“The Sovereign Myth” asks the wrong question

by Henry on July 26, 2017

I read the same piece by Jacob Levy that Chris liked, but didn’t agree with the core argument. Below the fold, why:

Jacob’s basic argument is straightforward – calls for democratic control over the econonomy are based on a spurious history. People never had such control, and (by implication), never will.

My colleagues were generally sympathetic to an explanation that I think a lot of people endorse, but that is fundamentally misleading: The people are frustrated that they’ve lost democratic control of their lives and their economies. In this post I’ll argue that that’s wrong, not as a description of voters’ psychologies, but as an implied history. They never had such control; it’s not available, and never was. This matters a great deal for understanding what choices lie ahead. There is no option of restoring what this explanation implies sovereign democratic states used to have. Holding out the promise of it invites perpetual frustration, exploitable by opportunistic demagogues.

… The imagined Golden Age in these kinds of stories of the fall from democratic grace is the postwar era; it’s often referred to as les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of high economic growth, broadly distributed, during which most Western market democracies built substantial welfare and regulative states after World War II. The chronology varies from one country to another, but roughly speaking the Golden Age is taken to have ended sometime around 1970-75, opening political space for a very different political-economic model to take hold — with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and the reconciliation of Mitterrand’s Socialist government in France to the market.

… That’s the story. For about 30 years, democratic electorates were economically sovereign. For about the last 40, they haven’t been. And the result has been both economic decay (income stagnation, rising inequality, hollowed-out industrial bases) and political anger and frustration.

… One of the defining organizational facts about the state as we know it — the modern Weberian state that crystallized in Europe over the course of early modernity — is that it is symbiotic with transnational finance. In part, but it’s an important part, the modern state is a creation of the bond market, and so is the modern democratic state. Medieval mercantile cities had long been able to borrow money at better interest rates than other political units. In early modernity, states that were relatively representative and relatively commercial learned that they could do the same. First Holland, then England, gained crucial advantages in international competition from their ability to borrow cheaply; the credit market trusted representative governments that incorporated important parts of the commercial classes much more than they trusted absolute monarchs. And Britain’s ability to out-borrow France eventually contributed to the bankruptcy of the latter state and the onset of the Revolution.

This is uncontroversial but, from many ideological perspectives, uncomfortable. It means that the growth, stability, and expansion of powerful states governed by representative democracy was in part a creation of the credit market, bondholders, and international finance. … Thus, imagined histories of democratic sovereignty over the economy cannot survive contact with the actual history of the emergence of democratic states. Neither can imagined histories of an immaculately conceived market innocent of the world of coercive states. Modern liberal markets and modern democratic states evolved together, and each contributed to the development of the other in their familiar forms. … My point is not only the familiar one (no less crucial and true for being familiar!) that broad economic forces are always outside of any one state’s control. … But I mean to also emphasize that even the things that states do govern about their economies, they have never sovereignly controlled. The public budget, the tax system, public debt, monetary and exchange policy: these have always been constrained by international actors. Indeed, the finance provided by the international actors has often been a precondition for the states’ ability to decide these matters at all. Once we look at things through that lens, the trentes glorieuses narrative falls apart. The years of the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods system, and the European Coal and Steel Community were not an era of autarkic policy-making and local democratic control. … the sense of control that is often attributed to voters in the olden days was really a sense of satisfaction with outcomes. … there has to be hope for a better future; but hope is not the same as autarkic, nationalist, or democratic sovereign control. There are hard questions about how we psychologically coexist with large-scale, impersonal social, cultural, and economic forces that are genuinely outside of anyone’s ability to just decide.

Some of my disagreement may come from the fact that most of my work engages with debates in political economy, where the claim that states live in a network of debt relationships is as uncontroversial as the claim that fish swim in water. So I don’t regularly come across people who claim that there was an age when states were innocent of relationships with transnational finance. Whichever way, it seems to me that this contention is analytically quite separate from the question of whether there was a golden age (within limits) for social democracy. One doesn’t need an absolute notion of democratic sovereignty to argue that things were better for social democracy back then. All one needs is to show that relations between states and their creditors were different in an empirically relevant and appropriate way.

And this, it seems to me, is not particularly controversial within political economy. The world of the 1940s through the 1970s was indeed a world where states (and other political actors) borrowed, and where transnational finance had an important role. But it was also a world where there were sharp political limits on international capital flows. States, for example, maintained capital controls. Banks tended to be primarily national in scope and ambitions. This all started to change, starting in the 1960s, and then accelerating through the 1990s.

These changes – and accompanying changes in trade and investment flows – were important, because they reshaped the bargaining relationship between business and states. As Charles Lindblom argued, they enhanced the ‘structural power’ of capital. Businesses were not only able to move their operations – they were able credibly to threaten to move, and hence to influence government actions. States became more attentive to the demands of business (especially financial firms), and less attentive to the demands of their citizens (see pages 529-531 of this article by Abe Newman and me for a summary).

This had consequences. I’ve just finished Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, which I highly recommend – a riveting and intelligent account of the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s, and how its resolution transformed the city. New York’s economy had declined, because “federal policies … made it easy for manufacturing companies that had once formed the city’s economic base – such as the celebrated garment industry – to move away in search of cheaper labor.” Those businesses that stayed – such as finance and real estate – didn’t have a big workforce that benefited from social spending, and wanted the tax system to be regeared to “attract and retain business.” When higher taxes were bruited, many of them too threatened to leave – the New York Stock Exchange threatened to decamp to Connecticut or perhaps even California.

This precipitated a long period of dubious budgetary politics, in which the city looked to meet increasing social needs (and demands from a growing African American and Latino population which had been systematically short-changed in the past) through increased borrowing and moving money around to paper over the fissures. When the crisis came, it was used by business to press through a profound realignment of New York’s political economy. Lenders demanded that New York show its ‘credibility’ if it was to get any more money – and this credibility, in large part, involved chopping spending on the poor, through cutting back on education, hiking public transportation fares and other acts, some of which did not actually contribute large amounts to the bottom line, but which demonstrated to the creditors that the city was prepared to subordinate the interests of its citizens and put their interests first instead.

Notably, this crisis and its resolution was accompanied by a quite radical change in New York’s politics. Phillips-Fein describes the conclusions drawn by the main architect of the resolution, Felix Rohatyn:

Felix Rohatyn observed that it had “redefined the political dialogue” in New York City. The crisis had underlined “in the most brutal way possible the limits of any unit of government to create money itself and to promise all things to all citizens without a very solid private sector base.” In the future, he said, there would be an understanding that “business has to be supported and not just tolerated.”

Phillips-Fein is a historian rather than a social scientist, which means that she’s more interested in the nuance of how different forces and actors intersected than in big structural explanations. She doesn’t explicitly explore the counter-factuals. Nonetheless, there is a strong implication running through her story that increased capital mobility played a key role both in generating New York’s fiscal crisis, and in resolving it in ways that privileged capital over other actors. In a world where capital was less footloose, New York’s industrial base would not have declined as it did, and its financial industry would not have been able to make the kinds of threats that it made. Capital’s prosperity would have been more bound up with the prosperity of the city that it was located in, just as workers’ prosperity was (New York’s public unions bought city bonds when the financial sector disdained tehm, because they recognized how badly they and their members would suffer in the case of default). Fein’s book is aimed at undercutting the narrative that there was no alternative (a term that she finds originated in New York’s crisis, before disseminating across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom).

today as in the 1970s, austerity remains a political choice. The forces that make it seem the only option obscure the underlying reasons why cities become poor, why wealthy metropolises come to have governments starved for funds. Beneath the narrow debates about how debts can be repaid reverberate larger, as yet unresolved questions about what kind of society we want to have, about who will pay for certain kinds of social provisions and whether we will have them at all. At the end of the day, these are inescapably political questions, not accounting ones.

The change between the 1970s and today was not a loss of innocence, as previously unsullied democratic states succumbed to the blandishments of rakish international capital, but it was a change. Specifically, it was a change in bargaining power. A world where capital can relocate more freely is a world where firms in the financial sector have (under specific conditions, and with important variation across sectors, across countries and across time) more bargaining power vis-a-vis both democratic and non-democratic states. Furthermore, as the example of New York’s crisis shows, that power can be exercised in ways that specifically cut out democratic processes.

This shift in bargaining power arguably has greater implications in developing countries than developed ones. Economists used to argue that predatory ruling classes had an incentive to invest in fairer institutions and the rule of law over time, in order to ensure that their own property did not end up being expropriated. That incentive, as Branko Milanovic has argued, is greatly weakened in a world of massive global financial flows.

The view that robber barons may demand the rule of law and the protection of property rights once they have acquired property seems reasonable— so long as we assume that there is no globalization. But with globalization, it is not necessary to fight for the rule of law in one’s own country. A much easier course of action is to take all the money and run away to London or New York, where the rule of law already exists and where nobody will ask where the money came from. A number of plutocrats from Russia, and increasingly from China, are taking this route. It makes complete sense from the individual point of view. And it also shows how our economic thinking has not caught up with the economic reality. In the nineteenth century, families like the Rockefellers championed property rights in the United States because there were few other places where they could go and squirrel away their money. The lesson here is that theories that might in principle work when we take the nation-state as our framework, as we often tacitly do, may not be applicable to a world where capital movements are almost entirely free and difficult to control, and where the rich can easily move from one jurisdiction to another— in particular, to a jurisdiction where the rules for migration favor the wealthy.

Again, shifts in bargaining power mean that some actors (here, national elites in developing countries) are advantaged, while others are not, making it hard to build democracy and the rule of law.

Jacob’s framing of the problem pushes all of this to the side. I think that leads to some serious problems. Paying attention to shifts in the bargaining power of different is crucial to understanding the actual consequences of untrammeled financial flows for democracy. Treating the question as an all-or-nothing one – either democracy was, or was not contaminated by its relationship to finance and debt from the beginning – makes it hard to understand what has actually been happening – for sure democracies and capital have been involved together from the beginnings of the modern state system, but the relationship between the two has changed dramatically.

That doesn’t mean that one has to start from the assumption that the democratic nation-state is the be-all and end-all. There is still scope for cosmopolitanism – but for a jaundiced cosmopolitanism, which might, even as it casts a skeptical eye on claims for national democracy, also squint suspiciously at the various supranational schemes that have come to supplement or supplant it. Here, Peter Mair’s work on the European Union’s relationship to national level party democracy is one good starting point. Another is Haley Sweetland Edwards fantastic little book on how Investor State Dispute Settlement actually works in practice. Another still is Eric Helleiner’s work on sovereign debt restructuring.

