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On China Miéville’s October

by Corey Robin on June 21, 2017

I just finished October, China Miéville’s turbo-charged account of the Russian Revolution. Think Ten Days That Shook the World, but in months: from February through October 1917. With each chapter narrating the events of each month. Just some quick thoughts here on what has been one of the most exhilarating reading experiences of my recent past.

1.


I don’t think I’ve ever read such an Arendtian account of revolution as this. I have no idea if Miéville has read Arendt or if he counts her as an influence. But if you want a purely political account of revolution, this is it.

There are workers, there are peasants, there are soldiers, there are parties, there are tsars, there are courtiers. Each of them bears his or her class position, his or her economic and other concerns, but it is the political field itself, how it hurls its protagonists into combat, combat with its own rules and norms, its own criteria for success and failure, that is front and center here. This may be the most textured, most concrete, account of what political contest and political combat, literal and metaphoric, feels like. Or what an event-driven account (Arendt was big on events, as is Miéville; it’s nice to see a writer like Miéville prise narrative and events from the hands of Simon Schama) might look like.

While people on the left, particularly the Marxist left, have a big distrust of Arendt, she did get at something about the revolutionary experience itself, which the best Marxist historians have always understood, but which isn’t always well conveyed in Marxist histories of revolution. This book shows you what those accounts are missing.

2.


There’s a famous public dialogue, I can’t remember when or where, between Arendt and a bunch of her readers, in which Mary McCarthy says something like: Okay, I get it, you think politics shouldn’t be about economics or the social question. But aside from war and diplomacy, what would politics in your world be about? It’s one of the big questions that has always haunted Arendt scholars. What should politics in the Arendtian vision be about? What would it look like? (E. M. Forster has a line about Virginia Woolf: “For it [Woolf’s writing] was not about something. It was something.” That’s not a bad approximation of, on some interpretations, Arendt’s view of politics.) Read Miéville. You’ll find out.

3.


I love Miéville’s portrait of Kerensky. His Kerensky seems like a brilliant knock-off of Tony Blair. Vain, vainglorious, fatuous, infatuated, though lacking Blair’s ability to translate his conviction in himself into world-historical action.

4.


The first chapter, the pre-history of the Revolution, is written in the present tense. From Peter the Great to Nicholas II, it reads like one of those newsreels they used to run in theaters before the main show. Then, as the countdown from February to November is launched, and the subsequent chapters begin, the book shifts to the past tense.

It’s a brilliant and counterintuitive use of syntax: as if the preceding centuries were a powder keg waiting to explode, always pregnant with possibility, forever situated in the grammar of the now, only to shift into the past tense once the revolution begins, as if the revolution is the inexorable working out of history, the thing that had to happen.

While Miéville never loses a sense of contingency—making a mockery of all those historians who go on about contingency (or in the case of Niall Ferguson, counterfactuality) as a way of countering the alleged determinism of Marxism—he manages nonetheless to capture a sense of inexorability, of fate, of possibilities that weren’t ever really possible, except in the imagination of Kerensky and his minions.

5.


One element in the book that resonates with our current moment is the inability or refusal of both liberals and the left to lead, where leadership means destroying the old regime. Power is there, waiting to be exercised, on behalf of a new order: the soldiers demand it, the workers demand it, the peasants demand it, but all the parties of the left, including the Bolsheviks, just hesitate and vacillate, refusing to take responsibility for society itself. It feels like we’re in a similar moment, and it could last much longer than the interregnum between February and October 1917. Not because of the power of the old regime—quite the opposite, in fact—but, as in moments throughout 1917, because of the weakness and incoherence, the willed refusal, of the parties that might bury it.

6.


As Jodi Dean has said, the real hero in October is the revolution itself. Trotsky’s there, but mostly in the wings. There’s the familiar tussle between Zinoviev/Kamenev and Lenin, and between Lenin and everyone else. And while Miéville honors and recognizes Lenin’s tactical genius, his antenna for the mood and the moment, Miéville mostly portrays a Lenin who is struggling to keep up and who often gets it wrong. It’s the revolutionary process that has the last word; it is the protagonist.

7.


That said, Miéville’s chapter on April—that’s the chapter where Lenin arrives in Petrograd, having developed his revolutionary theses in exile, far from the crucible of the revolution itself—is sublime. It has this wondrous feeling of condensation, as if the revolutionary precipitant is taking shape right then and there. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the chapter on June, where all that’s solid, and much else, melts into air.

8.


Buy the book. You can read it in a few days. You won’t be sorry.

