Archive | March, 2012

Birth Control McCarthyism

14 Mar

Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).

There are three things to say about this legislation.

The Private Life of Power

First, as I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.

So it’s no surprise, as I noted in the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers—not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector—and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.

What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program—in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere—that would combine both agenda items at the same time.

Fear, American Style

Second, in a way, I should have foreseen this fusion because, as I argued in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, in the United States, it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While less than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as 2 out of every 5 American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.

I’ve spoken about this issue on this blog before—my apologies to the old timers here; unfortunately, this point can’t be repeated enough—but recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the  latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be—and are—simply outsourced to the private sector. As I wrote in Fear:

There is little mystery as to why civil society can serve as a substitute or supplement to state repression. Civil society is not, on the whole, subject to restrictions like the Bill of Rights. So what the state is forbidden to do, private actors in civil society may execute instead. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Jackson famously declared, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” But what star in our constitutional constellation forbids newspapers like the New York Times, which refused during the McCarthy years to hire members of the Communist Party, from prescribing such orthodoxy as a condition of employment? What in the Constitution would stop a publisher from telling poet Langston Hughes that it would not issue his Famous Negro Music Makers unless he removed any discussion of Communist singer Paul Robeson? Or stop Little, Brown from refusing to publish best-selling Communist author Howard Fast?

The Sixth Amendment guarantees “in all criminal prosecutions” that the accused shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defence.” But what in the Constitution would prevent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, from refusing to represent a party member during the McCarthy years because, in his words, “We have decided that we don’t think we can ever afford to represent anybody that has ever been a Communist?”

The Fifth Amendment stipulates that the government cannot compel an individual to incriminate herself, but it does not forbid private employers from firing anyone invoking its protections before congressional committees. To the extent that our Constitution works against an intrusive state, how can it even authorize the government to regulate these private decisions of civil society? What the liberal state granteth, then, liberal civil society taketh away.

Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.

And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy—again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace—but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee.  If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.

During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about Nato? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to US foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against Nato and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” (Though Ellen Schrecker, from whose book Many Are the Crimes I have taken these examples, points out that many of these questions were posed by government loyalty boards, she also notes that the questions posed by private employers were virtually identical.) The upshot, of course, was that support for civil rights came to be viewed as a Communist position, making public support for civil rights a riskier proposition than it already was.

It’s unclear what the future of Birth Control McCarthyism will be, but anyone who thinks the repressive implications of these bills can be simply brushed aside with vague feints to the religious freedoms of employers—more on this in a moment—is overlooking the long and sordid history of Fear, American Style. Private employers punishing their employees for holding disfavored views or engaging in disapproved practices (disapproved by the employer, that is) is the way a lot of repression happens in this country. And it can have toxic effects, as Liza Love, a witness before the Arizona Senate committee, testified:

“I wouldn’t mind showing my employer my medical records,” Love said. “But there are 10 women behind me that would be ashamed to do so.”

In the debate over the legislation, Arizona Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (also the bill’s author) said, “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the  Soviet Union.” She’s right, though perhaps not in the way she intended: unlike in the Soviet Union, the government here may not be able to punish you simply for holding unorthodox views or engaging in disfavored practices (though the government can certainly find other ways to harass or penalize you, if it wishes). What happens instead is that your employer will do it for the government (or for him or herself). As the president of Barnard College put it during the McCarthy years, “If the colleges take the responsibility to do their own house cleaning, Congress would not feel it has to investigate.”

Whose Freedom?

Third, the standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The same arguments have come up in Arizona. Just after she made the comparison above between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lesko added:

“So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”

“My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections.”

Father John Muir, a priest at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus, said the controversial issue is not about birth control, but religious freedom and the First Amendment.

“It’s not about birth control,” Muir said. “It’s about the right to live out your beliefs and principles without inference by the state.”

There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, which I won’t get into here. Instead, I’d like to recall some more history.

It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the Civil Rights Movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”

According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in Rightward Bound:Making American Conservative in the 1970s is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities—and religious beliefs—rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers—for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are—we have persecuted sects.

Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian Right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?

Update (March 15, 4:30 pm)

This post got cross-posted at Salon; check out the comments there. In a very smart piece, also at Salon, Irin Carmon looks at the evolution (and continuities) of the GOP position on this issue. Also check out this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, again at Salon, which looks at the contributions of the Democrats to this morass we’re in.

Also, on the question of whether the Arizona law allows employers to fire employees on the basis of whether they use birth control for contraception purposes or not, check out this.

The Prison House of Labor

11 Mar

When Kathy Saumier learned that a new factory was coming to town, it seemed as if there really was—as that absurdist bit of suburban wisdom from The Graduate has it—a great future in plastics.  Landis Plastics, to be exact.  Landis, a family-owned company based in Illinois, makes containers for yogurt and cottage cheese.  The company was opening a plant in Solvay, New York, not far from Syracuse where Saumier lived.  She applied for a job.  “It’s a new place,” she thought.  “It’s more money.  It sounded good.”  New York Governor Mario Cuomo thought so too.  With the help of Solvay officials, Cuomo’s administration had put together an $8.5 million package of tax breaks, cheap electricity, and direct aid to lure the factory – and 200 promised jobs – to upstate New York.  The day the plant opened, Cuomo was there to welcome it.

For Saumier, however, the celebration was short-lived.  Hired to operate a machine that produced 36,000 plastic containers per hour, Saumier was expected, within a single minute, to inspect 600 containers, pack them in a box, and haul the box over to a conveyor belt.  The breakneck pace was the least of it.  Safety conditions at Landis were dire.  Within thirteen months of Saumier’s hiring, printing presses at the factory had claimed part of the finger of a co-worker, almost all of the finger of another worker, two fingers of a third, part of the pinky of a fourth, and the tip of the middle finger of a fifth.  Sex discrimination and sexual harassment were rampant.  Managers reserved all but one of the higher-paying and safer technician jobs for men – and openly admitted to doing so.  Male workers asked female workers for oral sex, called them bitches and cunts, touched their breasts and buttocks, and humiliated new female employees with simulations of masturbation.  Management did nothing about it.