One could certainly still – from Jacob’s libertarian-to-liberal perspective – make arguments for the normative benefits of free trade, free capital flows and so on. One could also continue a largely separate inquiry into his closing questions about how good our theories are at dealing with emergent complex orders (a topic that I’m personally enormously interested in) But I don’t think that his account of the history closes off questions about democratic sovereignty (or better – democratically legitimated state control) in the way that he suggests it does. The question of whether democracies were ever free of entanglements with international capital is not a particularly enlightening one, since the answer is pretty obvious. The question of whether the nature of that entanglement has changed substantially over time in ways that are at least partly for the worse is more substantive, and requires a much deeper engagement with the political economy both of national and international institutions.

If one asks whether it might have been (or still be) possible, to have substantially greater democratic control of the economy, whether at the national or super-national question, history would suggest yes. There have been periods when there was such control (there have also been worse periods than our own – we no longer send gunboats to bombard states that have not paid their debts to private creditors). Such control surely involves tradeoffs which different people, groups and interests might or might not think acceptable – but it is equally surely not unthinkable, nor yet impossible.



Jacob T. Levy 07.26.17 at 8:30 pm

Many thanks, Henry. While it’s certainly true that everything I say about state relations to finance is utterly unremarkable in your line of work, I don’t really think that’s true in popular discourse or in pol phil/ political theory.

I agree that, within realistic descriptions of state/ capital relations there are changes over time in relative bargaining power, and that those changes matter.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that even moments of strong state bargaining power are moments of *democratic control,* for Achen/ Bartels- type reasons– they’re moments of *relatively greater autonomy for elite state policy makers.* I had some discussion of this and the way that it undermines the populist discourse in my piece but cut it for reasons of space. Your parenthetical aside about the relationship between democratic sovereignty and democratic *legitimation* seems to me to strike the right note– and that’s an important distinction (both theoretically and rhetorically).

But in any case, if we were to abandon talk of the time when states were sovereign vs the modern era when they’re not, and shift to your way of talking about shifts back and forth on a spectrum of constraints, I think that’d be progress– and I don’t think I’m making up that there’s too much talk as if once upon a time states had sovereign-in-kind control over their economies.


PGD 07.26.17 at 8:41 pm

I thought that Chris Bertram’s take on the piece revealed some deep sympathies between a certain strain of contemporary globalist liberalism and libertarianism. This was an excellent response to it.


Chris Bertram 07.26.17 at 9:35 pm

@PDG … well you may or may not be right, but that doesn’t amount to an argument, just some kind of guilt by association.


Chris Bertram 07.26.17 at 9:48 pm

The paragraph of Henry’s that most engages my interest is the one on cosmopolitanism, and here I’m struck by the fact that the global institutions that he mentions as opposing nation states are ones where it is international capital doing the challenging to national control. That emphasis makes sense if your focus is on who has effective power in the here and now. But my own interest is very much in the people who get marginalized and squeezed out by democracy’s national compass: the migrant workers, the semi-citizens, the members of national minorities, the groups that span national boundaries, the people who love others of nationalities different to their own, the people who fall foul of absurd citizenship laws, and so on. If we see the relevant players as being nation states and their electorates on the one hand and global capital on the other, there are an awful lot of people who get forgotten. So what I liked about Jacob’s piece was that it was a challenge to the normalization of the nation-state system as set of little juxtaposed containers within which life happens. Sorry if that makes me more sympathetic with “libertarians” than social-democrats would like.


Tom Hurka 07.26.17 at 9:53 pm

How important was it to the history that the economy through the 1970s suffered from stagflation, i.e. low growth plus high inflation, and that, certainly in the early 1980s, interest rates were extremely high. (When I bought my first house in 1982 mortgage rates were above 20%.) Surely that made government debt much more expensive to pay off than previously, and issues about government debt much more pressing. Isn’t that part of the story?


blavag 07.27.17 at 12:09 am

On Fear City see also Robert Fitch’s unjustly forgotten The Assassination of New York

as well as the relevant section in the Adam Curtis documentary “Hypernormalisation”, especially the connection to Donald Trump’s rise.



John Quiggin 07.27.17 at 12:27 am

Reposting my comments from Chris’ thread, which are along the same lines as Henry’s post

Jacob seems to me to go wrong right at the start by conflating “democracy” and “the nation state”. Democracy can operate, more or less imperfectly, at every level from local government to the UN. And, in a market system, there is a complex relationship, partly co-operative and partly adversarial, with capital (notably including bond markets) at every level.

The Trente Glorieuses were a period when, in the leading Western countries, the balance of power in that relationship shifted strongly in favor of democratic governments, with generally good results.

The balance shifted in the opposite direction from the 1970s onwards. Until the Global Financial Crisis, the results were beneficial to enough people (not most people, but enough) to maintain a political consensus that democracies should defer to capital markets. Now that consensus has broken down.


Z 07.27.17 at 2:42 am

But my own interest is very much in the people who get marginalized and squeezed out by democracy’s national compass: the migrant workers, the semi-citizens, the members of national minorities, the groups that span national boundaries, the people who love others of nationalities different to their own, the people who fall foul of absurd citizenship laws, and so on

Echoing John’s sentiment at 6, it seems to me that the correct framework of democracy is a community of people who mutually agree they form one, and that the specific scale or form of this community is essentially irrelevant (to be concrete, I believe for instance it is obvious that social and political rights should be equally exercised by all members of the community of individuals inhabiting a given territory independently of nationality). So I wonder, Chris, isn’t it the case that the entirety of your objection to what you call “democracy’s national compass” is in “national” (and even then, “national” understood in the very restrictive sense of “having a given nationality as currently adjudicated within the current nation-state system” compared for instance to Mill’s more general sense recalled in Rawls’s letter) and none of it in “democracy”? If I am right, then your criticism appears to me to be logically independent of Levy’s analysis in a rather strong sense, and to be more or less entirely subsumed in the criticism of the restrictive meaning of “national” outlined above. In particular

So what I liked about Jacob’s piece was that it was a challenge to the normalization of the nation-state system as set of little juxtaposed containers within which life happens.

I don’t think you can read a specific challenge to the nation-state system in Levy’s piece at all. On the contrary, he makes it clear (and even clearer in the companion piece) that he considers sovereignty an illusion for any community of people provided it is sufficiently large to be called a community (for reasons of emergent properties). But the people you rightly care about, though they might not fit neatly in restrictively defined national communities, do of course fit in some communities so are subject to and creators of hopefully collectively decided and enforced rules. I believe you care about the question of which set of institutions will adequately allows the exercise of the rights of these people (or at least, which won’t actively violate them), but under the perspective of Levy’s analysis, it is immaterial if these rules and institutions are local, national or supranational.


Peter T 07.27.17 at 5:03 am

While Jacob’s article gets the history wrong (which initially made me suspicious – why does so much social science use historical generalisations which look like extracts from high school texts from two generations back when there’s so much good history around?), there is a case to be made that the popular view is not altogether wrong. Western states were – by design – much more economically insulated in the period 1945-1975 than before or since. There were capital controls, tariffs, state banks, state airlines, state shipping firms, national unions, industry policies, agricultural policies, labour laws. Together these walled off a large part of national economies, and made it difficult for elites to recruit foreign backing.

A second observation is that the term “capital” is a misnomer. What states seek enough cash flow to service their debts (and the story of the early modern European states is the struggle to generate and/or tap cash flows in the face of locally-entrenched opposition). This is an issue of taxation or, more broadly and contra Coase, the central issue of any cooperative system of production – how does one share the gains? It’s a political issue and, as Henry observes, one that revolves around bargaining power. It’s not capital in the sense of stored or embodied wealth that bargains with states, it’s elites with command of revenue flows arguing over who gets what.


Chris Bertram 07.27.17 at 6:49 am

@John, @Z I agree that democracy can operate as a procedure at many scales, but the fact is that the nation-state privileges a demos constituted by its membership, from which some are entirely excluded and which typically issues in the domination of “ordinary people” (ie people from the dominant group). For some issues, the solution is, no doubt, the construction of democratic institutions at smaller scales, but other questions, such as migration, necessarily call for us to think more globally and the nation state system, by ensuring that international affairs are dealt with through the agreement of nation states, both amplifies the voices of the “normal” and sedentary who dominate them and filters out the interests of the people I’m talking about: hence they become a “problem” to be managed. (The nation-state system is also, as you know, a realm of false equality in which some “sovereigns” are more equal than others.)


Z 07.27.17 at 7:29 am

the nation-state privileges a demos […] migrations, necessarily call for us to think more globally and the nation state system […] both amplifies the voices of the “normal” and sedentary […] and filters out the interests of the people I’m talking about:

Yes, sure I agree, but then the question, it seems to me, is how to articulate a democratic political process that induces no such vicious effects-for instance, how to organize the distribution of political power in a way that does not marginalize those which lay outside the boundaries. I don’t believe that Levy’s analysis has much to say in that respect. As for me, as I have written several times already, I believe that the crucial feature is that the people affected by a given policy have a say in the evaluation, continuation and/or transformation of said policy (something close, I believe, to what Henry called democratically legitimated control in the OP), and the nation-state plays a role in this discussion only insofar as some of the institutions (in the most possible general sense) allowing for the process of feedback sometimes historically developed at this scale and so may be relatively stronger at this scale for contingent reasons.


Anders 07.27.17 at 9:20 am

@Chris you presumably accept there is some good in national welfare states; it’s just that you attack them on the grounds of some members and all non-members being excluded from their benefits. ISTM if one tried to address these exclusions – and particular the exclusion of non-members – one would throw the baby out with the bathwater, and end up as the US or worse.

I’d be glad to be proven wrong by a demonstration of how popular support could be rallied in the UK behind a much more inclusive welfare state.


Chris Bertram 07.27.17 at 11:28 am

@Anders, my comment was about political inclusion and did not mention the welfare state as such. I realise from earlier comments that this is your hobby-horse, but I think we discussed it already (when I posted the original link), and this is Henry’s space.


TM 07.27.17 at 11:58 am

Z 8: “it seems to me that the correct framework of democracy is a community of people who mutually agree they form one”

No polity that I know of has ever been come into existence through mutual agreement of its members (perhaps in a sense the EU is the only counter-example). Mutual agreement is a dangerous illusion.


M Caswell 07.27.17 at 12:09 pm

If we can think of refugees as people who no longer have the freedom to be sedentary, we might see them not as a problematic, different sort of person to be managed, but as subject to predicament any “normal” citizen might conceivably find themselves in. This identification (which leaves nation-state citizenship intact, I think) appeals to me as a basis for just migration policy.


Chris Bertram 07.27.17 at 12:27 pm

@M Caswell I deliberately excluded refugees from the list I gave above, precisely because they ideally get a kind of surrogate citizenship that presupposes the nation-state model.


Z 07.27.17 at 1:04 pm

No polity that I know of has ever been come into existence through mutual agreement of its members (perhaps in a sense the EU is the only counter-example)

Yes, and correlatively no polity that you know of has ever come into existences as a democracy (perhaps in a sense the EU is the only counter-example), so I don’t see your remark as an objection. On the contrary, it seems to me it reinforces my point.


