Blog #110a – Cultural Wars and a new Tribalism?

Blog 110a – Cultural Wars and a New Tribalism?

The Times Op-Ed page (on 3/2/18­­) was marvelously symbolic. On the left side, David Brooks reduces all the frightening disagreements about where our country is going, the battles over gun control , trade and tariffs, armaments, nuclear weapons, into manifestations of a “cultural war”,: in which the conservatives “have zero cultural power , but immense political power.” The big prize is not gun control. It’s “winning the cultural war, with the gun fight as the final battle.” Several days earlier (Feb 20,), he had written, “We don’t have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict…,” and the answer is, “just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off.” How? “Respect First, Then Gun Control.” If the Blues and the Reds simply respected each other, they’d settle their problems easily. His recommendation: Blues should stop shaming Reds.  Politics is not about who get what from whom and how they get it, but about how the left stupidly engages in “elite cultural intimidation , claiming “moral superiority.”

On the other side of the Op-Ed page, counter-symbolically the right side, Paul Krugman’s column is headed: “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed.” It’s a straightforward contribution to a policy debate about the new tax law. It gives some facts about whom it will help, whom it will hurt, and how political and economic power are being wielded to achieve what those that possess it want, for their own benefit, at a cost to the middle class. Not a word about a “cultural wars.” It’s about who get what from whom and how they get it

And symbolically between these two column’s is Mat Glassman’s column, which explains the “larger problem” behind the White House Chaos,” blaming it on the weakness of Donald Trump as President to his inability to attract a competent staff to advise him.  It’s a management problem.

What the “culture wars” argument does, as does “lamenting the ‘roots of the problem’ in ‘management skills,’ ” is to completely side step the very real factual economic and social and political differences that divide the country. For cultural theorists, there’s no moral difference between advocating for teachers carrying guns in school and asking for a ban on assault rifles; no more weight to be given to logically grounded analysis of tax policies than to the hurt sensitivities of those that support them. Tranquility is what’s needed, above all; never mind who’s goring whose ox, whether some go homeless while others thrive in mansions using their labor. Such evenhandedness violates any effort to shape public policies that promote the values of social justice and human rights.

Indeed there are troublesome cultural differences that exacerbate the problems in our society, but the real issues aren’t differences of opinion or how they are expressed, but how the wealth that  society produces is shared. We don’t have “big tribal conflicts” because all of a sudden some “tribal instincts ” have emerged from some repressed deep identities, or because  we’ve suddenly decided to turn these instincts on, having turned them off all these years.  Focusing on the symptoms of conflicts shouldn’t obliterate recognition of their causes.

And it obliterates very specific causes: any reference to inequalities of wealth or power, or to their use in exploitation or domination, to create very hierarchical divisions not simply differences at the level of what the divisions are about, not “souls committed to the basic democratic norms–respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe,” up against other souls who believe “what matters is the survival of your nation and culture.” [David Brooks, “Worthy is The {Conor} Lamb,” New York Times, 3/17/p. A27] That something as mundane as class or race might be playing a role in the divisions that divide “us” never appears.


Blog #91: Explaining the Election in 10 sentences – preliminary

Explaining the election (in parentheses: to pursue):

1. A critical shift in the organization of the economy post 1968, from industrial to hi-tech capitalism (occupational structures?).
2. Leaving many dependent on the old economy hurt and at a loss, largely the white working class, hold-over racism and sexism accentuated as scapegoats. (foreclosures, evictions, bankruptcies, struggling suburban homeowners – not the really poor, homeless)
3. They reacted with anxiety and an emotional attachment to the past Deep Story (their traditional identity?)
4. They blamed, quite rightly, “the” establishment, although not clear as to its membership, pushed by media etc. to blame “government” (social media, TV, not press?)
5. Trump as politician picked up on this, despite his own membership in the new establishment (motivation? pathological egotism? Business).
6. The anxious white ex-working class built up a deep story, a vision, abetted by Trump and the media that was heavily emotional (shaping identities?)
7. That story, built on real anxiety-inducing experience, mis-interpreted history, and built a psychological/ideological barrier that facts and reason could not penetrate (high school or less education?). Trump offered the charismatic fairy tale leader, believe me, trust me, not them, they have failed you (over 30 years? 8. Since Reagan? since Johnson?)
9. Hillary offered no vision that addressed the grounded anxiety (health care costs? Real unemployment levels?).
10. But Trump’s allegiance as a businessman is and always was to the new elite establishment, and he will unify the Republican Party around it. The holdouts will be those with a personal repugnance to Trump’s personal behavior, which they will swallow. (social circles, clienteles, customers, tenants?)

