Tag Archives: Alex Gourevitch

Yes, You Can Be Fired for Liking My Little Pony

30 Sep
My Little Pony

My Little Pony

My daughter loves My Little Pony. So does this guy. And that, apparently, is a problem. Grown men are not supposed to like the same things as young girls.

The guy—though Gawker has done a story on him, he remains anonymous—is a dad in his late 30s. He calls himself “a fairly big fan.” He made the picture of one of the show’s characters the background image on his desktop. He talked to the boss’s 9-year-old daughter about the show. His co-workers, and the boss, got freaked out. According to the guy, the boss told him that “it’s weird and it makes people uncomfortable that I have a ‘tv show for little girls as a background.’”

Now he’s been fired.

After talking to several folks, I’m still not clear why people are freaked out by this guy. Is it the gender non-comformity? If so, you better revise your sense of what’s normal because, as the Washington Post reports, an increasing number of dudes are loving the show. There’s even a FB page called “The Christian Libertarian Brony.” (The creator of the page writes: “On this page I post stuff about Austrian economics, Christian libertarianism/Christian anarcho-capitalism, MLP:FiM & GMOs!”)

Or is it the hint of pedophilia? If so, would you be nervous if a grown man had a passion for Little League or superhero comics? Enough to fire him?

Others have told me it’s the Peter Pan syndrome: guys like this just seem like they’ve never grown up. Unlike, apparently, every other dude on the internet.

Regardless of what buttons are being set off by this guy, the story just confirms a point some of us have been making over and over again: the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around. It’s a place where, whatever the niceties and pieties of our allegedly tolerant culture may be, bosses and supervisors get to act out—and on—their most regressive anxieties and fears. It’s a playground of cultural and political recidivism, where men and women (but more often men) are given the tools to inflict and enforce their beliefs, their style, their values upon their employees.

Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I have tried to use these extreme cases to point to a more systemic underlying problem of power and domination in the workplace. It’s not merely that bosses are intolerant assholes, though clearly many of them are. It’s that they get to be intolerant assholes because the workplace is set up that way. Not by accident, or in the exception, but by design. In the typical American workplace, you can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. By law.

And so we come back to the Gawker piece. As Nathan Newman pointed out to me, every time a story like this comes out, there’s a frenzy of commentary, where people wonder whether or not this kind of thing is illegal, why doesn’t the employee sue, and so on. Most people seem to think that First Amendment-ish freedoms—the freedom of not merely speech but of expression, of personal style, etc.—apply in the workplace. They don’t. And while there are a host of protections for protected categories of workers, those constitute a limited number of cases.* The vast majority of cases of workplace coercion are simply not covered by federal or state law (though see this article by Eugene Volokh for a counterpoint; his focus, however, is on exclusively political speech). Unless you have a union, which ensures that you can only be fired for just cause, you’re often screwed.

Here’s the bottom line: in most American workplaces, the boss can fire any brony who loves My Little Pony. It’s totally legal. And that’s the problem.

* I asked Nathan, who’s an expert on labor and employment law, whether or not this guy could make some kind of claim based on gender discrimination, i.e., that he was fired for being insufficiently masculine, along the lines of a woman claiming she was fired for being insufficiently feminine. Here’s what he wrote back:

That’s the only plausible argument but few lawsuits on that basis have been successful, even for women arguing they are insufficiently feminine—unless they can show it’s part of an overall bias against women in general. But where no clear bias against women and men in hiring and promotion, differential dress codes and other biases based on gender that do not burden their performance of work would generally be legal. That’s one reason why state (and ideally federal) gay and transgender anti-discrimination laws are needed.

He then sent me to this article—“Sexual Orientation, Gender Nonconformity, and Trait-Based  Discrimination: Cautionary Tales From Title VII & An  Argument for Inclusion”—by Angela Clements from the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, which I have not yet read.

Wow, Tyler Cowen, How Much Paper Do They Steal at GMU? And Other Responses to the Libertarians

13 Jul

Since my last roundup on the response to Chris Bertram’s, Alex Gourevitch’s, and my piece on workplace tyranny, there’s been a lot of action. But before I get to that, there are a couple of dispatches from the front that are just doozies.

Down in Australia, a company issues guidelines for how its employees ought to keep their work stations clean:

Cold soup can be freely enjoyed in communal hubs on each floor, but hot soup is only permitted on the “top deck”, an area devoted to eating and socialising on level 45 with sweeping views of the city and beyond.

While gum, throat lozenges and lollies can be consumed at desks, the privilege does not extend to “chocolate, fruit, nuts and other nibble food”.

No plants can be brought in from home to avoid “unintended plant ­diseases or create maintenance issues” and although flowers can be kept for a “short period”, the company will not be supplying vases.

Each staff member is allowed to have a single photo frame of A5 size on their desk permanently or, in lieu of a photograph, a framed work-­related award of similar dimensions.

On the matter of photo frames, digital versions are allowed so long as they are A5, that is 148mm x 210mm, or smaller.

The photo issue comes into play if you are lucky enough to win a framed award. Employees are allowed to have the award on display during the day, but each evening “the clear desk policy will apply”. The way around this is if the award is “A5 or less in size”. This means you “may choose to have this as your photo frame that can be left out over night”.

Similarly, if an individual is a “warden”, “first responder” or “zero harm champion” they will receive appropriate signage for their desks. Along with level 45, which has been described as being like an airport business lounge, it is also ­permissible to eat hot food on the ­level 4 terrace.

In fact, staff are encouraged to bring their own meat to barbecue for lunch. Raw meat will be stored in ­designated fridges to ensure proper handling and hygiene.

Across the pond, 35 employees of France Telecom killed themselves over a two-year period in response, it seems, to workplace tyranny (and struggles over bathroom breaks).

Harrowing details emerged of the mental anguish of staff who killed themselves, including one who set himself alight in front of his office in western France. Some workers left notes blaming unbearable work pressure, bullying and “management by terror” while scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves. One worker was found unconscious after taking an overdose at her desk.

Unions complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and thereby cut costs.

