacks. For example, black World War II veterans armed themselves and provided protection for many Civil Rights leaders. White liberals forget the importance of people exercising their 2nd Amendment rights as part of the struggle for Civil Rights. Thomas doesn’t forget.

But Clarence Thomas rightly sees that once you had the government intervening in private property for “good,” then you ended up with a government that can violate property rights of the dispossessed and minorities, particularly under the excesses of the Drug War and the abuse of Eminent Domain. And which groups lost out under those? “

I must have missed where Thomas was a stalwart force in resisting the War on Drugs.
He must have an incredible record in defending the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

158

SamChevre 05.12.14 at 1:03 pm

He must have an incredible record in defending the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

If my memory serves me correctly, he’s the second-most-likely justice to vote for the accused and against the police in Fourth Amendment cases–only Scalia is likelier.

159

Glen Tomkins 05.12.14 at 2:11 pm

That futility critique

The application of the futility critique to US history I hear most often is to the Civil War and emancipation. “Slavery was dying anyway! The whole slave system would have collapsed of its own economic inefficiency within a generation anyway, without requiring a war, that in the end only served to create unnecessary resentments towards blacks on the part of the losers of that war.”

Well, maybe if money were power. But power is power, and the peculiar institution survived its inherent economic inefficiency, plus the inefficiency it was saddled with by the Non-Importation Clause, until it was brought down by force. The folks with the whip hand are not going to surrender the whip in favor of some vague promise of an improved economic position in a future system that will work better for everyone. In fact, the bar on importing new slaves just made the slave owners use their political control of their states to distort an already peculiar institution that much further towards creating a permanent slave class.

So what if France had been evolving for centuries away from a system in which feudal lords held power by commanding clientelar groups. Because the nobility was not deprived of power along that route, until the Revolution, until then it just found new ways to maintain control. It traded control of its inferiors through armed bands of thugs for control through lawyers like the pre-Revolution Robespierre, expert in parlaying nobiliar rights into financial dominance, even as those nobles gave up their right to feudal levies. And, in a pinch, people like the Rohans could still have people like Voltaire beaten up and exiled at their whim, right up until the Revolution. No parliamentary democracy was ever going to grow in that environment, not until the ancient regime was overthrown by force and the Rohans exiled so that the Voltaires could come back.

160

mattski 05.12.14 at 2:41 pm

Keith,

In your opinion did Clarence Thomas lie under oath in order to get onto the Supreme Court?

Thx.

161

Lee A. Arnold 05.12.14 at 3:22 pm

Keith #152: “Most problems can be identified and solved through the entrepreneurial process… In my own view, you’re generally better off with narrow and specific definitions of the behavior you won’t allow (like fraud), and have a small and independent government doing it.”

I agree with narrow definitions, but the rest of that is becoming less and less useful for principles.

For one thing, the question ought to be whether most large problems that still exist, really can be “identified and solved through the entrepreneurial process”.

A great economist once pointed out that entrepreneurs, being unheroic and boring, would start to miss the mark. A further question is whether it gets worse — whether these sorts of problems can multiply in number, due to emergent externalities and network effects (e.g. environment, inequality) in a crowded, complex system.

But even before that, I think your “view” had already crumbled, long ago and decisively, with the advent of the international corporations, which sometimes rival governments in scope of power and influence, and create endless swaths of behavior that can be described according to “narrow and specific definitions (like fraud)”; behavior which then overwhelms and swamps both the wheels of justice and a proper political redress (recent example, the vast crookedness uncovered in the financial crash).

I think that the old classical liberals would amend their position, to say that liberty is at risk from ALL large organizations, government and private business, but that they are only going to get bigger.

Therefore tight regulation, legislation and transparency over all large organisations is paramount — although, even that may not always work, because an individual person’s attention-budget is too limited in time and learning to act either as a perfect price-maker or as a perfect voter (prices and votes being the two forms of decisionmaking).

In this era, the call to “Make government smaller” comes out of misunderstanding, or out of a secret agenda for capture. It has indeed become a hollow and hypocritical slogan of rightwing tribalism, if it omits the call to “Make corporations smaller”, (and make patents less extensive, etc. etc.)

In the future, the present tilt of the Court towards private corporations will be judged a backward intellectual mistake.

162

geo 05.12.14 at 4:22 pm

Lee@161: Therefore tight regulation, legislation and transparency over all large organisations is paramount

Yes, exactly (though you might have added self-management by the membership of those large organizations to your list). But how do you square that with this: I agree with narrow definitions? (By which I assume you mean narrow definitions of regulatory authority, since you’re agreeing with Keith.) Surely if we’ve learned anything from the last several decades, it’s that corporate lawyers, accountants, consultants, and house scientists are fantastically skillful at finding ways to delay, evade, and gum up even the most explicit regulations, whether by litigation, bogus research, or simply buying elections for sympathetic politicians and then prevailing on them to pack the regulatory agency in question with industry flacks? Regulators need broad authority to counter these evasive measures. Of course all large entities, public or private, should be accountable, and at not many removes, to the citizenry. It’s true, as you note, that citizens are not currently mobilized to exercise this control. Mobilizing them is the left’s job.

I suspect you already know all this, but seeing in your comment even a token measure of agreement with Keith was alarming.

163

Harold 05.12.14 at 5:01 pm

Keith = “Most problems can be identified and solved through the entrepreneurial process… In my own view, you’re generally better off with narrow and specific definitions of the behavior you won’t allow (like fraud), and have a small and independent government doing it.”

Translation: most problems can be identified through a process of darwinian trial and error and overconfident blundering on steroids.

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2014/05/19/140519ta_talk_surowiecki

164

Lee A. Arnold 05.12.14 at 5:14 pm

Geo, I just think words should be narrowly defined. If you need another word for something else, invent it. It makes for more writing fun, and less confusion.

I agree that regulators should have in some cases broader authority, but not over word definitions. I was thinking about terms like “fraud”. I don’t see how the system can work, unless “fraud” is properly and quite narrowly defined. If there is another thing that is like fraud, but isn’t exactly about monetary damages, then make another word or phrase to cover it: “intellectual fraud”, “economic-theoretical fraud” …Well, there ought to be money damages claimable for that last one…

If there is another thing that is like fraud, but isn’t exactly, then metaphorical speech may use it still: I am not against that. As we know, that is often the currency of comments in these threads: metaphor + abductive inference. But, after such a synthesis, analysis MUST be engaged; it’s a two-way maneuver, like the pincers of a crab, and I am not sure that wide definitions always serve clear thinking or justice.

It dawns on me that my point of disagreement with many Crooked Timber comments is not with the beliefs, but with the definitions, making shoddy discourse. I prefer to read you instead.

I acknowledge that narrow definitions calling for multitudinous words enables the swamping effect –“skillful at finding ways to delay, evade, and gum up even the most explicit regulations, whether by litigation, bogus research, or simply buying elections”. I would go for simpler laws using narrow deifintions: “Damage to natural wildlife environment is illegal. If you are not a creative entrepreneur who can do things without damaging the ecosystem, then you go to jail. Period.”

165

J Thomas 05.12.14 at 5:34 pm

“Once you violate the classical liberal social contract, even ostensibly to benefit a dispossessed minority, you’ve set a machinery of savage tribalism into motion, as politics is inherently tribal.”

What if there is already a machinery of savage tribalism in motion?
What can we do about that?

Backing off from politics because the other side is all tribal and we don’t want politics to get in the way, is not going to help keep the savage tribalism of the other side from taking over the government.

I think there was a time when we might have headed off the savage tribalism and persuaded people to follow a classical liberal social contract. But by 1710 it was too late, and it’s still too late.

166

mattski 05.12.14 at 6:14 pm

This is an amateurish (from a legal point of view) opinion, but ISTM that narrow definitions, while desirable, are to some extent not possible. The skill of corporate lawyers that geo references is not to be underestimated, and judges are ultimately indispensable precisely because legal language must be interpreted.

But, yes, transparency is the direction we want to head in.

*And I don’t see any harm in acknowledging that Keith may have a valid point here and there. Hey, Clarence Thomas has valid points here and there. No big whoop.

167

Bruce Wilder 05.12.14 at 6:36 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 164 and others

I guess I don’t understand juxtaposing “fraud” and “narrow definitions”.

Fraud is a word that denotes an activity, where human inventiveness knows few bounds. That’s a defining feature of frauds in the real world; fraudsters are constantly inventing new ones. The father of lies has many children.

168

mdc 05.12.14 at 7:21 pm

Appeal to CT community: could we come up with a better term than “tribal” and “tribalism”? I think it’s vague, and rhetorically ugly.