The Blog #90 series will deal with some of these isssues in more detail.

Blog #74 – On the Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today

Blog #74 – On The Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today:

NOTE: This Blog #74 is a short piece on the relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s work of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to the 21st century, arguing it reflects a major historical turning point. It reflects the possibility of the abolition of scarcity and the possibility of the creation of a new society, and at the same time requires a redefinition of the meaning of revolution today, adding new ideological issues to continuing material one .It was the opening Welcome talk at the biennial conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society at Salisbury University in November, 2015.


I think this is the right time for this conference. It may look, judging from the apparent direction of the political winds, as if it is the Right’S time, and yet, it seem to me, the state of the world today demands that it be the Left’s time – that it is in fact High time that the left should get its act together and show that the Left in fact has it right, and set about winning the battle to convince our fellows around the world that we must move from right to left. Not that the Left has all the answers, but it does have many of them, and conferences such as this can help us move to clarify even more.

And our work is particularly important at this time, historically. One Dimensional Man was published in 1964, and Essay on Liberation in 1969. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 (the movie on its history, tellingly entitled: “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is just being widely released, and I encourage you if you have the chance, by all means to see it.) Both the books and the movie, in quite different ways, spoke of revolution. Neither, in the lifetimes of their protagonists, achieved their objectives. I think both would be forced to agree today that the basis for revolution, certainly for violent revolution, is not present today, and that the path to real progress, the path towards implementing left and radical and Marcusian and black liberation hopes, is today necessarily heavily ideological, requires the kind of educational work, both in pedagogy and in theoretical understanding, which makes this conference so important.

We are not today where we were in the 1950’s and 1960. I think the left critique developed in the 60’s was right, but it leads to a shift in the meaning of revolution that we have not fully appreciated. What my father and the critical theory of the 60’s pointed out was that the society today had reached a post-scarcity stage technologically, where Want is no longer necessary, that there was no reason for increasing impoverishment, for hunger or homelessness or failing health care or limited education or the struggle for limited resources that have fueled so much of the hostilities that we see today.

And yet Paul Krugman, an honest and very intelligent liberal, writes in the U.S. newspaper of record, the New York Times, quoting a study of the rising rate of suicides in the U.S. that people have “lost the narratives of their lives,” “people who were raised to believe in the American Dream [are] coping badly with its failure to come true….there is today a wide-spread feeling that something is basically wrong with the path we are on…. There is a darkness spreading over a part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.”,

Well, I would suggest that he read some of Herbert Marcuse’s writings and those of others advancing critical theory, then and now. They reveal, I think, that we have come to a turning point, where the attitude towards the American Dream as a goal is changing. We are at a point where the discontent and the demand for radical change comes not from the continuance of poverty, although that poverty is indeed also continuing, but comes from the nature of the American Dream itself, not only from the failure to realize it for so many but for the growing realization that it is not worth its costs, that its pursuit is fundamentally anti-human, flattens out life into a single dimension that does not permit the realization of an alternate dimension, one comprising the richness of life that society is now capable of producing for all its members. A society that produces one-dimensional men and women, and suppresses the other dimensions of life, substituting insecurity and increasingly violent, oppression and exploitation – what Marx called barbarism –for the dimension of utopian-tinged peace and freedom – what Marx saw as a dimension of socialism. A society that produces the need for new forms of even revolutionary reforms

And it is to disentangling and clarifying these dimensions of life that I see this conference as dedicating itself; clarifying why with all the promise that civilization could fulfill today people today people have lost the narratives of their lives, lost the ability to capture a second dimension of beauty and peace and hopefulness, lost a positive perspective that seems dominated by a reactionary longing for some past that some nameless force has prevented us from achieving – a nameless force whose very name they rarely dare think about, let alone name: ”the system”, a system that blocks and distorts their aspirations, a system that needs to be named: a system called capitalism.

Paul Krugman, at the end of his column, almost comes to that point, to naming the blockage, because he accurately perceives and names the policies and practices that create and defend the system, when he writes – going from talk to practice, a route I hope we will also go, from words to actions and policies, and Krugman concludes:
“While universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would help a lot of Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.”

He’s not sure? He, and many many others like him, would benefit greatly from being at this conference! I’m delighted we can all be here!

From the Just City to the Ideal City: Theory and Practice – Blog #73


[This is the text prepared for the concluding plenary session of  the conference: “The Ideal City: Myth and Reality” of RC21 of the International Sociological Association in Urbano, Italy, in August 2015.  Please take as a draft.]

