Hobsbawm on the Vicissitudes of Left-liberalism

Hobsbawm, Eric. 2012. “After the Cold War: Eric Hobsbawm Remembers Tony Judt.” London Review of Books, April.

Beautifully-written rebuttal of the 20th century liberal rejection and condemnation of communism, as well as homage to civic courage. Crafting a story of intellectual and political maturation and redemption, Hobsbawm dissects how Tony Judt traversed from the Cold Warrior troops and conservative tooldom (as Judt started out trivially focused on critiquing dying French Left intellectualism) to trenchant critic of imperial Israeli apartheid politics.

Both Hobsbawm & Judt understood the twentieth century’s “basic passion: namely the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths.”

 …Judt “launched one of the most implacable attacks on (Hobsbawm) in a passage which has become widely quoted, especially by the ultras of the right-wing American press. It amounted to: ‘make a public confession that your god has failed, beat your breast and you may win the right to be taken seriously. No man who doesn’t think socialism equals Gulag should be listened to.’

 …after 1968 (Judt) became much more of a militant oppositionist liberal over Eastern Europe, an admirer of the mixed but more usually right-wing academic tourists who provided much of our commentary on the end of the East European Communist regimes. This also led him and others who should have known better into creating the fairy tale of the Velvet and multicoloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out.

 …Four things shaped French history in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Republic born of the incomplete Great Revolution; the centralised Napoleonic state; the crucial political role assigned to a working class too small and disorganised to play it; and the long decline of France from its position before 1789 as the Middle Kingdom of Europe, as confident as China of its cultural and linguistic superiority. Denied a Lenin and deprived of Napoleon, France retreated into the last and, we must hope, indestructible redoubt, the world of Astérix. The postwar vogue for Parisian thinkers barely concealed their collective retreat into Hexagonal introversion and into the ultimate fortress of French intellectuality, Cartesian theory and puns. There were now other models in higher education and the sciences, in economic development, even – as the late penetration of Marx’s ideas implies – in the ideology of the Revolution. The problem for left-wing intellectuals was how to come to terms with an essentially non-revolutionary France. The problem for right-wing ones, many of them former communists, was how to bury the founding event and formative tradition of the Republic, the French Revolution, a task equivalent to writing the American Constitution out of US history. It could not be done…

 …Tony had so far made his name as an academic bruiser. His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s, whose objective is neither truth nor truthfulness, but winning the case. Faced with governments and ideologues who read victory and world domination into the fall of communism, he was honest enough with himself to recognise that the old verities and slogans needed to be junked after 1989. Probably only in the ever nervous US could such a reputation have been built so quickly on the basis of a few articles in journals of modest circulation addressed exclusively to academic intellectuals.

 …(Judt) was well aware of the risks, personal and professional, he ran in attacking the combined forces of US global conquest, the neocons and Israel, but he had plenty of what Bismarck called ‘civilian bravery’ (Zivilcourage) – a quality notably lacking in Isaiah Berlin, as Tony himself noted, perhaps not without malice. Unlike the ex-Marxist scholiasts and intellocrates on the Left Bank who, as Auden said of poets, made ‘nothing happen’, Tony understood that a struggle with these new forces could make a difference. He launched himself against them with evident pleasure and zest. This was the figure who came into his own after the end of the Cold War, widening his courtroom technique to flay the likes of Bush and Netanyahu rather than some political absurdity in the Fifth Arrondissement or a distinguished professor in New Jersey. It was a magnificent performance, a class act; he was hailed by his readers not only for what he said, but what many of them would not have had the courage to say themselves. It was all the more effective because Tony was both an insider and an outsider: English, Jewish, French, eventually American, but plurinational rather than cosmopolitan” (Eric Hobsbawm 2012).

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The How & Why of Privatization Touts

At the Ivies, the students are instructed by only the most high-status, most fail-tastic privatization marketeers (AKA conservative economists) that only the best-funded gentlemen’s networks can float.

How privatization and class warfare is sold to future US leadership: with lies, covering obscene kleptocracy and its further socialized costs.

Note: Larry Summers may have long since lost his royal Harvard throne, but not just because of his sexism (the putative cause) and racist ecological imperialism (There’s that too.), or even just being an evil overlord of the rampant social, economic and environmental mega-destruction that is neoliberalism. Rather, his Harvard departure is likely due to this: Summers decided to use Harvard funds to pay the costs (The US Justice Department fined Shleifer $26.5 million) of Andrei Shleifer’s massive kleptocratic privatization profiteering in post-communist Russia.

