The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

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Distinguishing social democracy

Distinguishing social democracy:

Under left-liberal (as opposed to soc dem) regimes, organized labor does not participate in mid- to longer-range socio-economic planning. However, left think tanks can contribute mid- to long-range planning analyses.

Conversely, there are a variety of ways in which business leaders contribute to public policy formation, because business (public and private, but not cooperative) is regarded by the lib-left govt as the engine of growth.

This exclusion of cooperatives from the field of perceived contributors to growth indicates that lib-left govts may also be distinguished from social democratic govts by an assumption that growth is a product of “efficient” social-hierarchy-inflating organizational forms.

In lib-left regimes, labor views its role, and the liberal government views labor’s role as (often obstructive) ballast to economic growth initiatives that are seen as the natural concern of business. That’s labor’s negative role. It’s not a leadership role.

Labor’s positive role in capitalist democracy thus largely devolves to delivering votes to the left-liberal govt, because although the lib-left does not regard labor as a central social or economic policy resource, as opposed to conservative govts the lib-left govt will not actively try to break organized labor and it may implement those modest proposals of labor that do not impede the business-driven growth planning.

Hence, with a range of ruling (capitalist) political perspectives that always preemptively block information from labor (except what little leaks obliquely through the market), we repeatedly sink into crisis cycles–crisis of profit begets > capital deregulation and overmobilization, working class overregulation, demobilization, and dispossession beget > speculative bubbles/primitive accumulation beget > underconsumption crisis begets > further primitive accumulation, repeat. We fixate on the speculative bubbles moment in the midst of all this autistic failure, hoard wealth, and laud ourselves endlessly for being such top-notch managers and philanthropistes.

This is why for Rawlsianism to work, socialist politics and the communist horizon must be more highly valued, and even defended– by liberals.
As far as I know, this seeming impossibility has only been (temporarily) accomplished in Scandinavia and Minnesota. (While Latin America leftists tried to forge a left-lib coalition from scratch, the US destroyed this effort and enforced conservative rule in Latin America, see Greg Grandin.)

In “Right-wing Rawlsianism: A Critique” (forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy) Samuel Arnold argues that if liberals agree that agency is the essence of justice, then liberals have to pick which side they are on–because economic democracy fosters more agency than Trickledown provides.

Arnold’s is a clever detonation of a bridge from liberalism to conservatism, using some of the bridge-builders’ own ideal theory tools. (Particularly with respect to Rawls’ difference principle: A liberal justice-maximizing directive to choose the political-economic system that maximizes the least-advantaged group’s expectations for an index of primary goods that include income and wealth, but also status (qua capacity for agency in the workplace and self-respect in society).)

Upon deriving the optimal realization of liberal justice (agency) in workplace democracy, Arnold concludes (p. 32),

Milquetoast liberal egalitarianism is unstable: liberal egalitarianism must move far to the left in order to avoid being jerked far to the right.”

We need to keep heaping on the demonstrations that economic democracy fosters more agency than GDP/GNP tumescence.

For one example, insofar as political-economic systems can be said to have intentions, how plausible is it that capitalism does not intend to support social pathologies (Arnold, p.29)? Studies of primitive accumulation, the WEB DuBois tradition, socialist feminists, Harvey et al have a lot to say about how capitalism “intends to” (is built and maintained to) and does depend upon and support social pathologies. This approach apprehends the connection between economic (eg. workplace) tyranny and racism, sexism, colonialism, etc., for a powerpunch assertion that inequality is both fundamental to capitalism (even if it is shifted around across some social groups, over time and space) and fatally (from the perspective of justice) undermines agency (power to).

…& on the matter of historical-materialism’s putative incapacity to deal with difference (from a postmodern POV), from Arnold (p. 29):

Patriarchy, discrimination against the weak or the different, pressure to conform, and countless other social practices that prevent people from realizing their full agential potential: how long can these pathologies withstand the countervailing winds of a social democracy, with its democratic workplaces, its flattened division of labor, its robustly egalitarian public institutions?”

On White Male Property owning Citizenship in the US

Civic virtue as a property of propertied white men:

A number of authors argue that the 19th Century concept of US citizenship and civic virtue was grounded in being a white male property-owner — with property-ownership construed broadly to include tool-owning tradesmen, a notion that spilled over into the racial exclusivism practiced by the US craft unions:

Political and legal theorist Aziz Rana’s The Two Faces of American Freedom (2010).

Historian David Montgomery’s Citizen Worke(1995).

Political scientist Rogers Smith‘s Civic Ideals (1999) gives a fairly broad backdrop.

Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo argues that liberalism is essentially about exclusion: the advancement of slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and snobbery. Much of his book Liberalism, A Counter-history (2011) is focused on the United States, in both the early republican and antebellum periods. (Here is a New Left Project debate on Losurdo‘s thesis . Here is a review of Liberalism in Counterfire.) Jodi Dean has argued that the exclusion thesis is a red herring; the problem with capitalism is exploitation, not exclusion.

Christopher Tomlins’s Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early Republic (1993) (It can complement the Orren text, see below.)

Andrew Shankman’s Crucible of American Democracy (2004).

Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America (2011).

On how long citizenship actually took to get to white males, cross-class, in the US:

Best book about thwarted suffrage in the US (including that of working class white males) is The Right to Vote (2000) by historian Alex Keyssar. (Hear Keyssar speaking about contemporary barriers to suffrage in the US.)

Political scientist Karen Orren’s book Belated Feudalism (1991) is about the persistence in the US of feudal common law, in the form of employment law, well into the 20th century.

Thanks to John Gulick, C. Robin and Anthony Galluzzo.