During the crisis over the number of staff deaths, Lombard caused outrage by referring to it as a “suicide trend”. He is now accused of advocating tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment.

The legal case is a first in France because Lombard is not being singled out for personally targeting individuals but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company. It is the first time a French chief executive has been placed under judicial investigation in a workplace bullying case.

In February 2010, government labour inspectors said a restructuring plan that sought to reduce the company’s headcount by 22,000 and put 10,000 other workers in new positions had a “pathological effect” on staff morale.

One worker in Troyes was so desperate over the pressure of forced moves that he stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting. Others killed themselves at their workplace, some in the middle of the working day.

One 51-year-old who had a senior job working on Orange’s networks wrote before his death that the “only reason” he killed himself was work: “I have become a wreck,” he wrote.

Call centre workers said they had to ask permission to go to the toilet and file a written explanation for going one minute over a lunch break. Senior staff described being subjected ti bullying and being repeatedly forced to move job.

And, last, an employee complained to Dear Prudence about her boss, the head of a non-profit.

Our president is a big personality and often tries to treat employees as friends, whether they like it or not. She makes jokes that are highly inappropriate and she bullies our more timid employees. Last week she took things to a whole new level. In an attempt to scare a female employee who’s been the victim of some of her bullying, she snuck up behind her and planned to give the employee a soft tug on her skirt. What actually happened was that the employee’s skirt came off her waist and exposed her underwear. Immediately afterward the president repeatedly told the depantsed employee “not to tell anyone.”

Prudence’s response is revealing in its own right: despite her best intentions, she can’t help but show just how impotent employees are in the face of this kind of crap.

But what truly caught my eye is that the non-profit in question is said to be funded by…the Koch brothers.  You remember the Kochs: the libertarians whose attempted takeover of Cato launched this whole goddam debate about workplace coercion to begin with. Circle of life.

Okay, enough reality.  Back to the theory.

The Bleeding Hearts continue to respond to our post: Jason Brennan, Jacob Levy, Matt Zwolinski, and Roderick Long.

Some good stuff from the Lawyers, Guns, and Money crowd that I missed on a previous update, though I could do without the Judith Shkar/cruelty line, for reasons I explored here.

Brad DeLong has a nice summary of the state of play.

Mike Konczal has great stuff on quitting and the UBI, though see this interesting counterpoint from Daniel MacDonald, who’s also responding to Alex Tbarrok.

Speaking of which, Tbarrok has some new, um, stuff, where he says thinks like this:

All else equal, an improvement in workplace conditions will reduce wages.

And this:

People exposed to a higher risk of sexual harassment are paid more, just as people exposed to a higher risk of death are paid more.

Because, you know, all those women who are at higher risk of sexual harassment than men tend to be paid more than men. And all those lawyers and upper-level managers, who enjoy better workplace conditions, tend to pay for that in the form of low wages.

Tbarrok was responding to this blistering post from Henry Farrell. Alas, Tbarrok’s post only produced this blistering reply from Peter Dorman.  Also see this from Frank Pasquale.

Tyler Cowen is still on the scene, offering this and thisFarrell responds to Cowen.

But while we’re on the topic of Cowen.  Remember when he was fretting about all those thieving workers at George Mason University, where he teaches?

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store.  They made me wear a tie.  They did not let me curse.  Even if there was no work at the moment, I could not appear to be obviously slacking for fear of setting a bad example.  They had the right to search me, including for illegal drugs.  I suspect that “contract indeterminacies” gave them other rights too.

The company kept each and every one of its promises to me and they paid me on time every two weeks.  The company also taught me a lot.  I honor that company to this day.  I also did my best to keep each and every promise to them.

What I did observe was massive employee shirking, rampant drug use including what appeared to be on the job, regular rule-breaking, and a significant level of employee theft, sometimes in cahoots with customers.

I understand full well that’s only one anecdote and only one side of the picture, and yes the company did fire vulnerable workers and quite possibly not always with just cause.  Still I get uncomfortable when this other side of the story is ignored.  When I hear the phrase “workplace coercion,” the first thing I think of is employee theft, estimated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at over $50 billion a year.

Addendum: If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.  Make that two anecdotes.

That prompted one of the commenters on my blog to ask: “Wow, how much paper do they steal at GMU?”

Turns out, probably not much.  Most workplace theft, according to this piece in the Guardian, is committed by the bosses, not the workers.

If fraud is usually an inside job, most of it is perpetrated by the bosses of companies involved, according to research by accountants KPMG.

Fraud committed from within organisations by management or employees made up 61% of the value of all cases in the accountancy firm’s latest fraud barometer, covering the first six months of 2012.

Finance directors, chief executives and other senior managers were responsible for 55%, by value, of all the cases KPMG analysed. The level of fraud by management has remained stubbornly stable, at £206m.

Perhaps Cowen ought to pay less attention to that janitor stealing a roll of toilet paper and more attention to his university’s board of trustees.

And, last, here’s a word from Julian Sanchez, who started this whole thing off.

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Endless Arguments about It on the Internet

4 Jul

The Crooked Timber post on libertarianism and freedom that Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I wrote has been heating up the interwebs. So much so that the three of us have now been dubbed “BRG.”  We’ll be responding in due time, but for now here’s a roundup of all the links.

Tyler Cowen: “I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?…If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.” [As one wag on Twitter said in response: "I tend to be more sympathetic to libertarians than @coreyrobin, but it's like Tyler Cowen is *trying* to prove his thesis."

Alex Tabarrok: "Workers have more rights than employers since workers are not subject to anti-discrimination law; that is, employers are prohibited from discriminating against African American workers but workers are not prohibited from discriminating against African American employers." [In 2007, 7.1 percent of all non-farm businesses were owned by African Americans. They hired 921,032 workers, constituting 0.8% of all paid employment in the US. Admittedly, I'm not an economist, but something tells me that the real force protecting whites from having to work for blacks is not the absence of anti-discrimination laws compelling them to do so but the fact that black people, on the whole, don't have enough money to hire white people.]