169

Plume 05.12.14 at 7:21 pm

J Thomas @165,

Your comment reminds me of the bizarre complaint by all too many on the right regarding democracy and the supposed “tyranny of the majority” that ensues with it being in place.

Would they rather it be a tyranny of the minority? Which, of course, is what we actually have in place anyway. Because that’s what you get if you negate, do away with, cancel out or otherwise prevent majority rule. You get minority rule. It’s not as if you “solve” something without further repercussions taking place.

Same with tribalism. Meekly stand above it all, and watch savage tribalists take over that much more of the political sphere.

170

Bruce Wilder 05.12.14 at 7:25 pm

Re: Tocqueville

I think Corey Robins seriously mistakes Tocqueville by attributing to him the reactionary tropes identified by Hirschman. Tocqueville was not a reactionary; he was a liberal.

He didn’t argue that “the French Revolution . . . didn’t do much of anything”. He argued that the French Revolution did one particular thing, which affected everything: it abolished aristocratic and feudal institutions. (And, he argued that the Revolution was continuing in his own day to do that . . . a concept critical to the way in which the Revolution was to be incorporated into French nationalism across the political spectrum.)

As a Catholic, he denies that the Revolution aimed to overthrow the Church and religious belief. He seeks to refute the reactionary critics, who charge that the Revolution sought anarchy. He says Burke, with his plea for custom and tradition of the common law, completely misses the point.

Despite the passage you quoted, I don’t think Tocqueville intends to argue with his counterfactual that the Revolution was a regrettable accident. He simply wishes to stress that the decay of the ancien regime, which set up the Revolution, was a gradual process with a long history. He’s a liberal, so he believes in a kind of Whiggish evolutionary social progress. He also doesn’t think the Revolution is finished, in his own day.

Doyle, a modern historian of the French Revolution, takes a genuinely reactionary tact. In Doyle’s view, the upheaval wasn’t just a surprise to contemporaries (Tocqueville’s view), it had the character of a regrettable, avoidable accident, with few, if any positive results. Tocqueville doesn’t think it was an accident at all, and does not regard the abolition of feudal institutions as trivial.

Tocqueville doesn’t think the French Revolution was futile, he regards it as frustrating, in that it institutes freedom and equality and representative government, but through the untutored and unprepared incompetence, exhausts the spirit of freedom, setting up the turn toward popular autocracy as a rationalizing mechanism. And, he sees this happening over and over, as France swings back and forth, unable to settle on a constitutional regime and make it work, without periodic turns to arbitrary government.

171

Plume 05.12.14 at 7:30 pm

Keith,

The call for “limited government” is always about pulling up the ladder after one has used it to climb above the rest. The ladder being provided by “big gubmint.” The American government has always been huge, and huge chiefly in order to expand capital accumulation for the rich, promote it, extend it, protect it, bail it out and otherwise enhance those who do it. The bigger the sphere of capitalism, the bigger the government must be to do the above. They always grow together. They are parasitical to one another, dependent upon one another, at least in the capitalist system.

Want “limited government”? Then you can’t have capitalism. It never would have come into being in the first place without big, centralized governments, and big, centralized governments working together . . . . and it never would have lasted this long without them. Even if we ignore the massive spending by the public on infrastructure, R and D, wars to defend and expand property, currency supports, trade agreements, etc. etc. . . . capitalism has been in serious crisis hundreds of times, and has needed trillions in public monies to keep it afloat. More than 100 massive bailouts worldwide just since 1970 . . . . It can’t sustain itself.

In short, you can’t have one without the other. Shrink the government, and capitalism won’t survive. And I’m looking forward to the day when capitalism is nothing more than a horrific memory, lodged in the dustbin of history.

172

Trader Joe 05.12.14 at 7:38 pm

@169 plume
Your response suggests there’s no in between ground – you get tyranny either by a majority or minority. Seems like a lot of legislation, in many cases the more enduring legislation, has been crafted via some degree of consensus where the minority felt included and respected to a degree that they weren’t tyranized and the majority didn’t feel like the thrust of their plan had been derailed.

Everyone will have their favorite moment when they believe the current ‘tribalism’ or maybe partisanism began but its I think most will agree its growth worse while perhaps not agreeing on either causes or solutions.

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Adrian Kelleher 05.12.14 at 7:39 pm

In spite of rarely if ever disputing ideological fundamentals, political rivals these days can appear to speak different languages. Failing at the rudimentary level of information transfer, debate is then futile.

The stories explaining this share common themes. There are insiders and outsiders. Faced with a lack of a brighter tomorrow to offer voters, insiders like the Koch brothers resort to a sort of social engineering to get what they want. There’s multi-layered propaganda via the media, lobby groups and astro-turf organisations. The whole process works better in an environment of high or rising inequality which increases both paranoia and political bitterness, making the emotional security of shared identity an attractive refuge.

As a story of insiders and outsiders, Machiavellian manipulators and sheeple, it’s beguiling because it’s flattering. The story also unites the patricians against the proles as much as it does left against right. Even where initially incorrect the former view can become self-fulfilling, and countries run on that basis suffer.

But the major flaw in the picture painted above is that the assumption of shrewd, perceptive, Machiavellian manipulators is often just wrong. Frequently, the manipulators are neither shrewd nor perceptive and history is full of bungling.

Political irrationality is also a broader issue than motivated political reasoning which is itself broader than tribalism. Its origins can be surprising…

A person fascinated by clairvoyance, astrology and the occult, the Prussian King Frederick William II was startlingly unreasonable in spite of having grown up under the rule of his uncle Frederick the Great, a man renowned for his devotion to enlightenment rationalism. Each king was a man of his time — Frederick William II’s beliefs reflected an interest in occult matters that surged across all Europe during that era.

What’s interesting about this is that it was neither some incidental fashion nor a mere throwback to a superstitious past. On the contrary, it resulted directly from the rationalism of the earlier generation and its interaction with traditional religion. This produced something new and just as enduring as enlightenment itself: a vacuous anti-rationalism that embraced what was once considered witchcraft.

This is a major theme of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which illuminates this fascinating moment in history. The major characters, Pierre Bezukhov and his friend Andrei Bolkonsky, could hardly be more different although each is a product of the same forces that shaped Frederick William II. Tolstoy is too sophisticated to prop them up as emblems or representatives, or to cast them as straightforward antagonists. Instead they circle each other in a strange metaphysical orbit. Neither is ever either similar or opposite to the other.

Pierre’s life compresses into a few years a European journey that lasted three generations. Born into a traditional and religious milieu, he’s sent west to be educated where he picks up a new and more logical set of beliefs. He’s courageous in defending these beliefs, and Napoleon as their political embodiment, in the face of a patriotic reaction against them in Russia. Later however, under psychological strain, he succumbs to mysticism and his love for Napoleon is transformed into hatred. The wheel has turned full circle and though all his rationales have been transformed beyond recognition, his conclusions have reverted — magically! — to resemble those of his childhood.

Not so much rejecting reason as developing a manic devotion to it, Pierre reverts to a Christianity subtly but profoundly transformed by his experience. In him, reason flutters free from the material world and Christianity free from traditional understanding.

In contrast to Pierre, Andrei grew up in a rationalist household. Although he doesn’t have a religious upbringing to revert to, he’s seen first-hand how his father Prince Bolkonsky, in spite of being a dedicated man of science, frequently employs reason as a tool to ram home imperatives of an origin much deeper emotionally than his rationales reveal or he himself even understands. The impersonality of his enlightenment and its superficial objectivity enable the Prince to evade any feeling of responsibility for his boorish personality and the impetuosity of depersonalisation impairs his judgement in all but the narrowest technical matters.

Having perceived the covert and unconscious layer to his father’s reasoning, Andrei will never be happy accepting his own at face value. The horrors of war convince him that human experience can never approach even a fraction of that required to make sense of the chaos of human experience. Reasons exist but he concludes they’re too obscure and complex ever to be fathomed. Whereas Pierre retains faith in reason even while losing touch with observable reality and succumbs to wishful fantasies, Andrei’s observations of reality instead shatter the simplistic reasoning of his father’s time and he succumbs to fatalism.

Allthough so far this may describe how the mumbo-jumbo of spiritism, clairvoyance, astrology or rosicrucianism could emerge from the harmonious universe as described by Newton, there are aspects to history it doesn’t explain: the lag between the beliefs of Frederick William II’s time and that of his predecessor, and why rationalism as a social phenomenon should peak before partially slumping back instead of settling immediately at a new equilibrium.

