CUNY, Corona, and Communism

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2020

The coronavirus has hit the City University of New York, where I teach, hard: more than 20 deaths of students, faculty, and staff, and counting. Yet the impact of the virus on CUNY has received almost no press coverage at all.

At the same time, the media continues to focus its higher education coverage, during the coronavirus, where it always has: on elite schools.

The combination of these elements—the unremarked devastation at CUNY, the outsized attention to wealthy colleges and universities—led me to write this piece for The New Yorker online:

It seems likely that no other college or university in the United States has suffered as many deaths as CUNY. Yet, aside from an op-ed by Yarbrough in the Daily News, there has been little coverage of this story. Once known proudly as “the poor man’s Harvard,” CUNY has become a cemetery of uncertain dimensions, its deaths as unremarked as the graves in a potter’s field.  
The coronavirus has revealed to many the geography of class in America, showing that where we live and work shapes whether we live or die. Might it offer a similar lesson about where we learn?…  
During the Depression, the New York municipal-college system opened two flagship campuses: Brooklyn College and Queens College. These schools built the middle class, took in refugees from Nazi Germany, remade higher education, and transformed American arts and letters. In 1942, Brooklyn College gave Hannah Arendt her first teaching job in the United States; an adjunct, she lectured on the Dreyfus affair, which would figure prominently in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In the decades that followed, CUNY built more campuses. Until 1976, it was free to all students; the government footed the bill.  
What prompted this public investment in higher education was neither sentimentality about the poor nor a noblesse oblige of good works. It was a vision of culture and social wealth, derived from the activism of the working classes and defended by a member of Britain’s House of Lords. “Why should we not set aside,” John Maynard Keynes wondered in 1942, “fifty million pounds a year for the next twenty years to add in every substantial city of the realm the dignity of an ancient university.” Against those who disavowed such ambitions on the grounds of expense, Keynes said, “Anything we can actually do we can afford.” And “once done, it is there.”  
Public spending, for public universities, is a bequest of permanence from one generation to the next. It is a promise to the future that it will enjoy the learning of the present and the literature of the past. It is what we need, more than ever, today. Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash, is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.

Since it came out on Thursday, I’ve learned of three additional deaths at CUNY, all students in their last year at Lehman College: Daniel DeHoyos, Zavier Richburg, and Lenin Portillo. The Lehman College Senate has voted that they all be awarded posthumous degrees. That brings the total number of deaths at CUNY that I know of to 26.

Speaking of the activism of the working classes, I also wrote for The Nation an essay on the communist, which doubles as a review of Vivian Gornick’s classic The Romance of American Communism, which has recently been reissued, and Jodi Dean’s excellent work of political theory, Comrade.

The communist stands at the crossroads of two ideas: one ancient, one modern. The ancient idea is that human beings are political animals. Our disposition is so public, our orientation so outward, we cannot be thought of apart from the polity. Even when we try to hide our vices, as a character in Plato’s Republic notes, we still require the assistance of “secret societies and political clubs.” That’s how present we are to other people and they to us.
The modern idea—that of work—posits a different value. Here Weber may be a better guide than Marx. For the communist, work means fidelity to a task, a stick-to-itiveness that requires clarity of purpose, persistence in the face of opposition or challenge, and a refusal of all distraction. It is more than an instrumental application of bodily power upon the material world or the rational alignment of means and ends (activities so ignoble, Aristotle thought, as to nearly disqualify the laborer from politics). It is a vocation, a revelation of self.
The communist brings to the public life of the ancients the methodism of modern work. In all things be political, says the communist, and in all political things be productive. Anything less is vanity. Like the ancients, the communist looks outward, but her insistence on doing only those actions that yield results is an emanation from within. Effectiveness is a statement of her integrity. The great sin of intellectuals, Lenin observed, is that they “undertake everything under the sun without finishing anything.” That failing is symptomatic of their character—their “slovenliness” and “carelessness,” their inability to remain true to whatever cause or concern they have professed. The communist does better. She gets the job done.

The left has good reason to be wary of the stern antinomies of the comrade. The freedom that goes by the name of discipline, the suppression of difference in the name of solidarity, the words of emancipation as window dressing for authoritarian constraint—we’ve been down this road before. We know where it ends, and neither Gornick nor Dean denies that ending. Nor do they provide an easy way around or out of it.