Arnold King: “Just be careful about assuming that there must be a perfect option. For example, if the exit option is imperfect, that does not mean that the voice option works perfectly. My own view is that neither option is perfect.” [Our own view is that neither option is perfect either. We aren't saying exit isn't a potential antidote against workplace tyranny, just that it isn't sufficient.]

John Holbo: Excellent restatement and elaboration of our thesis via a nimble use of Hayek: “Freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom….So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom….What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.”

Adam Ozimek: “I think a major point of this entire debate is that liberals wish libertarians to admit that overall freedom can be increased by restricting some freedoms. I don’t have any problem admitting this is possible, but I also don’t think it matters much in the real world.”

Jessica Flanigan: “BRG propose law, regulation, and economic democracy. They call it more voice. I call it more bosses. I see that BRG have a different conception of rights and freedom. What I still don’t see is why workplace democracy and regulation would be liberating on any conception of freedom. Why are these self-proclaimed liberals are so hostile to the UBI?…How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?” [Again, we're not hostile to the UBI; we just don't think it does all the work that the Bleeding Hearts think it does. We also don't think they've fully faced up to the taxation and redistribution issues it raises.]

Matt Yglesias: “My standard approach to this is that in almost all political contexts, including this one, both the concept of freedom and the concept of property rights are red herrings.”

And while this article by Josh Eidelson on Facebook firings is not a response to our piece, it’s certainly worth mentioning in this context.

So that’s it, for now.

Libertarianism’s Cold, Cold Heart

1 Jul

For some time, I’ve been going back and forth with the libertarians, trying to suss out the extent of their commitment to freedom. As readers of this blog know, I don’t think it extends very far. While libertarianism may begin as a critique of state coercion in the name of personal liberty, it invariably ends up as an apologia for the absence of freedom in large parts of most people’s lives.

But over the last few months, I’ve gotten some interesting push-back from one of the more thoughtful subsets of that crew—the Bleeding Heart Libertarians— who insist that their commitment to freedom is real, even in places like the workplace.

In a new piece just posted over at Crooked Timber, I join forces with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch to examine more carefully the claims of these Bleeding Hearts.  And what do we find?  Take it away, Tony Bennett.

 

 

And if that’s not clear enough for you, here are some excerpts from the Crooked Timber post:

Given this awareness that freedom can be diminished by private action, one might think libertarians would reject a state of affairs in which large portions of the population endure daily subjection to the commands of others. Especially when those issuing orders give their subjects detailed instructions on how to live their lives and are in a position to threaten them with severe negative consequences should they disobey. But one would be wrong.

Whether or not libertarians are consistent in their understanding of workplace coercion, there is little doubt that they are confused about or indifferent to its presence and reality. Indeed, the ease with which [Bleeding Heart Matt] Zwolinski, like Murray Rothbard before him, subsumes “the power” employers “have over their workers” under the category of “the freedom of employers”—a move with a long lineage in the history of both wage and bonded labor—suggests how far we have to go before the Bleeding Hearts establish that theirs is not simply the same old black heart of libertarianism we all know.

Outside a unionized workplace or the public sector, what most workers are agreeing to when they sign an employment contract is the alienation of many of their basic rights (speech, privacy, association, and so on) in exchange for pay and benefits. They may think they’re only agreeing to do a specific job, but what they are actually agreeing to do is to obey the commands and orders of their boss. It’s close to a version of Hobbesian contract theory—“The end of obedience is protection”—in which the worker gets money, benefits, and perhaps security in exchange for a radical alienation of her will.

The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving….But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year. Even libertarians—at least the sane ones—believe that there are some things you cannot consent to, like slavery, and still retain your freedom….In those cases, the contract is freedom canceling, not freedom preserving. And it’s not the desperate conditions—which give rise to the contract—that make it freedom canceling; it’s the contract itself.

On the back end, the limitations of exit as an instrument of freedom can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose Canada were a dictatorship, but the United States welcomed anyone who wished to leave, paid for her ticket and promised her a job. Would that mean that anyone who stayed behind was free? Or think about the implicit contract at the heart of ethnic cleansing: exit and live; stay and die. Now it’s undoubtedly true that exit is better than no exit—ethnic cleansing being better than genocide—in that it limits the reach of coercion. But it’s not true that exit lessens coercion and increases freedom among those who stay. Surely we don’t want to claim that those Jews who refused to flee the pogroms of tsarist Russia were somehow free.

Another way to protect workers’ freedom is to give them more voice on the job. If entry and exit are emblems of freedom because they express the voluntary will of the individual, why limit those expressions to two moments: when she steps inside the workplace and when she leaves? Would the worker not have more freedom if she had more opportunities to express and act upon her will inside the workplace? Not just more occasions but also more ways to express her will? To say something beyond “I’m staying” or “I’m going”?…It’s true that these expressions of worker freedom require limitations on the employer’s freedom to fire workers. But that, it seems to us, is at the heart of any notion of equal freedom in society: your right to swing your arms always ends just where my nose begins.

Make sure to read the whole post here.

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.

 

My Own Munchings (that’s for you, Mom)

18 Aug

I’m supposedly on vacation this week and next, yet I somehow find myself caught in the interwebs. Anyway, a few things of mine came out recently that you might have missed.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaOnce upon a time I wrote a book on fear. I hadn’t been thinking much about that book  in recent years, but Sasha Lilley, host of the fantabulous radio show “Against the Grain” out in the Bay Area, tracked me down for a one-hour interview about it. Turned out to be one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done, all thanks to Sasha’s excellent questions. It’s every author’s dream to be interviewed by someone like Sasha. You might want to check out some of her other interviews as well.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaComing on the heels of our roundtable on Obama, the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on the debt ceiling crisis. I’m glad they did because it gave me a chance to step back from the immediacy of Obama’s presidency and take the long view.  The really long view. Like 400 years long. So, by way of Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marx, I reach the conclusion that:

Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

Which prompted a friend of mine to ask: “Did that really take 400 years to prove?”  Tough crowd.