Yee-ha! Good ole fancy boys! Creme de la…uh… I’m guessing Summers himself has enjoyed many, many such back-scratching indulgences over the years, and it’s all par for the course for that highly-oiled and polished ruling mafioso. What was that? Did someone mention Goldman Sachs owns the Fed and the US government? You don’t say. Now what were we talking about? Berlusconi?

Harvard University: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

Breaking Windows…or the Whole Welfare State?

In Le Monde, Brotherton & Phillips argue that a criminology theory, Broken Windows, became distorted by vulgar American social speciation (The poor are evil. Their automatic small transgressions cascade into crimes against the Order), and this corruption is what resulted in a recent, tyrannical Supreme Court ruling.

I like this analysis, in that it points to how even materialist explanatory frameworks become distorted within a conservative culture. (And why materialist explanations can never serve as adequate substitutes for historical-materialist explanations.)

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, any Supreme Court decision must be assessed in the context of that body’s other contemporaneous decisions, and there, unless we are hopelessly immobilized by fear, we must recognize a stark pattern has emerged.

 It is not simply that the Supreme Court justices fell prey to a bowdlerization of Broken Windows theory. That would be a tough enough problem to address. But in fact the situation is much, much more dire. The justices were selected for the Supreme Court because they are far from innocents. The US Supreme Court has come to revert to pre-liberal, end-of-days feudal British legal traditions, and this is not through a series of mishaps. SCOTUS sanctioned election fraud at the highest level; it has recently ruled in favor of capitalist class totalitarianism in the workplace; it has come to rule repeatedly in favor of state tyranny over citizen liberties; it is positioning itself to revoke Congress’ capacity to create welfare institutions. Through its interpretations and rulings, the both conservative and fundamentally elitist US Supreme Court is actively, systematically creating the legal framework for the decisive blows that convert the US to a ferociously capitalist class-biased night watchman terror state.

The working elite theory is that the conservative initiatives will bolster the investor confidence that the US, its dollar and its debts rely on. But the conservative theory of investor confidence is superficial, a symptom of a larger conservative misreading of capitalist accumulation incentives. Because of the 40+ year dominance of conservatism, the US economy is going down like a stepwise-imploding dirigible, and its elites will not fall without scrambling together a new age of serfdom and primitive accumulation—concentrated accumulation by any means possible.

Though they are always enchanted by American capital’s money, networks, organization, ready policy models, hype, and marketeers’ assurance, the rest of the world would do well to continue to turn away and let the Americans alone erect their self-rape and -pillage legal framework in their “exceptionalist” (British serfdom and imperialism meets American slavery and nuclear chain-reaction exploitation) tradition.

Marxists are correct about what is happening here. Despite their emotional rejection of Marxists above all, American liberals need to start to assess whether they will withdraw from the real world to protect their visions of marginally-conflicted, equilibrium, civilized capitalism, or whether they will get back in there and organize to defend the pillars of their crumbling, limited-Enlightenment utopia—from conservatives this time, again.

You have to ask yourself: Are you really comfortable with slavery and serfdom?, because these remain fundamental conservative institutions–entirely complementary to, we can see plainly before us, capitalism, wretched capitalism. Absolute power corrupts absolutely; and under a system of concentrated power–such as is capitalism, there is no high, easy road to progress.

Costs of War March 2012

Costs of current US imperial wars, courtesy Bill Moyers.

Lessons (Again, because we’re memoryless morons.) of military interventions, this time Libya: “Military interventions that topple repressive regimes invariably offer occasions to observe, though at others’ expense, the law of unintended consequences. Second, the constituencies that clamor for such campaigns move quickly to other matters once those malign consequences become manifest.”

social progressivism and economic neo-liberalism

Sociologist John Gulick responds to an article on Japanese austerity politics:

“Also interesting here are the reform measures being backed by the international tutors of neo-liberal austerity. “Socially progressive” measures such as a more open immigration regime and a higher labor force participation rate for women are being proposed alongside the usual deregulatory, free trade, anti-welfare state nostrums. The Wall Street Journal editorial board really forces one to consider the homologies between social progressivism and economic neo-liberalism. (Yeah, these homologies will differ according to socio-cultural context.)”

My response to Aziz Rana’s nplusone article “Obama and the Closing of the American Dream” –the article claims that the American Dream has been reduced to advancement via educated professional status:

Well, I remember a study not but a few years ago that showed quite the opposite–regardless of whether their businesses survive, Americans have very little regard for education-based professional status. It’s not their dream. They just feel it’s not attainable, whereas thanks to teevee they can incredibly imagine themselves as Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Kardashiods, or a lotto winner. I don’t remember what that study was, but Michele Lamont got similar ethnography and interview data in her comparison of US v. French working class men’s attitudes.

