Highlights from Jacobin

The latest issue of Jacobin is now online, and it’s fantastic. Before I give you some highlights, let me make a pitch: subscribe or donate to Jacobin. I’m a contributing editor, so I’m biased. But I know I’m not alone in saying it’s one of the newest, freshest magazines around. It was founded by an undergrad in his dorm room (seriously). But, hey, Trotsky was 25 (or 26?) when he led the St. Petersburg Soviet in 1905 and Martin Luther King was 26 (or 25?) when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So who knows where this can go? In any event, subscribe, donate, help out.

I’ve got a piece in the new issue on the politics of national security.  Via Hobbes, the War on 1812 (yes, the War of 1812), World War I, and Trayvon Martin, I argue that the problem we face is not that we live in a world of Hobbesian states, but that we live in a world of failed Hobbesian states.  Though we claim there’s a tradeoff between freedom and security, we repress only some people’s rights and offer only some people security. What’s worse, there may be no way around that, a fact that liberals have yet to confront. To their peril.

Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights because it combines a universality and neutrality in rhetoric with a particularity and partiality in practice.  Security is a good that everyone needs, and, we assume, that everyone needs in the same way and to the same degree.  It is “the most vital of all interests,” John Stuart Mill wrote, which no one can “possibly do without.” Though Mill was referring here to the security of persons rather than of nations or states, his argument about personal security is often extended to nations and states, which are conceived to be persons writ large.

Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests.  It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest.  It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral.  That’s the theory.

The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different.  The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against.  The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless.  They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.

Because the rhetoric of security is one of universality and neutrality while the reality is one of conflict and division, state officials and elites have every motivation, and justification, to suppress heterodox and dissenting definitions of security.  And so they have, as Hobbes predicted they could and would.  But because a neutral, universal definition of security is impossible to achieve in practice, repression for the sake of security must be necessarily selective:  only certain groups or certain kinds of dissent will be targeted.  The question then becomes:  which groups, which dissent?

Because government officials are themselves connected with particular constituencies in society — often the most powerful — they will seldom suppress challenges to security that come from the powerful; instead they will target the powerless and the marginal, particularly if the powerless are mobilizing to threaten the powerful.  So the US government during WWI made it illegal to urge people, like the Socialists, not to buy war bonds — but it did allow a Wall Street adviser to counsel his client not to make a bad investment.

Or, when Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918, which made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government or the military or to bring these institutions “into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute,” the Republicans attempted to insert an amendment that would have protected themselves and their constituencies, who were aggressively criticizing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic leadership of the US government.  “Nothing in this act shall be construed,” the amendment read, “as limiting the liberty or impairing the right of an individual to publish or speak what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends.”  Suppressing dissident socialists or activists against the draft was fine; suppressing dissenting Republicans was not.

But there is a second reason why security has proven the most potent justification for the suppression of rights.  And that has to do with the liberal tradition, which historically has offered the greatest theoretical resource for opposition to the suppression of rights.  While liberalism as a theory has given us excellent reasons to oppose the use of coercive state power on behalf of religious or moral orthodoxy, it has given us far fewer reasons to oppose the use of that power on behalf of security.  In fact, if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.

Each of these writers tried, in his way, to prevent the state from using its coercive power on behalf of some controversial question of ideology or belief: for Locke, it was religion; for Mill, it was morality; for Holmes, it was politics.  And each of them formulated a test or condition for when the use of such power was legitimate:  for Locke, it was to protect “the security and safety of the commonwealth”; for Mill, it was to prevent harm; for Holmes, it was to thwart a “clear and present danger.”

The assumption behind the proscription against using coercive power in the first set of cases — religion, morality, and politics — and the endorsement of it in the second set of cases — the security and safety of the commonwealth, harm, or a clear and present danger — was not only that the first set was a source of controversy and division while the second set was not.  It was that the first was by its very nature a source of controversy while the second was by its very nature a source of unity.  Unlike religion, morality, and politics, in other words, security offered the basis for an uncontroversial exercise of coercive state power.

As we have seen, this assumption has not been borne out by reality.  But that failure has not stopped liberals from arguing, as the saying goes, that politics stops at the water’s edge.  And so when they have tried to chastise conservatives for using security for political ends (even though they do the same thing themselves), they have often found themselves, particularly since the Reagan years, hopelessly outgunned.  Having endorsed — indeed, invented — the idea that security is not, properly speaking, a subject of and for the political arena, liberals cannot possibly hope to beat their opponents at a game which their chief theoreticians claim does not even exist.