Update (11:30 pm)

I should add, another Arendtian note: the keyword of the Russian Revolution, in Miéville’s telling, is freedom. It’s the word that keeps recurring throughout the tale. That’s what the revolution is after: freedom.

Also, just listened to this great interview that Chapo Trap House did with Miéville, and he’s got some things to say that are worth listening to.

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On liberals, the left, and free speech

by Corey Robin on April 27, 2017

When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech.

What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass Sunstein and Owen Fiss, were more sensitive to how power differentials in society constrained speech, and thus were more open to more regulatory approaches to speech; some Marxists were always leery of the critiques of free speech. Even so, there was a divide. That divide hasn’t now reversed, but it’s no longer the case that it maps so easily onto a simple and clear divide between liberalism and the left.

From what I see online, a lot of mainstream liberals today are far less absolutist in their defense of free speech, particularly on campuses; indeed, that absolutist position increasingly seems like the outlier among liberals. And parts of the left are now taking the more absolutist position. Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.

(On a related note, there was a funny moment on Twitter yesterday, when the ACLU defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley. Twitter liberals freaked out in surprise: the ACLU, defending Ann Coulter’s right to speak! How could that be? None of them seemed to remember or realize that once upon a time, back in the late 1970s, the ACLU defended real Nazis—as in members of the American Nazi Party—marching in Skokie, a Chicago suburb whose residents included many Holocaust survivors.)

Just so we’re clear. Nothing in this post is meant to be normative or prescriptive; I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.

All I’m doing here is making a simple, and I believe non-normative empirical observation: that something new is happening on the divide between liberalism and the left over the question of free speech. Unlike the recent past, the free speech argument now cuts right across that divide. And to that extent, it takes us back to an earlier moment, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American liberals and the left were also in dialogue, and taking a mixture of cross-cutting positions, on the question of free speech.

As We Near the 100-Day Mark of the Trump Regime

by Corey Robin on March 27, 2017

Despite having taken a long break from social media and blogging after the election—partly due to having gotten the election so wrong and wanting some time to reflect; partly due to exhaustion—I have written a bunch of pieces on the political situation that may be of interest to folks, particularly as we near the proverbial 100-day mark of Trump’s regime.

Back in December, I wrote an essay for Harper’s on how we ought to think of opposing Trump, of not falling into the trap of resting our politics on the intractable evil of his regime. I trace that kind of thinking back to the liberalism that emerged at the end of the Cold War (really, it extends back further), a liberalism that refuses to posit a good and, instead, grounds its claims on a feared evil or ill. One of the consequences of that way of thinking is this: [click to continue…]

Viva Las Vegas!

by Corey Robin on November 6, 2016

As we head into the final days of the election, some thoughts, observations, rants, speculations, and provocations—by turns, cantankerous, narrow, and crabby, and, I hope, generous, capacious, and open to the future.

1.


One of the things we’ve been seeing more and more of this past decade, and now in this election, is that state institutions that many thought (wrongly) were above politics—the Supreme Court, the security establishment, the Senate filibuster—are in fact the crassest instruments of partisan politics, sites of circus antics of the sort the Framers (and their hagiographers) traditionally associated with the lower house of a legislative body.

This, I’ve argued before, has been increasingly the case since the end of the Cold War.

Think of the Clarence Thomas hearings, impeachment over a blow job, Bush v. Gore, the manipulation of the security establishment and intelligence (and the sullying of national icon Colin Powell) going into the Iraq War, the rise of the filibuster-proof majority, the comments of Ginsburg on Trump that she had to retract, and now, today, the revelation of possible FBI interference in the election.

Let’s set aside the question of how new any of this is (I’ve argued that most of it is not). What is new, maybe, is an increasing brazenness and openness about it all, as if it simply doesn’t matter to the fate of the republic if our elites reveal themselves to be the most self-serving tools of whatever cause they proclaim as their own.

And here I think there may be something worth thinking about. [click to continue…]

Below are six causes for optimism. But I should stress, as I have since The Reactionary Mind, that the reason I think the right has not much of a future is that it has won. If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal—anti-labor, anti-civil rights, and anti-feminism—the right has achieved a considerable amount of success. Either in destroying or beating back these movements. So the hopefulness you read below, it needs to be remembered, is built on the ruins of the left. It reflects a considerable pessimism and arises from a sober realism about where we are right now. [click to continue…]

Trump the Ringmaster and His Unwitting Clowns

by Corey Robin on October 11, 2016

Back in July, I wrote a post about the amnesia of the Vox generation of journalism.