Gornick interprets the tragedy of communism through Greek myth. Helen awakens in Paris an intense love, one he never knew before. He is turned outward, directed to another soul in a way he is not accustomed to. He becomes larger than himself. Then the love takes on a life of its own, eclipsing its object. Love becomes the object, the feeling and need; Helen disappears from view. All manner of mayhem and destruction follow. Dean interprets the tragedy through psychoanalysis: The healthy ego ideal of the comrade becomes the ravenous superego. In the same way that the superego feeds off the transgressions of the id, growing ever more powerful from the punishment of impurity, so do comrades turn inward, generating a feeding frenzy of their own. Collective power, once a source of freedom, becomes a prison.
There’s a reason Gornick and Dean turn to myth and psychoanalysis, respectively. Each, in its way, is a story of unhappy endings, in which the conclusion is written from the start. Yet even if we don’t head down the path of authoritarian communism, even if we avoid that unhappy ending, we’re still left with other bad endings that neither psychoanalysis nor myth can account for. Not only has capitalism run rampant since the fall of communism, and not only has the left yet to find a replacement for the parties and movements that once created socialism in all its varieties, but even the contemporary left has not left behind the challenge of reconciling freedom and constraint….

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Since it’s been a while since I posted at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d alert folks to some other writing I’ve been doing recently at the New York Review of Books online: one, a piece on the Iowa Caucuses (remember them?) and minoritarian democracy; and the other, on what the isolation of the pandemic means for democracy.

Hope everyone is healthy and safe.

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Freedom, lockdown, and COVID-19

by Chris Bertram on May 6, 2020

Despite the UK now having the highest death toll from COVID-19 in Europe and the second-highest in the world after the United States, the right-wingers of the Telegraph and the Spectator, abetted by the erstwhile Marxists of Spiked! and similar persist in denouncing lockdown as a tyrannical assault on freedom. It is clear that compulsory social distancing measures do indeed reduce people’s negative liberty by constraining the set of actions they can legally perform. Most people, however, view this as a sensible price to reduce the threat COVID-19 presents to each of us and to others, particularly the most vulneralble, the elderly, health workers, transport workers etc. After all, if you are dead then your freedom is worth nothing.

As students of freedom know, however, there is more than one way of understanding the concept. Libertarians who are extraordinarily sensitive to the least legal limitation on negative freedom are usually completely immune to the idea that structural features of capitalist society are coercive and freedom-limiting. In particular, they either fail to notice or deny that the workplace is coercive. After all, the people who work for the person to whom they are now subordinate freely contracted into that position, didn’t they? I don’t think I need to repeat the familiar points about choices, options, and structural oppression here.

Instead I invite you to consider what will happen if and when lockdown is lifted. Jerry Cohen made the point in his essay “Are Disadvantaged Workers Who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs?” that you can’t force someone to do what they are unfree to do. If workers are unfree to contract for less than the minimum wage or to work in unsafe conditions they bosses can’t (legally) force them to do those things. The same, rather obviously, goes for lockdown. People who are more-or-less confined to their homes can’t easily be forced to work in workplaces that expose them to the threat of COVID-19. (I know that even under lockdown many workers, such as health workers and bus drivers are effectively so forced, and COVID has rather powerfully exposed some of the divides that exist among different groups of workers.)
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Tyler Cowen quotes approvingly from a Robin Hanson post (the URL suggests that the original title of Tyler’s post was “On Reopening, Robin Hanson is Exactly Correct).

While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

… More broadly, this is an example of why we need public choice/political economy in our models of this situation. It is all about the plan you can pull off in the real world of politics, not the best plan you can design. A lot of what I am seeing is a model of “all those bad Fox News viewers out there,” and I do agree those viewers tend to have incorrect views on the biomedical side.

This all begs an obvious question: who exactly is the “public” that they are talking about? [click to continue…]

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Choctaw-Ireland solidarity

by Maria on May 4, 2020

A couple of years ago I wrote in a series for Medium about how the solidarity between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people two hundred years ago is how we can resist the power vertical today. In 1847, Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears sent a couple of hundred dollars, a fortune to them, to Irish Famine relief. Those with the least gave proportionately the most. To this day, there is a friendship that goes deeper than the official sculptures and exchange visits that mark it. I’ve long planned to include this story in a longer project about how we can use stories to imagine better futures (partly) by finding unlikely common cause and building movements.

