Category: Political Theory

Do You Believe in Life After Hayek

Sorry about the title; advertisements for The Cher Show are all over New York these days, so the song is in my head. Anyway… In the Boston Review, the left economists Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrick, and Gabriel Zucman offer an excellent manifesto of sorts for a new progressive economic agenda. I was asked to respond, and in a move that surprised me, I wound up returning to Hayek to see what we on the left might learn from him and his achievement. Here’s a snippet: Far from resting neoliberalism on the authority of the natural sciences or mathematics (forms of inquiry Hayek and Mises sought to distance their work from) or on the technical knowledge of economists (as Naidu and […]

Adorno in America

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world. The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? To the extent that question has been asked, it has traditionally provoked […]

When Adorno Had Fun

“A November 1944 letter to Horkheimer, for example, finds Adorno recalling that he ‘had a lot of fun’ meeting with the Berkeley Public Opinion group to develop preliminary questions on the ‘F-Scale.’” —Eric Oberle, Theodor Adorno and the Culture of Negative Identity, p. 152 I highly recommend Oberle’s book. It’s a little outside my usual reading these days, but it has some really fascinating readings of old and familiar texts and terrific biographical nuggets like this. I’ll be blogging about it more once I get rid of this cursed flu.

Beer Track, Wine Track, Get Me Off This Fucking Train

Yesterday, on Twitter, I tweeted a version of this claim: Beto, Harris, Klobuchar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is ultimately them, their person. That’s what they all have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only two candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked out over the years, about the economy and the state. The tweet was one part of a much longer Facebook post, in which I elaborated the point. Here’s a short excerpt from that post: Among the many reasons that I have no time for the first set of candidates is that I’m so tired of these quintessentially American campaigns that are so wrapped up in the personality of the candidate, […]

Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven

In shul this morning, I came upon this passage from the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” It’s an arresting thought, on two grounds. First, we tend to think of omnipotent power as causing fear, even terror. Yet the one thing, the Talmud says, that omnipotent power cannot determine is whether we are afraid of it. Second, we tend to think of our fear as something we don’t control, as an automatic and instinctual response to some power or threat. Yet here is the Talmud suggesting that everything within us is out of our control—except for our fear. As it happens, these two claims are similar to the arguments I’ve often tried to […]

The Scandal of Democracy: Seven Theses for the Socialist Left

1. The Supreme Court has always been the scandal of American democracy. How do you justify the power that nine unelected judges—almost all of them, historically, white men—wield in a society that styles itself a democracy? 2. That scandal reached a peak in the last third of the twentieth century, when a combination of hard-right judicial theorists (Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia among them) and nervous liberals started worrying about what was called “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” or the “counter-majoritarian dilemma.” 3. The result of that reconsideration of the Court and judicial review was, among other things, the theory of constitutional interpretation that we call originalism. Originalism held that the only justification for the Court reviewing and overruling the decisions of […]

Freedom and Socialism

The New York Times asked me to write something on socialism and its current appeal. I did, and it’s running as this weekend’s cover story in The Sunday Review. Here are some brief excerpts: The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival. … The stories of […]

On Liars, Politics, Michiko Kakutani, Martin Jay, and Hannah Arendt

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “the death of truth” is making the rounds. In it, she quotes Arendt: Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false […]

How eerie and unsettling it can be when people change their minds: From Thomas Mann to today

In the wake of the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a number of people have been commenting, complaining, celebrating, noticing how quickly mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—has been moving toward Sanders-style positions. And without acknowledging it. Positions, policies, and politics that two years ago were deemed beyond the pale are now being not only welcomed but also embraced as if the person doing the embracing always believed what he or she is now saying. This, as you can imagine, causes some on the left no end of consternation. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their shift, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And […]

Conservatism and the free market

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers. The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse. But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this. Here’s the National Review on my book: At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored. And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and […]

Speaking events this spring

I’m doing a bunch of public events this semester. Here’s the schedule. On Tuesday, February 13, at 6 pm, I’ll be joining Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and Tom Sugrue on a panel about Nikhil Singh’s new book, Race and America’s Long War, which I highly recommend. Singh puts the current moment in a broad historical context, tracing Trump’s licensing of new states of cruelty back to the earliest days of America as a settler society. The book is full of surprises, which will shock even the most jaded observer of American life. The panel will be at NYU, 20 Cooper Square, 4th Floor. On Thursday, February 22, at 4:30 pm, I’ll be delivering the Oscar Jászi Memorial Lecture at Oberlin College. Jászi, […]

A Constitutional Crisis? Or Partisans Without Purpose?