Seth Ackerman has a piece on market socialism. It has some fascinating details like this:

Because the neoliberal Right has habit of measuring a society’s success by the abundance of its consumer goods, the radical left is prone to slip into a posture of denying this sort of thing is politically relevant at all. This is a mistake. The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough — not that they’re unwelcome or trivial. The citizens of Communist countries experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights….

In fact, the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself. A historian of East Germany quotes the petitions that ordinary consumers addressed to the state: “It really is not in the spirit of the human being as the center of socialist society when I have to save up for years for a Trabant and then cannot use my car for more than a year because of a shortage of spare parts!” said one. Another wrote: “When you read in the socialist press ‘maximal satisfaction of the needs of the people and so on’ and … ‘everything for the benefit of the people,’ it makes me feel sick.” In different countries and languages across Eastern Europe, citizens used almost identical expressions to evoke the image of substandard goods being “thrown at” them.

And this:

Around the time of the Soviet collapse, the economist Peter Murrell published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reviewing empirical studies of efficiency in the socialist planned economies. These studies consistently failed to support the neoclassical analysis: virtually all of them found that by standard neoclassical measures of efficiency, the planned economies performed as well or better than market economies.

Seth’s piece is filled with surprises (to me, at any rate), and it’s refreshingly clear of piety and dogma.

Peter Frase has a piece on the old and the new Baffler. Frase’s one of my favorite writers, and this piece is a good example of why that’s the case. He’s open and generous but never pulls his punches. And as always, he uses his targets as an opportunity to open out onto the culture in the widest way possible:

“Lazy, reflexive libertarianism” fits the era in which the Baffler emerged, but does it really fit ours? At a time when capitalist apologetics and “There Is No Alternative” resignation were emanating even from allegedly radical quarters, there was value in reminding us that the market was still “the God that sucked.”

Cultural studies was degenerating into a bizarre kind of obscurantist populism that found agency and resistance in every television sitcom. Investment boosterism elevated stock market speculation into an ecstatic demos in which the common man could command his own destiny. Drinking Mountain Dew and listening to Pearl Jam was sold as a revolutionary act. Even the best cultural criticism of the era, like the online magazine Suck.com, tended toward cynical snarking and what Fredric Jameson called “blank irony,” a degenerate form of ridicule that no longer recognizes any authentic standard of comparison for the things it derides.

Snark and sarcasm, on the one hand, and market boosterism on the other, still dominate the discourse, but their content and purpose has changed. Today’s culture is characterized not so much by pervasive nihilism as by a series of peculiar inversions, in which the Onion presents incisive news analysis in the guise of satire and TV news passes off cheap entertainment as useful information. Some of the most class-conscious and bitingly political commentary in the popular media can be found on Gawker, ostensibly a gossip site. These publications are the descendants of the Generation X culture of the nineties, but their young writers tend to use humor more as a container for sincere rage than as a vehicle for narcotizing apathetic detachment.

This represents an incipient failure mode of what Mark Fisher calls “Capitalist Realism,” the condition in which all political alternatives are obliterated, and the system persists through sheer inevitability rather than legitimacy. The tech bubble represents, in retrospect, capitalism’s last serious attempt at an overarching positive ideology, which Frank aptly diagnosed as market populism. What remains in the wake of its collapse is a grim politics based on fear — fear of terrorism, the Tea Party’s fear of the Other, and the fear generated by economic insecurity and high unemployment. The housing bubble briefly graced the fear era with a parody of a positive ideology. But the notion that we can all be rich by selling ever-appreciating houses to the next greater fool was weak sauce even by the standards of market populism.

Beneath the scares and bubbles there remains the exploitation of labor, which leads inexorably back to dissatisfaction and revolt. The thinkers of the young left have revived interest in Italian autonomist Marxism, which posited the resistance of workers at the point of production as the motor of history that impelled capitalists to transform their own productive relations. This approach is at least well-suited to the conditions of cultural workers churning out content for websites that soak up the attention of bored office workers. By identifying an appetite for class war in their audience, the blogging proletariat, doing a new kind of piece-work, has turned the amoral hunger for page views to subversive ends. This is not subversion in the shallow discursive sense of mediocre nineties cultural theory, but in that of fomenting solidarity with real movements, from striking fast food workers to Strike Debt activists.

Anyway, you can read these articles here. And, again, subscribe or donate here.


