Labour Lords Resign the Whip

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2015

I don’t have much to say about this, but I couldn’t resist the multiple absurdities embodied in the title. For those who haven’t heard anything about this, two appointed members of the House of Lords (Warner and Grabiner) have announced that they will no longer follow the direction of the Labour Party on how to vote, and a third (Mandelson) has made noises suggesting he may go the same way. This is a result of the party’s leadership election, in which the members a (nominally, at least) democratic socialist party chose a (nominally at least) democratic socialist leader.

For those who are a little closer to the action, this is your chance to comment or speculate on the implications.


Sunday photoblogging: another boat at Gruissan

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2015

Boat at Gruissan


Nietzsche On Migration and Immigration

by John Holbo on October 25, 2015

One of my students was wondering about the following passage from The Gay Science (section 356): [click to continue…]


Sheldon Wolin, 1922-2015

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2015

Sheldon Wolin, the political theorist, has died.

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the exit of an entire generation of scholars: David Montgomery, Carl Schorske, Peter Gay, Marshall Berman. This was the generation that taught me, sometimes literally. But Wolin’s death hits me hardest. I took two courses with him as an undergraduate: Modern Political Theory (Machiavelli to Smith) and Radical Political Thought (Paine to Foucault). The first in my freshman year, the second in my sophomore year. I would have taken more, but Wolin retired the following year. Those courses set me on my way. I would never have become a political theorist were it not for him.

There will be many texts and appreciations in the days and months to come. Wolin taught generations of students, many of whom are now leaders of the field, and their students are now teaching other students. At CUNY, we’re always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter, was the student of Wendy Brown and Nick Xenos, both of whom were students of Wolin. John Wallach, also at Hunter, and Uday Mehta, at the Graduate Center, were both students of Wolin. There’s probably no more powerful a demonstration of Wolin’s vision of political theory as a tradition of continuity and innovation, as a transmission across time, than these students of students of students.

While many of these texts and appreciations will focus, and rightly so, on the political side of Wolin—as mentor and participant and commentator on the student movements of the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley; as leader of the divestment movement at Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s; as searching public critic of technocratic liberalism, market conservatism, and American imperialism, in the pages of the New York Review of Books and his wondrous though short-lived journal democracy; as a theorist of radical or “fugitive” democracy—I want to focus here on the way he did political theory. Less the substance (though I’ll come to that at the end) than the style.

The first thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how literary it was. It’s hard to see this in some of his texts, but it was on full display in his lectures. I don’t know if Wolin was at all trained in New Criticism—I seem to recall him citing I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism somewhere—but he read like a New Critic. The opening paragraph or page of every text was the site of an extended exploration and explication, as if the key to all of the Second Discourse was to be found in that arresting image of the statue of Glaucus which Rousseau mentions at the outset.

Chekhov has a line somewhere about how if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, you damn well better make sure it goes off in the second. Wolin paid attention to those guns, especially when they didn’t go off. He was endlessly curious about a theorist’s metaphors, asides, slips, and allusions, and mined them to great effect. Long before we were reading de Man and Derrida, he was reading like them. But without all the fuss. He just did it. [click to continue…]


Richard Cohen on Tipping: To Ensure Proper Servitude

by Corey Robin on October 21, 2015

Richard Cohen has a…I’m not sure what to call it. Formally, it’s an oped in the Washington Post.* In defense of tipping. In reality, it’s more like an overheated entry from his diary. In which Cohen confesses that his feelings of noblesse oblige toward waiters are really a cover for his fantasies of discipline and punish. Where there’s no safe word. Except, maybe, “check please.”

The context for Cohen’s musings is that Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants. This has prompted a spate of articles, praising Meyer and criticizing the anti-democratic elements of tipping. Enter Cohen.

I love tipping.

The practice originated with European aristocracy…

And he’s off. Now remember, in DC parlance, Cohen is considered a liberal.

There are four moments worth noting in the piece. First, this:

Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.