Katsue 07.27.17 at 1:34 pm


On the historical argument, my major problem is that the 17th Century British Parliament was no more democratic than, say, the 17th Century Cortes of Aragon. It was an instrument of elite rule, not democracy.


Peter Hovde 07.27.17 at 2:06 pm

Clear link here to debated about rising inequality and its relationship to tech development, especially IT-while it’s often posited as an increasing return to skills, arguable more important is an increasing return to power, with increased nimbleness of capital being one facet of that.


WLGR 07.27.17 at 2:52 pm

“no polity that you know of has ever come into existences as a democracy (perhaps in a sense the EU is the only counter-example)”

Alas, the parenthetical is 180 degrees backwards, as Yanis Varoufakis is perpetually explaining:

Normal states, such as Britain, evolved through the centuries as political mechanisms to contain social and economic conflicts between antagonistic groups and classes (eg the monarchy, the barons, later the merchants, the trades unions, etc). This is not at all how the EU, and its Brussels bureaucracy, developed. It began life as a cartel of heavy industry (coal and steel, then car manufacturers, later co-opting farmers, hi-tech industries and others). Like all cartels, the idea was to manipulate prices and to redistribute the resulting profits through a purpose-built, Brussels-based bureaucracy.

This European cartel and the bureaucrats who administered it feared the demos and despised the idea of government by the people, just like the administrators of oil producers Opec, or indeed any corporation, does. Patiently and methodically, a process of depoliticising decision-making was put in place, the result a relentless drive towards taking the “demos” out of “democracy”, at least as far as the EU was concerned, and cloaking all policy-making in a pervasive pseudo-technocratic fatalism. National politicians were rewarded handsomely for their acquiescence to turning the commission, the Council, Ecofin (EU finance ministers), the Eurogroup (eurozone finance ministers) and the European Central Bank into politics-free, democracy-free, zones.


Henry 07.27.17 at 4:49 pm

Am jumping on a plane today so can’t respond properly. But:

Jacob – I’m starting to co-write a piece at the moment which is in considerable part a response to Achen/Bartels (I think it’s a very good book – but I also think that it substantially overdraws its conclusions, because of the ways that it thinks about group politics and group identity, and because it overstates the flaws of retrospective voting accounts).

Chris – I think there is very definitely still room for cosmopolitanism, though I would like to push back against the current debate (which I think is too dominated by Rawls and responses to him) towards something more realistically based in how domestic and international politics actually intersect with each other. this is a very first draft-ish take on one aspect of that, building on pragmatist accounts (soon to be substantially revised, I hope – it is going to become a co-authored piece with Jack Knight).


L2P 07.27.17 at 10:55 pm

“On the historical argument, my major problem is that the 17th Century British Parliament was no more democratic than, say, the 17th Century Cortes of Aragon. It was an instrument of elite rule, not democracy.”

I mean, technically there’s never been a democracy, with really rare and short-lived exceptions. What’s the point of putting that isn’t pure, one-person-one-vote democracy into “not democracy?”

This sort of thing seems to underlie a lot of this discussion. It’s like a reverse “No true Scotsman” argument. Interesting as an intellectual exercise, but what’s the point?


engels 07.27.17 at 11:59 pm

… Nations are imagined communities. Nation building entailed the creation of formal institutions extending previously informal, communal bonds of solidarity to all co-nationals. Globalization favors the equal access of everyone to worldwide markets. It has no use for national citizenship or national citizens. Another moral system is at work. Cultural reeducation is required to erase traditional solidarity and replace it with a morality of equal access and equal opportunity regardless of status (such as “race, creed, and national origin”). Justice is served as soon as market access is equalized. The replacement of class solidarity by status rights demands flexible adjustment to changing market conditions. The morality of marketization entails a categoric delegitimization of distinctions. Empathy and benevolence become moral duties with respect to everyone, rather than one’s neighbor. Social rights are displaced by civil rights, a process which, as Hannah Arendt saw clearly in 1948, inevitably dilutes to near-invisibility any system of effective social protection.

For the domestic politics of a nation-state undergoing neoliberal redefinition, this has profound consequences. Classes struggling over the correction of markets give way to status groups struggling over access to them. At issue are not the terms of exchange and cooperation between conflicting class interests, or the limits of exploitation of one class by another, but status groups with established market access excluding status groups without it from competition. Political morality lies in opening up competition by removing barriers to entry, not in containing it through institutionalized limits to commodification. For groups that already have market access, this means a moral duty, in the name of equality, to allow themselves to be challenged by newcomers, whoever they may be—fellow citizens, immigrants, or residents of other countries—at the risk of being outcompeted and having their lives disrupted as a result. …


engels 07.28.17 at 12:45 am

These arguments remind me a bit of the first (I think) CT thread I think I ever commented on, on Henry’s argument for the moral necessity of the Left supporting Turkish accession to the EU. What a long strange trip…



TM 07.28.17 at 8:03 am

engels 23: “Nation building entailed the creation of formal institutions extending previously informal, communal bonds of solidarity to all co-nationals.”

This is precisely the historical myth-making that the left must reject.

The people who witnessed “nation-building” in the early modern period (the creation of centralized states in France, Spain (the reconquista), the UK) first hand would be surprised to hear that this violent enterprise was all about extending “bonds of solidarity”. You might also ask Yugoslavians about “nation-building” in their country in the 1990s.

My apology to engels who doesn’t wish to hear from me. Hint, you don’t have to read what I say but you can’t decide who gets to criticize you when taking part in a public debate.


Anon 07.28.17 at 9:57 am

I tend to agree with Jacobs in #1: His argument and Henry’s are compatible if you take into account that they operate in two different debates.

Henry, the book of peter Mair you’re recommending, is it the “Ruling the Void” one or do you mean another one?


engels 07.28.17 at 11:19 am

TM, I’m not disputing your right to Speak Truth to Engels, just advising you not to expect a serious response (fyi the comment you’re referring to was a direct quote from Wolfgang Streeck)


Anon Scot 07.28.17 at 12:55 pm

I am very tired of hearing the word ‘sovereignty’ as though it were a magic incantation for solving all problems. I have heard it enough through the Scottish indy ref and then the EU ref. The people who utter this word never explain what it means in practical terms. Any international agreement (be it on trade or anything else) involves all parties to that agreement giving away some sovereignty in return for something else of presumably greater value.

I would also like to know how ‘democratic control’ is possible at all if a sub-region of a polity can secede if at least 50% of that region wants to leave? This is ‘democracy’, but it isn’t ‘control’ in a meaningful sense.


Katsue 07.28.17 at 1:09 pm


My point is that you can’t say that the birth of democracy is tied to the requirements of finance capital by pointing at Hanoverian Britain or the Dutch Republic when the Dutch Republic and Hanoverian Britain were not, in fact, democracies. Democracy was achieved in Britain by the struggles of the organised left, e.g. Chartists, Irish nationalists, Radicals, socialists and suffragists, not imposed on it by Dutch merchant banks.


TM 07.28.17 at 1:39 pm

Important post by Masha Gessen:

Why Autocrats Fear LGBT Rights

Gessen: “Trump got elected on the promise of a return to an imaginary past—a time we don’t remember because it never actually was, but one when America was a kind of great that Trump has promised to restore. Trumps shares this brand of nostalgia with Vladimir Putin, who has spent the last five years talking about Russian “traditional values,” with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has warned LGBT people against becoming “provocative,” and with any number of European populists who promise a return to a mythical “traditional” past. With few exceptions, countries that have grown less democratic in recent years have drawn a battle line on the issue of LGBT rights.”

It can’t be pointed out often enough: when right wing “populists” talk about “taking back control”, “restoring sovereignty” etc., the are NOT referring to taking back control from bond markets, the IMF or WTO. They are NOT, or only marginally, referring to the economic nationalism that some leftists like to read (often sympathetically) into these rhetorical outbreaks. Leftists often have this kind of professional distortion where they can’t help interpreting everything in economic terms. This has given us the silly debate about the election of Trump the hyper-plutocrat being some sort of uprising against neoliberal plutocracy, and those of us who point out the deep-seated racism and misogyny among his followers are accused of bias against the working class. BS!

What they talk about is “taking back control” from the wrong kind of people, people who are nut “like us”, who have gotten “too much power” since those golden fifties when straight white men were safely in charge: gays, feminists, cosmopolitans, intellectuals, minorities, Muslims, Jews.


Chris Bertram 07.28.17 at 2:48 pm

@engels, are you commending that Streeck piece to us or just noting it? I had thought of posting something here about it. Streeck imagines the American working class, or rather “the silenced majority of a disorganized class” in a highly racialized way. He only sees the whites. In fact this is quite explicit in the same paragraph, because they are the ones “deprived of an accessible identity”, (unlike black American members of the working class). One might say that this is all purely descriptive, but to my mind the piece oozes solidaristic compassion with a racially-typed group. So of course the question arises, why feel that towards this particular group but then explicitly sneer at liberal concern for other groups? I’m sure Streeck doesn’t think of himself as racist, but his social typology, transferred across from his writings on Germany, counterposes a national working class with the immigrant other. That’s already problematic enough to my mind, but in the context of the US it is disastrous.


TM 07.28.17 at 2:56 pm

engels 07.28.17 at 11:19 am: 1) I do not expect a response from you, and if I did, you needn’t fulfill that expectation. 2) I note that you posted a direct quote. In my view it is fair to assume that when a direct quote is posted without comment, the author approves of it. This just in case you are going to argue that you didn’t say it when others criticize you. I think the quote is historically illiterate and ideologically just horrible.


TM 07.28.17 at 2:57 pm

The content of the quote, that is.


TM 07.28.17 at 3:56 pm

To be wxplicit: what “nation-building”, the genesis of the modern nation-state, has generally involved:
– War and military conquest
– Oppression, expulsion or slaughter of minorities
– Political centralization
– Forced cultural uniformization
– Establishment of an exclusionary, ethnocentric, often supremacist national ideology

What it has rarely involved:
– Extending bonds of solidatrity
– Democracy
These latter came much later, as a result of centuries of political struggle. They were not and are not inherent in the nation-state.


bruce wilder 07.28.17 at 4:22 pm

Katsue @ 29

@ 18 you spoke of 17th century Britain and now you are on about Hanoverian (18th century) Britain? I am getting confused.

As an historical matter, I think one can see an emergent spirit of “democracy” in 17th century Britain, particularly in “the good old cause” of the republic. It was there when Thomas Rainsborough declared at Putney,

I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

It isn’t the spirit of Parliament as he is addressing the Army and it does not seem to win the day, let alone the century, but still the basic notion of egalitarianism and the consent of the governed is loose in the land.