This was about the time when young journalists were claiming that no presidential candidate in modern American history ever posed the kind of threat to American democracy that Donald Trump did. I went through the specific claims, and cited example after example of comparable threats. I concluded thus:

So many of them seem to lack the most basic gut impulse of any historically minded person: if you think something is unprecedented, it’s probably not. Check your amnesia, dude.

I know this is nothing deep or fancy, but it does make me wonder if today’s generation of commentators, raised as so many are on the assumption that the biological sciences and social sciences—with neuroscience as the master mediator—are the source and model of all knowledge, are somehow at a deficit.


By amnesia, I was thinking of these journalists’ failure to remember events from the Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan campaigns.

Little did I expect that only three months later they’d be forgetting events from…the Trump campaign. [click to continue…]

In August, I blogged about a New York Times story on a corruption investigation of City College President Lisa Coico. On Friday, the Times reported that Coico abruptly resigned. Today, the Times has a long piece on the corruption and potential criminality that led to Coico’s resignation (upon threat of firing).

On the one hand, the piece paints a portrait of a college president so fantastically corrupt, it’s almost comical.

Ms. Coico, who had an annual salary of $400,000 at that point [2011], was using the college’s main fund-raising vehicle, the 21st Century Foundation, to pay tens of thousands of dollars for housekeeping, furniture, seasonal fruits and organic maple-glazed nuts, among other items….By August 2011, according to an email between two school officials, the college had begun to itemize more than $155,000 of her spending in three categories — “college,” “personal” and “iffy.”

On the other hand, it’s just one blood-boiling outrage after another, where the criminality flows, like lava, from the mountain of largesse that Coico was legally allowed in the first place.
The Times also questioned whether Ms. Coico had repaid a $20,000 security deposit for a rental home, or kept the money for herself….Ms. Coico had a housing allowance of $5,000 per month when she was hired, which was increased to $7,500 per month in July 2010.

We have adjuncts at CUNY who can’t pay their rent. Mostly because the pay is so low, but sometimes, as occurred at Brooklyn College last month, because CUNY can’t be bothered to get its act together so that people are paid on time. Yet a college president, who’s already earning a $400,000 salary (and remember that was in 2011; God knows what she was raking in upon her resignation) plus a housing allowance of $7500, gets additional help to put down a $20,000 security deposit on a rental home in Westchester? [click to continue…]

Sex, Dice, and the Trump Tapes

by Corey Robin on October 9, 2016

Yesterday, the Washington Post revealed that it had obtained a videotape featuring Donald Trump bragging, in the most graphic and ugly terms, about women he’s groped, harassed, demeaned, and more. Within 24 hours, the tape seems to have transformed the political landscape, with legions of Republican leaders now calling on Trump to step down from the ticket.

1.


Across social media, people are wondering why this particular story has proven so explosive for Trump. Given that everyone already knew the vileness of his views on women and the viciousness of his behavior toward them—not to mention Muslims and Mexicans—what’s so different about this story? [click to continue…]

Harvard in Theory:

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are…to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged….an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, §46)

Harvard in Practice:
When dining hall workers ask a university with $36 billion in savings to pay them $35,000 a year plus health benefits, they’re forced out on strike.

 

Bowling in Bratislava

by Corey Robin on October 5, 2016

In synagogue over the last two days of Rosh Hashanah, I was struck by a passage that I never really noticed in previous years. It’s from Zikhronot, the prayers or verses of remembrance in the Musaf Amidah that we recite on the holiday:

You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze;

You remember every deed, and nothing in creation can be hidden from You.

Everything is revealed and known to You, Adonai our God; You see to the end of time.

It is You who established a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.


That image a God that remembers every being that has ever lived—and every deed that’s ever been done—since the beginning of time, reminded me of two passages in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which serve as bookends of the text. [click to continue…]

Donald Trump: The Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2016

Two takes on last night’s debate, one from last night, one from this morning.

1.


The single biggest impression I took away from tonight’s debate—beyond the fact that Clinton clearly dominated (with the exception of the opening discussion on jobs and trade)—is how thoroughly conventional a Republican Donald Trump is.

On economics, Trump’s main platform is tax cuts and deregulation. On race and social policy, his main platform is law and order. On foreign policy, his main policy is, well, actually I don’t know. Something about good deals and fee for services.

For all the talk of Trump as somehow a break, both in terms of substance and style, with Republican candidates past, virtually everything he said last night—again, with the exception of his talk on trade and, maybe, NATO—hearkened back to Republican candidates and nominees of the 1970s and 1980s.

With this difference: Trump is a spectacularly ineffective communicator. That Derridean drip of sentences without subjects, references without referents: it’s like a street that goes nowhere. Not even to a dead end.