There’s the democratic nod to Cohen having once been a waiter. From Lincoln to Cohen, how many relationships of deference in the United States have been justified by reference to one’s own humble past, by invoking this escalator of social mobility, in which one begins at the bottom, serving a superior, and arrives at the top, being served by an inferior?

There’s also that invocation of loyalty. Though the capitalist workplace is often described by its defenders and critics as a glorious (or gory) space of untrammeled self-interest and personal advance, for many of its denizens, it is a domain of loyalty (and subordination). For Cohen, that loyalty is never to one’s co-workers; it is either to the boss or to the customer.

Finally, there’s that claim that when he was a waiter, Cohen “never felt I was groveling for tips.” No, I’m sure he did not. (Just as I’m sure he doesn’t feel as if he’s groveling for a different kind of tip when he sucks up to power now: once a courtier, always a courtier). There’s a reason Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, chose the waiter as one of his paradigmatic examples of “bad faith.” Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

Here’s the second moment of Cohen’s piece:

The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.

Again, notice the sublimation that goes on in the capitalist workplace. For most observers, I think, the relationship between a waiter/restaurant and a customer is a relatively straightforward exchange of money for service (the tip, as Cohen and others like to say, stands for “to insure promptitude”). But notice the affective element that gets introduced here: the waiter becomes Cohen’s agent, his wingman. In that exchange of money for service a bromance develops, a rather one-sided bromance, in which Cohen gets to imagine that this man—my guy—cares about him, really cares about him, as a self, a soul. And that he, Cohen, cares about the man. My guy. That this bromance is consecrated by the exchange of money is incidental or ornamental.

Or maybe not, as Cohen makes clear in this third passage:

I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.

The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks?

The real signification of that exchange of money is that it allows Cohen—and not some impersonal mechanism like the market or the law—to distribute benefits and largesse to the staff. Partly because he wants to recognize the help, to lift the individuals among them above the dross and drab of democracy, where everyone is treated equally and no one gets noticed. Tipping is about making distinctions, about awarding distinctions, which are threatened by those egalitarian rules of equal pay for equal work.

The real object of that art of distinction, however, is not the waiter doing an excellent job but the tipper who is recognizing and rewarding him for it. Notice the ostentatious subject of virtually every single sentence in this passage: ”I hesitate…I like tipping. I like to make a difference…I make… I’m not flipping silver dollars…I am a healthy tipper…my way of recognizing a good job….I care…I notice…I recognize…Why would I want…”

In the act of dispensing rewards, Cohen gets to play the part of a lord. Money is the means of his conveyance. Circulating it advances his cause, elevates him above the crowd. Dispensing money puts his signature on the otherwise drab world of democracy and exchange.

And elevates him a particular sort of way. The last passage:

I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.

Reminds me of that passage from the ancient Laws of Manu, which de Maistre loved to cite:
Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

If only someone would write a book about all this.

*H/t Andrew Seal.


Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

by John Quiggin on October 20, 2015

I’m writing from the other side of the planet, but there are enough Oz-related links to offer some thoughts on the Canadian election result.

First, taken in conjunction with the recent removal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, this is a big win for the planet. Abbott and Harper were the only two world leaders who were clearly climate denialists (despite some official denial-denialism) and now they are both gone. That leaves only the US Republican Party as a serious political force dominated by denial (of course, a big “only”). The chance for a decent agreement coming out of the Paris conference in December has improved significantly

Second, as the UK election also showed, the combination of multiple parties and First Past the Post voting is highly unpredictable. If things had shaken out a little differently, Harper might have managed it back into some kind of minority government, or we could be seeing the NDP rather than the Liberals winning on the basis of strategic voting. Applying this to the UK example, the idea that Cameron’s victory was in some sense inevitable is fallacious. Had a few things gone differently, we could all be talking about the mysterious appeal of Ed Miliband.

Third, the supposed dark magic of Oz spinmeister Lynton Crosby did Harper no good. If anything, Crosby’s dog whistle strategy motivated the majority to vote strategically against Harper. But I suspect that people like Crosby are better at selling themselves to politicians than at selling politicians to the public.