What’s at Stake in Understanding Conservatism
From a review of Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina:


Sinha demonstrates that “South Carolina pro-slavery thought was not the expression of Southern Republicanism, but increasingly its very negation. It was not a coincidence that secessionism was strongest in South Carolina, the only state by 1832 where presidential electors and the governor were not popularly elected, where the legislature was crudely malapportioned, and where local offices were limited by the state government. It was also not a coincidence that slaves were a majority of South Carolinians, and slaveholders nearly a majority of South Carolinian whites. And it certainly was not a coincidence that non-slaveholders were noticeably less enthusiastic for nullification, secession in 1851 and secession in 1861.

Leading Carolinians like John Caldwell Calhoun, Senator James Chesnut and the creepy, incestuous James Hammond all sneered at the Declaration of Independence. Sinha quotes one bravado warping Patrick Henry to declare “Give me Slavery or give me death.” Notwithstanding the views of some historians to the contrary, the South Carolinians criticized the North less for its oppression of wage laborers than for the possiblity that those laborers could vote themselves into power. They did not condemn Lincoln as an intolerant Protestant but as a dangerous socialist and feminist. Moreover, they were not slow to raise the Nativist card against the immigrants who were bolstering the North’s population.

Calhoun’s idea of a concurrent majority was not a thoughtful protection of minority rights, but a way to prevent one minority, his own, from ever being outvoted. Once the Confederacy was set up, the Southern elite dispensed with political parties. South Carolina also began to dispense with competitive elections, while its ruthless elite certainly did not act sentimentally (or even decently) towards opinions on slavery.

There have been many frauds and bullies in American political life: the Nixons, the Hoovers, the McCarthys, the Tillmans and the Bilbos. But much of their malignancy was purely personal, and they never threatened the core ideals of the republic. Calhoun was different, very different. Extremely intelligent, he was also utterly principled, and absolutely ruthless in carrying out that one principle. The problem was that the principle, despite all the complications of honor and paternalism, was slavery. More so than anyone else, Calhoun was the greatest enemy of liberty and freedom the United States ever had.


If you still don’t understand what’s at stake, perhaps you might glance at contemporary S. Carolina and US politics, inter alia. History is a child with progeria. 

“It isn’t that Americans view the past as irrelevant; it’s that they regard it as the stuff that dreams are made of, straw spun into gold, camera-ready for the preferred and more profitable markets in prime-time myth.

Why then argue for uses of history other than the ones that sponsor the election campaigns, blow the bubbles in Wall Street, underwrite the nation’s wars? The short answer is William Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.'” (Lapham, Lewis. 2012. P. 28 in “Ignorance of Things Past,” Harper’s, May.)

Inequality, Economic Growth & Standards of Living

In this 2011 PERI paper by Thompson & Leight, “Searching for the Supposed Benefits of Higher Inquality,” the authors review the messy literature on the relationship between economic inequality and economic growth. They propose an alternative approach to this research stalemate.

If you are interested in charting the relationship between inequality and economic growth, urban & regional-level data is your best bet. Only in 2006 did Saez & Picketty pull together (fairly) reliable international comparative data on income inequality. See Saez‘s data and analysis on his Berkeley website.

Garrison America

Bowles’ and Jayadev’s “Garrison America.”


Ever wonder why Americans can’t say no? 


Here’s your answer: 1 in 4 Americans participating in the “United States economy is now engaged in guard labor–providing security for people and property, and imposing work discipline.” And that doesn’t even count hegemonic policing.


On the Ultra Rich’s Surveillance State.


Remember right after Katrina, when we were told over and over, by people brimming with righteousness, how black people were running amok in New Orleans like fast zombies? (Like how white parents who murder their children claim a black man did it.) Meanwhile, our right-wing militarized police heroes are actually running around gunning people down, raping and pillaging. Then the political-economic elites turned New Orleans into a neoliberal fortress. It never fucking gets old for us, does it.

Cruel & Unusual Punishment: All the Rage Again

Glenn Greenwald discusses how the US government’s judiciary-abetted contemporary campaign to reinstate cruel and unusual punishment reflects growing elite apprehension that the American working class needs to be harshly, emphatically repressed and intimidated–because the long beating that the oligarchy has been giving to the working men and women of America is getting much, much more viscous, institutionalized and undeniable. There is no visible light at the end of the tunnel. Elites are anxious that even Americans may use the technology of the age, and begin to resist in critical mass.

“The common thread in the (Aaron) Swartz and (Bradley) Manning persecutions — as well as similar cases such as the two-year prison term for non-violent climate change protester Tim DeChristopher, the FBI’s ongoing investigation of pro-Palestinian peace activists, and even the vindictive harassment of White House/DADT protester Dan Choi — is the growing efforts to punish and criminalize non-violent protests, as a means of creating a climate of fear that will deter similar dissent,” Greenwald points out.

“…(The US government’s growing efforts) to stifle meaningful dissent of any kind — especially civil disobedience — through intimidation and excessive punishment, the cruel and degrading treatment of Bradley Manning, the attempted criminalization of WikiLeaks, the unprecedentedly harsh war on whistleblowers: these are all grounded in the recognition that the technology itself cannot be stopped, but making horrific examples out of those who effectively oppose powerful factions can chill others from doing so.”

Elites are anxious that even stupefied Americans may break out in organized opposition. Greenwald posts a Gallup poll showing that today only 11% of Americans are satisfied at “the way things are going,” and quotes David Bromwich’s analysis of the Bush-Obama regime’s devastating impact on American society: “A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence. Only a Democratic president, and only one (originally) associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.”