Saumier decided to speak up.  She got involved in a union drive at the plant.  She filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the factory’s safety conditions and lodged a sex-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Viewing her actions as the opening shot of a larger “insurrection” by the workers, Landis struck back.  Harassment, particularly of Saumier and other pro-union employees, increased.  When Saumier complained, the assistant director of human resources replied, “If you’re in the public eye, you’re opening yourself to harassment.”  Saumier was called into a meeting where she was accused by a former FBI agent, now working for Landis’ lawyers, of sabotaging the cars of anti-union workers.  Another pro-union worker was hustled off to jail by the police after a co-worker accused her of stealing a coat; the charges were later dropped.  Saumier was forced to work by herself in a room called “hold,” where she was not permitted to talk to anyone.  “It’s like they put you in solitary,” she told a reporter.  She was again questioned by management, this time in the presence of a police officer, about sabotaging the car of an anti-union worker.  Finally, after she herself was accused of sexual harassment – among other charges, it was alleged that she pulled down a co-worker’s pants and tried to touch his genitals and that she asked an African American co-worker about the size of his penis – Saumier was fired.  Claiming that Landis treated its employees as “rabble that must be kept under the boss’s heel,” Syracuse’s mild-mannered local newspaper editorialized thus:

Like most central New Yorkers, we cheered when Landis came to Solvay, bringing nearly 200 jobs to a community that had been clobbered by the Allied pullout. [Allied Chemical had closed its Solvay plant in 1986.]  But no one expected a seventeenth-century attitude toward worker rights to come with the deal.  No one expected mangled bodies to be accepted as a cost of doing business.

Then the federal government stepped in, and things began to go Saumier’s way.  OSHA fined Landis $720,700 – one of the largest safety fines in New York history – for seventy-four violations at the plant.  An EEOC settlement forced Landis to pay $782,000 to former and current female employees.  A federal judge issued an injunction, ordering Landis to reinstate Saumier.  Pointing out that the company had done nothing in the past about female workers’ complaints of sexual harassment – or about black workers’ complaints of racial harassment – the judge ruled that Landis was retaliating against Saumier for her union activism and whistle-blowing activities.  Then the National Labor Relations Board conclusively determined the same and ordered Landis to rehire Saumier.

By the time Saumier returned to her job thirteen months after being fired, the pace had increased:  now the machines pumped out 700 containers per minute.  Saumier could barely keep up, and a workplace injury caused her intense pain.  Of the more than one hundred workers who had originally joined Saumier in signing union cards, only fifteen remained.  Most of the new workers were immigrants, too frightened to speak up and suffer Saumier’s fate or worse.  Saumier decided to quit, the union drive stalled.  Today, there is no union at Landis Plastics.

• • • • •

In the course of cleaning up my computer, I found the above discussion of workplace coercion and labor unions that I wrote for, and had intended to include in, The Reactionary Mind. Originally I planned to use it to open the  introduction—to give readers a more concrete sense of what I meant by the reactionary politics of the right, a politics dedicated to the preservation of private hierarchies of power—but Rick Perlstein wisely counseled me to take it out.

Since I’ve been talking quite a bit of late about workplace coercion—though it’s an old concern of mine, going back to my grad school work as a union organizer and my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (especially chapter 8)—I thought I’d post this passage here, particularly since it’s never been published anywhere.

The material is entirely drawn from Steven Greenhouse’s excellent book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 15-34, which I highly recommend. Focusing on a little known labor struggle from the 1990s, this story gives a visceral sense of the neo-feudalism of the workplace I often talk about. Outside the military and the prison, is there any institution that so controls the bodies of adult men and women? No wonder they call it the prison house of labor.

For anyone who’s ever despaired of arguing with her critics…

8 Mar

In the midst of the controversy over the Phillips Curve, Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson wrote to economist Alvin Hansen:

Milton F[riedman] is a bloody nuisance. In the end he is not right in his provocative stands, but it takes valuable time rebutting his arguments….Having just returned from UCLA where (as in Virginia and Washington) the place is jumping with energetic libertarian nuts, I realize that so much of one’s scientific life has to be occupied in sterile debate.

h/t Yann Giraud (and Doug Henwood for forwarding this post to me)


Lavatory and Liberty: The Secret History of the Bathroom Break

8 Mar

Inspired by all this libertarian talk, I dug out an old piece of mine from 2002, in the Boston Globe, that talks about a little known fact: many workers in the United States aren’t able to exercise their right to pee on the job—due to lack of government enforcement—and it wasn’t until 1998 (!) that they even got that right, thanks to the federal government. The piece pivots from there to a more general discussion about coercion in the workplace and its history.

I wish academics, journalists, intellectuals, and bloggers had a more concrete sense of what it’s like to work in an actual workplace in America (not to mention elsewhere). Sometimes, it seems that scholars and writers, if they think about it at all, simply assume the typical workplace to be a seminar room, a newsroom, the cafe around the corner, or their office at home.

The piece isn’t long, so I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:

IN HIS NEVER-ENDING quest for control of the workplace, Henry Ford confronted many foes, but none as wily or rebellious as the human digestive tract. Hoping to tame what he called the body’s ”disassembly line,” Ford wheeled lunch wagons into his auto plant in Highland Park, Mich., and forced workers to wolf down a 10-minute sandwich on the job. So industrialized was ingestion at the plant that workers growled about their ”Ford stomach.” But where Ford sought to speed up the meal’s entrance into the body, his successors – from store managers in the Midwest to fashion moguls in New York – have concentrated on slowing down its exit.

Today’s workplace can sometimes seem like a battlefield of the bladder. On the one side are workers who wanna go when they gotta go; on the other are employers who want to stop them, sometimes for hours on end. Just this past month, a Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Clermont, Ky., was forced to drop its strict bathroom-break policies after the plant’s union focused negative international attention – from ABC News to Australia – on Jim Beam and its parent company, Fortune Brands, Inc. According to union officials, managers kept computer spreadsheets monitoring employee use of the bathroom, and 45 employees were disciplined for heeding nature’s call outside company-approved breaks. Female workers were even told to report the beginning of their menstrual cycles to the human resources department, said one union leader.