You hear a lot of talk on Twitter these days about a constitutional crisis. The thing about previous moments of constitutional crisis in the US is that they were never strictly about institutions and narrowly political questions; they were always about something socially substantive, something larger than the specific issue itself. The crisis provoked by the election of Lincoln in 1860, which led to secession and then the Civil War, was, of course, about slavery. The crisis of FDR’s Court-packing scheme was about the New Deal and whether the American state could be used to bring American capitalism to heel. Watergate was about the Cold War and a murderous US foreign policy. What strikes me about the current crisis over […]

Democracy is Norm Erosion

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that I pushed away from consciousness but which has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought. And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel […]

Clarence Thomas’s Straussian Moment: The Question of Slavery and the Founding, and a question for my political theory and intellectual history friends

A question for the political theorists, intellectual historians, and maybe public law/con law experts. The question comes at the very end of this post. Forgive the build-up. And the potted history: I’m writing fast because I’m hard at work on this Clarence Thomas book and am briefly interrupting that work in order to get a reading list. In the second half of the 1980s, Clarence Thomas is being groomed for a position on the Supreme Court, or senses that he’s being groomed. He’s the head of the EEOC in the Reagan Administration and decides to beef up on his reading in political theory, constitutional law, and American history. He hires two Straussians—Ken Masugi and John Marini—to his staff on the […]

I’ll be on The Leonard Lopate Show tomorrow—and here are a bunch of reviews and interviews

I’m going to be on The Leonard Lopate Show tomorrow, Wednesday, November 22, talking about the new edition of The Reactionary Mind. The show starts at noon, at least in New York. So while you’re readying for the Thanksgiving holiday, have a listen! The book has begun to get reviews! The inimitable Sarah Jones, one of my favorite journalists, gave it a thoughtful endorsement in The New Republic: The book’s second edition, eagerly awaited, now swaps out Palin for the commander-in-chief. Palin and Trump both demand some sort of unifying theory. How can it be that the party of Senator Ben Sasse—who enjoys a mostly-unearned reputation as a moderate—is also the party of Trump? The answer is even less difficult […]

Reminder: Talk tonight with Keith Gessen, and Wednesday night with Eddie Glaude

Just a reminder… Tonight (Monday), I’ll be talking with Keith Gessen about the new edition of The Reactionary Mind. We’ll be talking at 7 pm at McNally Jackson, 52 Prince Street in Manhattan. On Wednesday, I’ll be talking with Eddie Glaude about The Reactionary Mind. We’ll be be talking at 7:30 pm at Dweck Center in the Brooklyn Public Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. I hope to see any and all of you who live in the NYC area either tonight or Wednesday night. And if you come, please make sure to say hi. And make sure to buy the new edition. It’s already gotten its first review and there are more to come.

Upcoming Events in LA and NYC with Keith Gessen and Eddie Glaude

I’ll be doing several speaking events in Los Angeles and New York City. On Tuesday, November 7, I’ll be delivering the E. Victor Wolfenstein Memorial Lecture at UCLA. The title of my talk is “White State, Black Market: The Political Economy of Clarence Thomas.” The talk will be at 6 pm in the Charles Young Grand Salon in Kerkhoff Hall. On Monday, November 13, I’ll be in conversation with Keith Gessen, a founding editor of n+1 and a contributor to The New Yorker, about the new edition of The Reactionary Mind. We’ll be talking at 7 pm at McNally Jackson, 52 Prince Street in Manhattan. On Wednesday, November 15, I’ll be in conversation with Eddie Glaude, William S. Tod Professor of Religion and […]

What’s wrong with the discourse of norm erosion?

We’ve now had, in less than 20 years, two presidents elected over and against the expressed preferences (not in a poll, but in actual ballots) of the majority of the voters. I think most Democrats, liberals, and leftists would agree that both of these presidents were or are disasters. So these two elections were democratic catastrophes on both procedural and substantive grounds. Yet the single most important determinant of these two disasters—the fact that we have a Constitution that creates an Electoral College that privileges the interests of states over persons—cannot, by the terms of the discourse, be counted as a norm erosion. Indeed, when it comes to this main determinant of the Electoral College and how it works, there […]

Forty Years of The Firm: Trump and the Coasian Grotesque

In his classic article “The Nature of the Firm“—which I wish would be put on the list of required reading for political theorists; it really should be in our canon—the economist R.H. Coase divides the economic world into two modes of action: deal-making, which happens between firms, and giving orders, which happens within firms. Coase doesn’t say this, but it’s a plausible extrapolation that making deals and giving orders are, basically, the two things businessmen know how to do. In the last year, it’s occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that Trump is a Coasian grotesque. Making deals and giving orders: that’s all he knows how to do. Except that he doesn’t. As we’re seeing, he’s really bad […]

Noah and Shoah: Purification by Violence from the Flood to the Final Solution

In shul this morning, I was musing on this passage from Genesis 8:21, which was in the parsha, or Torah portion, we read for the week: …the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” This statement comes just after the Flood has ended. God commands Noah to leave the ark, to take all the animals with him. Noah does that and then makes an offering to God. God is pleased by the offering, and suddenly—out of nowhere—makes this resolution: I won’t do this again. I won’t drown the world, destroy its […]