I never imagined there would be another chapter to the story. In the last day or so, the call went out amongst Irish for donations to support the Navajo and Hopi nations in Utah who have lost many elders to covid-19 and were already living in a food desert. Their GoFundMe page has message after message of gratitude and solidarity from Irish people (amongst many other generous donors), honouring our debt. It really is something beautiful.

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Five Books

by Henry on May 4, 2020

The website Five Books did an interview with me on the five best books on the politics of information. It was an interesting experience. Picking the best five books means that you have to go back and re-read them, and figure out how they fit together.

What I decided to do was to take this essay by Ludwig Siegele in the Economist’s Christmas issue, and start from the question: If you wanted people to build out from that essay, what books would you have them read? The essay is influenced by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and the Crooked Timber seminar that followed from it (in particular: Cosma’s essay): what it sets out to do is to ask whether the socialist calculation debate helps us to understand current fights about democracy, autocracy, markets and machine learning. Like Ludwig, I believe that it does: “Comrades! Let’s Optimize” is an excellent starting point for understanding how people in Silicon Valley today think about the transformative power of software. I also think that Red Plenty is an excellent starting point for thinking about these questions because it is a novel rather than a tract. As Francis said in his reply, writing fiction gives you access to negative capability: rather than stating an argument or a principle, you can have a multiplicity of voices and experiences, providing a kaleidoscopic rather than a synoptic understanding of the problem. When it’s a complex problem, that’s helpful.

A certain kind of autobiography can pull off a similar trick: hence the structure of the interview is that it starts off with Red Plenty and finishes with Anna Wiener’s wonderful account of living in Silicon Valley, sandwiching the social science between these two more complicated narratives. It’s a long interview (about 10,000 words!) and has nothing about coronavirus (it was conducted in February), but I think it worked out well. Read if interested; ignore if not.

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May Day

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2020

It’s the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, transformed, like every other public event, by the coronavirus pandemic

Most obviously, there is no May Day march for the first time in many years (possibly since the first march in the 1890s, I haven’t been able to find out for share).

More significantly, ideas associated with May Day that seemed to belong to a distant past have suddenly become crucially relevant. The most important of these is the injustice, inefficiency and absurdity of a society where those who do the most vital work are underpaid and disregarded, while the biggest rewards go to a class that turns out to be of no use when it really matters.

There is already pressure to ‘snap back’ to what was seen as normal in the recent past as soon as, or even before, the pandemic is controlled. But the message of May Day is that a better society is possible, and that the achievements of the workers movement over the past century can and should be defended and extended.

Among the many changes we need is a push to reduce inequality through both predistribution (changing the way the market rewards work) and redistribution (taxation and transfer payments). In practice that means higher minimum wages, higher wages for those who provide us with the basic wages we all need, and better funding for public services of all kinds. For those at the top of the income distribution, incomes will have to decline, either through predistribution (lower market incomes) or redistribution. In the context of Australian universities, the closure of borders implies a big reduction in revenue from international students. In the short run, the cost of that is mostly being borne by contract employees who aren’t being renewed. But the burden should be shared more fairly, starting at the top (our vast array of vice-chancellors, deans and others)and extending to senior academics (including economics professors). In the longer term, we need a fundamental reform of the system, based on the goal of universal access to post-school education and training, but that’s a topic for another post.

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Sunday photoblogging: Herefordshire field

by Chris Bertram on May 3, 2020

Herefordshire field

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Researching the pandemic

by Eszter Hargittai on May 1, 2020

As a social scientist who studies digital media uses, it seemed like I couldn’t sit back and watch the pandemic unfold without throwing myself into a related research project. I held off for the first week of our lockdown in Switzerland, but after several conversations with members of my research group about whether they were interested (I made clear it was completely optional not knowing how everyone would cope with the situation), we decided to take the plunge. Now, 5.5 weeks later, we have survey data from three countries (USA [n=1,374; Apr 4-8], Italy [n=982; Apr 17-18], Switzerland [n=1,350; fielded in three languages; Apr 17-24],) and have started putting some of our results out there with lots of publications in the works.