Had I had more space and time, I would have liked to have explored the idea, inspired by a conversation with Alex Gourevitch, whose blog is must reading, that there is a fundamental tension in a democracy between funding government operations through debt or taxes. It’s an old debate, which goes back to Jefferson, Hamilton, and Paine (and before that to the debates between the court and country parties in Britain).  But the current crisis cries out for revisiting those old themes. Alas, no time, no space.

Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left

1 Aug

This morning, my Facebook page exploded. It all started when I posted this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald about Obama and the debt-ceiling deal. Greenwald says that those who think Obama is weak and lacks backbone, or that he got suckered by the Republicans or is somehow being held hostage, are full of shit.  With a few exceptions, Obama got what he wanted.

Greenwald has a lot of evidence to back up his claims, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. So I put the question to my FB friends.  Is Obama politically inept or does he want these massive cuts? And if he wants them, is it because of political calculation? Is he a true believer in neoliberal economics? A hostage of Wall Street?

 To my surprise, lots of people weighed in, many of them leading voices and scholars on the left: Katha Pollitt, Adolph Reed, Josh Cohen, Tom Sugrue, Rick Perlstein, and more. With their permission, I’ve reprinted the discussion, almost verbatim (I had to leave out a few comments from people who didn’t get back to me, and I edited some comments for context and flow).

Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.

What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.

So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?

The “he’s weak” line mystifies me

Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.

Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?

Rick Perlstein‎: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.

Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining.  Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.

Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital…that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.

Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.

Corey: Katha, what do you make of all the evidence Greenwald amasses, arguing to the contrary? Genuine question, as ordinarily I tend to be more in your camp; I just can’t square that with the evidence Greenwald has and some of the stuff Doug and others have been saying.

Doug: The “he’s weak” line mystifies me. Why should we see a guy who had a near-overnight rise, blessed by the Dem establishment, be assumed to be lacking in political skills and understanding? He said all along he wanted entitlement reform and budget balance. The mix may not be what he wanted, but he had plenty of rhetorical, legal, and political possibilities to change the discourse and he didn’t. Occam says he didn’t want to.

Jodi Dean: I’m not sure moderate right fits someone to the right of Nixon and Reagan. I don’t think he is a playing an electoral pollitics game. He seems to think of government in the service of markets, where markets mean primarily financial markets (but also insurance markets and others). So, my basic read is: never the progressive or moderate Democrat that progressives and moderate Democrats wanted or fantasized him to be; always the state as an instrument of the ruling class. But what gets me: his last debt ceiling speech went on about shared responsibility when that was not at all what he was going to do or what he actually wanted. Differently put, I sign on to the “not weak just a bad guy capitalist” interpretation. Yet this is rooted in taking him at his word (and not thinking that he deceives or is manipulated). So the glitch is why he would present his preferred solution/plan as other than what it was. Maybe the only difference now between Tea Party crazy and mainstream conservative (Obama) is the willingness to embrace the becoming-Mad-Max-future-of​-the US v. lip service to the fragile veneer of governance/sociality still holding something like everyday life together.

Doug: Jodi, I suspect that in an ideal world he’d like to see modest upper-bracket tax increases and somewhat less dramatic spending cuts, but didn’t want to go to the mat for them. Plus, he needs Wall Street money for a billion-dollar re-election campaign.

Doug: Jay, “If he were in the thrall of capital”? In who else’s thrall is he?

Jodi: Doug–so your version of “not weak” still includes the fact that even if strong he has to make some compromises; that makes sense to me (so, it answers my question about the speech).

Katha: You know, none of us know what is in his head. However, he did say, as recently as last monday, that he wanted tax hikes on the wealthy. He wanted the Bush tax cuts to expire, which is not in the current deal. I don’t exactly disagree with Doug — clearly, he is Wall St’s man –but I think a more skillful politician, one less in love with being above the fray, could have handled this a lot better and gotten more on the other side. I mean, asking people to call their congressperson? Pathetic.

He’s a One-Trick Pony

Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us.

Corey: Jodi, moderate right is a term relative to the political spectrum. It doesn’t make sense to say Nixon was to the left of Obama without some reference to the political circumstances. Nixon was constrained by a still vibrant New Deal regime; Reagan came into destroy it, and did so somewhat successfully, but he was still encumbered by it. Obama operates in a different political world. As for taking him at his word, he’s said a lot of words. Sometimes he’s quite explicitly signaled a desire to break with the Reaganite consensus; not just in the campaign but early on in his presidency. So the words are murky.

Doug: Adolph, I mostly agree with you, but he is standing up for the freedom and power of capital. That’s not unprincipled, though it’s not our principle, nor that of many of the febrile sorts who promoted him back in 2008.

Corey: Adolph, I find that persuasive. That supports the notion that he is both a political performance artist, in which the main ideology is one of reasonableness without any content whatsoever, and he’s kind of like the 19th century progressives Jay talked about above.

Doug: Jodi, sure. He had to get something through a divided Congress. But there were arrows in his quiver he chose to leave there.

Corey: Doug, Adolph: Your last two comments to each other really do mark a genuine question I have. I tend to think people like Obama really don’t believe the bullshit they preach; what they do believe is that moderation is the mark of maturity and that Wall Street types are smarter than the rest of us. But that is a fairly apolitical reading of them, which doesn’t look at the real and substantive impact neoliberal ideology has had on such folks. I toggle back and forth between those two views. Obama reminds me so much of people I went to college with, who just hitched themselves to a cart that told them this is where success was, and that intelligence is demonstrated by breaking with the crazy left. After a while maybe they start believing their own bullshit, but I can’t help thinking that if careerism is your motivation, you’ll basically go with wherever you think the career incentives will take you. Of course, all this gets into the kind of armchair psychologizing that is totally besides the point. But I do wonder how these ideological formations happen.