What the tie might be to the emergent capitalism of the London financial market and commercial interests remains somewhat obscure, but there’s definitely an entanglement of some sort that is working a change in ideology and government over the course of the 17th century. Parliament is certainly a vehicle of elite governance, but which elite? The Stuarts seem happiest when they can rule without Parliament and Parliament finds itself happiest when it can rule without Stuarts.

The Great Stop of the Exchequer is something of an epiphany for British policymakers, amid the increasingly confused political imperatives and means of the dynasty, with its family entanglements with the Dutch House of Orange and secret religious entanglements with the Sun King. Politics moves out of doors over the course of the following fifteen years, as opposed factions of the governing elite make appeals for mass support, creating Whigs and Tories everywhere. Government moves its locus from the dynasty and its Court to Parliament decisively and the consensus conception of the purposes of policy are altered to emphasize the needs of commerce and ring-fence the claims of religion.

I am not sure what Levy is up to. I would not say he gets the history wrong — I am tempted to say that his handwaving gets it “not even wrong” though I am not certain of the meaning of that history myself, and so think it is best treated with questions and not sweeping declaratives — but I am suspicious of his purposes. He’s letting ungrounded abstractions do a lot of work in his argument and where’s he going with it? A new apology for the inverted dictatorship of “there is no alternative”?


djw 07.28.17 at 5:49 pm

Jacob – I’m starting to co-write a piece at the moment which is in considerable part a response to Achen/Bartels (I think it’s a very good book – but I also think that it substantially overdraws its conclusions, because of the ways that it thinks about group politics and group identity, and because it overstates the flaws of retrospective voting accounts).

Really looking forward to this, Henry. I suspect I probably largely agree with you w/r/t group politics/identity (I don’t know the literature well enough to have an opinion on their take on retrospective voting), but I’m looking forward to seeing how you frame it and make the case. Keep your readers posted!


bianca steele 07.28.17 at 6:08 pm


Right wing populists are usually isolationist so are also incoherently thinking of “taking back control” from NATO (much of the CT commentariat is anti-NATO if I’m not mistaken though) and of course, as Google reminds me, the Paris Accords. If they know what the WTO is they probably think it’s an arm of Goldman Sachs.


rogergathmann 07.28.17 at 6:26 pm

To me, Chris’s concern about minorities is a very understandable one. But what I see is the
period from 1945 to around 1980 featuring an explosion of civil rights activity, as well as an anti-colonialist revolution. Whereas what I see under neo-liberalism, in which national governments are supposedly undermined – which I take to be a surface phenomenon of a more profound shift to wealth inequality, that is easily reversed, as it was in 2008-9, when the fortunes of the top of the wealth scale are threatened – is a pushback, resulting in mass incarceration in the Anglo Saxon countries, and an astonishing absolute loss in the assets held by communities that were gaining power in the 45-80 period. Here I guess the African-American experience is exemplary. Now I wouldn’t want to say that this pushback effected all marginalised groups. Groups that are represented in the wealthiest class due, simply, to the way that class is composed of human beings – white women and white gays – have benefited from the end effects of previous civil rights movements. This is to the good. My feeling, though, is that the choice to mobilize the productive sectors of the nations with more developed economies in a great global game of musical chairs identified the gains made by these two groups with “globalisation” – instead of the liberation movements of the epoch before – and this price is onerous and increasing. A liberatory globalisation movement still has not arisen. When it does – when a general strike in China, say, is mirrored by one in the US – then I would say globalisation was starting to achieve its democratizing potential.


engels 07.28.17 at 6:45 pm

Chris, I don’t wish to endorse Streeck unreservedly but I certainly don’t think he conceives of the American working class as white or means to express solidarity with white people. I thought his point was that they are are numerically the majority among the American working class and that they have been prevented from articulating their oppression under capitalism in a class-based (ie. racially inclusive) way by a liberal political culture in which only the specific forms of injustice experienced by oppressed minorities can voiced, hence the rise of Trumpism as ‘identity politics for white people’. If there is any ‘sneering’ at ‘liberal concern for those groups’ I assume it would not be because it is concern but because it is liberal ie. motivated by a market-oriented ethos that aims to empower all workers to compete with one another on equal terms to capital’s benefit and their further immiseration.


F. Foundling 07.28.17 at 9:36 pm

In terms of consequences, I don’t think it matters too much which minority one adduces as an argument against demoracy and whether one rejects the legitimacy of democratic decision making in the name of the rich and of the enterprising individual (as various objectivists, libertarians, etc. do) or in the name of the foreign poor (as the cosmopolitan left does). In the case of the cosmopolitan left, representative self-government is criticised for not being inclusive enough, but then it is not replaced with a more fully representative self-government (a globe-encompassing democracy being out of reach, and charitable/humanitarian activism not being the same as accountable representation), but rather subverted and weakened in favour of the only real-life alternative – elite decision making. This is reminiscent of the way the Soviet Communism criticised (correctly) bourgeois representative democracy for not being sufficiently democratically representative … and then ‘solved’ the problem by essentially abolishing representative democracy as such. The only group whose interests are certain to be served by the susbstitution of elite decision making for democratic decision making is the elite in question.


F. Foundling 07.28.17 at 10:28 pm

@myself 07.28.17 at 9:36 pm

I suppose I should have put ‘cosmopolitan left’ in quotation marks, since I mean a more specific current of thought than what the dictionary significance of the word implies. After all, I, too, would be inclined to describe myself as a ‘cosmopolitan’ in the sense that I don’t attach a lot of significance to my own ethnicity and nationality and am more interested in world affairs (as opposed to local ones) than many others. That does not, however, make me inclined to deny people anywhere the right to govern themselves.


bob mcmanus 07.29.17 at 12:45 am

>a href=”https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n01/adam-tooze/a-general-logic-of-crisis”>Adam Tooze reviewed a book by Wolfgang Streeck January 2017 NYRB. I think this pertains to the OP. Streeck shows up to respond, Tooze responds, I wouldn’t care to characterize.


Peter T 07.29.17 at 6:27 am

re Henry’s post @21 – the linked draft on a Dewey-like pragmatic approach to International Relations is a good start. I do wonder how much support such an approach would gather in academia, as it suggests (perhaps just to me) that the social sciences would make more progress if seen as applied history. This may be right (I think it is), but it would be a major change in methodology, outlook and attitude.


Chris Bertram 07.29.17 at 8:05 am

@bob, thanks. The Streeck response is remarkable for the degree of passive aggression.

@TM, the genesis of the modern nation-state, as the “normal” basis for a system of states is much more recent, and only gets globally extended after 1945. So I think “centuries” gets things wrong. With much of the rest, I agree.


engels 07.29.17 at 10:41 am

In case anyone’s confused I’m pretty sure Streeck doesn’t think that early modern states were democratic or that their construction did not involve violence or minority oppression…


Raven 07.29.17 at 1:58 pm

The so-called “Sovereign Myth” thesis seems to me to miss the point.

I think people’s complaint might be more reasonably characterized — not so much as that they were not in control (outside ancient Athens no states notably ever were run by direct democracy) — but as that their interests were not well served. That’s a justifiable complaint.

In a republic (by contrast to a tyranny), those who govern are supposed to be public servants, not masters. If they choose — like most of the current US Congressional GOP in the recent healthcare vote — to blatantly and visibly act against the vital interests of their constituents, the latter have good cause to view them as bad servants.

Jacob, you bring up the issue of being able to “borrow money at better interest rates”; generally that was and is available to more reliable borrowers, i.e. those the lender is more sure can and will pay back on schedule. Any doubt or risk increases the cost.

It was precisely the reliability of Quaker bankers that helped develop public banks ca. 1700-1850; when less trustworthy officers took the opportunity to run scams, there were bank failures. Likewise, “the full faith and credit of the United States” was laboriously built up over generations… and when the GOP-run Congress short-sightedly played games with the credit limit, threatening to not pay debts, for the first time the USA’s credit rating was marked down, which as you know normally impacts borrowing costs. Poor stewardship.

That latter example is far more recent than the 1970-75 end-of-joy you mention, but as part of a continuum of GOP policies I think it illustrative.

Really, even before the 1960s Southern Strategy brought in the Boll Weevils, the GOP had its evil side: those who like Prescott Bush (GHWB’s dad) traded with the Nazis during WWII and conspired to overthrow FDR.

So it should not have been surprising that in 1968 candidate Nixon chose to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks in order to undercut the current President and advance his own campaign; nor that congressional Republicans, made aware of his actions, did nothing to intervene. (“In the four years between the sabotage and what Kissinger termed ‘peace at hand’ just prior to the 1972 election, more than 20,000 US troops died in Vietnam. More than 100,000 were wounded. More than a million Vietnamese were killed.”)

Nor should it have been surprising that in 1980 candidate Reagan undercut another current President by promising a hostile foreign power US weapons if they’d keep their US hostages and not return them as already agreed, until he was inaugurated; and again he was never held to account for this.

And now Trump and Russia.

People can see their interests are not being served — their lives [visit the Vietnam Memorial] and liberties [ask the Tehran hostages] and rights [ask anyone prevented from voting last year] have very literally been traded off or even regarded as worthless — by the very people supposedly elected to represent their interests.

They have a well-founded complaint.


F. Foundling 07.29.17 at 2:25 pm

@TM 07.28.17 at 8:03 am, 07.28.17 at 3:56 pm
>nation-building has generally involved … forced cultural uniformization … establishment of an exclusionary … national ideology…
>it has rarely involved … extending bonds of solidatrity … democracy…

This elides facts that have been relatively well-known for a long time, which is probably why Streeck mentions them as self-evident. He isn’t referring to Early Modern centralisation and absolutism (as in France, England, let alone Spain), which, while in some sense an early (pre-)stage of nation-state formation, wasn’t particularly nationalistic in character and was little concerned with ethnicity or nationality, but to the nation-building of the 19th century. The French revolution and the conception of France that arose from it combined a push for solidarity and democracy with political centralisation and cultural uniformisation (replacement of regional languages by Standard French etc.). 19th century nationalism in Italy, in Germany until Bismarck and in most other countries was chiefly democratic, liberal and egalitarian; it was opposed to the feudal disunion as well as to the supranational empires, both of which were authoritarian and anti-democratic forces.

The ‘national ideology’ did involve ‘extending the bonds of solidarity’ to others of the same nation regardless not only of their region, but also of their class and often religion – things that were revolutionary at the time – and, in most cases, the right to participate in the government of the nation as well. The fact that legitimacy was now re-conceived as residing not in royal bloodlines or feudal ties but in ‘the people’ entailed that rights were owed to said ‘people’ (‘our German/French/Italian brothers’, ‘not ‘our subjects’ or ‘our serfs’ anymore). From the rulers’ point of view, as the nation state came to expect more commitment from its population, it also had to commit more to it in return. From a democratic or solidary point of view, for ‘the people’ to make decisions and govern itself, there had to be a (concept of a) unified ‘people’ in the first place.