We explore numerous relevant domains from how people are feeling during the pandemic (about their home situation, their worries) to how much they understand the health aspects of the virus, where they are getting information about Covid, how they are using social media related to it, whether their work situation has changed, their confidence in various players handling the situation, and more.

Today, I share with you a piece that Elissa Redmiles and I co-authored in Scientific American about whether Americans would be willing to install a Covid-tracking app and how this may vary by who is distributing the app. Elissa is a top-notch expert in privacy and security issues, and we are now working on additional surveys that dig deeper into the question of app take-up (she’s started posting some of those results on her Twitter feed).

We find that two-thirds of Americans would be willing to install “a tracking app that could help slow the spread of the Coronavirus in your community and reduce the lockdown period [..] knowing that it would collect your location data and information about your health status.” But who is distributing the app matters. (See more in the piece.)

Compared to the 66% of Americans who are willing to install such an app, the figure is 72% among the Swiss, and 78% among Italians. There are significant differences in willingness if “the federal government” distributes the app (US: 20%, CH: 54%, IT: 53%). More on the Swiss case in a forthcoming oped with which I’ll update this post when it’s out. [UPDATE (posted May 2, 2020): The Swiss piece is out in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung here. (Click here to see it in its newspaper form.)]

My team is now working on another US survey to field next week (in addition to surveys with Elissa I mention above). It’s been fascinating doing research on the pandemic, but also exhausting. Nonetheless, we made the right decision by taking the plunge. Researching this situation makes me feel like I’m contributing in the way I can: exploring the role of digital media in how people are coping with this insane situation.

A big shout-out to my employer, the University of Zurich, for supporting this work!

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When to bury an academic paper?

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 30, 2020

Last November, a paper of mine got an impossible-to-do R&R by an academic (ethics/political philosophy) journal – it amounted to a de facto rejection, except if I was willing to write a very different paper. The paper had been rejected before, and I was at a point where I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The 5 referee reports (all very elaborate) wildly differed in what they found lacking in the paper. Several referees wanted me to write another paper, but they all suggested something very different. The reports also differed a lot in what they found plausible and implausible in the paper. It demotivated me, and then I did the most stupid thing a scholar can do – to leave the paper sitting there, not working on it, not having a plan at all about what to do with the paper. [click to continue…]

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Another open thread on the pandemic

by John Quiggin on April 29, 2020

Most of us are six weeks or so into some kind of lockdown by now, so it would be interesting to read some comments on our experiences. From the discussions I’ve had (almost entirely online rather than in person) my perception is that people with office jobs and no kids at home are finding it much easier than might have been expected, but that those with kids at home are finding it every bit as hard as you would think. So far, the impact on those who have lost jobs (or work like conference organization) has been cushioned by income support, in Australia at any rate. Less online discussion with those still working, of course.

Experiences and thoughts?

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Sunday photoblogging: trees

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2020

I’m reading Richard Powers’s magnificent novel The Overstory at the moment, so I’m learning and appreciating a lot about trees that I hadn’t before. And I’m wishing that I’d know those things before encountering the magnificent specimens in this Sunday’s offering. First, a tree with magnificent roots and multiple trunks (probably from the fig family) that I saw in the grounds of the Brasilia Palace Hotel outside Brasilia in 2013. Second, the wonderful redwoods in Muir Woods in northern California.

Brasilia Palace Hotel-2

Muir Woods, redwoods

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Vermeule

by John Quiggin on April 26, 2020

While trawling through my old posts, I came across this one, which looks at the case for the death penalty presented by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule. At the time, I was moderately familiar with Sunstein, but knew nothing at all about Vermeule, who has now emerged as an advocate of theocracy (called “integralism” in its Catholic version). I thought about a three-degrees separation, running off the fact that, while I am no fan of Sunstein, quite a few people I respect and work with like (and, I think, work with) him. Before I wrote it though, I searched CT for references to Vermeule, and found him contributing to a 2013 book event we held, on Johnson and Knight’s The Priority of Democracy. What he writes there seems sensible enough to me, pointing out potential problems for democracy but not implying anything like his current position

It appears that Vermeule converted to Catholicism recently, so maybe this was part of some intellectual crisis, or maybe he was just swept up in the Trumpist wave. Any thoughts?