In their 1998 book ”Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time,” Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard of the University of Iowa – he’s a law professor, she’s a urogynecologist – trace the long and ignoble history of the struggle for the right to pee on the job. In 1995, for instance, female employees at a Nabisco plant in Oxnard, Calif., maker of A-1 steak sauce and the world’s supplier of Grey Poupon mustard, complained in a lawsuit that line supervisors had consistently prevented them from going to the bathroom. Instructed to urinate into their clothes or face three days’ suspension for unauthorized expeditions to the toilet, the workers opted for adult diapers. But incontinence pads were expensive, so many employees downgraded to Kotex and toilet paper, which pose severe health risks when soaked in urine. Indeed, several workers eventually contracted bladder and urinary tract infections. Hearing of their plight, conservative commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. advised the workers to wear special diapers used by horses in New York’s Central Park carriage trade.

How does a country that celebrates the joy of unfettered movement tolerate such restrictions on this most basic of bodily motions? Why do the freedoms that we take for granted outside the workplace suddenly disappear when we enter it? ”Belated Feudalism,” a study by UCLA political scientist Karen Orren, suggests a surprising, and shocking, answer. According to Orren, long after the Bill of Rights was ratified and slavery abolished – well into the 20th century, in fact – the American workplace remained a feudal institution. Not metaphorically, but legally. Workers were governed by statutes originating in the common law of medieval England, with precedents extending as far back as the year 500. Like their counterparts in feudal Britain, judges exclusively administered these statutes, treating workers as the literal property of their employers. Not until 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act, giving workers the right to organize unions, did the judiciary relinquish political control over the workplace to Congress.

Prior to the ’30s, Orren shows, American judges regularly applied the ”law of master and servant” to quell the worker’s independent will. According to one jurist, that law recognized only ”the superiority and power” of the master, and the ”duty, subjection, and, as it were, allegiance” of the worker. Medieval vagrancy statutes forced able-bodied males into the workplace, while ancient principles of ”entire” contract kept them there. A worker hired for a period of time – often five to 10 years and beyond – was legally not entitled to any of his earnings unless and until he completed the entire term of his contract. When rules of vagrancy and entirety failed, judges turned to other precedents, some dating from the time of Richard II, requiring workers seeking employment to obtain a ”testimonial letter” from their previous employer. Because employers were under no legal obligation to provide such letters, judges could effectively stop workers from ever trying to move on.

As soon as workers entered the workplace, they became the property of their employers. Judges enforced the 13th-century rule of ”quicquid acquietur servo acquietur domino” (whatever is acquired by the servant is acquired by the master), mandating that employees give to their employers whatever they may have earned off the job – as if the employee, and not his labor, belonged to the employer. If an outside party injured an employee so that he couldn’t perform his duties, the employer could sue that party for damages, ”as if the injury had been to his chattel or machines or buildings.” But if the outside party injured the employer so that he could not provide employment, the employee could not likewise sue. Why? Because, claimed one jurist, the ”inferior hath no kind of property in the company, care, or assistance of the superior, as the superior is held to have in those of the inferior.”

”Belated Feudalism” set off multiple explosions when it appeared in 1991, inflicting serious damage on the received wisdom of Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In his 1955 classic ”The Liberal Tradition in America,” still taught on many college campuses, Hartz argued that the United States was born free: Americans never knew feudalism; their country – with its Horatio Alger ethos of individual mobility, private property, free labor, and the sacred rights of contract – was modern and liberal from the start. For decades, liberals embraced Hartz’s argument as an explanation for why there was no – and could never be any – radicalism in the United States. Leftists, for their part, also accepted his account, pointing to the labor movement’s failure to create socialism as evidence of liberalism’s hegemony.

But as Orren shows, American liberalism has never been the easy inheritance that Hartz and his complacent defenders assume. And the American labor movement may have achieved something far more difficult and profound than its leftist critics realize. Trade unions, Orren argues, made America liberal, laying slow but steady siege to an impregnable feudal fortress, prying open this ”state within a state” to collective bargaining and congressional review. By pioneering tactics later used by the civil rights movement – sit-ins, strikes, and civil disobedience – labor unions invented the modern idea of collective action, turning every sphere of society into a legitimate arena of democratic politics. It’s no accident that when the factory walls came tumbling down, other old regimes – of race, gender, and sexual orientation – began to topple in their wake.

If there’s one flaw in ”Belated Feudalism,” it may be Orren’s optimism about the irreversibility of feudalism’s demise and labor’s gains. For in today’s workplace, as Linder and Nygaard show, the spirit, if not the letter, of the old regime persists. And it may be gaining ground. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1979, 25 percent of employees in medium- to large-sized companies did not have paid rest breaks during which they could go to the bathroom. By 1993, the last year for which there are statistics, that number had jumped to 32 percent. (In 1992, 51 percent of employees working at small firms did not receive paid rest breaks; there are no statistics for earlier years.) Not until April 1998 did the federal government, under pressure from the labor movement, even maintain that employers had to grant employees an ill-defined ”timely access” to the bathroom.

Though most reviewers haven’t picked up on this theme, Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent bestseller ”Nickel and Dimed” offers a startling inventory of contemporary workplace feudalism, where workers are constantly forced to hand over body and soul to employers. Even before workers are hired, drug tests ask for their bodily fluids, surrendered in company bathrooms to proprietary supervisors. Personality tests insist on deep confession: Is the worker prone to self-pity? Does he think people talk about him behind his back? Once hired, employees confront the upstairs-downstairs world of old Europe. One advertisement for a corporate cleaning service brags, ”We clean floors the old-fashioned way – on our hands and knees.” At a Minnesota Wal-Mart, workers are punished for ”time theft” – doing anything besides work on company time – bringing to mind Frederick Douglass’s famous description of himself as a piece of stolen property. (It may be Wal-Mart itself that is stealing time. In class-action lawsuits across 28 states, employees are challenging a ”zero-tolerance” overtime policy that forces employees to clock out at the end of their shifts but then keep working.)

Like so much else in the contemporary economy, feudalism has gone upscale and high tech, eliminating liberal freedoms of speech and association in the wired workplace. Exxon Mobil and Delta have installed a software program on their company computers to ferret out any sign of employee opposition to management authority. The program forwards to managers all employee documents and e-mails – saved or unsaved, sent or unsent – containing ”alert” words like ”boss” or ”union.” As a supervisor explained to the Wall Street Journal, ”The workplace is never free of fear – and it shouldn’t be. Indeed, fear can be a powerful management tool.” So repressive is today’s workplace, wired or not, that Human Rights Watch recently sent Lance Compa of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations there to investigate. What did he find? In the last decade alone, according to federal government statistics, almost 200,000 employees punished for exercising their right to form and participate in a union.