As Tolstoy has it, enlightenment appealed equally to rational (Andrei) and irrational (Pierre) temperaments. Andrei’s beliefs are at least a logical progression from his father’s. Pierre’s on the other hand were a new and unexpected phenomenon.

In the era of Prince Bolkonsky and Frederick the Great, nobody could tell the Pierres and the Andreis apart. Their views were at that time indistinguishable even though for the Andreis the appeal of enlightenment was reason whereas for the Pierres it was its modernity. Over time this modernity — this irrational appeal of rationality — ebbed and the fashionable Pierres moved on to other things.

What’s true of Pierre was also true of the revolution. Enlightenment was never sharper, more lucid, more plainspoken or more ambitious than in the US constitution, yet once the dust had settled the rationales (we the people) had changed far more than the conclusions (privilege, slavery, manifest destiny).

In France, the second wave of revolution was as much a reaction against the shortcomings of the first as it was inspired by it. Here, everything from grocers’ weights and the names of days of the week to the basis for political authority would be logical.

The resulting mayhem produced Napoleon, whose career hinged (13 Vendémiaire) on his instinctive revulsion for the mob. As in America, everything had been transformed in order for it to remain exactly the same: from that day forward, merit rather than aristocratic privilege would determine who would cut down rioters with his sabre or blow them apart with grapeshot.

If history will ever have an end it happened on the day that Isaac Newton unified understanding of the heavens and the earth, something the title A Treatise of the System of the World reflects. Although Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man came centuries later, the idea of a catholic theory of human affairs was particularly attractive at the moment of its arrival.

An idea more referred than subscribed to, nobody admits to believing in it but breaking down in detail the opinions of technical experts around the world, the very serious people who now number millions, reveals they really are working on a new Treatise of the System of the World. Such a system really would be the end of history because thereafter everything would be written in advance.

Models of human behaviour are aggregated to produce ever more complex simulations of human society under the implicit assumption that increased elaboration equates ever more closely to perfection. Whether the aggregation is concrete (Total Information Awareness) or abstract (peer review) barely matters. Neither do the intentions of the participants: their interactions as a group are sufficient evidence regardless of their individual beliefs.

Technocracy isn’t an imperfect truth or an unproven but plausible hypothesis; it’s simply wrong. It’s a project doomed many times over, the mathematics of Chaos Theory being only one reason.

Nor was the timing of Fukuyama’s opus incidental or its appeal as logical as its contents. It arrived at the end of the Cold War which had been presented as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. As a contest of values it was eternal and ultimately irresolvable, and A Treatise of the System of the World that attempts to encompass two logically incompatible worldviews is an exercise in metaphysics rather than science.

But the apocalyptic struggle was resolved, though in a way lacking any narrative satisfaction. Instead of a climactic battle, the Soviet character simply lurched off the stage leaving the American one standing embarrassed, bereft of relevant lines, sword aloft ready to strike down a non-existent enemy. Consciously or otherwise, Fukuyama’s role was to reassure us that though our rationales were incorrect, this transformation didn’t require us to alter our conclusions in any way.

There was still the matter of irrationality, of which tribalism is a component. Pretending it doesn’t exist is pointless, so the choice is between straddling the divide (e.g. the Blairs, dextrously juggling Catholicism, rational incentives and witchcraft) or transcending it (behavioural economists, nudge theorists et cetera). The former is a dead end, and if psychiatry operated on the basis of the latter then the doctors’ principal business would be to ensure that the decor and routines at the asylum resonated as powerfully as possible with the particular hallucinations of the inpatients. A Treatise of the System of the World can’t embrace the vagaries of madness any more than it can multiple incompatible philosophies, another nail in a technocratic coffin the lid of which was already firmly secured.

The very serious people don’t appear bothered by any of this. Though lacking even the possibility of philosophical leadership, technocracy is unperturbed because it’s an emergent phenomenon where models aggregate to produce a (banjaxed) philosophy instead of philosophy restraining the evolution of models.

There’s an obvious tack to counter these arguments. Briefly: Is it claimed we should just throw our hands in the air and and give up trying to make sense of things? Or that specialisation offers no advantage in human affairs? The answer both questions is the same: no, but…

At greater length, suppose a technocrat starts in a small way, exhaustively addressing adversaries’ objections to some basic model. There must exist some simple model for which it’s possible to dispense with all reasonable objections unless the objectors really do insist the world is senseless. With that first brick in place the technocrat elaborates, cautiously working in others one at a time while making sure always to dispense with complaints before proceeding. There’s no definitive end point: in principle, the technocrat can proceed until his model predicts the entire future of the human species.

But there’s an illusion there. No matter how basic a model in the human sciences may be, it must simplify the real world to make it tractable. Even if the assumptions seem irrefutable they make heroic claims if seeking to capture every extreme of human behaviour or every cultural environment.

It’s furthermore impossible to place conscious choice on an observational footing. We can say we see people do this here and that there, and correlate these acts with observations of neural activity, but none of this reaches into the mind. Linguistic conventions create a seductive impression of objectivity, but to see how misleading this is just imagine being accused of a crime you know you didn’t commit. If only you could share that thought, or any thought, or some scientist could pluck it from your head you’d be free — but that would require psychic powers.

The assumptions underpinning a model are part of its context, and in the human sciences this is something so general no expert can lay claim to it. This provides the but… after both questions above: specialist advice, even in complex forms and in subjective fields, may prove invaluable to anyone placing it in context but the very act of placing it in context destroys any claim to professional authority. This was apparent in Tolstoy’s day and he told us so through the character of Andrei Bolkonsky.

It’s for this reason that the very serious people nurture a violent hatred for context, which threatens their privileged position in political debate, and devote their lives to eradicating it.

Choosing national policy requires an assumed international context, lending weight to an idea lacking even the flimiest theoretical basis. This assumption is then woven in to a million particulars while evading the question itself. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Context must always be assumed away. Assume 2deg of global warming and 8deg of global warming are actually alternative accountancy plans without further political consequences. Assume discredited politicians can deliver budgetary adjustment without resulting in people shouting “Sieg Heil!” in the Greek parliament. Assume turning Ireland into a tax haven doesn’t result in summary punishment from larger, more powerful countries. Assume Karl Rove or Charles Krauthammer pandering to the base doesn’t result in politics so unhinged it frightens even Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer. Assume ECB bond purchases don’t result in a constitutional crisis in the EU or encourage admiration for Mussolini among leaders of the coerced countries. Assume striking a Yemeni militant from 15,000ft with a rocket doesn’t provoke two more to join the struggle, and that assassination isn’t extended in future to cover parking infringements in Des Moines.

None of this is rhetoric — it merely renders explicit what was always present (and may even be true). It sounds fatuous only because it’s written out longhand.

Though implicated on successive occasions in stifling all warnings prior to catastrophe (e.g. trench slaughter in WWI, the Wall Street crash, Douhetian terror bombing or the financial crises of 1997-), technocratic introversion has one magical side-effect: outsiders are as easy to disregard after the fact as beforehand. Tracing the careers of the people responsible for these disasters reveals that the agents of ruin never suffer professionally so long as the profession remains steadfast in its resistance to the truth. Furthermore, the greater the disaster, the more desperately will the profession cling on to the wreckage.

On each occasion listed, those responsible were the same ones who later drafted the history. They concluded that because they had not themselves foreseen what was coming, other forecasts proven correct were unprofessional and what was coming hadn’t in fact been foreseen at all. Subsequent re-writes remain parenthetical.

Professional orthodoxy provides security even in extreme or bizarre circumstances. In August 2007, Goldman Sachs CFO David Viniar explained that recent losses resulted from “25-standard deviation moves, several days in a row”. Given that one such event is to be expected every 1309 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years, encountering three on successive days was misfortune itself. Though patently absurd, Viniar’s remark was not incompetent. It represented the (or at least a) cutting edge of professional opinion in his field. Viniar’s career proceeded on its stately way.

All this is without any assumption of bad faith. The real world is of course far worse, where corporations, trade associations, professional associations and unions, NGOs including in particular political parties, “think tanks” and other interest groups take pride in the lies they weave in to political and academic life. To go into this further, beyond stating that there exists no method for eliminating or even keeping track of this gobbledegook, would only obscure the central point that technocracy acts as a giant engine of political irrationality even where the technocrats are themselves wholly sincere.

Aggregation of models, via peer review or otherwise, produces complexity often only to better conceal creators’ non-rational or untestable prejudices. Scientifically vacuous, two of technocracy’s true purposes are social. Andrei Bolkonsky would recognise them from his father: to exclude rival ideas and evade personal responsibility.