Adolph: Note that his posture toward health care, economic policy, the budget crisis, etc has been to sit back and position himself to work the Grand Compromise. (Note as well his bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation; James Oakes has pointed out that Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.) Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment. I imagine he feels, if he even looks that far, that that aptitude will re-elect him in 2012. At that level, who knows what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything beyond the moment and having another piece of paper showing that he’s gotten something done. I take Doug’s “I told you so” point to heart (not like he and I haven’t talked about it for a while anyway). All I’d add is that it’s intriguing from the standpoint of ideology-critique and more than exasperating from the standpoint of concern with building a serious left to see how many people who should have known better got swept up in the utterly, transparently bullshit hype about Obama either sanitizing their pasts or tying themselves into more and more convoluted knots trying to rationalize what should have been obvious about him from the very beginning.

Doug: Corey, the personal angle with O, I think, is the fact that he was nurtured from an early age by elites – fancy universities and foundations and then the Dem leadership. He’s in awe of them, and grateful for all they did. Cf. FDR, who emerged from the elite and had the confidence to challenge them. That, plus the times are different. But that’s how I see the personalities meshing with history. I also wouldn’t go too far with the contentlessness of his reasonableness: it’s always about loyal service to power. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s extremely useful to the bourgeoisie to have a mixed race, cerebral Democrat imposing the austerity program. I’m reminded of Dinkins telling Wall Street skeptics, who thought he didn’t have the balls to impose austerity after the 80s went poof, back during his first campaign: “They’ll take it from me.”

Corey: Doug, did you ever see David Bromwich’s piece (maybe in the LRB or on Huffington Post) about Obama’s infatuation with elites and his comparison with FDR? Very interesting. Though again too much focus on character, for my tastes, not on politics.

Doug: No, Corey, didn’t see that Bromwich piece. The “politics” of it all seem crystal clear to me. What’s going to be interesting, in a sick voyeuristic car wreck kind of way, is watching the pwogwessives rationalize this and get ready for 2012.

Adolph: Doug, of course you’re right about his standing up for the freedom and power of capital. I intended to mention that not only does he believe that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us; they’ve also bankrolled him up to his eye teeth in 2008 and now. They started getting behind him about 20 minutes after he was elected to the US Senate. And, if lefties of a sort didn’t have such a ridiculous soft spot for the black guy of the moment, more people might have noticed that that element and maudlin Fulfillment of the Dream fantasies — Pritzker, the Daley crowd — was always where his effective political base was, from the beginning of his political career or that he had never weighed in on any live conflict bearing on inequality, ever, except, of course, in that abstract, Kang and Kodos cum overblown eloquence style of his. He’s a vacant tool, but he’s capital’s vacant tool, not ours, and he never has been. All the crap about his “better angels” that the Nation crowd and others persist with is either the equivalent of not wanting to admit having been wrong in their idiotic slurping in the first place or pathetic clinging to the baseless hope that he’ll listen or toss a face-saving bone. Hell, he told you during his campaign that he wasn’t a progressive and that his skill is in making people believe that he’s with them.

Corey: By the way, it looks as if Social Security is off the table in terms of the trigger mechansm. As is Medicaid. Medicare, though, is not.

Doug: He’s not unlike Jerry Brown – a fundamentally conservative guy who can convince pwoggies that he’s one of them. As J.D. Lorenz, the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance who spent a few months working for Jerry and wrote a fine book about him, his strategy was to create “an ambiance of possibility that gave the viewer space: space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry….” They both come off as thoughtful and cerebral, more reflective than your standard issue pol. This is what gives the pwog audience space to project fantasies: he must be one of us!

Doug: They’ll play COLA games with SS, won’t they?

Adolph: Corey, apropos of your comment that BHO reminds you of people you went to school with. I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to the POCs; Arne Duncan and others proceed on the same basis. But take a look at Yalie Jonah Edelman, spawn of Peter and Marian Wright, boasting alongside Crown family scion and financier James Schine Crown at the Aspen Institute about how his ed reform non-profit (also funded by investment bankers, hedge fund operators, Walton Family Foundation, etc) went after Illinois teachers’ unions: http://j.mp/oytHI7 See 6ff, and esp. 8ff.)

Doug: Marx: “The better able a ruling class is to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, the more solid and dangerous its rule.” By that measure the American ruling class is doing just fine.

Corey: Funny, Doug, that’s 1/4 of my theory of counterrevolution right there; had totally forgotten about that quote from Marx, which must be where I got it from. Love that pairing of solid and dangerous, which are ordinarily not words we associate together.

Corey: Yeah, Adolph, I know exactly what you mean. But as you know and say, it’s a phenomenon that totally transcends race. Except for that part about telling themselves that they embody the victory of the civil rights movement. Though I’ve seen a version of this among Jews and other sorts whose grandparents were one step removed from the farm or shtetl or whatever: that their arrival constitutes another step in the long march of justice.

Doug: My god, I missed this a couple of weeks ago: http://www.time.com/time/n​ation/article/0,8599,20829​71-2,00.html. So this has all been scripted for weeks? And Obama rejected Boehner’s $2.4 trillion – to get $4 trillion?These dollar amounts are big, but the discretionary caps amount to 0.4% of GDP over the next 10 years, and what the magic commish is supposed to come up with is another 0.6% of GDP. Maybe this isn’t quite as awful as it looks, though it’s awful. Of course it could always get worse, and they haven’t started the COLA game yet.

Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial.I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)

Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.

Joshua Cohen: ‎1. I think BHO’s political views are in the neighborhood of Cass Sunstein’s: pretty centrist, with different leans on different issues. But much less conventionally left than some supporters painted him as being. Part of the reason for the painting was the poetic rhetoric, but that rhetoric (hope….change….etc etc) was always VERY VERY abstract, not tied to policy.

2. BHO has shown a willingness to be reasonable with the unreasonable: which is an invitation to being exploited by the unreasonable. People smell weakness: and they treat a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, esp. when you compromise right out of the box. That is who BHO is: he does not have a back-up political style.

3. I also think that critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)

4. Huge factor in contemporary politics is extraordinary disarray of mass politics on the left. Unions at 6%, no peace movement, and no jobs movement of any consistent and public visibility. It is much easier to talk about Obama than to talk about this HUGELY important fact.

5. Given point (2) above, and despite (4): I think BHO has not done as well as he might have at, in particular, keeping a focus on jobs.