When Walt Whitman heard ”America singing,” he thought he heard the ”varied carols” of independent workers, ”each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” As Orren shows, it’s not clear that was ever true. But today, with the pink slips flying, it’s all too easy for corporate managers to make sure that employees sing only company tunes. As unions start to organize the low and high ends of the service economy, it may prove labor’s task, once again, to force a measure of modernity on this obstinate medieval world.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2002.

When Libertarians Go to Work…

7 Mar

Yesterday, libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez announced that if the right-wing Koch brothers successfully take over the libertarian Cato Institute, where he works, he’ll resign. (According to most reports, the Kochs want Cato to be a more reliable instrument of the Republican cause.) Today, Sanchez criticizes progressives who can’t help noting the irony of libertarians complaining about wealthy people using their money to buy the kind of speech they like.

If Cato is Koch property, progressives say, doesn’t libertarian theory require that the Kochs be allowed to do with it what they will? Silly progressives, says Sanchez. Libertarians aren’t recommending that the Kochs, assuming they have legal title, not be allowed to do whatever they want with Cato. They’re simply saying it’s not a good idea for the Kochs to do whatever they want with Cato—to transform it from the republic of letters libertarians assume to be into the Republican propaganda mill the Kochs would like it to be.  Nothing in libertarian theory precludes libertarians from criticizing how the wealthy use their money.

I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.

If only Sanchez read his own writing as diligently as he reads his critics’. For what’s noteworthy in his “presignation” letter is not his complaints about the Kochs and what they’re trying to do. It’s the remarkable portrait he paints of himself and his workplace, how the coercion he imagines his new bosses wielding would threaten his autonomy and integrity, his very capacity to speak the truth as he sees it:

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

The mere thought that he might “be summoned to the top floor to explain why [he's] ‘off message’”—with the obvious implication that he’ll be fired if he can’t or if he does it again—is enough, for Sanchez, to compromise his ability to do his job as he understands it, which is to tell the truth. So threatening to his independence and autonomy is the future bosses’ power to fire him that Sanchez believes he must flee it—in advance of it even being exercised.

Ever since the nineteenth century, men and women of the left have looked upon this situation and seen coercion, an unjustified abridgment of freedom. (That’s partially what Marx meant when he spoke of the “despotism…of the workshop.”) Ever since they’ve made that claim, men and women of the libertarian right have said the left is wrong. For a great many reasons, one of them being that the men and women who take such jobs do so voluntarily, and that if they don’t like ‘em, they can leave ‘em.

Sanchez probably thinks he’s saying something like that—he doesn’t like what he imagines the Kochs will do, so he’ll quit—but notice how he describes his decision to leave:

As I said, I’m in no great hurry to leave a job I enjoy a lot—so I’m glad this will probably take a while to play out either way.  But since I’m relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids, I figure I may as well say up front that if the Kochs win this one, I will.

Sanchez’s youth, his lack of a mortgage and kids—all these material factors and conditions make his exercise of freedom less costly to him and thus more likely to occur. (Indeed, this afternoon he tweeted, “As I wrote, not in a huge hurry, but have fine options if it comes to that.”) Presumably someone not so unencumbered would not be so likely to exercise her freedom. That, it seems, is the clear implication—the presupposition, in fact—of his claim.

Ordinarily, most libertarians dismiss such talk as blurring the lines between negative liberty (the absence of coercion) and positive liberty (the capacity to act). The latter, they often add, is not a species of liberty at all, but something more akin to power or ability.

But clearly there is coercion in the workplace; Sanchez readily admits it. And clearly its reach—whether it touches the individual worker or not—is related to, indeed depends upon, that worker’s ability to act, in this case to quit. Again, Sanchez admits as much.

So if liberty is the absence of coercion, as many libertarians claim, and if the capacity to act—say, by enjoying material conditions that would free one of the costs that quitting might entail—limits the reach of that coercion, is it not the case that freedom is augmented when people’s ability to act is enhanced?

More to the point: is one’s individual freedom not increased by measures such as unemployment compensation, guaranteed health insurance, public pensions, higher wages, strong unions, state-funded or provided childcare—the whole panoply of social democracy that most libertarians see as not only irrelevant to but an infringement upon individual freedom?

In one sense, of course, the libertarians are right: such measures require taxation and redistribution, limitations on what people can do with their property, all of which do infringe upon some limited group of people’s freedom. But by providing to others some version of the freedom from material constraints that Sanchez already enjoys—state-sponsored childcare, for instance, being in one limited respect the financial inverse of not having children at all—such measures would also enhance the freedom of a great many more.

That, it seems to me, is the great divide between right and left: not that the former stands for freedom, while the latter stands for equality (or statism or whatever), but that the former stands for freedom for the few, while the latter stands for freedom for the many. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.” That’s why libertarians like Sanchez can sense so clearly the impending infringement of his freedom while remaining indifferent to the constraints of others.

It’s also why he can so easily toggle from sincere concern about the Kochs’ power at Cato to sneery condescension about the left’s critique of the Kochs’ power throughout the United States.

I don’t generally subscribe to the popular caricature of the Kochs as supervillains.  For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans.

It never seems to dawn on Sanchez that the very same money power that would lead him—a fairly independent minded writer, who feels free enough from economic constraints that he can quit a well-paying, enjoyable gig merely on suspicion that he might be forced to hold his tongue in the future—to second-guess himself at Cato might have equal if not more effect upon others. When the Kochs wield their money at Cato, that’s hegemony. But when they do it in Wisconsin, that’s democracy.

So when leftists smirk at Sanchez’s cri de coeur, it’s not because we think he’s being hypocritical or inconsistent. It’s because we think he’s telling the truth. Exactly as he sees it.

Update (Wednesday, March 7, 1:30 am)

James Grimmelman, a professor at New York Law School, has a brilliant post on what this little episode of libertarian practice means for the larger libertarian theory, specifically about contracts.