Cultural anxieties about migration

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2015

This is more of a bleg than a post, I’m looking for contradiction. One of the often-claimed worries about immigration is of cultural loss, that the incomers will overwhelm the natives who will then lose the distinctive identity that they value. Supposedly, open borders would lead to the erosion of difference, people would lose their countries, and be bereft. But thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any cases of cultural extinction due to the kind of immigration that results from individuals and families simply choosing to move to another country for a better or different life. Open borders within Europe haven’t caused the Germans and French to disappear. Open borders within the UK (and with Ireland) haven’t led to the demise of the Scots, the English, the Welsh or the Irish. And such immigrants as have come, have just turned into regular folks with slightly unusual names or atypical appearance within a generation. Not that there haven’t been historical cases of some peoples chasing out or killing other peoples, of course there have. But all the instances — at least all the modern ones — I can think of are state-sponsored projects of colonialism, genocide, forced relocation and the like. In the absence of deliberate state action and political mobilization, peoples of ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic distinctiveness seem to be pretty robust entities. Though Henry Sidgwick and Michael Walzer seemed to think they needed borders and border control to preserve themselves, mostly they don’t.


The real challenge is getting employers to take a more assertive and, though we dare not say so aloud, paternalistic role when it comes to non-elite employees.

Williamson is advocating that we transmute the public safety net (some portion of it) into a federally-subsidized archipelago of regimes of private power, a web of patronage relations, bonding employees to employers. Company towns are proposed as a model, but this time around their creation would be back-stopped by the central government. [click to continue…]


Locke’s Road to Serfdom

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2015

The second instalment1 of my critique of Locke’s propertarian liberalism is up at Jacobin. I’m looking at an obvious (but, AFAICT, rarely asked) question about Locke’s theory: if land is acquired through agricultural labor, how is it that agricultural laborers have mostly been landless? The answer is simple: thanks to slavery and serfdom, it’s the owners of the laborers who acquire the property. To quote Locke

the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut … become my property

Locke’s political practice in the Americas was consistent with his theory. In his Constitution of the Carolinas, he suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for aristocratic landowners. As I observe (the point isn’t original)

Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a Road to Serfdom.

  1. I’ve done with Locke, but I’m planning a third instalment on Jefferson, his most important successor. 


Sunday photoblogging: beach huts, Quiberville-Plage

by Chris Bertram on October 18, 2015

Beach huts - Quiberville-Plage, Quiberville, France

(for a much better photograph of a similar subject in a nearby location look at this picture by Harry Gruyaert via the Online Photographer, and then buy his book!)

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Mill As Science Fiction Author

by John Holbo on October 17, 2015

In addition to teaching Nietzsche, I’m teaching Science Fiction and Philosophy. (Yes, I lead a charmed life.)

One of the fun games hereabouts is digging up cases in which old philosophical texts anticipate sf tropes or terms. Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ demon, Leibniz’ thinking mill. You get the idea.

Here are two slightly less well-known examples from Mill. The first, from Chapter 3 of On Liberty: [click to continue…]


Populism and Patrimonialism

by John Quiggin on October 17, 2015

Nuance is nearly always appealing to academics. For a long time, that was true of my approach to economic issues, particularly including income distribution. When presented with simplistic populist solutions to inequality like “Make the rich pay!”, I was inclined to responses along the lines of “It’s more complicated than that”.

A big problem with “Make the rich pay!” is that with the kind of income distribution that prevailed in the mid-to-late 20th century, any change to income tax that would raise significant revenue would have to apply to the top quintile (20 per cent) of the income distribution. People in the top quintile of the income distribution mostly derive their income from (typically professional or para-professional) employment, don’t think of themselves as rich, and aren’t, in general, seen this way by others. So, the slogan didn’t match the implied policy.