As for Clinton, [click to continue…]

I’ve got an essay in Raritan about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and the problem of value.

The essay is part of my long-term book project, on the political theory of capitalism, which I’ll be coming back to once I’m done with my book on Clarence Thomas (though I’ve been periodically teaching on the topic at the Graduate Center as a preparatory to writing the book). You could read the essay as a kind of prequel to this other essay I wrote on Nietzsche and Hayek and the problem of value.

The idea of the book is to look at how theorists and philosophers (and even some economists) conceived of capitalism less as an economic system and more as a political system, at several junctures in time. Part I will look at the idea of capitalism in the so-called Age of Democratic Revolution, from 1776 to 1848, mostly focused on Britain and France, with an extended detour through Haiti. Part II will turn to the US and the Americas, with a special focus on the idea of capitalism during the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, roughly 1830 to 1876. Part III will return to Europe, taking us from 1865 to 1945, with a focus on the idea of capitalism during the rise of fascism and the radical right as a counter to socialism and the left. Part IV will take us across the globe, in the post-1945 era, as we look as the idea of capitalism during the slow ascendancy of neoliberalism as a second counter, or answer, to socialism and the left.

This Raritan essay, on Burke and Smith, reflects some of the ideas I intend to explore in Part I. Among other things, it challenges the widespread notion of Burke the traditionalist as somehow a steadfast critic of the emerging order of the monied man. It is Smith rather than Burke, as we’ll see, who offers the more scathing critique of that emerging order.

Here are some excerpts: [click to continue…]

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent oped by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says: [click to continue…]

Phyllis Schlafly, 1924-2016

by Corey Robin on September 6, 2016

News reports are coming in that Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime conservative anti-feminist who helped defeat the ERA and propel the Republican Party to power, has died.

Despite the tremendous damage she did to women, and progressive causes more generally, I had a great deal of respect for Schlafly, not least because she was a woman who managed to navigate—and amass—power in a man’s world, all the while denying that that was what women wanted at all.

That denial, coupled with the rampant sexism of her world, cost her dearly. It was none other than Catharine MacKinnon, her most formidable antagonist, who caught the full measure of Schlafly’s greatness, and tragedy, in two 1982 debates with Schlafly over the ERA: [click to continue…]

On Corruption at CUNY

by Corey Robin on August 30, 2016

The New York Times reports this morning:


The City University of New York is investigating whether a recent $500,000 donation intended to bolster the humanities and arts at its flagship school may have been improperly diverted.


The inquiry was prompted by senior faculty members at the school, the City College of New York, who learned that an account that should have contained roughly $600,000, thanks to the donation, had just $76. Faculty members asked City College officials for an explanation, but were met with “silence, delay and deflection” before appealing directly the university’s chancellor, James B. Milliken. Mr. Milliken then asked Frederick P. Schaffer, the university’s general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, to look into the “the expenditure of monies donated,” according to documents obtained by The New York Times.



This is part of a followup to a piece the Times ran last spring, which I blogged about, and which claimed:


Documents obtained by The Times indicated that the college’s 21st Century Foundation paid for some of Ms. Coico’s personal expenses, such as fruit baskets, housekeeping services and rugs, when she took office in 2010. The foundation was then reimbursed for more than $150,000 from CUNY’s Research Foundation. That has raised eyebrows among governance experts, because such funds are typically earmarked for research.



It’s unclear what the $600,000 went to, and who made the decision. Hence, the investigation, which involves federal prosecutors. But at a minimum, it seems clear that the money was used for purposes it was not earmarked for.

I used to think that corruption was just one of those do-gooder good-government-type concerns, a trope neoliberal IMF officials wielded in order to force capitalism down the throat of developing countries. After years of hearing about stuff like this at CUNY, and in some cases seeing much worse, I’ve come to realize just how corrosive and politically debilitating corruption is. It’s like a fungus or a parasite. It attaches itself to a host, a body that is full of possibility and promise, a body that contains so much of what we hope for, and it feeds off that body till it dies.

One of the reasons why, politically, it’s worse when corruption happens at an institution like CUNY or in a labor union—as opposed to the legalized or even illegal corruption that goes on at the highest reaches of the political economy—is that these are, or are supposed to be, sites of opposition to all that is wrong and wretched in the world. These are institutions that are supposed to remove the muck of ages.

It’s hard enough to believe in that kind of transformative work, and those kinds of transformative institutions, under the best of conditions. But when corruption becomes a part of the picture, it’s impossible.

Corruption is pure poison. It destroys everything. Even—or especially—the promise of that transformation.