So I kind of agree with Tom Sugrue….esp. on the Roosevelt point.

Joe Lowndes: I’m with Adolph here. I would add though that nevertheless, Obama continually craves – or rather demands – progressive credentials. Beyond mere triangulation, it’s as if he understands his signal accomplishment to be the translation of progressive desires into neoliberal politics, and he thus can’t understand why we don’t see the flawless logic of his having done so. It’s the Obama of the Iowa victory saying, “They said this day would never come” that is necessary to make his conservative commitments meaningful. In foreign policy it is his supposed unique ability to empathize with Muslims oppressed that rationalizes militarism. In education he just wants better for failing students in the poor communities he knew as an organizer. He is visibly petulant towards LGBT activists who can’t seem to see that he has been their best ally since he was in the State Senate. On and on.

Neolib, Neocon, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Thad: Why is he a neoliberal and not a neoconservative? I really so no daylight between his and both Kristols’ politics.

Joe: You’re right, Thad. I was thinking of economic policy when using that exhausted term. He is a total neocon in both foreign and domestic politics.

Corey: Actually, Obama is far more enthralled with capitalism than Kristol Senior was. Remember Kristol could only offer two cheers for capitalism; Obama would more than happily offer three.

Thad: Corey, are you referring to Kristol Sr.’s dislike of the hedonism and cultural chaos produced by capitalism?

Corey: Its deleterious effects on the martial spirit; the fact that it is a completely ignoble way to organize public life (his words, not mine); that anyone who would privilege money over other values like glory is an ant. Kristol was never that concerned with cultural chaos, if by that you mean immoral or libidinous values.

Thad:  We basically agree on Irving K. But hasn’t BHO always been a powerful proponent of the martial spirit and critic of the “ignoble” products of capitalism? Remember his argument for a national service? He and McCain agreed that America should always look like it did on 9/12. And during the campaign he went out of his way to attack black men who watch ESPN, kids who wear baggy jeans, and all of us who “engage in childish things, who are more concerned about what they want than what’s good for other people.” And how many times has he referred to the military as representing the “best” and “highest” of who we are.

Corey: That’s what makes the neocon position that much more interesting and ultimately frightening. I could be wrong — haven’t studied BHO to the extent I have Kristol — but my sense is that Obama doesn’t attribute these cultural things he complains about to any notion of capitalism. Kristol did. And while that didn’t lead Kristol to call for capitalism’s overhaul or anything like that, he did see an antidote to it in militarism. Obama doesn’t endorse militarism in the same way.

Thad: I think it’s only a difference in emphasis. But Obama — like his heroes TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK — has essentially the same love of a regimented social order as Kristol. Check this out: http://articles.cnn.com/20 ​08-09-12/politics/candidat​es.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar​ ack-obama-common-ground-sa​rah-palin?_s=PM%3APOLITICS

Thad: Put it this way: I am sure that if Kristol’s argument were presented to Obama, he would agree with it. No?

Corey: Kristol didn’t like a regimented social order. He liked a warrior social order. There’s a big difference. It’s not the authoritarianism of the military; it’s the extravagant glory, the blood-curdling, artistically executed violence, the way it delivers us from the tedium and ennui of a market society — so, no, I don’t think Obama would agree with that. Certainly not in public, and I suspect not even in private. As Josh said above, Obama has a Cass Sunstein view of the world; that’s different from a Carl Schmitt view of the world. At least in some respects.

Thad: I think you’re splitting hairs here, Corey. One of Kristol’s big causes — now enacted in Obama’s ramped-up version of No Child Left Behind — was the establishment of a hegemonic, unified, national culture. No better model for that than the 82nd Airborne, which is one reason the great liberals have always loved the military and the draft. Speaking of which: http://www.nytimes.com/201​1/06/16/opinion/16kristof.​html

Alex Gourevitch: Josh, I think point 4, ‘the disarray of mass politics’ begins pointing this thread in a wider, and possibly more important direction. We can debate Obama’s ‘real’ politics all we want – FWIW I basically agree with Adolph/Doug/and Co. But Obama did not end up here alone. The Democratic Party has been decidedly weak during this whole affair. Moreover, especially under New Democrat leadership, it has spent the last decades setting the table for a budget debate in which deficit spending is seen as irresponsible, in which the argument for progressive taxation has severely waned, and in which the state is seen as having a much more limited role – basically correcting market failures. I think we fool ourselves if we think the major problems here are just a) right-wing Tea Party populists with an ideological backbone and b) an opportunistic President who is happy to be the respectable patsy of certain class fractions. It is also a so-called left wing party that has been itself the party of austerity for at least twenty years. They created the environment in which massive spending cuts when on the verge of a double-dip recession can seem like a reasonable thing to do. And we’re talking here just about the Democratic Party, never mind the other elements that go into the ‘disarray of mass politics.’

Lisa Garcia Bedolla: I can’t really say it better than Robert Reich did in his Berkeley blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/​2011/08/01/ransom-paid/. It continues the fallacy that our individual desires (esp. if we’re wealthy) should trump the public good. The Dems have not been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate an alternative vision. They just jumped on the GOP bandwagon (I blame more than just Obama).

Shane Taylor: Others have ably commented on the Obama’s chronic underestimation of Republican intransigence, his pursuit of compromise for the sake of compromise, and his desire for “entitlement” reform (the White House affirmed their commitment to this cause to David Brooks back in March of 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/opinion/06brooks.html. I, too, see those as features of this administration. However, there was something different about this episode. I suspect that Obama has an inflated sense of his talent for eleven-dimensional chess, but in this round, the president lost control. Last week the president was pleading with the public to plead with Congress to make it stop. Twice. Something seemed to have gone horribly wrong, and I think John Kay made the appropriate analogy: it was like a dollar bill auction. As Yves Smith said, there was a toxic “bidding” dynamic. http://agonisticliberal.com/2011/07/30/lost-in-the-strategery/

Update (August 2, 12 pm)

This debate has been pinging around the various spheres of the internet.  It’s been sent into the strato/twittersphere by Glenn Greenwald, Joan Walsh, Jeff Sharlet, Mike Konczal, and others, who’ve tweeted it to their, between them, 100,000 some-odd followers.  It’s been picked up by Digby. It’s brought more traffic to this site than anything I’ve posted.