The name of the conference is The Ideal City, and our concluding panel asks, Is the Ideal City a Just City?

That raises two questions:

  1. What actually is the ideal city to begin with, and is it the same as the Just City, or how different?.
  2. And what is the purpose of talking about it? Why are we all here, anyway?

On the first, What is the Ideal city, and is it just a Just City?

The Ideal City should certainly be a just city but I don’t think that is enough. I think achieving justice is a step on the road to the Ideal City, but not the ultimate destination of that road. Justice is essentially a distributive concept, one that calls for the distribution of goods and services according to principles of justice, however justice is defined: as fairness, as equitable, as serving a;; its residents all its resident equally. Justice means, , in the expanded version that I think you , Susan, use it, also means a just distribution of power. So the call for a Just City is a call for a fair redistribution of power, and that is a necessity for any further change in the direction of what we might consider the ideal city. The call for the Just city is necessarily a critique of the city as it now exists, a confession – or an accusation – tha it is unjust, and needs o be changed. But to what? Is a fair distribution of goods and services really all we want of urban life? Or do we also want a city that expands the capabilities of its residents, that promotes their development, which encourages peaceful and supportive interactions among them, which handles the processes of production as well as of distribution and makes work a desirable and fulfilling part of life? Might not the definition of the ideal City be something like a caring city, a city of solidarity, a city of peace and of beauty?

So one advantage of the Just City concept is that it calls attention to the injustice of the existing city, and proposes a redistribution of power that would improve the situation. Implicitly it raises the question of whether the ideal city requires not just an improvement of the conditions of life of the poor, but also a reduction in the hierarchically-gained advantages of the rich. Perhaps unjustly to the rich? Do we really want a city that is just to all, the perps as well as the victims of the existing system?

But – and this is my second question – how can power be redistributed without struggle , and in that struggle, what role does the idea of an Ideal City, or of a Just City, or of a Caring City, play? Indeed, what role do ideas play in struggles for power anyway? I assume that all of us here would acknowledge the desirability of justice, caring, equity, beauty, in cities, and feel some obligation to bring such a city closer to realization. We haven’t come all this way to Urbino (although it a pleasure indeed to be here, and worth coming just for that sake), but we want to do something more, I think, than solve the problem of imagining the Ideal City as if it were a problem like a crossword puzzle or an exercise in logic.

But we also know that ideas are usually weak weapons in struggles over the distribution of goods and services, and certainly in struggles over the distribution of power. Will developing the idea, or even the image, of the ideal city help in that struggle , will it excite urbanites to action, perhaps to revolt, and produce serious change? Are we here simply to enjoy each other’s company, play with ideas, get t meeting different people worth knowing, to publish something we hone here, perhaps, and then go home satisfied that we have done what a good citizen morally ought to be doing? Or is it even possible that developing the Ideal City, as something necessarily remote, hard even to imagine, hardly realistically possible in the real world, is a chimera, and may get in the way of really accomplishing something tangible, something that on the ground will make a difference, something that will produce nothing but papers at conferences and the smiles on the faces of the holders of those who, unlike we academics and thinkers, have the real power?

So the two questions:

  1. Beyond Justice, what do we really want an Ideal City to be? Do we just want a Just City?


  1. If we want Justice and even more, how does developing the idea of the Just City and beyond it the Ideal City, help in the struggle to actualize what we have talked about; how, if at all, does it help in the struggles for a better world, of which it must be a part?

I think the answer might lie hidden right in front of us, in an imaginary conversation between David Harvey, Susan Fainstein, and Herbert Marcuse, which I would be happy to conduct. It would be based entirely on passages from recently published works, starting with Susan Fainstein’s Introduction to Just City:

Harvey (as quoted in her intro to the Just City, p. 6: [Susan, your] conception of the Just City falters. From the start, it delimits its scope to acting within the existing capitalist régime of rights and freedoms and is thus constrained to mitigating the worst outcomes at the margins of an unjust system. [1]

Fainstein: (from Intro, p. 6): This critique is accurate in accusing me of accepting that urban policy making will continue within the “capitalist régime of rights and freedoms,”[but] my analysis is limited to what appears feasible within the present context of capitalist urbanization in wealthy, formally democratic, Western countries.