It’s a bit anachronistic to describe this as ‘exclusionary’, because solidarity hadn’t been more inclusive before: far from including foreigners, it simpy hadn’t crossed the boundaries of one’s village and social class at all. For all its limitations and negative aspects, for all the pernicious tendencies towards meaningless conformity and idolisation of an abstract collective over real individuals, which eventually found their ultimate and monstrous expression in the form of Nazism, nationalism was originally a progressive social force. It is telling that today’s ‘cosmopolitan’ left feels the need not just to argue that it’s time to move beyond nationalism and nation states in some sense, but rather to deny the history altogether, to argue that they have always been wholly evil, and frequently to idealise the authoritarian multinational empires that preceded them.

The notion of brotherhood of all members of a nation and of collective effort for the common good and freedom is found in most national anthems of the time, which are still official in the relevant countries. ‘Arise, children of the Fatherland … | It is us they dare plan | To return to the old slavery’, ‘Brothers … let us unite, let us love one another’, ‘Unity and justice and freedom – Towards these let us all strive | Brotherly with heart and hand’. Compare the charming and quiant, ideologically pre-modern ‘God save the King’, ‘God save the Tsar!’ and ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, where the collective is still passive and is represented and, in a sense, defined only by the person of the monarch.


William Timberman 07.29.17 at 2:32 pm

Chris Bertram @ 44

The Streeck response is remarkable for the degree of passive aggression.

Yes, it is, particularly in the opening paragraph. It reminds me a little of some of David Graeber’s responses to the criticism of Debt, albeit in a milder form. Streeck appears to be angry, certainly, but is he right? That’s the real question. If power is beyond the control of rational (i.e. post-Enlightenment) institutions nominally dedicated to democracy and the general welfare, as Marx asserted, then the failure of social democracy was predictable, and we should not have been surprised at the ridiculous posturing of Gabriel’s SPD, Blair’s Labour Party, or Clinton’s Democrats. Dismayed, perhaps, but not surprised.

In CT’s own comments sections, Bruce Wilder, the self-described liberal, often reminds us that the balance of power cannot be managed in the abstract, and that any political institution which is to be effective must pay more than lip service to the pre-existing allegiances of its constituency. In this, he seems to be more in tune with Streeck than Tooze. Equally often, bob mcmanus, the self-described revolutionary, reminds us that the only way to escape the hells neoliberalism has designed for us is to smash the oligarchs and take all their stuff, which seems a darker and more muscular version of Tooze’s and Varoufakis’s cosmopolitanisms.

My own suspicion is that it’s too early to tell whether either of these two perspectives should govern the strategies and tactics of the left. The failures of capitalism, particularly of neoliberal capitalism may be — should be — obvious to everyone. What isn’t obvious is the remedy, largely because the will to power, and the conduits through which it finds expression, remain as mysterious as ever, making the consequences of political action of any kind more or less a crapshoot. It’s early days yet, to be sure, in this global crisis/realignment of ours. Absurdities abound, saviors are a bitcoin a dozen, and bluster is the lingua franca of every imagined apocalypse. How Will Capitalism End? may not be quite up to snuff as a Revelations for our time, but for a quasi-cynical cosmopolitan leftist like myself, it has been a fun read.


bianca steele 07.29.17 at 4:08 pm

I think the complaint about sovereignty in the US context–I don’t know about Brexit– is essentially really a complaint that people feel their values are devalued in the public sphere. If they’re white and Christian, they think they “know” that their values *used to be* valued, and that therefore they’re losing out. Each of those facts is at best only partly true, but there are theories that tell them why it *should* feel their values are shared by the public and the government.

Though this kind of contradicts Levy’s argument that it’s really about “results.” I guess if people judge their social acceptability by how much money they make, that might play into it. A lot of the same people are pretty adamant that those they’re worried about are the “regular,” non-rich people, though. I find it difficult not to suspect that the emphasis stems from bad economism, clinging to utilitarianism, and discomfort with the idea that subjectivity should be taken into account, and is consequently overemphasized.

It’s far from clear, though, how *de*emphasizing sovereignty in the sense of calling for deference to institutions relates to this. Various leftists on CT and otherwise may have ideas about this, but I know Levy is not a socialist, and he’s talking about what we have right now, not calling for drastic institutional change (revolutionary or otherwise), I think.


bianca steele 07.29.17 at 4:18 pm

I suppose my second paragraph invites the answer “neoliberal ideology,” and that’s fair enough, though it doesn’t exactly answer any questions about whether Levy’s emphasis is helpful or not.


LFC 07.29.17 at 4:31 pm

The Foundling/TM exchange(s) on nation-building and nationalism suggest that a lot depends on the particular definitions and historical perspective one adopts.

On the one hand, F. is right that the Streeck passage prob. does refer to 19th-cent. nation-building. OTOH, Anthony Marx’s Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism (2003) supports a view like TM’s. Much depends on what period one focuses on and how direct a line one decides to draw betw early-modern state-building or nation-building and the later manifestations.

One might also distinguish betw. “loyalty to the state” and nationalism, as Strayer does in On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970), seeing loyalty to the state as a “cooler emotion” (in his phrase). By contrast, A. Marx in Faith in Nation is inclined not to draw the distinction quite as sharply, I think.


bob mcmanus 07.29.17 at 4:32 pm

48: +1 I have enjoyed Streeck too much, think it premature for myself to choose the boundaries of identities and the cosmopolitan, and don’t feel a need to commit. I enjoyed the argument with Tooze, but I have differences with him. The global/local argument has been goin on in Leftism since its start in the early 19th, and is probably best determined on site in praxis.

This is more recent than I remembered July 22 in Salvage Neil Davidson from Scotland, a Lexit voice I respect,discusses issues tossed around here.

I also need to find out more about “delinking.” “Left nationalism” feels to me like an oxymoron, albeit with theoretically fraught and sometime calamitous application, but a disaggregation of radical projects might be the best path through our current conditions.


bruce wilder 07.29.17 at 6:58 pm

WT: The failures of capitalism, particularly of neoliberal capitalism may be — should be — obvious to everyone.

And, yet, apparently, they are not universally recognized as failures per se. “Feature, not a bug” as software engineers might protest.

Tooze in that LRB piece, it seems to me, is at his strongest against Streeck, when he points out that neoliberalism has its interested defenders at the national level and they are politically as well as economically powerful. It is a thrust that cannot be so easily parried from Streeck’s Polanyian stance. If an assault as brutal and prolonged as that sustained by Greece or underway in slow motion against Italy cannot arouse a coherent nationalist solidarity or a coherent counter policy program, then it really is hard to see where to place hope, other than in the sui generis collapse of an overweening opponent.

The most telling stab Streeck takes, though the sharpness of his blade can hardly cut wrapped so heavily in Germanic syntax and resentment, is in the “passive aggression” of that first paragraph of his reply. Neoliberalism is the ideology of a class, not a volk, and a class that consumerism has fashioned into a narcissistically self-regarding one. This is an opening Tooze himself suggests as superior to the volk nonsense, and I am not sure I understand why it comes back at him only in this rude protest.

The great strength of neoliberalism has been its foundation in “neoclassical economics”, that long-established academic cottage industry dedicated to obscuring the obvious failures of capitalism and training the adept to take advantage of the opportunities those failures embody. The monopoly power of “neoclassical economics” in mainstream economics displaces and marginalizes anyone attempting to plainly describe and analyze the obvious failures or just problematics of capitalism. This is of no small consequence for the sociologist trying to do political economy, as Streeck claims and Tooze acknowledges. But, it does not stop Tooze from taking a dismissive dig, for example, at Streeck’s conceptions of debt as an instrument of neoliberal policy and predation. A left which is just a motley assortment of critics and protestors, bereft of architects and structural engineers, is inherently powerless — it has no alternative, is no alternative. Contradicting neoliberalism, which has been plastic to the point of mercurial in its creation of policy, is just not enough; “reverse gears”, “go in the opposite direction” just doesn’t express anything, obvious or otherwise.


Z 07.29.17 at 7:20 pm

It seems to me that many of the questions we are struggling with in this thread (and other similar previous ones) would be clarified by an answer to this one: is it possible for a collective to achieve substantial democratic control (or more precisely democratically legitimated control) on its social and in particular economic destiny while remaining very inclusive in its self-definition?

Personally, I believe like rogergathmann above that far from being in tension (as I read some comments here to imply, though I’m not sure their authors would agree), these political properties of polities are positively correlated (in fact I would go a good deal further and argue that these properties are mutually necessary, so far from having to choose between them, we have to choose both of them or neither).

For those who believe that this question admits a positive answer, a naturally following one is: what are and were the social preconditions required to advance towards such a polity, and what was and currently is its natural scale? That is largely an empirical question, not a moral one, and here I am largely in agreement with F.Foundling @47 with respect to the history. As for the present, Adam Tooze, in his answer to Streeck linked to above, tellingly links “shared ‘experiences, practices and perspectives … understandings … histories, values, aspirations and compromises’” with “the stock in trade of cultural nationalism”, “19th-Century nationalism”, “nationality”, “ethnicity” and ultimately political outcomes that include “the Third Reich”. I couldn’t disagree more: to me shared ‘experiences, practices and perspectives … understandings … histories, values, aspirations and compromises’ are a precondition for a democracy not to devolve into elite control, whereas the rest looks like a list of barriers to wide inclusion. How Adam Tooze could not see that “shared ‘experiences, practices and perspectives … understandings … histories, values, aspirations and compromises’” were in direct contradiction with a nationality-based on ethnic-based definition of the collective (not to mention with the whole project of the Third Reich) is something I don’t understand.


Z 07.29.17 at 7:39 pm


Streeck imagines the American working class, or rather “the silenced majority of a disorganized class” in a highly racialized way. He only sees the whites. […] they are the ones “deprived of an accessible identity”,

Like engels @39, I think your reading of Streeck here is quite incorrect. In fact, I believe you attribute to him the position he criticizes (or more accurately, you attribute to him the position he considers the natural production of a social system he criticizes). What Streeck argues is that under the current political system he calls neoliberal center-left, members of the white working class are deprived (by the center-left neoliberal political discourse) of an accessible identity, so that (according to him), it is the neoliberal center-left political perspective which imposes the highly racial characterization (in the American context, implicitly), whereas he himself bemoans the absence of an organized class able to enter the political arena in a structured way. The multiple references to Marx’s 18 Brumaire and footnote 19 seem to me to leave little ambiguity in that respect.


bianca steele 07.29.17 at 9:42 pm


I’d say France has “civil religion” in a way both left and right in the Anglo sphere have been uncomfortable with (there are US leftists who probably favor something like civil religion and others who see in it a precursor to fascism), as well as a more unified and centralized educational system than either. And neither seems to be coping well with internal diversity, unfortunately.