Two pieces came out this morning that I want to give special mention to.  First, this blog post by Alex Gourevitch, amplifying his comment above, is among the smartest I’ve seen and pushes us in a genuinely new direction—away from the individual focus on Obama to larger questions about party formation and comparative political economy. Don’t miss it.

Second, this piece by Matt Taibbi, well, need I say more? As always, Taibbi says and sees things more clearly than the rest of us. Again, not to be missed.

Update (12:45 pm)

More voices have joined in, which I wanted to include. First, this from Anne Norton, who participated in yesterday’s FB discussion but whose comment I wasn’t able to include in the original blog post.

Anne Norton: Adolph’s characterization of Obama’s commitment to performing the reasonable, judicious statesmen is directly connected to his progressivism: both in the endorsement of a particular ostensibly passionless elite expertise and in the priority of process over results. To my mind this shows the ease with which progressivism moves into the service of capital, especially finance capital, which also understands itself as the realm of passionless elite expertise. Our analyses are too cold as well. What is lost in this are the basics: equality, democracy, hunger and profit. I confess it: I expected better.

Then this FB message from Dorian Warren.

Dorian Warren: Hey Corey. I was in a meeting all day yesterday so couldn’t weigh in on the debate on your FB page. How excellent and exciting!! Although I’m a bit glad I didn’t; I can only take so much psychologizing about what BHO thinks and who the “true” BHO really is, especially devoid of context, history and constraints. Obama wasn’t the sole player in the debt debacle. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze his strategy, ideology, etc. But we pour so much energy into a) assessing his true inner state, again and again and again, and b) never get to the implications of those kinds of narrow analyses. Okay, so now what? Primary challenge him? Any “Democrat” president that wins would do the same, white or black, male or female. At least that’s my prediction. I think Josh Cohen and Alex G. were pointing the conversation towards a more constructive direction that’s more comprehensive in an analysis of the current moment, of political and party structures, of large ideological shifts, etc.

I just came back from a union conference in England over the weekend where most of the Europeans I spoke with spoke not of Obama in personality terms but rather of the fact that the “US”, structurally, is about redistribution to the top from the bottom, and that the country has been this way for 30 years. Quite a different starting place relative to us, which is surprising…

And then this email from Rogers Smith.

Rogers Smith: I confess to being too dispirited about current affairs to join in the lively exchange yesterday; but do want to acknowledge that Adolph’s take is looking pretty good at the moment.  On the two questions of political style and substance, I think it has been and is debatable whether Obama’s compromise/community organizer style is better suited to getting something done in the current context than all-out left advocacy: that advocacy is needed to push compromisers, but you also need to win some elections.  On substance, I’ve seen Obama as seeking somehow to satisfy both his belief in Wall Street economics and his identification with black church social justice goals–and hoped the results would be compromises that moved at least some meaningful degree in more egalitarian directions.  Adolph has consistently attacked that kind of view as naive, and at this point it’s hard to argue.  I’m sure Obama is telling himself he’s positioned now to accomplish more in the future, and I’d like to see it, but I’m not predicting it will happen.

Which prompted this further email exchange between Rogers and Anne.

Anne: What troubles me most about Obama is that the unfolding of Obama’s presidency seems to knit together aspects of his policies and persona that point in a less democratic and egalitarian direction.  He seems consistently committed to elite governance -worse, to an elite governance of people drawn from the unelected and irresponsible ranks of finance.  He seems consistently committed to a big state.  I’ve always had suspicions of a big state, but I make allowances for those followers of the big state who see it as providing for the poor, the ill and the common good. I can make common cause with that, in the present circumstances.  This is a big state making war and preserving its credit rating -or not. Obama’s apparent acceptance of the idea that “the economy” is measured by the welfare of the stock market; his failure to insist on measures drawn from the well-being of the people gives the lie to the idea of fundamental change.  His consistent preoccupation with producing elite consensus while remaining indifferent to the popular judgment of that consensus suggests to me that he is not at bottom a democrat, but a Progressive of the old managerial school.

Rogers: Mixes of democratic egalitarianism with managerial elitism are of course characteristic of much Progressive pragmatist thought, which is very much Obama’s thought.  And though today’s American left builds on much in the more left Progressives, most Progressives did prove themselves more managerial elitist than democratic.  So Obama can rightly be seen as a new chapter in an old story–but I’m not sure the contemporary progressive left knows how to build a politics that avoids that (nor do I).  Which is particularly dispiriting.

Update (7:30 pm)

This forum is getting more and more traction. In addition to the folks mentioned above, it’s now been tweeted by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou. Between all the various folks who’ve tweeted it, I think this forum has been brought to anywhere from 150,000 175,000 of the Twitterati.

Our old friend Matt Yglesias has now weighed in.  He takes issue with a comment by Thad Russell above—actually, he says he “kind of choked” over it—but then takes his disagreement in an interesting direction. The argument he makes is actually not that different from Chomsky’s.

We made the “Roundup” post at Firedoglake.

And from what I hear, this post is all over Facebook, generating discussion, getting thumbs-upped (and I’m sure thumbs-downed), and more.

Lastly, Dorian Warren, who was featured in one of our previous updates, writes in again with some further thoughts.