Of course technocrats look down on politicians, whose careers are ephemeral in comparison. Sadly, seeing as the acme of political sophistication today is to communicate exclusively via daisy chained expert opinions, the politicians appear to share this low opinion of themselves. They do not try to reason independently, or to consider how the different experts’ conclusions might interact in ways they haven’t expected or that lie outside the scope of their professional knowledge. Neither do they seek powerful insights into the world, as Tolstoy did, by looking beyond the technical, social, cultural, economic and geographical barriers specialisation by its very nature constructs.

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Adrian Kelleher 05.12.14 at 7:42 pm

I wrote the preceding as a reply to John Quiggin’s thread on right-wing tribalism but it was locked before I’d finished. It’s intentionally diffuse but addresses some of the irrational sources of appeal of reason itself applied to technocracy. Anyway, a couple of links…

Andrei Bolkonsky has a crisis of confidence in reason:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqBDg6AxY6A&t=1628s

Pierre Bezukhov lets his run free:

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Adrian Kelleher 05.12.14 at 7:50 pm

Embedding garbled the timings. 27m 08s and 30m 32s are correct.

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Plume 05.12.14 at 7:52 pm

Trader Joe @172,

Actually, I’m a radical democrat (not Democrat). I believe whole-heartedly in majority rule, within a constitutional framework. And I also think that there is no real democracy without the economy being included. So I’d definitely “democratize” that, too.

I prefer real socialism, the kind that’s never been tried, which would replace our capitalist system 100%, with no remnants of it. And, following Hal Draper, a socialism from below, as opposed to from above.

Basically, I was talking about the right’s issue with democracy and majority rule. I don’t share their concerns.

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LFC 05.12.14 at 9:13 pm

A Kelleher 173
Enlightenment was never sharper, more lucid, more plainspoken or more ambitious than in the US constitution, yet once the dust had settled the rationales (we the people) had changed far more than the conclusions (privilege, slavery, manifest destiny).

Not sure I follow this. In particular w/r/t ‘manifest destiny,’ what’s the link betw the US Const itself and westward expansion? I suppose one cd argue that (1) the Const accommodated slavery, and (2) in turn the existence of slavery in the South and its economic imperatives was one of many forces driving westward expansion. But is there some other connection? Weren’t demographic, economic, and political forces going to lead to westward expansion pretty much regardless of what the Const did or didn’t say?

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shah8 05.12.14 at 9:26 pm

Thank you for your comment, Adrian Kelleher, I got a kick out of learning the term banjaxed as well as how you constructed the rest of what you said. My mind feels embiggened.

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Adrian Kelleher 05.12.14 at 10:18 pm

@LFC

The commerce clause grants congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes”. It sounds innocuous but note that the Indian tribes are neither foreigners nor US citizens.

The rest was written in soon enough. In Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), Chief Justice John Marshall gave the opinion of the court that the “United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest…”

The right of “discovery” derived from various sources ranging from Sebastian Cabot to Drake. It long preceded the constitution which was held to have embraced it, and in any case all land title in the USA was already derived from this assumption. Incidentally, Marshall was a leading light at the Virginia convention in 1888 that ratified the constitution that state.

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LFC 05.12.14 at 10:24 pm

yes, good points
(1788, you mean)

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Corey Robin 05.12.14 at 10:38 pm

Wilder: “Tocqueville was not a reactionary; he was a liberal.” These two categories are not mutually exclusive. Certainly not as Hirschman uses the term or as I use the term. You seem to think liberals can’t be counterrevolutionary, but they can. Tocqueville certainly was; he was a part of the reaction against 1848, which was the major revolution he confronted in his political career. He only accepted 1830 b/c it was a done deal. As for his interpretation of the French Revolution, well, I guess we can charitably say we have a difference of opinion. I don’t think your reading accords with the actual text. (Incidentally, Hirschman’s futility thesis is not dependent on the person proffering it being an active reactionary in the sense you want to argue; the whole point of that stance is that the person who adopts it can be almost cosmically indifferent to the Revolution b/c everything it achieves was already happening anyway and would have continued even without the Revolution. Which, of course, was exactly Tocqueville’s position.)

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Bruce Wilder 05.13.14 at 12:04 am

I would define “reactionary” as a political viewpoint, opposing political or social liberalization or reform and favoring return to a previous political order, a status quo ante. That’s not Tocqueville, and its misleading to say that it is.

I have The Old Regime and the French Revolution in front of me, and I fail to see this alleged “futility thesis” in the text. The little bit you quote is misleading. Over and over, the word applied to the Revolution, itself, is “inevitable,” not superfluous, and the achievement of the Revolution is expressly identified with the sweeping away of the institutions of feudalism, in favor of freedom and equality; nowhere does Tocqueville betray any nostalgia for either 18th century feudalism or monarchical absolutism.

Tocqueville speaks approvingly of ’89 as “that rapturous year of bright enthusiasm, heroic courage and lofty ideals . . . a historic date of glorious memory to which the thoughts of men will turn with admiration and respect long after those who witnessed the achievement, and we ourselves, pass away.” This is not cosmic indifference.

His hostility, though not elaborated, is for the autocracy of Napoleon, which closed out the Revolution, and which is briefly decried as more centralizing and absolutist than the late Bourbon monarchy, in a bit of foreshadowing.

The book, of course, is not about the Revolution itself, but about the social and political order of France in the decades immediately preceding, and how the demand to sweep away a decrepit feudalism arose from the progressive diseases of that order. Tocqueville being a liberal nationalist, there are paeans to the French national character, and a kind of French exceptionalism is invoked to explain why the overthrow of feudalism, pending and overdue across the whole continent, should arise with sudden and decisive fury in France.

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Corey Robin 05.13.14 at 12:37 am

Bruce, re your mention of his approval for the courage and lofty ideals of the Revolution. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know; I already said that in this thread. See my comment at #150 above: “But Tocqueville had a bit of sympathy with the revolutionary passion and fervor; he liked the idea of politics on a grand stage. So his sympathy with the idea of revolutionary heroism and action was balanced by his jaundiced view of the Revolution’s accomplishments.” It was the *style* of grand politics in 1789 that he longed for (the speeches, the bravery, even the violence, which he praises elsewhere in his letters and other writings); that’s all. It wasn’t any sort of statement about what thinks the Revolution actually accomplished. If anything, it’s really a statement of his own frustration with his political career during the July Monarchy and the state of liberal politics more generally, which thoroughly bored him. That’s part of why he welcomed the opportunity for genuine reactionary politics in 1848, where he did in fact oppose reform, and quite violently and ruthlessly so.

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Corey Robin 05.13.14 at 12:48 am

One more thing, Bruce. You write, “I would define ‘reactionary’ as a political viewpoint, opposing political or social liberalization or reform and favoring return to a previous political order, a status quo ante. That’s not Tocqueville, and its misleading to say that it is.”

I understand that position. I happen to think it’s wrong and wrote an entire book dedicated to showing that it’s wrong. No major reactionary that you can think of ever simply favored returning to a previous status quo ante; even Burke, who most definitely opposed the French Revolution from the very start, long before the Terror, understood that even if you were to overturn the Revolution, you would never return to the status quo; you would always, as he made a point of noting to one of the French emigres to whom he was writing, be creating what was in some measure “a new thing.” His words. His definition.

I may certainly be wrong about the politics of reaction, and I’m not writing this here to persuade you that I’m right. But to say I’m being misleading in this thread, as if I’m trying to smuggle in some exotic notion under cover of darkness, when I am in fact on record, and fairly publicly so, as disputing the conventional definition and understanding of the term, is, well, misleading.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 12:55 am

If Corey Robin believes that Tocqueville admired the plumage (in the form of “Ideals” ) but not the bird of the French Revolution, I would be interested to know exactly what it was about the bird that Corey Robin thinks Tocqueville ought to have admired.

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Corey Robin 05.13.14 at 1:17 am

Bruce, two other things and then I have to go.

You say above, “I think Corey Robins [it’s Robin] seriously mistakes Tocqueville by attributing to him the reactionary tropes identified by Hirschman.” If you’ve read Hirschman, you’ll know that it’s not me who is attributing to Tocqueville the trope (not tropes) identified by Hirschman; it was Hirschman himself. He even says Tocqueville invented the futility thesis.