Black Money: On Marxism and Corruption

4 Mar

En route with my daughter to the Purim Carnival, I stopped at my friends Greg and Manu‘s house. Manu’s mother Toshi is visiting from India, and we got to talking about corruption scandals there. Specifically, what people do with money they’ve gotten illegally. Toshi called it “black money”—a phrase I hadn’t heard before. Turns out, it’s a fairly common term.  Here’s one definition:

Proceeds, usually received in cash, from underground economic activity. Black money is earned through illegal activity and, as such, is not taxed. Recipients of black money must hide it, spend it only in the underground economy, or attempt to give it the appearance of legitimacy through illegal money laundering.

Talking about the kind of hoarding people engage in when they have black money—think of the wads of cash you see in Mafia movies—it occurred to me that corruption stands the Marxist theory of capitalism on its head. Or at least two parts of it.

But before I explain how, caveat lector: What follows is the speculation of an amateur. I’ve done no research on corruption, and the Marx I know is the Marx I teach. That is to say, beyond the incidental mention or allusion, I’ve never written about Marx or Marxism, and beyond some secondary reading, I’ve not done any research on Marx or Marxism.

So why do people hoard black money? For the obvious reason that they can’t deposit it in a bank, invest it, or use it for any kind of legal or illegal transaction that would bring it to the attention of the government.

This makes the person who deals in black money similar to a miser, and for Marx, the miser in a capitalist economy is an irrational actor. The proper way to make and accumulate money under capitalism is to put the money one has into circulation. In its simplest form, someone uses money M to buy commodity C and then sells commodity C at a higher price to someone else (Marx’s famous M—C—M′ circuit). As Marx writes in chapter 4 of Capital, Volume One, “It is this movement that converts it [the original money one had and then advances] into capital.”

Movement, or circulation, is the key to profit in capitalism. Where the process of satisfying one’s wants or desires has a discrete terminus—ending with the consumption or use of the desired object—the increase of profit, which depends on circulation, does not. “The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.”

The miser, by contrast, operates under the delusion—though it’s only a delusion under capitalism—that the best way to increase his wealth is by taking his money out of circulation, hoarding it in a mattress or under the floor. Like the capitalist, he’s engaged in an endless quest for more money. And while he’s often represented in literature as mad—possessed by some malignant daemon, driven by some unfathomable end—Marx makes the point that his madness is purely situational, a failure to match his ends with his means. Unlike the capitalist, who shares the same goal of increasing his money, the miser simply doesn’t understand that best way to make money in a capitalist economy is to spend it.

This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

In corruption rings, men and women are as rational as any capitalist, but they’re forced to act with all the madness of a miser. That is, like the capitalist, they correctly estimate their situation, but their situation, unlike that of the capitalist, requires that they hoard. Even if they were to launder their money, which would put their sums into a kind of circulation, that circulation would not do what circulation does under capitalism: it might make their illicit funds clean, but it wouldn’t increase those funds.

There’s a second way in which corruption turns the Marxist theory of capitalism on its head. In his early “humanist” writings, specifically the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx was obsessed with the ways in which money and its pursuit distorted men and women. We pursue money in order to possess something, but ultimately money possesses us. It turns our weaknesses into strengths, our assets into liabilities. It makes us into what we are not, and makes what we are not into who we are.

The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers—the properties and powers of its possessor. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money….I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has power over talented people not more talented than the talented? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money therefore transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Marx called this power of money to turn “fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy” the “fraternization of impossibilities.”

Money, in other words, constituted a profound form, or instrument, of untruth. It was the ultimate deceiver, the greatest liar, for it had the capacity to transform that which is into that which isn’t and vice versa.

In the case of corruption, however, money is the great instrument of truth, at least potentially. It is the most tangible sign of some ill-gotten gain, of some illicit or criminal activity. That is why its possessor must go to such lengths to hide it by hoarding or laundering it.

The possessor of black money has something for which he cannot account, at least not legally. If he deposits it in a bank, the government will ask how he came by it, and that is a question he cannot—or does not want to—answer. The law of equivalence in monetary exchange—the rule that for every dollar I possess someone has to have given up one dollar—ensures that the truth will out (a phrase, perhaps not coincidentally, deriving from a play obsessed with money and its equivalences). The equivalences that money engineers, which Marx saw as so much mystification, become in corruption scandals the sources of demystification. The M—C—M′ circuit, which Marx treats as a sign of an almost ontological disorder, a cosmic diremption, becomes, in the case of corruption, the sign, the guideposts, by which order is restored.

Skeptics will point out that Marx is talking about capitalism, not corruption (though it’s clear in his early writings that he sees capitalism as a mode of corruption, at least in the literal sense of the term).  But as Manu pointed out, corruption and neoliberalism—the ur form of capitalism—often go hand in hand. While corruption certainly preceded neoliberalism, it’s also part of the everyday life of neoliberalism.

In fact, one can posit an interesting relationship between neoliberalism and corruption. On the one hand, prior to the onset of neoliberal regimes, corruption is often used to justify the push toward privatization and marketization, on the assumption that the free market would not allow for the kinds of shenanigans that a state-run economy encourages and fosters. (Just think how the classic films about corruption—On the Waterfront, Serpico, Chinatown—color our view of institutions like labor unions and the state; one wonders if such films, particularly the later ones, didn’t ultimately have something to do with the conservative turn of the 1970s.) On the other hand, the loss of state-provided resources that neoliberalism entails often push men and women to make up for that loss through corruption. That, it certainly seems, is what’s happening throughout so much of the world where the state has been downsized.

As Manu also pointed out—this, I think, is an especially acute insight—the hoarding practices of corruption mimic an earlier mode of capitalism, mercantilism, where accumulation and wealth are achieved not through circulation but through stockpiling. I’m not sure where we want to go with that, but it does suggest something I’ve mused on before: neoliberalism doesn’t represent a great leap forward so much as a great leap backward.

So, some questions for you readers:

  1. Are there Marxist theories of or writings about corruption? What are the best ones?
  2. What kind of theorizations have there been about the relationship between neoliberalism and corruption? Am I right—remember, I’m just a piker on these matters—that there’s relationship between the two, or at least that there’s been an uptick with the shift to neoliberalism?
  3. This seems like the kind of thing David Graeber would have a lot of smart things to say about. Has he? (Haven’t read Debt or most of his other writings.)

Isn’t It Romantic? Burke, Maistre, and Conservatism

3 Mar


Over at The American Conservative, political theorist Sam Goldman offers a thoughtful response to The Reactionary Mind. Among its many virtues, Goldman’s post manages to get my argument right. As we’ve seen, that can be something of a challenge for some reviewers.

