Tag Archives: Alex Gourevitch

Final Thoughts on The New Republic

14 Dec

Alex Gourevitch and I have a piece in Al Jazeera America on the demise of The New Republic. Here are some excerpts:

“When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” socialist critic Irving Howe, an erstwhile contributor to The New Republic, said. If he’s right, what does it mean when that magazine dies? That intellectuals have something else to do? Or that it’s no longer an intellectual magazine?

The New Republic was founded by intellectuals whose main aspiration was to represent the moral authority of the state and its culture over and against the self-interest of capital. Not by aligning with the labor movement or a socialist party but by bringing to bear the force of reason itself, as represented by the state, upon the small men of money. In its self-understanding, The New Republic has stood apart by standing above, a Platonic republic of mind taming the passion of the market.

But the oft-observed irony that the magazine has been buried by the very class it was meant to contain is no irony at all. For The New Republic had a hand in its undoing.

Here, at least, The New Republic remained true to one of its original tendencies. The magazine’s founders cheered U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity to transmute domestic differences into national unity. Troubled by his former editors’ militarism, Randolph Bourne formulated the epigram “War is the health of the State.” They rejected him as soft and unpatriotic. So began the magazine’s primitive accumulation of political influence, casting off its left wing like so many vestigial body parts of the past.

In “1919,” John Dos Passos described Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the State.” Reading The New Republic of the last three decades, it’s clear why. That manic mantra, repeated by Bourne three times in his essay on “The State,” reveals the mindlessness of the high-minded warrior. Whether it’s the Kaiser or the Commies, Noriega or the Sandinistas, the incantation is always the same: murderers are on the loose, appeasers are preparing their way, it’s time to march.

In the end, the brittleness of that rhetoric, its freakish remove from any discernible reality, gave the game away: Since the 1980s, when the magazine managed to engineer a genuine shift in sensibility, The New Republic had lost its way. Subsisting on a diet of ginned-up controversy — The Bell Curve! Hack Heaven! The cheapness of Muslim life, most notably to Muslims! — it had become a magazine about a magazine, its “contrarianism” contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors. What it lacked was a project: not a line but that metabolism of thesis and antithesis that marks the formation of any new way of thinking about power, privilege and prerogative.

“There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching,” former TNR literary editor Alfred Kazin complained about the magazine in 1989. “I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing — beyond a certain parvenu smugness…I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington.” But in Washington they were, Kazin reminded his readers, “and no real ideas ever start here.” It was no longer an intellectuals’ magazine. Time to become a “sustainable business?”

Hughes has made much of the magazine’s return to New York. But there’s Kazin’s New York, an immigrant metropolis full of social friction, where new projects — and magazines, like The New Republic — are born. And there’s Hughes’ New York, the seat of capital. However much the magazine believes it belongs to Kazin’s New York, it has spent the better part of the past four decades preparing its return to Hughes’ New York. For all the intellectual highways and political byways its writers and editors were willing to traverse, the bridge too far was one they crossed long ago.

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.


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