Dorian Warren: Another thought after reading the updates: I think the problem with this conversation is that it’s too high up in the air. All of us are discussing Obama and the “big” policy deals/outcomes from 30,000 feet up. Okay, true, in every case there was capitulation and non-progressive results which now show somehow who the “true” Obama is. Fine, I agree with that as far as it goes, which frankly isn’t far. I think if we were to look a bit more closely and in detail, we’d find empirically that the Administration as a whole is best described as a set of contradictions. Let’s not forget the power of Administrative politics, even though it’s not as sexy as the hot policy issues of health care, financial reform, or stimulus or debt ceiling. But from where I sit, the Dept. of Labor, the NLRB, the NMB have all been doing rulemaking and enforcement as progressively as they possibly can under the circumstances. We can’t simply lump their work into one box of “Obama sellout/neoliberal/neocon”. Why is the FAA reauthorization being held up now? Because the GOP is furious the NMB changed the rule to make it easier for transportation workers to organize last year. Why is there such outrage over the NLRB’s Boeing complaint? Because the Chamber of Commerce is furious the NLRB is enforcing the all-too-weak labor law, and are fearful the pro-labor board will change the rules to favor unions. The DOL is doing incredible wage enforcement work not seen even under Clinton. On the other hand, other agencies have clearly been captured by Wall Street: SEC, Commerce, Treasury, etc. And obviously I’d be the first to criticize BHO for never going to bat for labor law reform, even though he gladly took labor’s money and ground game. But then how do we square the difference between the SEC and the NLRB? Rogers argued that Obama’s political ideology & governing style (characteristic of Progressive thought) is both democratic egalitarianism mixed with managerial elitism. I think that comes close to capturing the Administration’s policy failures *as well* as some of the progressive political outcomes on the non-sexy but arguably very important Administrative politics side.

Update (August 3, 9:30 am)

Our friend Gordon Lafer was late to this discussion, but as always with Gordon, it was worth the wait.

Gordon Lafer: I am, of course, in the Adolph Reed camp. I think he’s neoliberal in his heart, but most of all that he doesn’t have a heart besides the desire to be elected. He clearly wants to move 70% of the way to the right on the political spectrum (and that point keeps getting further right as the Koch bros, Ari Fleischer et al (I think it’s impt not to call them “the Tea Party” since there is no such thing, while there are real actors at work here) keep pushing the envelope rightward), in order to leave the R’s no room but the fringe right, and get reelected handily. He doesn’t care how far right that strategy takes him, and it’s the only strategy he has, and that’s the only thing he really gives a shit about. Which gives the total lie to the idea of his being the adult in the room. There’s nothing at all adult about his behavior – weak or strong, this is not about getting the best deal possible for the country under difficult circumstances. It’s just about getting himself reelected, even if it means obviously fucking the country in ways that could have been avoided.

This is one of the moments where it pays to ask “what would W (or a left version of W) have done?” and I think the answer is: he would have announced months ago that he would absolutely veto anything that doesn’t include termination of the tax cuts for over $250k, show absolutely no sign of entertaining any compromise on that. Then as the deadline got closer he would have announced that, if the Congress doesn’t give him a bill that includes making the rich pay his fair share, he will have to invoke the 14th amendment and unilaterally raise (or really, just ignore) the debt ceiling in order to pay the country’s bills. He’d then do it, daring the Rs to take him to court in what would easily be portrayed as a legal effort to destroy the country’s credit rating. The fact that it was Obama himself who took the 14th amendment option off the table, saying his lawyers told him it wasn’t a strong option, as he also was first to put Social Security on the table – shows his priority, which is not actually wanting to solve the country’s debt problem in the best way while protecting citizens and economic growth, but rather to get himself reelected, which he and his advisors believe requires moving right and having a vote that Rs and Ds supported rather than being saddled with raising the debt ceiling on his own. Nothing adult about that.

I also think there’s no chance he really believes this is the road to economic health. I was in briefings by all kinds of mainstream economists who said what Summers too (no friend of the left) said — the deficit is a long term problem that should be addressed in 2013 or 2014; right now what you need to do is MORE deficit spending in order to create consumer demand to spur economic growth. He must have had all those same briefings. This isn’t a principled economic position.

One final thing I’d add is that the other option, other than going as he’s been going on this and everything else, is a big bold option. He already thinks his reelect will cost $1 billion. And that’s with doing the free trade treaties, extending the Bush tax cuts, etc. If he moves more to the left, that cost goes up and the question of where it comes from gets more difficult. You saw this with Dodd-Frank when there started being stories about Wall St bundlers being hesitant about obama – then they made up with Wall St. So the only real option, is to go so dramatically to the left that you generate some kind of mass response that counterbalances the fact that you’re going to drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the opposition. I think that’s do-able, and certainly that it’s the only strategy worth doing, but it’s an all-in strategy, a high risk strategy. And the people in this WH are not risk takers. They’re sneak-through-ers.

Update (11:30 am)

We made it into the Wall Street Journal.

Update (12:30 pm)

The estimable Christian Parenti, whose new book on the politics of climate change is must reading, emailed me this late last night:

Christian Parenti:  Better late than never…. I agree with Doug and Adolph, if I read them correctly….

Pretty is as pretty does.

 Obama is a neo-liberal but his method of arrival at that position is not ideological true belief. Rather it is by way of his endless performance of political sobriety, maturity and “reasonableness.” It is all tactics and no strategy; form and not content.  Were this a socialist dictatorship or a theocracy, he would still be a brilliantly capable, charismatic, highly effective, totally reasonable, cipher  of a completely different ideological stripe. Or to put it another way: Obama is like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Or he is like CLR James’ reading of Ishmael as delivered in “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.” He is a dangerously alienated intellectual, smart and eloquent enough to see how it all works, all the while narrating as if on the outside, seemingly protected from it all by his “critique.” Yet he is so disconnected from the masses that he goes along with Ahab’s totalitarian madness, doing his job without ever endorsing the insanity, yet helping the apocalyptic hunt and the mutual destruction of whale and ship come to fruition.

In other words, he is about having it both ways, always. And it will end in a shipwreck.

 Update (2:15 pm)

Playing off Obama’s reference to himself and his cohort as “the Joshua generation,” Christian (see last update) adds:

 Obama has inspired the invention of a game I like to call “The Old Testament Meets Obama via the New York Times.”

 Exhibit A

And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and fought against it:  and he took it, and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein ; he left none remaining… “while seeking to position himself as a proven voice of reason in an era of ideological overreach.”

Update (August 5, 12:30 am)

The History News Network (HNN) is now plugging this discussion as “a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics.”  HNN further comments that “it does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.”

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