Second, it’s hard for me to see how you could read Part 2 of the Old Regime without seeing what a thoroughly debunking exercise it is: virtually everything you think the Revolution changed was in fact already long happening under the Old Regime. To wit: the abolition of the old feudal estates and subdivision of the land to peasant smallholders. “Until quite recently it was taken for granted that the splitting up of the landed estates in France was the work of the Revolution, and the Revolution alone; actually there is much evidence in support of the contrary view. Twenty years or more before the Revolution we find complaints being made that land was being subdivided to an unconscionable extent.” “Thus the prevalent idea that the breakup of the big estates in France began with the Revolution is erroneous; it had started long before.” His whole point is that so much of feudalism had already been destroyed, making its few surviving remnants in the late 18th century all the more detested. And that’s the way the entire part 2 proceeds. Chapter 2’s title: “How administrative centralization was an institution of the old regime and not, as is often thought, a creation of the Revolution or the Napoleonic period.” Again, it had all been happening before.

A small last note: in a very important review published at the time, Tocqueville’s close friend and fellow historian and member of the French Academy, Jean Jacques Ampere, took Tocqueville precisely to be arguing that France wasn’t much changed by and after the Revolution. I don’t know of any letter where Tocqueville disputes him, saying that he’s got the wrong interpretation. Though I don’t read French and have only read the letters that have been translated into English.

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shah8 05.13.14 at 1:49 am

There were a lot of high status people in those times who were advocates of liberal reforms. That had never meant, that when it’s their own skin in the game, that they’d necessarily continue to advocate liberal reforms. Sure, a few do, like Sergei Volkonsky, but then, he got sent to the deepest pit in Siberia the Tsar could find. You couldn’t really rock the boat during that period most anywhere in Europe, and I get the sense that the Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1870 reflected a bottoms up approach with fewer bourgeoisie and noble leaders.

As for the general concept of liberalism and reactionarism–I think these terms are a bit too confused to ever serve as opposites, especially as describing political operatives and how they dress their ideology. To me, the broad balance of human political regimes has always lurched between the Scylla of patrimonial populism and the Charybdis of what we think of now as neoliberalism. Thomas Jefferson, for example, speaks lots of pleasant words that evoke liberal sentiments, but he was a deeply reactionary character in pretty much the same way Marie Antionnette was, in the sense of romantic attachment to bucolic Arcadia and know-your-placism. Alexander Hamilton was not so much for democracy, but he was certainly seems to have been a hell of a lot more interested in real world benefits to people not like himself.

To me, I don’t think reactionaries are people who want the old days back. Reactionaries are people who care about the ends (of themselves and their friends holding all the power) no matter what the means are. Liberals and neoliberals care about process (that supports themselves and their friends), which are supposed to lead to beneficent ends (like the market as cornucopia). Marshall Petain is a reactionary–all he needs are sufficient plausible deniability for his own self image, and he’ll step and fetch for the Nazis with pleasure. Not because they’re Nazi, but because they’ll leave *him* in charge of whatever smaller pool there was. No matter how much the meglomaniac Napoleon was, do you really think Napoleon would have *ever* been as cooperative as a leader of a defeated nation?

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shah8 05.13.14 at 1:55 am

eh, might be better said as –, but he was a deeply reactionary character that projected a romantic attachment to a dream of a bucolic Arcadia where he has his place and so does his slave (as invisible helpers). Marie Antionnette projected her image in a similar way, I think.

There.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 3:32 am

Reactionary is not synonymous with “believing in a bucolic Arcadia”. Good Lord! This is Humpty-Dumpty talk.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 3:34 am

Also, I don’t understand Corey Robin’s response. He seems to be changing the subject.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 3:35 am

It makes me think that to some people a reactionary is anyone who does not anticipate every jot and tittle of the political theories of Leon Trotsky.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 3:39 am

So, the French Revolution accomplished nothing because it all had been done before, and to admire its ideals was to be a mere superficial devotée of fashion?

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Plume 05.13.14 at 3:46 am

Yes, liberals can be reactionary. Of course, it all depends upon where one stands, where one sees “liberalization” and “reaction.” Liberalization of what? In reaction to what?

For instance, the aristocracy at one time had a near lock on the exploitation of workers, the lower and middle classes, etc. Liberals in the 18th century pushed for a broadening of the scope of who actually could do the exploiting, and that was the basis for capitalism. In reaction to the near monopoly of the aristocracy and its feudal stranglehold on economic (and social) power, liberals posited a different kind of entrance exam for the role of exploiter. Basically, anyone who could accumulate enough capital, organize a business, hire workers, build markets, etc. etc. Anyone with the ability to create a M-C-M equation . . . regardless of their birth status . . . of course, with exceptions made for race, ethnicity, gender and other social constructions that ruled one out of the club.

So “liberals” helped liberalize who could become exploiters and who could control markets, which meant zero difference in the form of human rights “progress.” It just expanded the source-field for exploitation and made it portable, exportable to the greatest degree yet seen by that time, which actually made things worse from the standpoint of workers and the lower classes. One could say liberals were being “reactionary” in this case, even though they were reacting to reactionary aristocrats who had previously dominated economic and social exploitation.

If, OTOH, liberals had actually helped reduce or end exploitation, period, instead of replacing one kind with another, it wouldn’t have made any sense to call them “reactionary.” And today? They are complicit with conservatives in the continuation of this exploitation.

Then, as now, yes, liberals have been, can be and often are “reactionary.”

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godoggo 05.13.14 at 3:55 am

Wow, that was a perfect 5-paragraph essay.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 4:24 am

Yes, liberals can be reactionary — if you don’t have any interest in what words mean.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 4:27 am

And if you don’t speak or read French.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 4:44 am

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shah8 05.13.14 at 5:05 am

Harold, the projection of bucolic Arcadia is the performance art, just as the Queen of France doing a little shepherding. The performance art disguises the actual beliefs and what the individuals are specifically willing to act on.

And yes, yes, we all know that usage. The discussion has move forward from that usage.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 5:20 am

We “have to” move “forward” and accept your idiosyncratic usage, because only those who think exactly as you do are “progressive”, you mean. Who is the romantic utopian here?

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shah8 05.13.14 at 5:27 am

Hmmm?

Think you’re being a bit to busy being angry.

Besides, the point that has effectively come up was that everyone is always *reacting* to some policy or regime. So when do we label one person a reactionary and another person not a reactionary. I mean, when I advocate true democracy on the model of Ancient Athenians, propertied men and all, mass vote on every little law and regulation, am I really being reactionary? Progressive? Or just anachronistic?

If I advocate for the income tax rates of the 1950s, am I being a reactionary? I mean, political corruption has taken us pretty far from any sustainable tax policy…

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Harold 05.13.14 at 5:53 am

You are using reactionary in such a vague, Groucho Marx way (whatever it is I’m against it) way that it ceases to be meaningful.

Reactionary means being in favor of the *return* of royal absolutism and the supremacy of the Catholic church. It certainly meant that in the 19th century when Tocqueville lived and to apply it to him is anachronistic. To apply it to Marie Antoinette and her pastoral masques is also anachronistic, since in pre-Revolutionary times royal absolutism and the supremacy of the Catholic church were both fully in force. It would be more appropriate to describe her as conservative.

You could say that pastoral genre had become distinctly unfashionable in the late 18th century. But they actually are or had once been (about a century before, and earlier), quite an interesting and important phenomenon, and had even served as a coded way to express dissent and/or political ideas. For example
http://parthenissa.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/dont-mess-with-the-shepherdesses-lastree-in-england-2/

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shah8 05.13.14 at 6:04 am

Well, yes…

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godoggo 05.13.14 at 6:06 am

The Revolution! That was another thing that was Good For The Jews.

My favorite part of the movie was when Toshiro Mifune turned his head to show that the left side of his face was bruised and bloody, and half a dozen female voices arose from the audience, going “Uhhh???” in perfect unison. It was like a choir of Trixies!

Hello I must be going.

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Plume 05.13.14 at 6:06 am

Harold,

It’s probably “reactionary” to want to keep the meaning of the word the same as it was in the early 19th century. Keeping it there pretty much rules out any “correct” usage of it today, unless the discussion is historical, as there are oh so few people who want “a return of royal absolutism and the supremacy of the Catholic church.” Perhaps Mel Gibson. But not too many people beyond old Braveheart.

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J Thomas 05.13.14 at 6:25 am

It looks to me like calling somebody a reactionary is part of tribalism, it’s a label for people who are in a competing tribe. In that context it does not need a clear definition.

Maybe if we want to accomplish something, we need operational definitions connected to the things that need to be done and their consequences.

So “reactionary” is one possible label for some of the people who want to prevent certain good results and substitute bad results. But apart from labels that might not actually have much predictive value in any specific circumstance (when it comes to a vote how much difference is there between “reactionary” and “conservative”?), what should actually be done?