If the American Dream is dead, it’s because we have conservative business policies in place of social democratic business-hudsbanding ALMPs and a policy bias toward quality work and full employment–and that means we have both tremendous incentives to flee a feudal labor market and a high rate of small business failure, reinforcing the options- and freedom-reducing conservative ideology benefitting the top 1% (and scattering Little King incentives below). If the Dream is dead, that’s how it died.

In other words, the causation behind the educated professional path remaining as an insufficient vehicle of social mobility–if you compare Anglosphere countries to Scandinavian countries– surely appears related to the Anglosphere’s characteristically conservative approach to managing the business and labor market policy landscape in such a way as to produce a high business failure rate and feudal workplace conditions.

If you don’t own capital, educated professional status is the one of the few strategies left that provide to the working class a hope of semi-comfort/semi-discomfort and demi-status. The other remaining strategies include patriarchal status (Perhaps that’s why so many women are getting higher ed degrees.), employment in a military, prison, or police institution, and of course deployment as a Conservative Expert or Agitator. In contrast to these latter remnant socio-economic strategies, to be an educated professional today requires enthralling levels of debt for the working class, and, often, insecure income. That debt combines with the disciplinary force of the steadily-growing army of the underemployed (and feudal workplaces); educated professionals today are thereby reduced to just another managerial (manhandling), retainer class. Being a retainer is not anyone’s dream; and it’s better to manhandle than to be manhandled, but it’s not autonomy.

Magical Rectitude:
Synthesizing observations on the coincidence of economic neoliberalism and ineffective social progressivism, with Rana’s analysis of the educated-professional death of the American Dream, as well as observations on neoliberal adoption and diffusion in the professional sublcass

I would very much agree that educated professional status, as one of the last refuges of American-dreaming scoundrels (though it operates the same in other countries as well), requires under the circumstances a desperate careerism that causes the elaboration of both economic neo-liberalism and justificatory, superficial, myopic “social progressivism” (of the quality Nancy Fraser critiques).

The temporary neologism I’m using for this kind of neoliberal social progressivism is “magical rectitude“, because it requires professional, emotive marketing. But I’ll try to get back to Mills and see if he has a term.

I think Rana’s right in pointing out that that American Dream remnant–mobility through education and attaining professional status–when it’s all that’s actually left (aside from authoritarian employment and the reifying fantasies of winning the high-inequality society jackpot) to the working class, is part of a system of feudal social immobility and appropriation. Not least because in that very context, the activity of educated professionalism reduces to serving as either a retainer or a labor repressor/manhandler.

Today’s professionals don’t have the independence Gramsci observed in Traditional Intellectuals. Their work is subordinated to and tied up in economic neoliberalism. At the historic “neoliberal” moment Traditional Intellectuals lose all vestige of autonomy, they have to legitimize their fading middle income and status. To promote a political agenda of non sequiturs, they thus they feel compelled to marketing, to mystifying idealism, framing their captured work as though it were driven by an independent, professional, community-oriented altruistic impulse following a linear path of progress: Deunionization on behalf of the children. Labor market deregulation for the immigrants. Austerity for the immigrants and women. Academic proletarianization for the students and world’s poor. Oil imperialism for Muslim women and Arab democrats.* It’s all fairly transparent (translucent) marketing, sales on behalf of oligarchy. So today’s educated professionals appear contemptible (to the working class, to the elite, to each other) on numerous fronts, and from a social movements perspective they appear captured.

…I think, though, if you think about this sub-class and its co-dimming autonomy and status, especially compounded with its educational, etc. debts, there is a structural, material wedge between educated professionals and the 1% that can be worried to good effect. Hence, OWS.

Gulick responds:

“Degreed professionals are increasingly crowded on one side by neo-Taylorist efficiency experts, and by the cultural hegemony of the self-promotional PR/social media ethos on the other. (Mills was on to this 60 years ago, quite fabulously!) And they are both the administrators and the administered of this.”

* Managerial, professional neoliberal social progressivism has conservative coalition-building and legitimation functions. As compared to such professional neoliberal social progressivism, more properly conservative doublespeak seems to deal more in abstraction: Student debt for the principle of responsibility. Unfettered police powers for freedom. Enthralling women for freedom. No health care access for free commerce. The agenda-setting conservative abstractions are exclusionary and not designed to directly co-opt their victims, but rather to co-opt a protective layer of would-be Little Kings.