To which I would reply: But Susan, why limit your analysis this way. If you were to always start with what is feasible , but then extend it to a more theoretical discussion of what further would be necessary to bring about the ideal, to move from your feasible just City to the even more desirable but less immediately feasible Ideal City, would you not convert immediate demands into transformative demands, using each one of your recommendations both to achieve immediate improvements but also show the way to what more is necessary, what the next steps would be to transform what is feasible to day to hat is necessary the day after.

To which my father would add (In recently published lectures a Vincennes outside Paris in 1976.): and that is exactly the role of theory is in the Marxist dialectic .Theory is part of practice, not independent of it, not wishful thinking about it, but based on practice theory is avant-guard, educating and leading, showing the alternative lying underneath the immediately visible and feasible.

His discussion came about in response to the slogan of the militant students of Paris, who took to the streets in May 1968 in protest against what David Harvey has summarized as the discontent with capitalism –perhaps the last time in recent memory that there was actually thought of a radical seven revolutionary success in the struggle against capitalism and for socialism, and heir slogan, on picket signs carried through the streets of Paris blocking traffic and causing disruption generally, was : ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION.” The meant specifically, the imagination of what a better world might be like, what today we mean, I hope, when we talk, in somewhat more subdued tones, of the Ideal City.

So I would conclude, in memory of those students but in today’s world, but with a raised fist:




[1] (Harvey with Potter 2009, 46)

Blog #64 – Alas Poor Hamlet – a review

Alas Poor Hamlet…
All great art is susceptible to many interpretations. That’s certainly true of Hamlet. But a recent staging in New York City 1. goes rather far to undermine Shakespeare‘s own reading of the story and presentation of it in the play he actually wrote. In Shakespeare’s presentation, Hamlet is a deeply thoughtful individual, thoughtful perhaps to the point where action is paralyzed, but thoughtful about some of life’s great and real questions. Whether and if so then how, to avenge his father’s murder is the embodiment of his deepest philosophical and emotional concerns, and produces some of the most eloquent poetical language dealing with philosophical problems in the English language.
Let me call the New York presentation “Hamlet as Neurotic.” The fulcrum of the imaginative re-interpretation, perhaps unintended, comes from a simple change in the play: delete the ghost scene, in which Hamlet addresses his father’s ghost and is told that his death was murder and his uncle the murderer. Absent that knowledge, the motivation for Hamlet’s conduct becomes his mother’s too rapid remarriage after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet, unaware of the murder and its perpetrator, simply cannot deal with his mother’s conduct. Oedipus would understand; Freud could deal with it in one or two standard sessions on the couch. But Hamlet can’t get over it. He bemoans at childish length his mother’s unseemly speedy remarriage. Symbolically, an otherwise utterly irrelevant wedding cake, is never touched or even noticed by anyone in the cast, but hovers center rear stage throughout, presumably in the subconscious of the characters and the audience.
Pushing the reinterpretation – rewriting is perhaps the better word – Hamlet’s neurosis is acted out in modern dress. The men wear sports jackets, Hamlet is sloppily dressed, virtually in a t-shirt for much of the time, although always incongruously addressed as “My Lord” even by his closest friend, Horatio. The incongruity between the acting and the words, between the performance and the implications of the text, are constant. Hamlet is a balding teenager, petulant, verbose, undisciplined, impulsive simply unable to deal with his reactions to his parents’ behavior , shocked at his imaginings of their sexual behavior.
The setting is completely re-interpreted as well – not Elsinore Castle, but apparently a table in a white-cloth restaurant– in which the actors come and go quite unconcerned with where they are. Chairs are placed around the table, which is present throughout the play, and used primarily for the actors to lean on perhaps when their lines get to heavy for them to bear otherwise. On the other hand, the player’s great Hecuba speech is delivered by the player king sitting down on one of the chairs; when Hamlet later hectors the players on how to act, they all have to stand up.
Indeed, Hamlet is changed in the presentation from a sweet prince, and a deeply self-contemplative one, to a thoughtless balding young man displaying for all to see a neurotic relationship to his parents, spouting words at the top of his voice at a rapid pace without pause for breath, let alone thought, with a sense of humor up to making snide jokes showing off his wit but hardly with the corrosive impact revealing actualities below the surface, as the text would allow.
It just doesn’t work. One would expect Freud, not Fortinbras, to come in at the end to explain why those five corpses are lying there, and then clean the mess up. Shakespeare was dealing with great issues, public and private, of morality, religion, philosophy ambition, self-awareness, power. Modernizing the play to refocus its central issue from the relationship between thought and action to a focus on troubles with personal relationships within a family strips the play of its major, and still current, meaning. Reading the text after seeing the play shows how great the loss is.

The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.
1. The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.