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Bruce Wilder 05.13.14 at 8:29 am

Tocqueville, a liberal, was arguing that political freedom and institutions of liberal self-government were an aspiration of the Revolution of ’89 on a par with aspirations for civil and social equality. He thinks the Revolution’s aspiration for political freedom was frustrated, by the failure of efforts at self-government and the resort to authoritarianism and administrative centralization. He wasn’t trying to minimize the Revolution’s sweeping away of feudal institutions, so much as he was trying to suggest that Napoleon was not the Revolution’s heir and favorite son, and authoritarian administrative centralization was not the Revolution’s sacred product. Connecting Napoleon’s authoritarianism with Louis XV’s absolutism was meant to de-legitimize the former, and open a door for French aspirations to political freedom and representative self-government to revive in one of the periodic upheavals that followed the failure of authoritarian governments, as it did following the fall of Napoleon III in the debacle of the Franco-Prussian war.

That’s how I read Tocqueville, and I am reluctant to label that view “reactionary” in a context in which real reactionaries thought Louis-Napoléon would make a good monarch-dictator, or the Bourbons should be brought back.

I think Hirschman badly mistakes Tocqueville’s argument when he calls labels it as a “futility” argument. Tocqueville was arguing that the Revolution’s aspirations for political freedom and representative self-government were frustrated by the failure of French society to develop the capacity to handle political freedom and representative self-government, a failure he related to the ready resort to authoritarian governments, with their administrative centralization. He thinks the absolutism and administrative centralization of the late ancien regime originally undermined the society’s solidarity and capacity for political association and self-government, and that pathology, amidst the decadence of feudalism, was an important factor driving the necessity of the Revolution.

Tocqueville doesn’t narrate in detail the progress of the Revolution or later decades, but, though polemical and tendentious in some details, his thesis does correspond with certain broad outlines of French history. The Revolution did fail to produce a workable constitutional government, though the Revolutionaries certainly tried long enough to exhaust the society. Napoleon eventually did step in, and resolved several critical problems, more or less by fiat, and to popular acclaim. It became a pattern, and it had been enacted yet again in what Marx termed the farce of Louis-Napoléon’s rise to power, prompting Tocqueville to retire to write L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.

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Suzanne 05.13.14 at 1:19 pm

@158: True. Scalia and Thomas both have a libertarian streak that often puts them on the right side of Fourth Amendment cases, as it were. Not always, however:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/us/justices-approve-strip-searches-for-any-offense.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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Harold 05.13.14 at 3:08 pm

In a modern context, when we are not talking about 19th century European politics, reactionary still carries the connotation of *radically extreme* conservative, not just “someone whose politics differ from mine.”

“If I advocate for the income tax rates of the 1950s, am I being a reactionary? I mean, political corruption has taken us pretty far from any sustainable tax policy…”

I would say that you are a reformist, unless you want to change the tax rates at the point of a gun in which case you would be a reactionary.

Incidentally, I remember my mother, who was a fan of the New Deal, complaining bitterly in the 1950s and 60s that because the tax rates had not been adjusted for inflation since the time they were enacted, they had become a stealth way of raising rates on salaried workers.

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TM 05.13.14 at 4:31 pm

If this debate were really about “understanding” Clarence Thomas, shouldn’t it start from (or at least take account of) his actual rulings and opinions as Supreme Court justice? Surprisingly, apart from a few anecdotal remarks, we don’t have that empirical analysis. He did rule pro civil rights in a few cases and against in others (81, 207). How does that support the ridiculous claims made here (implicitly also by Robin) about Thomas’ fantastic libertarianism? If you want to argue that his jurisprudence is motivated by deeply held libertarian beliefs, oughtn’t there be some actual evidence for that, more than anecdotal (see 24 for the only non-anecdotal analysis mentioned so far and that is pretty devastating)? Unless somebody is really able to refute that, it seems that the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no principled consistency in his jurisprudence (11, 81, 94, 99). Then why pretend otherwise?

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Plume 05.13.14 at 4:35 pm

Harold,

It’s been my experience that people who bring in “at the point of a gun” when it comes to taxes are often “reactionary.” Especially if the subject is taxation on the rich.

I find it impossible to link the word “reactionary” with 91% tax rates on the wealthy, even when those mythical guns are involved. Mythical, because the IRS doesn’t work that way. Nor does the BLM, despite the fearmongering of the Bundy klanners. Cliven Bundy, for instance, owes well over one million in fees, for twenty years of non-payment, and it was his reactionary gang that drew guns, not the government.

Of course, when it comes to old widows and poor folk in general, local governments are notorious for taking away homes and such over small amounts of back taxes — even in the $10 range. Ironically, that kind of thing is very rare for the Federal government, which deals in other forms of oppression, and almost never in the way the right envisions.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 4:46 pm

Plume, point taken. I guess I meant insofar as reactionary means “radical”. But the concept also includes “extreme right wing” so perhaps that is not a good example. I’d like to go back to those rates myself. But not to other aspects of the 1950s.

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Harold 05.13.14 at 5:02 pm

Bruce Wilder as usual clarifies everything. Nevertheless, I had never heard of Hirschman, and from briefly looking him up, he looks interesting. Wrong, perhaps, but worth a read.

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Corey Robin 05.13.14 at 5:03 pm

TM at 209: There is no claim, implicit or otherwise, by me in the OP or in my comments in the thread that Thomas is a libertarian. As for his jurisprudence, I referenced a few of his decisions in my OP. If you want to see the more developed argument with reference to his other rulings on race — and again my argument is about his views on race and how they affect his jurisprudence on race; it is most definitely not a claim that he’s a libertarian and that that libertarianism inflects his overall jurisprudence — you’re welcome to email me at the address I gave in the OP. Or you can continue to grandstand here.

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Plume 05.13.14 at 5:19 pm

Same here. The 50s were horrible for minorities, and for women on too many fronts. But Ike got the tax rates right.

It’s amazing to reread some of his speeches on labor, labor unions and the social safety net. He sounds positively “progressive,” especially compared with Obama, who would never dare say those things. Unfortunately, very few Dems would. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, off the top of my head. But not too many others.

“Today, in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those – regardless of party – who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

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Plume 05.13.14 at 5:27 pm

Corey,

As mentioned before, I read your book with pleasure, and thought it went well with another book read at nearly the same time: David Graeber’s Debt. Do you have plans for a follow up? Or something completely different?

One small criticism, however, which I imagine you have heard already. For the most part, the book seemed strong and cohesive, being one with its own premise and theme. But some of the essays seemed out of place (while being very good on their own terms), and I wanted you to pursue “the reactionary mind” even further, but primarily as one book, not a collection of essays. Written as one book, etc. etc.

One possible avenue for you might be the recent studies about the seeming differences in brain activity between people of different political views. Difficult to tell the chicken and egg issues, of course, but it’s fascinating to think we may have structural, biological differences that lead to different worldviews. May, of course. None of this is definitive as of yet . . . .

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bob mcmanus 05.13.14 at 5:50 pm

212:Yeah, read RoR back around November or December. Short, dense, okay fine, of its time a little (Cold War Liberal). Preferred Joseph Femia’s Against the Masses, a more recent survey of anti-democratic theory and argument which was in a sense a left response to the Hirschman.

I also consider Toqueville a pretty classic mid-19th liberal

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Corey Robin 05.13.14 at 6:19 pm

Bruce: I appreciate the consistency of your view of what Tocqueville is arguing about the French Revolution, which you have repeated here at great length. Several times. Unfortunately, you give me no reason why I should accept your view — indeed, why you accept your view. Your general argumentative strategy throughout seems to be that Tocqueville is x — a liberal, a Catholic — so he could not have argued y, and must therefore have argued z. Followed by a fair number of non-sequiturs. That’s not a terribly persuasive tack. Nor is it persuasive when, confronted with contradictory evidence, you simply repeat it.

So for example, at 156 I cited the following passage from the Old Regime and the French Revolution:

“Radical though it may have been, the Revolution made far fewer changes than is generally supposed, as I shall point out later….Even if it had not taken place, the old social structure would nonetheless have been shattered everywhere sooner or later. The only difference would have been that instead of collapsing with such brutal suddenness it would have crumbled bit by bit. At one fell swoop, without warning, without transition, without transition, and without compunction, the Revolution effected what in any case was bound to happen if by slow degrees.”

Now there are two interesting things to note about this Tocqueville quote.