For further discussion, see:

Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Melville, Herman. 1857. The Confidence-Man.

There is No Compromise with Conservatives

“So, the Heritage Foundation said let’s do an individual mandate because it keeps it (health care reform) within free enterprise. The alternative was single payer. And they didn’t want that, and I’m in sympathy with that. So now all of a sudden the free-market alternative becomes unconstitutional and terribly intrusive where a government imposition and government-run project would not be? I don’t get it. Well, I do get it. It’s politics” Liberal-conservative Charles Fried commenting on the the Randy Barnett-led conservative campaign, which aims to use the Supreme Court to kill Obamacare. 

Obamacare (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA 2010) requires, on pain of fines, individual Americans to buy health insurance from private health insurance firms. Why conservatives hate it is because it is a progressive redistribution of wealth, and so an enlargement of power and freedoms. Further, millions of Americans cannot afford food or shelter, let alone buy expensive health insurance; so their insurance costs must be socialized. Conservative states and conservative business organizations filed lawsuits (and amicus brief), and the Supreme Court agreed to hear their arguments.

Say you want to get something done: Address the problem of the predatory, unregulated health care industry which is sapping the economic strength of responsible employers and the working class, causing crisis within the working class and foisting the costs of an unhealthy, traumatized populace upon the state, capital productivity, and society.

If you wanted to do something, you would have had to coordinate a massive protest + polity campaign, first to get a President who would and could appoint progressive judges to the Supreme Court, and then to press for universal  Medicare, with the state being a single buyer of services (to negotiate medical rents down). Given the judiciary is conservative, this is a long-term project at this point. There is no other road. If you wanted to get social reform accomplished, you cannot compromise with class warrior conservatives, because even though they own Congress, they own the judiciary more. Ideologically, Republicans and other class warrior conservatives will not tolerate the idea that any policy that strengthens the working class strengthens the capitalist class or economy.

Illustrated: the difference between Fried (a Reagan-era conservative = Democrat) and Barnett class-warrior conservatives is that the former agree that something had to be done about health care cost and access in the US–and something could be done that would benefit capital. Whereas the latter are “Let them eat cake” Malthusians. The Barnett class-warrior conservatives believe that the working class should be miserable, in crisis, and dead young (The elitist Supreme Court judges laughed merrily at the idea of working-poor families booted off health insurance.), and on principle no state should stand in the way of that proper “market”/god-given outcome. Following feudo-capitalist British tradition, as long as US military troops and mercenaries are competitive in imperial war, there is no need for class compromise or social amelioration in Malthusian conservatives’ view. Might makes right.

And when I’m finally old enough to learn to play the game, 
Oh the dinosaurs will roam the earth, and resume their bloody reign. 

Political Problem: The Supreme Court is a Fundamental Enemy of Democracy

Robin plumbs another depth to conservative strategy: The reason why the Supreme Court agreed to hear this challenge to Obamacare as a matter of constitutional law is because that conservative court has been using the Constitution’s commerce clause to work toward constructing the class-warrior legal interpretation: broadly, the interpretation that the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to create working class-supportive social institutions (eg. Medicare, food assistance, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.). This conservative constitutional interpretation would illegalize all institutions of the welfare state, making the US a night watchman state.

Doug Henwood and Daniel Lazare argue that with one exception-that-proves-the-rule (post-FDR) period, history has shown that the Supreme Court is hopelessly anti-democratic. Robin explains the  elitist Supreme Court problem for democrats: The commerce clause hasn’t always been an obstacle to progressive social change. Iff you had a social movement in place, and iff you ALSO had a president who was able to appoint Supreme Court justices who wouldn’t strike down all progressive legislation, the commerce clause could be turned to freedoms expansion.

So after Roosevelt’s liberal judicial appointments, and with social movement pressure, for a couple decades justices used the commerce clause to authorize Social Security, the Wagner Act, the Civil Rights Act, and more. But  social movement is not enough. There were social movements in the US for many decades that managed to pass legislation, and it all got struck down by the Supreme Court.

Unless you struggle to abolish the Supreme Court or pass an amendment that radically restricts its authority, it’s going to wield that authority and strike down freedoms-expanding legislation.

The only temporary alternative is if a social movement can over time both advance a President who will appoint new progressive judges and maintain the disruption and pressure needed to advance progressive, freedoms-expanding legal interpretation.