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Noises off

by John Quiggin on April 22, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a video presentation about the likely employment effects in Australia, as part of my university’s response to the pandemic. The sound quality wasn’t great, what with reliance on my computer microphone, a spotty Internet connection and my accent, which is too strong even for some Aussies.

The communications people at the Uni got back to me and said it might have to have subtitles, but they could improve things by lowering the volume of the background music. My immediate reaction was unprintable, and while I managed to calm down, I wrote back to say that under no circumstances would I accept any kind of musical accompaniment. They cut out the music and managed to get it done with closed captions (the kind that are turned off my default).

But, obviously, I’m in an aging and shrinking minority here. David Attenborough’s documentaries, which I used to love, are now unwatchable (or rather unlistenable), with lush orchestral music crashing over his narration. If it’s not that, it’s an annoying metronomic repetition of the same five notes over and over. When people complain, the answer is “this isn’t a lecture”. But that’s exactly what I want from a documentary – a lecture with high-quality video combining to convey more information than either alone. Music, by contrast, conveys no information at all (except, I guess, “this is bad music”). If I wanted a content-free audiovisual experience, I’d far prefer a live band at the pub, with smoke and strobe lights, to someone’s musical interpretation of animal behavior overlaid on some barely audible talk.

Thinking about this brings up the more general issue of background music in films. It’s such an established convention you barely notice it most of the time. But I’ve quite often had the experience of hearing vaguely dissonant music as a character enters a room, and not knowing if this is part of the film, supposed to be audible to the character, or just part of the soundtrack. It’s just as artificial in its way as the characters in a musical bursting into song at the drop of a hat, and yet it’s a standard part of what is supposed to be realistic drama.

That’s it from my Grumpy Old Guy persona. Does anyone share my grumpiness, or want to persuade me out of it.

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Show me your books …

by Henry on April 17, 2020

was once a demand made by Kieran on Chatroulette (remember Chatroulette?), but is now becoming an amateur spectator sport, as people scope out other people’s bookshelves on Zoom, and some of those other people in turn likely artfully arrange their books so as to present the best possible image of their serious or not-so-serious intellectual life. The Twitter commentary on this Pete Buttigeig bookshelf has already started.

For me, the interesting bit was not the volumes of Dragonball, or the Piketty in and of itself, so much as the way in which Piketty and a few issues of N+1 bracketted a copy of Juan Zarate’s decidedly non-leftwing book on US financial power, Treasury’s War. Perhaps the message that was intended to be conveyed was of how a leftwing attack on the power of capital and global inequality might be organized around the awesome power of the US over the global financial system. Or, perhaps, that’s just me.

Either which way, one way to keep some of us occupied is to scope out each other’s bookshelves. Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all, though I have chosen the bookshelf in our house with the greatest concentration of intellectually ‘serious’ books).

Feel free to snoop, and to disparage my taste. Feel just as free to include links to photos of your own bookshelves in comments (it looks as though img src is disabled in CT comments, but links should work fine).

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What are we watching?

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2020

As we are all (or most of us) shut behind our front doors for fear of the plague, and once we’re through with improving ourselves or home-schooling others, what are we watching? I’m always in need of a good recommendation, but happy to share too. At the moment the two drama series that are occupying me are Baron Noir and Babylon Berlin (both series 3 now). I’m guessing, possibly incorrectly, that Baron Noir will be the less familiar of the two to CT readers. It follows the career of socialist mayor Phillipe Rickwaert from the mayor’s job at Dunkerque to the highs and low of national power. Rickwaert is both a Machiavellian tactician (not above dirty tricks and electoral fraud), personally ambitious but also deeply attached to the historic socialist cause. One of the grittiest depictions of how the political sausages get made of recent times. You should start at the beginning with series 1, which is excellent, and persevere through series 2, which gets a bit flabby, since series 3 is again taut, well-plotted and acted. The France of Baron Noir is a parallel one that is just a tiny bit different (the eventual Macron figure is female and the Mélenchon character is vain and narcissistic). Really compelling stuff. Babylon Berlin, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, is a Weimar era detective series in which our heroes Gunther Rath and Charlotte Ritter battle against dark forces. The plot is sometimes incomprehensible, but the depiction of 1920s Berlin is wonderful.

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