Goldman also agrees with me on some fundamentals. Conservatism, he says, is a reactionary ideology. It is a defense of hierarchy against emancipatory movements from below. It’s not a disposition or an attitude; it’s not a philosophy of liberty or even of limited government.  (It supports the idea of limited government, Goldman says, but that’s a consequence, not a premise, of the theory.)  It is first and foremost a coherent set of ideas about inequality that gets forged in the crucible of revolution.

Where some liberal and moderate writers react to my argument with all the rage of a blasphemed church—even though they’re not members—here we have one of our more serious right-wing journals calmly taking my claims in order and agreeing with a great many of them. Interesting.

But Goldman has two criticisms of my book. First, he doesn’t think I do justice to the conservative critique of revolution and defense of hierarchy. Goldman doesn’t claim that what I say about that critique is wrong (though that might be out of mere politeness on his part.) Instead, he says:

Robin is so eager to make the connection between past and present that he does not develop the classic [conservative] position in detail. A “consistent and profound argument” deserves careful analysis. In The Reactionary Mind, we get a few intriguing but not exactly dispositive quotes from Burke and his Francophone disciple Joseph de Maistre.

Goldman’s second criticism follows from his first. Because conservatism is, in his account, a critique of any politics that rests its claims to legitimacy on the need for consent—a politics, Goldman suggests, that includes not only revolutionary Jacobinism but also liberalism and contemporary conservatism—it has nothing to do with contemporary conservatism.

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much….Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.

I’ll confess to feeling slightly disoriented in reading that statement, coming on the heels of a two-week controversy over the right of women to sexual autonomy, in which the Catholic Church has played a not insignificant part. Goldman seems to think the center of gravity of the American conservative movement is to be found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia—an error all too common among political theorists who don’t know much American or European history and don’t keep up with the facts on the right-wing ground. I’m not saying that’s true of Goldman—I suspect it’s not—but it’s definitely true of a great many political theorists. (Mark Lilla’s comments about the contemporary conservative movement in his review of my book, for example, were positively wince-inducing to anyone who’s read the historiography.) In any event, I’m confident I provide plentiful evidence in the book demonstrating the continuities between the classic and the contemporary position, so I won’t dwell on that part of Goldman’s article here.

Let me focus instead on Goldman’s characterization of the classic position, particularly the role of history in the arguments of Burke and the notion of sovereignty in the arguments of de Maistre. Goldman’s is an influential if standard account, for good reasons. So while much of this will seem like fairly rarified intellectual history, it’s important that we have this discussion because I fear that certain set pieces of academic political theory are preventing us from getting clear on the nature of the contemporary right.

Burke and History

Goldman’s account of Burke’s theory of history is, as I said, a fairly standard one, for good reasons, so it’s worth giving it some space here:

Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians….But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from the way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

Now it’s certainly true that Burke puts a great store on the value of history and tradition. (Though it’s also true, as I show in my book and have argued repeatedly since its publication, that Burke can be positively scathing about the role of history and tradition—a point Goldman steers clear of in his piece. This becomes a bit problematic later in his article, when Goldman talks about the virtues that are acquired by those who are longstanding witnesses to power; for Burke, that kind of experience can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Again, something I’ve already talked about at length, so I won’t dwell on it here.) But I think Goldman, like many interpreters of Burke, misses the point of what Burke says about history and tradition.

Goldman assimilates Burke to a standard communitarian position, which holds that our history, culture, and inheritance make us who we are. It’s a root theory of identity, in which the past and society more generally are the soil and seed of our personhood and agency, the condition of our possibility without which we would be stumbling in the dark, unable to find our way.

The problem with this claim is twofold. First, it’s not a particularly conservative claim. Nor did Burke, assuming he made it, originate it. As Sankar Muthu has argued, both Diderot and Kant were firm in the conviction that men and women were not the isolated monads of a stereotypical Enlightenment but “cultural agents.”  That view—this is me now talking—had little bearing on their predilection or aversion to radical politics: Diderot was a key inspiration of the French Revolution, Kant a prominent defender. And as Alex Gourevitch noted in his critique of Lilla’s review of my book, one can find versions of that rootedness position throughout the liberal and radical tradition, from the nineteenth century onward; no necessarily conservative conclusions—at least not in the reactionary sense that Goldman agrees is essential to conservatism—follow from it. It simply doesn’t tell us very much that’s distinctive about conservatism.

More important, it misses what’s most interesting in Burke’s account of our historical being. To fully appreciate that account, one has to understand the kind of moral psychology Burke lays out much earlier in his career in his essay on The Sublime and the Beautiful. Forgive the very long quotation from my book, but it helps situate what I’m about to say about Burke’s view of history.

The Sublime and the Beautiful begins on a high note, with a discussion of curiosity, which Burke identifies as “the first and simplest emotion.” The curious race “from place to place to hunt out something new.” Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, “with less and less of any agreeable effect.” Novelty diminishes: how much, really, is there new in the world? Curiosity “exhausts” itself. Enthusiasm and engagement give way to “loathing and weariness.” Burke moves on to pleasure and pain, which are supposed to transform the quest for novelty into experiences more sustaining and profound. But rather than a genuine additive to curiosity, pleasure offers more of the same: a moment’s enthusiasm, followed by dull malaise. “When it has run its career,” Burke says, pleasure “sets us down very nearly where it found us.” Any kind of pleasure “quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference.” Quieter enjoyments, less intense than pleasure, are equally soporific. They generate complacency; we “give ourselves over to indolence and inaction.” Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. We bring ourselves to the world, and the world is brought to us. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us “and so on in an eternal circle.” In a world of imitators, “there never could be any improvement.” Such “men must remain as brutes do, the same at the end that they are at this day, and that they were in the beginning of the world.”

Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge, but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for “melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder.” Even love, the most outward of raptures, carries the self back to a state of internal dissolution. Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone who takes pleasure in the world as it is.

If the self is to survive and flourish it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. Pleasure and enjoyment act like beauty, “relaxing the solids of the whole system.”  That system, however, must be made taut and tense. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted. Otherwise, the system will soften and atrophy, and ultimately die. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with non-being. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: “they make no such impression” on the self because “we were not made to acquiesce in life and health.” Pain and danger, by contrast, are “emissaries” of death, the “king of terrors.” They are sources of the sublime, “the strongest”—most powerful, most affecting—“emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”  Pain and danger, in other words, are generative experiences of the self.