First, in the quote, which comes in the last chapter before the famous section 2, not only is T making a claim about the Revolution, but he’s also telling you how you need to interpret the chapters that follow: “the Revolution made far fewer changes than is generally supposed, AS I SHALL POINT OUT LATER.” He’s telling you exactly what his argument is — the Revolution didn’t change much, and certainly not nearly as much as we think it did — and exactly what he’s doing in all those chapters in part 2, exactly the claims you, the reader, need to be looking for as you read him. So it’s not just a throwaway line that you can ignore or pass over.

Second, he’s making an explicit point about the Revolution: even if it had not happened, ever, the changes we associate — wrongly — with the Revolution (including, as he discusses in the opening chapters in part 2, the sweeping away of the old feudal estates, which were the bastion of feudalism), would have still occurred. Not in another revolution at a later date, but in the social process that was already occurring and would have continued to occur over time. If you bother to read Hirschman, you’ll notice that this is the essence of the futility argument.

You then respond at 170: “Despite the passage you quoted, I don’t think Tocqueville intends to argue with his counterfactual that the Revolution was a regrettable accident. He simply wishes to stress that the decay of the ancien regime, which set up the Revolution, was a gradual process with a long history. He’s a liberal, so he believes in a kind of Whiggish evolutionary social progress. He also doesn’t think the Revolution is finished, in his own day.”

Notice the Wilder two-step: Tocqueville was a liberal, so therefore he believes in Whiggish evolutionary social progress (it’s a strange kind of liberal, incidentally, who believes in Whiggish evolutionary social progress, yet who writes the incredibly dystopian volume 2 of Democracy in America, where the soft despotism of the modern administrative state is propounded as the most non-progressive future imaginable). Also notice the non-sequitur — Tocqueville didn’t think the Revolution was a regrettable accident (who said he did?) — as the foundation for what follows: the only claim that we can make about what Tocqueville is arguing is that the Revolution has a pre-history.

Again, Tocqueville says a lot more than that in his comment, as anyone who reads it can see. And you can’t dismiss the comment — “Despite the comment you quoted” — because the fact is, as I said, that he tells you there how you need to understand what he’s doing in part 2.

Anyway, I believe this general issue of how to interpret a text came up in the liberalism/Schmitt thread from a few weeks ago, and though I can’t remember if you were a part of that discussion too, it was the same point of conflict. Rather than look at the text, and look at what it’s actually saying, you prefer to assign a political identity to its author, and then everything — including the argument of the text (which oddly never makes much of an appearance in these threads) — follows from there.

I’m not sure if we can really bridge this interpretive divide: your a priorism (which is even a priori to the actual political and intellectual agenda of the theorist in question) is so foreign to how I think one ought to read and handle textual evidence that I don’t think we can have a useful discussion. So this will be my last word on this issue. I just wanted to clarify for you why that’s the case.

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LFC 05.13.14 at 6:53 pm

Harold 212:
Nevertheless, I had never heard of Hirschman

I haven’t read The Rhetoric of Reaction but I’ve read two of his other books. He also wrote numerous articles, including the fabulously titled “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding.” A full-length biography of him was published fairly recently (Princeton UP; I think the author’s last name is Adelman, could be misremembering). Anyway, I think it’s fair to say he’s considered one of the most wide-ranging, versatile, and creative social scientists of the twentieth century. (And a quite superb stylist to boot.)

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Harold 05.13.14 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for the heads up, LFC. The brief taste from google books made me want more. Will definitely add him to the front end of the must read queue.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.13.14 at 7:24 pm

I am going to adopt the general tenor of comments, and not bother to check anything before proceeding with my opinion. As I vaguely recall, Albert O. Hirchman’s great book is called The Rhetoric of Reaction, not The Rhetoric of Reactionaries. It is about rhetoric, not a political viewpoint. He distinguished and identified Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy as rhetorical tropes used by conservatives at that moment, which can be used by liberals too. It goes: this won’t work, that won’t work.

On the progressive side: Perversity: Introducing more privatization cannot solve inequality. Futility: Capitalism will not end, except radically. Jeopardy: GMO’s and genetic modification must cause harm to nature.

Now, before you go having a goddamned emotion about it, try to get through reading the next sentence: It is not a matter of whether those are right or wrong in content, it is the matter of how they are pitched as tropes. This is the matter of the drama or even the dramaturgy and the scene-construction of an era’s political discussion. As he called it, the “rhetorics of intransigence”.

Why is it a good idea to read Hirschman’s book? Because Hirschman got it published in 1991, after the Reagan Revolution had clearly put its best days behind it.

So remember what led to the pessimistic rhetoric of reaction: Reagan’s far more optimistic message:

“Instead of relying upon apocalyptic appeals to the far right, Reagan developed a restoration rhetoric that fit comfortably within the mainstream edition of America’s political jeremiad. Since the 1950’s much has been written about the jeremiad, its influence on American literature in general and on American political oratory in particular. American studies scholar David Howard Pitney has provided a concise summary of the three distinct parts of the secular American jeremiad:

“1. The Promise, which stresses America’s special destiny as the promised land — literally, its covenant with God;

“2. The Declension, which cites America’s failure to live up to its obligations as the chosen people, its neglect of its mission, its failure to progress sufficiently — its national sin of retrogression from the promise; and

“3. The Prophecy, which predicts that if America will repent and reform, the promise can be fulfilled.

“Much of the power of Reagan’s political speeches derived from his skill at adopting this old Puritan sermon form to contemporary campaigning.”

– from Kurt Ritter and David Henry, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator (Great American Orators series, vol 13, Greenwood Press 1992, p. 38), quoting from David Howard-Pitney, The African-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (1st ed., Temple U. Press, 1990).

Note that Reagan wrote thousands of his earliest speeches himself, and consciously honed this from (I would guess) an actorly study of 19th-century preachers.

Note also that, in the American jeremiad, we may have a rather precise description of what Clarence Thomas believes.

Howard-Pitney’s is probably the book to read for history of Afro-American use of the jeremiad.

But then note where very recent history went: Reaganomics crashed into reality. Conservative explanations of how the system will get better have segued to the reaction tropes that progressivism must make it worse. The GOP is clutching at the following, in a death throe: “Obamacare cannot work!”

Preventing a similar fate — avoiding the use of the rhetoric of reaction — is something that liberals and progressives must do for themselves. “Dissent must be of a higher logical type than that to which it is opposed.” — Anthony Wilden, System and Structure.

Meanwhile Hirschman was an economist so advanced that he was already looking at expression of preferences and the interactions/transactions they ally with. Far from being an also-ran, he is still front and center.

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TM 05.13.14 at 7:58 pm

Corey, I’m sorry I wrongly suggested that you implied Thomas was a libertarian (several others on this thread did). I misread your reference to the quote: ““How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?””, which I understood to be a grand statement about liberty but which you say is about the anguish faced by a “black conservative who listens to Carole King”.

You have called Thomas “a constitutional originalist, and a rather radical one at that… Thomas wants to restore the Constitution to the meaning it had in 1789″, as far as I can see without providing more than very vague evidence for the claim, and meantime you have denied “that he’s a thorough-going originalist”. I am left at a loss to get what your point is. I still think that anybody who chooses to write at length about Clarence Thomas should be expected to show intense interest in his actual jurisprudence, instead of just cherry-picking a few quotes out of context.

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TM 05.13.14 at 8:02 pm

Lee 220:is it all about making your message sound positive instead of pessimistic then? I’ll have to remember that one.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.13.14 at 9:12 pm

TM: “is it all about making your message sound positive instead of pessimistic then?”

Funny, but I think quite the reverse. I think it’s all about the fact that your optimism can force later pessimism upon you. It is a reminder that optimism should comport with reality and science, as Reagan’s did not. If it doesn’t stick to reality then it will mutate within the followers, and then they will be forced to resort to the rhetoric of reaction that Hirschman observed and classified: pessimism about the opposing argument that entirely replaces positive argument in favor of your own. The rightwing in America has badly screwed up, and it isn’t clear that they have the intellectual ability to dig themselves out of the hole, because their economic and scientific concepts have run into such contradiction that the concepts are unconnectable to optimism. Not merely disconnected, but unconnectable. It looks like a cul de sac to me. (Rand Paul is beginning to try, so let’s see if he can square any circles: Will someone please ask him, “Should we, or should we not, have universal access to healthcare?” etc.)

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Plume 05.13.14 at 9:28 pm

Lee,

I think the same massive level of optimism surrounding Obama at first has hurt him and the Dems, given realities. The hopes that he would be some progressive savior were quickly dashed, and I can’t imagine anyone at this point still holding to that.