Chris Bertram 07.30.17 at 10:09 am

@Z it seems odd that anyone should believe that racialized identity in the United States is something that has been recently created by the “neoliberal center-left” and that, but for this, ordinary Americans would have converged on an authentically shared (if nationally-limited) class identity.


engels 07.30.17 at 10:27 am

I’m sure Streeck doesn’t believe that left-neoliberalism caused racism in America but it seems reasonable to think it might have made it worse (in certain places).


Raven 07.30.17 at 12:14 pm

F. Foundling @ 47: “The French revolution and the conception of France that arose from it combined a push for solidarity and democracy with political centralisation and cultural uniformisation (replacement of regional languages by Standard French etc.).”

Blaming it all on the Revolution would be more convincing if I could forget pre-Revolutionary French history, which had the “cultural uniformisation” of, e.g., the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as part of driving out the Huguenots, and before that the Crusade against the Cathars aka Albigensians which nearly depopulated southern France with its regional language Langue d’Oc [Occitan] — that being why what was northern France’s regional language, Langue d’Oil [Francien], has become Langue d’Oui [Français], what you call “Standard French” — and which, in the order for the Massacre of Béziers (“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”) gave us Vietnam’s infamous “Kill them all, let God sort them out.”


bianca steele 07.30.17 at 5:05 pm

I agree with Bob @52 on the importance of praxis and local determinations, but–in light of the blog’s title (and Tooze’s references to Habermas)–these seem awfully un-Kantian. Surely (sarcasm) we should be able to figure it out through thinking hard? Once start thinking in terms of cause and effect, and you’re already on the path to pushing the fat man off the bridge. Once start thinking the question “do we need potholes filled, or deserted shopping centers, dealt with more urgently?”, instead of “how can we maximize worldwide utility?”, surely you’ve left yourself without resources to understand why it’s wrong to kill Jews and black people.


bruce wilder 07.30.17 at 5:38 pm

engels @ 58

I think it is reasonable to think the “neoliberal center-left” has consistently made moves similar in intent and effect to the one Chris Bertram makes @ 57 (07.30.17 at 10:09 am).

It is a kind of political jiu jitsu to give legitimacy and primacy only to grievances concerning authoritarianism and economic oppression that can be given a racialized dimension, while studiously ignoring grievances concerning advancing authoritarianism or economic oppression that are not given those trappings. You train activists to make their cases in those racialized (or sexualized) terms, abandoning or at least neglecting ideologies founded in universalist language. And, as activists and advocates are diverted to making their cases in those frames, you deprive a lot of angry and despairing people of advocates, of articulate and sophisticated voices. You leave the angry and despairing without effective leadership, and sounding dumb.

It is a sophisticated, post-modern variation on divide and rule. Instead of rallying a great mass of people to a common identity (however constructed and mythologized) and collective purpose, this strategy rests on social atomization and the decline of social affiliation. Because of consumerism, television, social media, people are bowling alone. There’s still the possibility of common or collective feeling, but the absence of social organization, affiliation and commitment means it doesn’t generate sophisticated analysis of social and economic structures on its own.

And, that part of the educated classes who are most concerned with social and economic injustice and might offer leadership or more sophisticated understanding are diverted into making their case in terms that keep them away from the main chance, the aggrieved population who might actually provide an electoral majority supportive of substantive economic reform. Abandoned by an intellectual left pre-occupied with intersectionality et cetera and also abandoned by the professional left, including especially the operatives of partisan politics, who go where the money is (and the money for politics is supplied by billionaires and corporate executives and banksters), this aggrieved, angry, despairing, inarticulate population are exploited by assorted demagogues of the right.

This political soup is well-suited to being stirred into a continuous and futile circle.

It would be absurd to think the neoliberal center-left has “recently created” racialized identity, or really created racialized identity at all. But, it might be the neoliberal center-left in America are trapped in assorted veal pens by the apparent albeit limited efficacy of various strands of “identity politics” and neoliberal politics, both.

It does seem to me that Streeck, as insightful as he is, fumbles this analysis a bit, in his nostalgia for mid-20th-century precedent and Marxist frames. (Not that I am hostile to Marxist concepts in this context — class and ideology seem absolutely essential to understanding the case, even if these are not your grandfather’s classes and ideologies.)


F. Foundling 07.30.17 at 6:00 pm

@LFC 07.29.17 at 4:31 pm

It’s undeniable that exclusion (e.g. on the basis of religion) was used in the process of centralisation and unification, and it was also used to increase the sense of connection between the (majority of the) subjects of the state, and consequently between them and the state itself. However, the criteria for this exclusion typically didn’t include ethnicity/nationality, and, similarly, the raison d’être of the state was not yet understood as being the representation of the collective of subjects united by a common ethnicity/nationality. Therefore, calling this ‘nationalism’ seems inappropriate to me. ‘Proper’ nationalist nation-building emerged later and included, at the very least, an elementary school system seeking to include as much of the population as possible and to teach it specifically to be French, German, Italian and so on (as opposed to merely Catholic or Lutheran).

Even if one chooses to describe the Early Modern consolidation of monarchies not as setting the stage for nation building but as an early stage of nation building itself, this hardly has a lot of bearing on Streeck’s original statement. First of all, he said nation-building ‘entailed’ things, not that all the consequences had to appear immediately. Second, his claim applies more or less visibly already to the pre-stage. Did it entail ‘bonds of solidarity’ between co-nationals? Of course it did: in fact, the alleged ‘nationalism’ that A.W.Marx claims to find in the Early Modern period is described by him precisely as a ‘political sentiment of popular solidarity’. As for democracy (which Streeck hasn’t mentioned at all, but TM brought up nevertheless) – again, the increased popular political engagement initially encouraged by the Early Modern state soon exhibited a tendency to spin out of its control. Indeed, there is a clear line of continuity between the anti-Catholicism sponsored by the English Crown in the 16th century and the anti-royalist popular English anti-Catholicism of the 17th century, and on to the secular anti-royalism or at least constitutionalism of later times. In France the development was somewhat different, in that the anti-royalist stage involved the dramatic separation of Frenchness from Catholicism. More broadly, everywhere, the ‘unified’ peoples to whose formation the centralising monarchies had contributed eventually turned against them.


bianca steele 07.30.17 at 10:01 pm

Anyway, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose “the neoliberal center left” is opposed to class identity for the working class. (Except that it does seem unreasonable to describe the US as dominated by a neoliberal center left.) To the extent class is mentioned these days in the context of the working class (other than as calls to develop a class conscious), it’s almost as a lack: class is something that (somehow or other) excludes most people from privilege. Obviously, race is a separate thing that excludes others from privilege. But I don’t know how well this fits into Streeck’s argument.


F. Foundling 07.30.17 at 10:51 pm

@Z 07.29.17 at 7:20 pm
>“shared ‘experiences, practices and perspectives … understandings … histories, values, aspirations and compromises’” were in direct contradiction with a nationality-based on ethnic-based definition of the collective

That might depend on one’s definition of nationality and ethnicity. The ‘shared experiences’ concept does exclude a reliance on ethnicity and nationality if those are understood as being based, in turn, on blood and race, as they were by the Third Reich. However, connecting these cultural phenomena to biological ancestry is in itself a decision that is hardly justified. Ethnicity and nationality are, in their empirically observable form, learnable and not inherited; they can, themselves, be described as collections of ‘shared experiences, practices and perspectives’. The degree of sharing is highly variable between individuals and societies, however. IMO, a better society allows more individual variation in experiences, practices and perspectives, and emphasises shared knowledge and experience *about the world* as opposed to shared symbolic practices that merely signal belonging to the group. A certain amount of shared knowledge and experience is, however, indispensable – a common language, literally as well as figuratively, in which to communicate and deliberate. Some degree of (widely) ‘shared values and aspirations’ is also necessary.


Z 07.31.17 at 12:45 am


it seems odd that anyone should believe that racialized identity in the United States is something that has been recently created by the “neoliberal center-left”

According to Streeck, it’s (obviously) not that center-left neoliberalism created racism, it is that under center-left neoliberalism self-construction under the class axis becomes impossible so that individuals have to rely on something else, and one of these something else in the American context of racism was race (in other population with different political traditions, other characteristics would be chosen). FWIW, I disagree with Streeck on this: I believe the class-based political self-construction of the kind he says is not possible under center-left neoliberalism was never possible and that the approximation of it that might have happened was due to other phenomena. So I don’t agree with him. But I also strongly disagree with the claim that his thesis is absurd or can be accurately summed up as “radicalized identity was created by center-left neoliberalism.”

bianca steele @56 I (broadly) agree with what you write (though I believe “internal diversity” should probably be given some sort of definition; the usual implicit meaning especially in the American context being in my mind quite inadequate in international comparisons). May I ask to which comment of mine was yours a response?


MFB 07.31.17 at 7:22 am

I’ve never even heard of Streeck. Hwvr, Mr. Brtrm’s msrprsnttn f Z’s pnt s s xtrm tht cn’t blv t s hnst. It seems to me that something about the Streeck interpretation must be striking a nerve if it has to be attacked so spuriously and clumsily.

Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course, but it’s interesting that in the Tooze-Streeck argument those who didn’t like Streeck focussed on the way in which Streeck was insufficiently civil to Tooze. I like Tooze — well, what little I’ve read of him — but he can be insufferably smug and self-important about the glories of the contemporary neoliberal world.


TM 07.31.17 at 9:01 am

I’m going with the plain meaning of the words Streeck uses. “Nation-building” is a long historical process and probably is still ongoing but clearly the term can’t refer to the period after 1945 (CB 44) and even restricting it to the period after the French Revolution (FF 47) is hard to justify in my view. But even if we agree on the 19th century, can somebody answer this simple question: Where do you see “bonds of solidarity” extending to all members of the French, British, American etc. nation in the 19th century? I mean in reality, not just in nationalist rhetoric. I’m well aware that the French Revolution declared Fraternity as well as Equality its principles but what could a poor French person in the 19th century buy for that “Fraternity”? (And I note the irony: engels just recently quoted his namesake’s description of the misery of the English working class in the 19th century, now he is quoting praise for the “bonds of solidarity” allegedly inherent in the bourgeois nation state).

The question is fair because Streeck explicitly uses the term “social rights”. He claims that “Social rights are displaced by civil rights” (take that, MLK!). Now can you remind me of the social rights that people enjoyed in that mythical golden age of nation-building? In real life? Social rights were mentioned in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more extensively defined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights but even today, few countries actually *guarantee* social rights. Streeck can only be referring to the modern welfare state, which was mostly developed post WWII. Then the question is: if he really wants to talk about the welfare state, why does he use that nationalist terminology? And if the argument is that there has been a recent loss or decline of “social rights”, is that really true? What countries and periods is he talking about? And is it really caused by globalization, rather than by the preferences of capital-friendly national elites (Reaganism, Thatcherism)?