But with the rise of the patrimonial society, that’s largely ceased to be the case. The top 1 per cent of the US population now get more than 20 per cent of all pre-tax income, considerably more than the total revenue of the Federal government. Within that group, the top 0.1 per cent have done better than everyone else, and the top 0.01 per cent even better.

So, taxing the 1 per cent more makes sense. I responded a little while ago to a piece trying to argue increasing the top marginal tax rate would make no difference to inequality. And while I was drafting this post, the NY Times came out with an article that reached broadly the same conclusion as mine.

There’s nothing inherently ludicrous in the suggestion that the very rich should pay most or all of the costs of sustaining a system that benefits them so greatly[^1]. And, as in the 1920s, the very rich are different from everyone else. Their wealth is derived primarily from capital, or from control over capital (as business owners or from the financial sector). And, while most of the current cohort of ultra-wealthy did not inherit large fortunes, that’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that there weren’t many large fortunes to inherit until recently. As Piketty demonstrates, a society dominated by large accumulations of wealth will inevitably one in which inheritance, rather than effort, education or talent, determines life outcomes.

[click to continue…]


Harvard’s grad students have launched a union campaign, and Harvard’s administration has launched its response. Internal documents from the administration to the faculty, which were leaked to me, reveal some fascinating developments in these increasingly common anti-union drives of elite Ivy League universities.

First, university administrations have grown highly sensitized to any perception that they or their faculty are using intimidation and coercion to bust unions of academic workers. So sensitized that they’ve drafted a set of four rules, replete with a handy acronym, just in case the faculty can’t remember to keep things cool.

The basic rule is: No “TIPS”

No Threats

No Interrogation

No Promises

No Surveillance

You have to appreciate the hilarity. Like most elite faculty, Harvard’s professor probably oppose a union of graduate students because they think it will sully the intellectual virtues of America’s most prestigious university. Yet here they are being instructed by that most prestigious university to oppose that union with the help of slogans and acronyms.

And believe or not: that’s the good news. The use of fear and favor can be fatal to a union drive, and it’s good that at least some portion of the faculty are being told not to go there. (Whether that message sticks once the drive really gets going is another matter.) What’s more, it shows how conscious Harvard’s administrators—really, lawyers (and probably not even in-house lawyers; there are firms that specialize in this stuff)—are that the law and the courts may not be on their side on this issue.

Second, and even more interesting , is how, having explained to the world’s leading luminaries of light and reason that they should not terrorize the workers and students with whom they work (and don’t assume these luminaries don’t need that explained to them), the administration proceeds to instruct the faculty in what they should do. [click to continue…]


David Brooks is fed up with the GOP. Today’s conservative, he says, is not yesterday’s conservative. What happened?

Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

I’ve been trying to combat this argument by amnesia for yearsAs he has done before, Krugman valiantly takes up my cause today in his response to Brooks. Yet the argument keeps popping back up.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility,

“The conservative principle has been defended, the past hundred and fifty years, by men of learning and genius.” (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency….Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Friedrich von Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1)

“Conservatism is in general the intuition of genius, whereas liberalism is the efficiency of talent.” (Elmer More, “Disraeli and Conservatism”)

a belief in steady, incremental change,
“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace)

“The American people now want us to act and not in half-measures. They demand and they’ve earned a full and comprehensive effort.” (Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery)

[click to continue…]


This Thursday night, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History is convening its annual conference in Washington, DC. I’ll be delivering the keynote address, which I’m really excited about. I’ll be talking about public intellectuals, a topic I’ve explored here before, as have many others on this blog. The full conference schedule is here; my talk is scheduled for Friday, October 16, at 2 pm, in the Hamilton Ballroom of the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel. If you’re in DC, stop by and say hello. The title of my talk is: “Publics That Don’t Exist and the Intellectuals Who Write For Them.” Here’s a preview:

The problem with our public intellectuals today—and here I’m going to address the work of two exemplary though quite different public intellectuals: Cass Sunstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates—has little to do with their style. It has little to do with their professional location, whether they write from academia or for the little magazines. It has little to do with the suburbs, bohemia, or tenure. The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.