The grand canyon between expectations and delivery, IMO, has cost the Dems the younger generation, when it had the chance to basically own them for the next 25 years at least . . . .

I know you disagree with this, but I’m convinced that if the Dems and Obama had supported a straight up Single Payer program, in the form of Medicare for All, they would have retained the young and could have owned the landscape for two generations. No Republican voted for the ASA as it was, even after all of the compromises made in order to woo them — and its source at the Heritage Foundation. The Dems passed the ACA all on their own anyway. If they couldn’t make Medicare for All happen, with their large majorities in both houses, and a Dem president, what good are they? And with the gerrymandered districts, they’re not likely to get another chance for a long, long time.

Obama basically set back “liberalism” for decades, because he’s governed as a conservative while being touted as this great liberal hope. To me, that’s a far worse gap between expectations and payoff than Reagan’s. Everyone knew Reagan was full of shit from the getgo. There was at least some sense of hope regarding Obama — misguided though it may have been.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.13.14 at 11:39 pm

It’s true I am an optimist on this. However, I didn’t believe in Obama as the great liberal hope, so you can “include me out,” as Sam Goldwyn once said. My championship of the Dems is strictly instrumental to other goals. The Dems going to own the landscape for two generations anyways.

As it stands now politically, the Dems are fairly unscathed. In this next election the GOP must do well, due to districts reverting to priors in a trend to normal. Read any political analyst. Taegan Goddard covers all of the good ones– http://politicalwire.com/ If anything, the Dems are polling surprisingly well, against this normal trend.

I agree that in certain areas Dem candidates would do better to dog-whistle the coming 2017 window for single-payer. They have begun to step up to the plate in defending Obamacare so maybe we will hear some of this in selected political markets. I do NOT believe they could have gotten it in the first place, but I refuse to rehash that. I followed that process daily while it was happening and there has never been a counter-argument to convince me.

The conservative justices’ dissent to Roberts on Obamacare contains a fair amount of the rhetoric of reaction. Clarence Thomas chose “jeopardy”: “you’re blowing up the Commerce Clause!”

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Harold 05.14.14 at 3:42 am

I am looking at Hirschman right now (such as I can see on the web) and what I see before me is that “Tocqueville may be considered the originator of the futility thesis” (p. 48), but that “Futility took a special progressive shape here” [i.e, a shape that is distinct from the arguments of reactionaries who adopted a version of the thesis for their own use —- distinct in being progressive, not reactionary]. Thus, there is no suggestion in Hirschman that Tocqueville was anything but a liberal. Tocqueville was a progressive who believed that history moves in the direction of reform (this is boilerplate Enlightenment). What he observed is something like saying that revolution happens during a moment when things are improving [cf. Crane Brinton, remembered from my high school years]. Hirschman goes on to say that French leftist historians were so upset at Tocqueville for pointing out the (now familiar) phenomenon of historical continuity that they long “considered” him a “conservative or reactionary”, which is quite different from Hirschman himself calling Tocqueville a reactionary (which would have been insane). These historians were wedded to the idea of the revolution as pivotal — to the point where they didn’t wish to see or acknowledge the continuities that made it possible. Thus, it is they who admired the “style” of the revolution, not Tocqueville, though I expect he admired it too, at first. I admire it myself, and am far from considering it trivial. It would be reductive consider only economic change important.

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Cobb 05.14.14 at 4:54 am

IJWTS Keith, of all, grasps what a lot of us ex-black nationalists understand and want from an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. I’m hardly well-read on Thomas’ opinions but these things said of him in the original post do resonate.

It seems to strike people odd that Malcolm X was a religious conservative and as so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see his ‘grand’ conversion against his racialist views as anything other than moral growth. So it makes sense to me, and I think I agree with Thomas that seeing racism permanently as seeing sin permanently is consistent. One who must live amongst the sinners, or the idiotic, must gird oneself against it. But nobody beats it completely – you live with a discipline, a hygiene, but you must have a strong constitution. Once you suffer racism, you never suffer it exactly the same way again, but as you travel you see it in its different forms.

I think the author makes too much of a complaint of whites suffering from the racism in their whitey white souls. There’s nothing special about that kind of moral idiocy and nothing whites could ever long profit from. Part of the problem with the debate around race today is that kind of essentializing of white privilege (whatever) as if there were some Krell machine Leviathan that could always be counted on to energize regimes of Jim Crow. As if Jim Crow were only in remission because there’s something about America itself as a white country that will always distort its Constitutional principles for the benefits racist moral idiocy can empower in Joe Honky.

It must be accepted that whites will want to pursue a white anti-racist agenda for the sake of cleansing the collective white soul. In that regard they will always get it wrong. There is a way blacks have to deal with that and they will, or suffer.

I agree that there’s nothing to be gained from racial authenticity. There is only the benefit of properly strengthening oneself from the burden. There is no structural black nationalist orthodoxy for that. There can only be periodic regimes of compromise engineered by racial coalition representatives. Sowell warned us about what one majority gives, another majority can take away. So the long story is about who gets what property. In the end it’s what separates the American Negro from the rest on the planet, especially given what the English bequeathed America in its Common Law as contrasted to what colonials in South America got from their royals.

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Corey Robin 05.14.14 at 1:23 pm

Harold: “Tocqueville was a progressive who believed that history moves in the direction of reform…”

This is simply not true. That he thought increasing equality was inevitable is true; that he thought it was a progressive development is not true. He thought increasing equality could have terrible, regressive consequences, as he made clear throughout his various writings. Also, on reform: there’s no way he believed reform was inevitable. First, he thought reform was a political action, a political art, something over which we had agency and control. It was not something that was preordained. Second, as someone who often made many many attempts at reform in the July Monarchy (again, not an attribute that needs to be opposed to reaction or counterrevolution), and continuously found those efforts frustrated, he would have been the last to believe that reform was inevitable. His own career was proof against such a claim. As for Hirschman claiming T was a reactionary, I certainly never made that claim. I said Hirschman claimed T was the originator of the futility thesis. A very different point. I also said I (as opposed to Hirschman) think T was a counterrevolutionary, which again, is patently true if you know anything about his stance on 1848.

You also write this: “Thus, it is they who admired the ‘style’ of the revolution, not Tocqueville, though I expect he admired it too, at first.”

You’re just wrong. Tocqueville did admire the style of the Revolution, throughout his career. There’s no need to “suspect” or not “suspect” anything. You could just pick up his writings and start reading them. You’ll see for yourself.

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Corey Robin 05.14.14 at 2:33 pm

TM: “I am left at a loss to get what your point is. I still think that anybody who chooses to write at length about Clarence Thomas should be expected to show intense interest in his actual jurisprudence, instead of just cherry-picking a few quotes out of context.”

I am at a loss at your loss. As I have said twice — first in the OP, and then in the comment to which you are responding — and will now say a third time: This post is a talk I gave at the University of Washington. That talk, in which I could only speak for 15 minutes, is based on a much lengthier article that I am working on. That article deals at much greater length with Thomas’s jurisprudence. If you wish to read the article, you may. Or, as I’ve also said, you can continue to grandstand here. For reasons that remain entirely unclear to me, you seem to have chosen the latter path. Bon voyage!

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Harold 05.14.14 at 3:47 pm

I am not an academic professional with a thesis to defend and have no vested interest in Tocqueville being a progressive. I was merely summarizing what I read Hirschman to be saying in that passage. Hirschman said that Tocqueville gave the futility thesis a “special progressive shape.” As I see it, if Tocqueville thought increasing equality was inevitable, and also tried to institute reforms — to me that means he was a progressive. You say that fact that he engaged in politics meant he didn’t think progress was inevitable. Yet Marxists believe revolution is inevitable but they too work to achieve it, so they must also believe in human agency, as well, unless you think that revolutionary activity is not “political.”

If Tocqueville opposed the 1848 revolution then maybe he did not believe in revolutionary violence. As I see it, he could regret, like George Sand, and many others, certain aspects of 18th century aristocratic culture and still be a progressive. Perhaps by equality he meant a “leveling up.”

It is not a matter of me being wrong and you being right. The fact appears to be that we differ on the meaning of the terms how to apply them. Moreover, I tend to react very strongly to what I perceive to be essentialist tendencies. But I suppose it is part and parcel of the academic profession to invest oneself in piquant, overstated “counter-intuitive” theses.

It is interesting to learn of Thomas’s black nationalist background and his absorption of The Invisible Man. I would like to re-read that. If he’s working “in the dark”, he’s really doing a good job.

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