The claims that (1) there is a contradiction between social rights and civil rights, and (2) that social rights are inherent in the nation state and opposed by cosmopolitanism, are baseless. Both are very dangerous ideological constructs, with the implication that we need to go “back” to a nationalist Volksgemeinschaft economy where allegedly everybody who “belonged” was taken care of. And I find it hard to believe that any leftists still fall for this BS.


TM 07.31.17 at 9:09 am

FF 40: “In the case of the cosmopolitan left, representative self-government is criticised for not being inclusive enough, but then it is not replaced with a more fully representative self-government (…), but rather subverted and weakened in favour of the only real-life alternative – elite decision making.”

Straw man anyone? Who is that “cosmopolitan left” you are talking about that favors elite decision-making over representative government? Could we for once have a discussion without peddling myths?


TM 07.31.17 at 9:12 am

[re 07.31.17 at 9:01 am: “hard to believe” is not right. Unfortunately it is quite easy to believe.]


TM 07.31.17 at 1:12 pm

F. Foundling 07.30.17 at 6:00 pm: perhaps we might be able to agree that the development of the modern (nation-)state was/is a complex process full of ambiguities and contradictions. That is precisely why I object to the generalization in Streeck’s text, the totally simplified line from the nation to bonds of solidarity. In reality, this history involved inclusion for some and exclusion for others, solidarity for some and extermination for others. And this isn’t just ancient history – look at the US in the 19th century or (need I mention it) Germany in the 20th. Or really look at the sum of 20th century history and tell me that nation-building was a linear process of “extending bonds of solidarity”. Again, it’s the myth-making that I have no time for, the golden age narrative that is always cover for reactionary ideology.


Yan 07.31.17 at 1:20 pm

MFB: “Mr. Bertram’s misrepresentation of Z’s point is so extreme that I can’t believe it is honest. It seems to me that something about the Streeck interpretation must be striking a nerve if it has to be attacked so spuriously and clumsily.”

To me the most striking and despair inducing effect on the center left of Trump Derangement Syndrome is their utter loss of intellectual honesty in disagreements. Sure, we’re all vulnerable to it from time to time, but I think it’s becoming really unusually frequent among critics of the critics of the center(ish) left.

I don’t know if it’s more an ideology protecting loss of self awareness or if it’s more a semi-conscious kind of survivalist, war status damn-the-rules and take down the enemy thing.

But if nothing else it’s a healthy reminder that education, knowledge, and intellectual sophistication never bulletproofs any of us from mass mental illness.


Z 07.31.17 at 1:45 pm

F.Foundling Ethnicity and nationality are, in their empirically observable form, learnable and not inherited; they can, themselves, be described as collections of ‘shared experiences, practices and perspectives’.

I completely agree. In fact, I would go further: insofar as nationality and ethnicity have come to play a role in mass political mobilization, it was never through an unmediated access to a fixed inherited “out there” characteristic but always through the learnable process you outline, even when the end-result of the collective reification of “shared experiences, practices and perspectives” (to which I would add to underscore “anthropological norms and experiences”) has been as literally superficial as skin color (as in the American case, which is unfortunately regularly taken as somewhat exemplary).


Katsue 07.31.17 at 1:53 pm


Well, William of Orange came into power in the 17th Century, and his regime effectively continued under the Hanoverians, so both the 17th and 18th Centuries.

I don’t think I can agree that politics moved “out of doors” during the 17th Century, given that it was already “out of doors” during the 14th.


Z 07.31.17 at 2:04 pm

TM can somebody answer this simple question: Where do you see “bonds of solidarity” extending to all members of the French, British, American etc. nation in the 19th century?

As you write, that question is fair, and because it is so, I take that you meant it in a relative sense (that is to say “where do you see bonds of solidarity extending relatively more to members of nation X in the 19th century?”). After all, bonds of solidarity may extend to strictly all members of a collective only in an extremely weak, somewhat tautological and anyway uninteresting sense. In that relative sense, the answer seems obvious to me and I’m sure that between the mass development of the printing press (accompanied by a historically unparalleled freedom of expression), the birth of political parties and trade unions some of them endure to this day or the establishment of a constitutionally organized rule of law with an again historically unprecedented expansion of the definition of political citizens, you can find many examples. If I were to single just one, which I find much more significant myself than all the others combined and which has the virtue of not forgetting half of society, I would mention the near universal access to basic literacy, which was achieved among French and British people of both sexes sometime during the 19th century. Do you not see how the capability to read and write changes radically the way people envision their mutual relationships? How suddenly speaking a given language, until then merely a human invariant, suddenly entailed having access to the entirety of the opinions ever expressed in this language? How in a very concrete sense a people with universal basic literacy has access to the perspectives of each of its members in revolutionary new ways?

[W]hat could a poor French person in the 19th century buy for that “Fraternity”?

What could a poor French person in the 19th century buy for that politically reified anthropological norm which came to be called Fraternity as it entered political discourse in the context of near universal access to basic literacy? That’s your question, really? No clue in the fact that thousands of such poor French persons were repeatedly ready to die for it? OK, then. To begin with, a political arena (a field, in the technical sense of critical sociology) in which political forces could compete (for instance along class lines, but not only); an invaluable precondition for the future political and social progresses that were to be achieved (one that is still largely lacking at the European level for instance). You know, some preliminary form of that popular sovereignty we are discussing in this thread (sovereignty not in the sense of control, but in the sense of circular causal relationship, cybernetics to be pedantic).


Orange Watch 07.31.17 at 2:59 pm

How on earth did @66 get out of moderation?!?


bianca steele 07.31.17 at 3:56 pm


I was referring to the last paragraph of your @74, the narratives and so on.

The “internal diversity” was tacked on to acknowledge that France’s national narrative is increasingly seeming unable to find a place for immigrants, or for Islam as a faith alongside others. (Not that I’d insist it’s new; it seems to be acknowledged as a problem in the mid-20th century, wrt immigrants from former French colonies . . . I’ve read, maybe in Bourdieu, that certain career paths traditionally require a religious Catholic background and education, . . . and I only assume that French Jews are able to choose the amount of separation or otherwise they wish.)


bianca steele 07.31.17 at 4:08 pm


I noticed that about social vs. civil rights too. He could, I suppose, be drawing attention to a theoretically important distinction between two types of society, a distinction that might be relevant, in the situation he’s discussing, in various ways–not necessarily saying we have to go back to the old ways. For example, maybe, many of his readers might have been taught about the importance of social rights and not really know much yet about civil rights. For those readers, the mention of the distinction might open up a vast range of thinking they’d want to look into, before coming to any conclusion about this piece. But other readers’ ideologies and so on, whether they’re Marxists or Stoics or whatever, will affect how they understand it, and I don’t think I know enough about Streeck to place him, but it’s a good question.


LFC 07.31.17 at 5:11 pm

F. Foundling @47 and 62

1) It’s been quite a while since I read the A.W. Marx book. I found it interesting, but I don’t necessarily agree with the organizing thesis or all the terminology, which I guess I should have made clearer when I first mentioned it.

2) Nationalism “originally as a progressive social force” (@47): yes, I think a case can be made that nationalism, at least in its late-18th-cent and 19th-cent forms, often was that, though I’m sure this generalization, like all such, has to be caveated w exceptions. I also agree that the state often had to grant more to ‘the people’ as it came to expect more from them; in some countries, e.g., there was a connection betw. universal conscription for military service and extension of the franchise.


Raven 07.31.17 at 5:52 pm

bianca steele @ 60: “Once start thinking the question ‘do we need potholes filled, or deserted shopping centers, dealt with more urgently?’, instead of ‘how can we maximize worldwide utility?’, surely you’ve left yourself without resources to understand why it’s wrong to kill Jews and black people.”

Even if everyone’s thinking the second question, Bianca, I have to wonder about the gaping loophole in that: utility” to whom? (E.g. Fascists and Communists both intended, and still intend, to “maximize worldwide utility” to their own causes and select populations….)


F. Foundling 07.31.17 at 6:32 pm

@TM 07.31.17 at 9:09 am

>Who … favors elite decision-making over representative government?

I think I’ve been clear: the favouring of elite decision making is implicit in the rejection, on various grounds, of democratic decision making on the level of the nation-state, without suggesting any democratic alternative. To find such rejections, browse this thread or the other one about the same piece.

@TM 07.31.17 at 9:01 am

>Where do you see “bonds of solidarity” extending to all members of the French, British, American etc. nation in the 19th century? … what could a poor French person in the 19th century buy for that “Fraternity”?

First, solidarity entails working together for perceived common interests, not just economic ones. Second, again, the argument applies that it took a long time and long struggles for the logical consequences of, e.g. 1789 to develop and for the ‘fraternity’ to find stable material expressions. (BTW, it was only in the last decades of the 19th century that the legacy of 1789 was firmly incorporated into the official ideology of the French state).

In any case – of course not every nation state is or has always been a democratic one, or one with social rights. This is logically quite separate from the argument that the (current) weakening of the nation state represents or entails a weakening of democracy and social rights.

I admit that I’m not sure I understand exactly what Streeck is saying in the statement about ‘civil rights’ vs ‘social rights’, so I can’t comment on it, and I certainly disagree with his suggestion that ‘Empathy and benevolence becom[ing] moral duties with respect to everyone, rather than one’s neighbor’ is in some way a new and negative development connected to neoliberalism. He has some good points in that piece, but these are not among them from my perspective.


bruce wilder 07.31.17 at 8:54 pm

TM @ 69

“Who is that “cosmopolitan left” you are talking about that favors elite decision-making over representative government?”

Before we try to name names, may be we should back up a moment and identify institutional mechanisms that developed in that period of building the nation-state with a representative government and liberal institutions. The title of the OP references sovereignty. There are hoary myths of sovereignty, which we may pass over, but what about actual mechanisms of sovereignty? The repositories of residual control and ultimate authority to arbitrate disputes and conflicts of interest.

We have not talked much about those, in this scorn for myth and idealism.

It is the mechanisms and the change in locus for making rules and enforcing rules that is being contested in the actual politics, and the all-important residual where the situations run off the map of established rules and there be dragons — that is what sovereignty is about.

Think about these cases. Currencies and payment systems. Infrastructure of transportation or communication. Property ownership. Bankruptcy. Banking regulation and deposit insurance. Taxes. Investor-state dispute. Governance of trade. Governance of financial reporting.