Pain and danger are generative because they have the contradictory effect of minimizing and maximizing our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, our mind “is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” The “motions” of our soul “are suspended,” as harm and the fears it arouses “rush in upon the mind.” In the face of these fears, “the mind is hurried out of itself.” When we experience the sublime, we feel ourselves evacuated, overwhelmed by an external object of tremendous power and threat. Everything that gave us a sense of internal being and vitality ceases to exist. The external is all, we are nothing. God is a good example, and the ultimate expression, of the sublime: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”

Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent we never have felt it before. Seized by terror, our “attention” is roused and our “faculties” are “driven forward, as it were, on their guard.” We are pulled out of ourselves. We are cognizant of the immediate terrain and our presence upon it. Before, we barely noticed ourselves or our surroundings. Now we spill out of ourselves, inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but the space around us. We feel “a sort of swelling”—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further—that “is extremely grateful to the human mind.” But this “swelling,” Burke reminds us, “is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects.”

In the face of the sublime, the self is annihilated, occupied, crushed, overwhelmed; in the face of the sublime, the self is heightened, aggrandized, magnified. Whether the self can truly occupy such opposing, almost irreconcilable, poles of experience at the same time—it is this contradiction, the oscillation between wild extremes, that generates a strong and strenuous sense of self. As Burke writes elsewhere, intense light resembles intense darkness not only because it blinds the eye and thus approximates darkness, but also because both are extremes. And extremes, particularly opposing extremes, are sublime because sublimity “in all things abhors mediocrity.” The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of self hood.

Burke, it should be clear from this discussion, has an extraordinarily subtle and supple theory of human nature, in which the experience of selfhood is especially fragile and fraught. If we now apply this account to what he has to say in the Reflections about the relationship of the self to history, we find two critical points.

First, far from situating an integrated self in the warm and loamy soil of a nurturing history, Burke’s history is an altogether more enigmatic, impenetrable, and agitated affair. Listen to the old man:

Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.

History is permanence and flux, birth and decay. At each and every moment, we inhabit three modes of time: past, present, and future. The self is not simply situated in time; it is distended by time. The implication of that kind of temporality is that multiplicity and fragmentation—not integration or rootedness—are the essence of our experience. Flux and fluidity—those proverbial specters of postmodernity—haunt the Burkean self, making for the kind of sublimity that Burke believes is necessary to sustain the self in the face of its ever present and irrepressible drive toward death.

History, in short, is not the root of our identity, making us who we are; it’s the contradictory poles of our experience, forever pushing and pulling us in opposite directions. History is the extremity that threatens us with fragmentation and thereby makes it possible for us to feel, however fleetingly, the potential density and perimeter of our being.

Second, Burke sees in the past a great weight. But far from intimating some kind of plodding traditionalism or conventionalism, that weight is also suggestive of the sublime:

Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. The idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are first acquirers of any distinction. But this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree, and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings, and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles.

Notice that this is not a simple theory of history’s constraints. It’s not that history limits our freedom; it’s that that limit enlarges and magnifies our freedom. It gives it depth, majesty, grandeur, awe—“an awful gravity.” The weight of the past does not simply weigh down on the present; it gives weight to a present that would otherwise be weightless. Through that weight, the present—and the small selves of that present—acquires largeness, profundity, extent. (The backdrop of religious notions of awe should be obvious here; in fact, later in the Reflections Burke makes oblique allusion to the story of Noah and his sons, particularly Shem and Japheth, when he says that one “should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”)

So what function is history serving for Burke? Rather than securing for us an identity, without which we would be at sea, history is the source of sublimity, of dissonant experience and agonistic passion, without which we would be dead. Not because history is the secure ground of everyday experience but because it subverts the secure ground of everyday experience. The real threat lurking beneath the revolutionary assault on history, to Burke’s mind, is not anarchy or disorder; it’s weightlessness, the—to be sure, avant la lettre—proverbial emptiness and existential nausea of modernity that later theorists like Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Schmitt will lament. And while that sense of weightlessness is by no means exclusive to the right, the connections that Burke draws between it and the antinomian forces of egalitarian revolution is. (“This is one among the revolutions which have given splendour to obscurity,” Burke writes in the Reflections, “and distinction to undiscerned merit.” Revolution flattens the world by pressing its extremities of high and low together; inequality keeps them apart, endowing the world with texture and depth.)

It’s important that we not assimilate, as do Goldman and many others, Burke’s theory of history to an anodyne communitarian position in part because we will overlook the much more turbulent and novel theory that is being forged there, a theory that doesn’t look backward to the eighteenth century but forward, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It’s also important because we’ll fail to see the ways in which Burke—and other “classic” conservatives—stand at the headwaters of what will become the raging torrent of the radical right, in Europe and the US. In Burke’s focus on constraint and overcoming, we see not only glimmers of the figures I mention in the previous paragraph but also, as I show in my book, glimmers of the economics of Ayn Rand and the jurisprudence of Antonin Scalia.

Maistre and Sovereignty

We can see this forward-looking dimension even more clearly in another “classic” conservative figure Goldman discusses: Joseph de Maistre.  Here’s Goldman (again quoting him at length):

Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.

The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.

Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.

But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.

Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.

Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.

Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”

The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.

I’ve already indicated, here and elsewhere, why I think this account of the virtues of the Burkean gentleman is at best incomplete. But when it comes to Maistre, it’s, well, not particularly Maistrean. In his St. Petersburg Dialogues, to cite only one example (I discuss Maistre’s Considerations on France in my book, so I won’t repeat that here), Maistre offers a chilling account of power and its exercise that looks very little like the picture Goldman paints here.

Maistre opens the Dialogues by saying, “God, wanting to govern men by men, at least exteriorly, has handed over to sovereigns the eminent prerogative of punishing crimes, and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives.” To the casual reader, this sounds conventional enough: the sovereign is God’s anointed representative on earth. But Maistre’s focus on punishment—“and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives”—strikes a discordant note. With the exception of Nietzsche and Foucault, possibly Bentham, no modern political theorist has ever placed so much emphasis on the potency and power of punishment. For Maistre, punishment is not the unfortunate sign of a fallen world, a sad concession to a corrupt reality; it’s an endlessly generative postulate with enormous creative potential.