  1. Jeff Doyler December 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | #

    “Autonomist Marxism.” Marvelous how so many errors can be packed into the act of combining two words.

    • Christopher Fons December 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm | #

      Yeah, wouldn’t want to have autonomy or an understanding of political economy!

      • Jeff Doyler December 31, 2012 at 9:44 am | #

        If Marx thought that having an understanding of political economy required being an anarchist then he would have joined Bakunin’s faction instead of fighting him tooth and nail.

    • Glenn January 1, 2013 at 8:28 pm | #

      Marx was not a Marxist.

      Neither Karl nor Groucho desired membership in a club that would have them.

  2. BillR January 1, 2013 at 7:57 pm | #

    Liberals seem forever confused about “National Security”. One of the most highly lauded Liberal intellectuals in the Academy (whose “Just War” Theory was mentioned by Obama in his Nobel Acceptance speech) was once described as “the kind of liberal who likes to reason his way to a good conscience”. George Orwell was not in two minds about this bad-faith carping against those “who can handle the truth” (as Jack Nicholson’s character famously put it:

    All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

  3. Erstwhile Anthropologist January 1, 2013 at 8:33 pm | #

    I think you will find this of interest, Corey, in light of your comments on security. Argument of course needs the racial dimensions of fear/threat/need for ‘security’ fleshed out as current state-sponsored security regimes for some amount to racial terrorism (and ‘the New Jim Crow’) for others:
    “Javert himself provides two interesting clues to why Americans both dislike and embrace the harsh version of justice he represents. First, Javert repeatedly refers to Jean Valjean as “dangerous” and there is a hint that his tremendous physical strength, and strong emotions, contain some more general menace. Americans in the violent 1970s and 1980s seemed to accept that security requires us to ignore our intuitions about justice (a theme that continues in the current war on terror).”

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist January 1, 2013 at 9:17 pm | #

      Just a quick clarification: I was referring to Jonathan Simon’s article not being explicit about the racial dimensions, not Corey’s.

  4. Andrew January 19, 2013 at 6:09 pm | #

    Perhaps you could explain to me how Neoliberalism, the grandchild of the French Revolution, is a movement of the ‘right’. To this day I have never met anyone able to explain how the zealots of free-market capitalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are movements of the ‘right’ other than in the sense of being to the right of socialism. How is it that Rothbard, Hayek, Mises, and others, who explicity stated they were LEFTISTS and opposed to conservativism and socialism alike are suddenly called reactionaries? Let me guess…the private domain of privilege and power…ok, sure. Then again, considering the fact that you think Sorel is a reactionary should sum up your historical cherry-picking rather well.

    • Corey Robin January 19, 2013 at 6:12 pm | #

      Can you give me specific citations where Hayek and Mises said they were leftists? I’ve never seen those quotes, so I’d appreciate it if you did. Many thanks.

      • Andrew January 19, 2013 at 7:16 pm | #

        Excuse the angered tone, I was getting a bit polemic. Anyway, here are papers by Rothbard and Hayek that explain the position rather well (they aren’t too long and you can get the summary rather well within the first few pages). The money is where Rothbard swore allegiance to the New Left during the 60s and 70s.

        Link 1 (Left, Right, and Prospects For Liberty by Rothbard): http://library.mises.org/books/Murray%20N%20Rothbard/Left,%20Right,%20and%20the%20Prospects%20for%20Liberty.pdf

        Link 2 (Why I Am Not A Conservative by Hayek) http://faculty.rcc.edu/sellick/Hayek.pdf

        Since Hayek is indebted to Mises, I’ve saved you the long slog through old documents The obvious counter to this arguement is that Rothbard rejected ‘egalitarianism’ but its not exactly clear what he meant by this since he obviously rejected the right as well. Anyhow, I would agree with your assertion that neoliberalism and libertarianism are obviously to the right of the socialist left (interestingly, Rothbard places socialism to the right of libertarianism, but whatever), yet the insistence that our current global neoliberal order is a reaction of the right is what bothers me.

      • Andrew January 23, 2013 at 11:07 am | #

        Mr. Robin, after a more careful reading of your book I’ve concluded that I misconstrued your central theme. What you say about the libertarians/neoliberals sounds like a pretty accurate description. I suppose my folley was in a geneological fallacy whereby I associated the leftwing heritage of libertarianism with it’s incarnation in the specific works of Hayek and the general notion of private domains of power. So, disregard my critique.

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