Tell me who is on which side issues in the politics of practical sovereignty and I will tell you who is wearing the jersey of neoliberal cosmopolitans. Go cosmos!


bianca steele 07.31.17 at 9:14 pm


I don’t feel able to take on the responsibility, either of defending all of the large area of modern philosophy that favors utilitarianism, or of finding the exact reformulation of it that we could both agree on, but you make a good point. In any case, if it wasn’t obvious, the sarcasm was intended to extend to the end of the paragraph.


engels 07.31.17 at 9:24 pm

I’m not sure I understand exactly what Streeck is saying in the statement about ‘civil rights’ vs ‘social rights’

Teh ‘pedia:

Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals. They ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.

Economic, social and cultural rights are socio-economic human rights, such as the right to education, right to housing, right to adequate standard of living, right to health and the right to science and culture.


engels 07.31.17 at 9:34 pm

that part of the educated classes who are most concerned with social and economic injustice and might offer leadership or more sophisticated understanding are diverted into making their case in terms that keep them away from the main chance, the aggrieved population who might actually provide an electoral majority supportive of substantive economic reform


It does seem to me that Streeck, as insightful as he is, fumbles this analysis a bit

Maybe. Personally I think he’s better on economics. Anyway, there are plenty of other people saying similar things.


Val 08.01.17 at 12:06 am

I know this is the wrong thread and I’m really sorry but I have to post a link to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhaphsody here because it’s all perfect! https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/genius.com/amp/Queen-bohemian-rhapsody-lyrics

Donald Johnson said appointing Scaramucci was Trump jumping the shark, so this must be jumping the shark backwards with full twist and layout.


Val 08.01.17 at 12:07 am

“Let him go
Let him go … “


Raven 08.01.17 at 4:11 am

bianca steele @ 82: I’m not sure “sarcasm” is precisely the right word; that would be a sentence that had the apparent opposite meaning of your actual meaning, surely not the case here, which seemed more a matter of Rhetorical Devices: Understatement with synecdoche [if “why it’s wrong to kill Jews and black people” stands in for all ethical/moral questions of such scope].

That is, it’s a legitimate and not sarcastic comment that a narrowly technological focus too often tends to avoid humane concerns, rather as technical training tends to omit those aspects of what was called a “liberal education”.

It’s just unfortunate that the “treason of the intellectuals” has left the other question an unguarded door for enemies of humane concerns to get in through….


Faustusnotes 08.01.17 at 9:04 am

Let’s be clear about this: at comment 61 Bruce wilder has now made it explicitly clear that he thinks activism for racial equality is a “divide and rule” strategy of the “neoliberal left”. Subsequently we also have yan accusing this same construct of “trump derangement syndrome”. Meanwhile someone else (foundling) is referring to the “cosmopolitan left”. Let’s be clear what that image is all about: Jews. No coincidence that the “neoliberal left” is criticized routinely for being soft on bankers (or “banksters ” as wilder transparently renamed them to avoid the obvious antisemitic implications).

This is Stalinist stuff and it needs to be recognized as such. There is a segment of the American left that clearly supports trump, and isnpretty comfortable with its own veiled anti semitism. And they are finding succour on CT.


F. Foundling 08.01.17 at 11:13 am

Re Z 07.31.17 at 2:04 pm responding to TM 07.31.17 at 9:01 am

Yes, I, too, was thinking of mentioning education. By the end of the 19th century, universal compulsory free education up to some level had been introduced in the main Western European countries. Again, this was an initiative of the French revoliution (Loi Bouquier of 1792) that took about a century to be realised finally. Of course, from the point of view of a class-conscious establishment, not only this, but also the various welfare policies that came later have been ways of ‘managing’ or, at most, accommodating the population; but under the prevailing ideology of a nation-state, including popular sovereignty, such policies are legitimised by their serving ‘the people’ and its ‘common good’ – and thus, as expressions of intra-national solidarity. Earlier, a typical expression of such solidarity had been mass engagement in the repealing of a foreign invasion or the overthrow of foreign rule, when those were perceived as oppressive, as alluded to in the anthems I quoted.

@engels 07.31.17 at 9:24 pm

>‘civil rights’ vs ‘social rights’ … Teh ‘pedia …

Well, yes, but the problem was with Streeck’s statement that one was displacing the other, as if the two were opposed to and contradicted each other, which did seem a bit puzzling, and could, indeed, lead almost to the impression that, say, MLK’s movement was somehow an inherently neoliberal endeavour. In retrospect, re-reading the context, I am reminded that he meant specifically the ‘civil right’ of ‘equal participation in (supranational) markets’ (‘civil’ and not ‘economic’, presumably because it concerns ‘non-discrimination’). In view of the next passage, I suppose that the contradiction he has in mind is that, when accorded to foreigners without any restrictions or conditions, this ‘civil right’ can inhibit the social protection of locals. However, a ‘civil’ right can be limited to citizens, and a ‘social right’ can, conversely, be extended to foreigners as well (which does happen, too), so it would seem that this isn’t really so much a contradiction of principle between types of rights as one between different degrees of their extension. Another issue is that there has been some shift of emphasis in political discourse and activity from social rights to civil rights (specifically protection from discrimination), and some ‘displacement’ in that sense, which need not imply any contradiction of principle between them.

As an aside, I don’t find this traditional nomenclature felicitous – as if ‘social rights’ weren’t due *to the citizen* (and ‘civil rights’ didn’t apply *in a society*).


bianca steele 08.01.17 at 11:41 am

Raven has discovered a new sure-fire rhetorical trick, guaranteed to work: when someone makes fun of you, criticize their choice of language for not explaining your position correctly. Good one! I really see the impact of your education and background and ethics, and think you’d make an excellent US President–have you thought of running?


engels 08.01.17 at 11:49 am

“It would be wrong to think that the state cannot do anything about high inequality in the age of globalisation.
Some countries do a lot.”


bruce wilder 08.02.17 at 1:53 am

Faustusnotes 08.01.17 at 9:04 am



Raven 08.02.17 at 4:38 am

bianca steele @ 90: What would you prefer? If #82’s sarcasm was the right word, then you actually meant the opposite of what you said in #60 (e.g. “it’s wrong to kill Jews and black people”… so you think it’s right to kill Jews and black people).

I’d have thought you’d be happier with the interpretation I gave in #87, but take your pick.


Raven 08.02.17 at 5:17 am

Faustusnotes @ 88 > “at comment 61 Bruce wilder has now made it explicitly clear that he thinks activism for racial equality is a ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the ‘neoliberal left’. ”

As one data point, my mother all the way back in the 1950s was a member of CORE, and she was a PhD biologist who voted Truman Democrat but wasn’t part of any other movement. (What she thought of the far left may be inferred from the detail that when she was two years old, her mother had been shot by a Soviet firing squad.) CORE was founded in 1942, and although it is “an African-American civil rights organization” you’ll note that multiracial membership is mentioned in the article. Another such racial-equality-activist group, the NAACP, was founded in 1909, also with both black and white members… rather early for the “neoliberals”, eh?


MisterMr 08.02.17 at 9:37 am

@Faustusnotes 88

“Meanwhile someone else (foundling) is referring to the “cosmopolitan left”. Let’s be clear what that image is all about: Jews.”

I certainly cannot speak for the “non cosmopolitan” left, also I think I have a rather “cosmopolitan” worldview, however I think that there is a “cultural divide” currently in the left, and I think that you are not seeing it right.

From my point of view, probably because of my marxist world view, it is obvious that there is a “base” and a “superstructure”, and that the base determines the superstructure.

For example, from my point of view, it is obvious that:
– various european countries took advantage of their technological superiority through colonialism and created the atlantic slave trade, and then to justify it they created a racist ideology. But it wasn’t racism that created slavery, rather it was slavery that created racism.
– In the late 19th century capitalist expansion reached a limit in Europe, so that various european countries scrambled to expand their colonial empire, and cooked up various “nationalist” ideologies. Theseideologies included a sort of racial darwinism where “races” had to fight one another and it was a good thing that a superior race dominated the lesser ones. “Races” supposedly coincided with national borders. This ideology later became part of fascism/nazism.
– In the interwar period there were great financial crises, that are just an extension of capitalism crisis/boost cycle. However as the situation became untreatable in Europe at the time, there was an increase in socialist agitation, and for those who were not socialists they created an ideology that blamed everything on the financial sector, and as the financial sector was traditionally associated with jews they blamed it all on the jews. This ideology had the advantage of letting local capitalists off the hook.

I gave three examples were material and economical forces created some nasty ideologies. While it is true that these ideologies survived their material origins and surpassed their “pratical” applications, I think that the root of all these problems is material/economical, so from my point of view it is obvious that:
– If you want to fight anti-black racism, you first materially remove (a)-slavery and (b)-get to a point where blacks have the same jobs than whites;
– If you want to fight nationalism and the ideology of war among races, you need a social system where countries don’t need a continuous expansion just to dodge crises;
– If you want to fight antisemitism you should avoid crises and financial speculations, or at least make clear that those are phenomena caused by the natural dynamics of capitalism.

However it seems to me that there is a certain part of the left that thinks either that the “superstructure” determines the “base”, or that this distinction is spurious.
From this point of view nazism was caused by antisemitism, nationalism is caused by atavic needs to beat other peoples, and colonialism was caused by some peculiarly evil attitude of europeans against other people.
I see this way of thinking also in feminism, for example Val often speaks of “patriarchy” but this patriarchy is fundamentally a cultural thing, that for what I can understand in Val’s view predetermines our behaviour (Hi Val please feel free to correct me).

I think that this “culture first” approach developed against the failures (perceived or real) of the socialist/marxist left, or perhaps it is a distinction that always existed between “liberals” and “socialists”.
A negative tendency that I see in this “culture first” left is the assumption that if someone has different opinions from you, he is “evil”, for example if one favors Sanders over Clinton it’s because he is a misoginist.
My grandparents (those that I met) were on the fascist side in WW2 and had a good opinion of fascism, and I always tought that they were wrong, but I never had a reason to think that they were “bad people”; in fact I think that political opinions form such a small part of one person’s charachter that these ethical judgments on individuals are meaningless (while ethical judgments on ideologies themselves are fine).

I think that your comment, assuming that this or that commenter is motivated by antisemitism, is wrong for three reasons:

1) You think in terms of “cosmopolitans” and “racists” and assume that everyone thinks in these categories, therefore you assume that those who are not cosmopolitans are therefore racists (antisemites), but not erveryone thinks in these terms.
2) You seem to give a “moral judgment” about this, that in my opinion is the wrong way to go.
3) Also since I’m totally a “base determines superstructure” brocialist I think the weight you give to the cultural components is exaggerated.


Henry 08.02.17 at 10:54 am

Since the comments section is now degenerating into the usual brawl, I’m shutting it down. People who are flinging personal accusations at each other should be aware that I don’t tolerate it, and will delete, disemvowel, and impose temporary or permanent bans from commenting on my posts as I see fit.

Comments on this entry are closed.