Quoting from an English translation of the Indian “laws of Manu,” Maistre goes on to write:

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.

Notice the subtle inversions and subversions. We’ve gone from the sovereign being God’s anointed on earth, especially in his capacity to punish, to punishment now being the “true manager of public affairs.” The significance of that shift will become clear momentarily, but for now it should alert us to the fact that this is hardly a standard account of sovereignty we’re seeing. Where punishment was first a capacity, albeit a critical one, of sovereignty, it is now sovereignty itself.

Also notice Maistre’s dig at conventional political authority: “punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep.” Who are these guards? What are they guarding? It’s not entirely clear, but what Maistre may be suggesting is that the customary protectors of men and women—kings and magistrates and constables—may not be up to the task. They are asleep (Maistre voices that suspicion, so common to the conservative tradition, that established elites and rulers are decadent and dissolute.) Punishment is the real protector.

But who or what is “punishment” if not the king and his agents? According to Maistre, it is a figure of a tremendously frightful and awful countenance: the executioner.

And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears. God, who is the author of sovereignty, is therefore also the author of punishment.

Two things are going in this passage. First, Maistre has completely shifted the source of order and sovereignty: it’s not the king wielding punishment, it’s the punisher himself. The executioner is not the king’s agent; it’s the reverse, with the executioner now standing in direct relation to God. The world has been turned upside down, possibly reflecting Maistre’s own absorption of the Revolution’s democratic ethos. (As I argue in my book, conservatism often works by borrowing from the very revolution it opposes.)

Second, and even more suggestive, in claiming that violence is the source of order, Maistre registers the newly dynamic and turbulent world of democratic history—a revolutionary world, as I noted in my first book Fear: The History of Political Idea, where dynasties rose and fell within a matter of years, if not months—that Burke points to in his Reflections.

As the word suggests, violence hints at movement or change: there’s the physical fact that violence requires the movement of bodies acting upon other bodies; there’s also the fact that violence is used to engineer change—war, for example—or signifies that a change, a violation, has occurred and needs to be remedied—as is the case in punishment.

Kings rest their power on God, tradition, law: these are things of stability, if not permanence. To say that the violence of the executioner governs the world is to say that something more active, more dynamic, is necessary to maintain the world as it is. The very features that Goldman maintains are essential, in the conservative argument, to the long-term stability and security of a polity are, for Maistre (and for Burke, as I’ve argued elsewhere), its liabilities.

As Maistre proceeds to describe the executioner, these inversions of sovereignty become even clearer—and, oddly, more democratic.  Or at least more plebeian.  Who is this executioner? He is “in effect, found everywhere.” He’s a family man. He’s a professional: he cares about his job, he does it well, he likes to get paid. He’s an everyman; he eats, he sleeps. “He is made like us; he is born like us.”

And yet there’s something uncanny and extraordinary about him.  He’s chosen this awful profession for reasons that no one can fathom (the fact that he’s chosen it also suggests that he is a creature of this new democratic world where men choose their professions.) He’s not only inscrutable; his very existence is sui generis: “For him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power.  He is created as a law on to himself.” Much like Schmitt’s later discussions of sovereignty in Political Theology (“Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothingness”), the executioner is the closest thing on earth to the Creation itself: the making of something from nothing.

And there is, finally, the grisliness of his chosen task, which Maistre does not shrink from describing:

An abject minister of justice knocks on his door to warn him that he is needed. He sets out. He arrives at a public square packed with a pressing and panting crowd. He is thrown a poisoner, a parricide, a blasphemer. He seizes him, stretches him out, ties him to a horizontal cross, and raises his arms. Then there is a horrible silence, there is no sound but the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unties him and carries him to a wheel. The broken limbs are bound to the spokes, the head hangs down, the hair stands on end, and the mouth gaping like a furnace, occasionally emits a few bloody words begging for death. He has finished; his heart is pounding, but it is with joy. He congratulates himself. He says in his heart, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he holds out his bloodstained hand, and justice throws him from afar a few gold coins, which he carries away through a double row of men drawing back in horror. He sits down to table and eats; then he goes to bed and sleeps.

There’s are lot more of this kind of stuff in the St. Petersburg Dialogues—“the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life;” “there is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another”; tables piled with corpses, museums built out of bones; the kind of stuff that makes Adorno’s (really Brecht’s) observation that high culture is “built on dogshit” look mild by comparison—as well as in the Considerations. But you get the picture.

We are, in other words, far away from Goldman’s world of squires and generals, of limited government and restraint. Whether we are in the world of the Blitzkrieg and the Konzentrationslager, as Isaiah Berlin famously suggested, is another question.

What’s not in question is that this is not a world that the contemporary right would find entirely foreign. This valorization of violence as a creative force, as I show in my book, plays a critical role in neoconservative thought. The mixing of high and low, the transfiguration of patrician into plebeian and vice versa—this also plays a critical role in contemporary conservatism.

But more interesting to me is the figure of the executioner himself: this miraculous appearance from nowhere, inscrutable yet democratic, self-willed and self-created, this lowly, uncredentialed being upon whom kings depend and sovereignty hangs, that is sovereignty itself. As I’ve suggested in some interviews, the reason Sarah Palin is/was such a suggestive figure on the right is precisely that she reflects this romance of the extraordinary ordinary. Like the executioner—and Joan of Arc, who occupies such a central place in the French radical right—she comes from nowhere, acts for inscrutable reasons, is unlicensed and untutored, and yet, to her followers, is ready to assume command of the free world. Her lack of interest and preparation in political matters only seem to confirm, in the eyes of her admirers, her fitness to rule.

All in all, this is an extremely romantic view of power: turbulent, tormented, stormy.  It has its own logic and integrity, but it also has tremendous potency as a political ideal. For it manages, in one single figure, to embody the central imperative of conservative politics: to provide a defense of hierarchical rule for a democratic age.


Just My Imagination

1 Mar


The smaller bonus checks that hit accounts across the financial-services industry this month are making it difficult to maintain the lifestyles that Wall Street workers expect, according to interviews with bankers and their accountants, therapists, advisers and headhunters.

“People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,” said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. “Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?”

Nope, I can’t imagine it.

Maybe these guys could:


Or maybe this guy.



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