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 #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy: The Commodification of Luxury


Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy:  The Commodification of Luxury

[Last pre-election blog — voting now is critical! More afterwards…]

Major economic and social developments in the Deep Real Economy have underlain Trump’s success as a Businessman. In these developments profit is derived not primarily from within industrial production, as in the classic capitalist pattern, but also in the process of its realization in user consumption.[1] The new commodification of luxury consumption in which Trump specializes, and the financialization which he is adept at manipulating, is then justified by a New Deep Story purveying am account justifying his activities

Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the campaign.[1]

 

Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the good old days, when “America was  Great,” before the insecurities of the modern essence. And the three Trumps are fundamentally out of sync.

So the hypothesis here is that Trump the Businessman does indeed reflect the distilled essence of the modern businessperson in a post-industrial more market-based economy and neo-liberal political society, but that Trump the Campaigner appeals to an audience suffering from the transition from the preceding industrially-based society to its present new form, producing an intrusion of populist rhetoric in a presentation that fundamentally serves his business purposes. Therefore the paradoxical contradiction between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the Businessman, a billionaire leading the downtrodden, the ignored, and the insecure.

****

So what does a modern businessperson like Donald Trump do in a post-industrial economy?

In one word: he commodifies everything in sight, focusing on the desire for luxury among the newly rich, profiting handsomely from the process, seeing the wealthy as the market to be targeted, ignoring the consequences to those of lower income.

What did Trump do before he entered the contest for President? He got his start in real estate, doing some building, but less and less himself, rather buying or financing or marketing or reselling or harvesting governmental  subsidies in the development process. He did not himself “produce” anything much material, in the old sense of industrial production; he rather profited from the production of others, often with a global reach, e.g. steel from China. What he added to the work of others was often simply the use of his Brand, the name Trump, sold as denoting luxury, as a separate item in the development process, an item of value in itself.

There is one word which neatly describes the common underlying approach to all Trump’s activities, including real estate development: commodification.

Commodification is a term generally over-loaded with a pejorative meaning, as intended here, but becoming close to jargon in usage. The sense in which it is used here should be clear and critically important. It is a shifting in the value of a product, a resource, or an activity, from its consideration for the direct benefits of its use to its owner to a consideration of what it could be bought and sold for – the treatment of use values solely as exchange values.

Look at Trump’s activities, successful and unsuccessful[3]. The point is not that there aren’t already real commodities involved, e.g. steaks or villas office chairs or golf courses or buildings, (see the listing below). Nor is the argument that Trump has pioneered a business that is centered on exchange values; all commercial activities do that and always have. Nor is it that there are not use values at the beginnings of the chain of transactions in which he is involved: an apartment in Trump Tower or a golf game in Florida are of real use to their possessors. . It is rather that he has involved himself in these activities solely for their exchange value. In his hands they are transformed into commodities valued for their possibilities of exchange, reflected in prices determined by what buyers would be willing to pay for the thing at any given moment.

Dealing in commodities is of course nothing new; it is the life-blood of all commercial transactions. Treating commodities as commodities is what defines them. What is new, in Trump’s activities as a businessman, is turning things into commodities that historically have not been seen as separable commodities—e.g. marketing a brand as such, permitting it use in exchange for money, instead of as an attribute of a particular object or service to which it is attached. . A steak or a perfume or a chair an airplane ride or a golf course is of no greater use because it carries the label “Trump” than if it did not, but its exchange  value is increased by the brand; the brand itself is a commodity. Some goods or services should not be bought and sold for profit: natural spring water, the ability to walk in a natural landscape, the view of a city out a window. Trump has converted things into commodities, goods, products, services, that were not treated as commodities before, things like education, safety, natural resources, human beauty, human worth — things that should be distributed to those in need of them or where they will do the most good, with distribution socially determined, rather than by ability to pay, in a system still with gross inequalities of income and wealth and power.

Trump is not involved in the production of their underlying   use values. What he has added to them, with his name branding, is a valuable certification of its arcane exchange value in the market for luxury in which that item is bought and sold.  Such items may be treated simply as an investment, in which an owner has no interest in putting to use the item itself, to living in the apartment or playing golf on its greens. . A conspicuous personal use of a branded luxury good may also provide the value of social status, with the possibility of top level business contacts for the buyer before its resale – a “use” of the item, indeed, but stretching the meaning of the word rather far.

What Donald Trump essentially commodifies is luxury, luxury buttressing social status and the representation of power, wealth able to produce further wealth . The New York Times summarized his secret: “Strategy: Sell the Name.”[4] And make the name synonymous with luxury, appealing  to those with wealth and power  and happy to impress others with their possession.

Look at the list of Trump’s “assets,” the term used for things treated as commodities:

According to Forbes, the “Definitive Net Worth of Donald Trump” is $3,700,000,0000 (#3.7 billion) [5]  His assets include (hardly a definitive list, not all successful): [6]

The commodification of recreation:

10 golf clubs in the United States alone worth $206,000,000, including:[7]

Trump International Villas and Golf Club in the Grenadines, membership starting at $1,000,000[8]

Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland,

Trump Tower, Tampa, FL

Trump Atlanta

Trump Ocean Resort, Baja

Trump at Cap Cana, Dominican Republic

Trump National golf club, Washington, DC

Trump National golf club, Philadelphia

ALM/Lawyer Invitational golf tournament

Trump Golf Links, Ferry Point

Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia

Trump National golf club, Jupiter, Florida

Trump National golf club, Colts Neck, New Jersey

Trump National golf club, Charlotte

The commodification of luxury in housing

Trump Towers Pune, India

Trump International Realty

Trump Dubai Tower, United Arab Emirates

Trump on the Ocean

Trump Tower Philadelphia

Trump Tower, Batumi, Georgia

The commodification of education

Trump Institute

Trump University

The commodification of luxury in eating

Trump Steaks

Trump Vodka

DJT restaurant

The commodification of beauty.

Miss Universe

The commodification of excess:

New tower at Trump Taj Mahal

The commodification of communication:

The Trump Network

Trump Magazine

Trump Tycoon

Trump Securities, Llc

The commodification of luxury consumer goods

Trump Home

Trump Office Chairs

The commodification of luxury air travel

Trump Airlines.

And, of course, the pure commodification of ambition, hope, yearning. dreaming

The casinos

Mississippi Casino

Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel

Trump Plaza Casino

And commodification of exchange value pure and simple, in the commodification of the Brand Trump itself for use independently of what the use of the object to which it is attached may be:

Brand licensing in Brazil

Brand licensing in India

Trump the businessman has become Trump the billionaire through a process of relentless commodification of a luxury level of goods and services that contribute nothing to advance the social welfare of society. Trump the Political Campaigner completely ignores what Trump the Businessman actually does. And Donald Trump  has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.[9]

And he has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.campaign.[1]

[9]A recent story in the New York Times by David Barstow on November 5, 2016, is well worth reading. It is headlined “Thin Line Splits Donald Trump’s Politics and Businesses,” and questions whether Trump is using  “his business  prowess in service of the American people,” and focusses on some of the most egregious examples of self-profiting from his “public” endeavors.
Available at  “http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/us/politics/donald-trump-business-tax-records.html

—–

Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog90

[1] David Harvey has recently explicated this argument in these terms.

[2] New York Times , October 10, 2016, p. A21.

[3] Taken largely from the listing at http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-businesses-failures-successes-2016-10/#24-projects-the-times-concluded-didnt-work-out-1

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/us/politics/donald-trump-business-deals.html?smid=tw-nytpolitics&smtyp=cur&_r=0

[5] http://www.forbes.com/donald-trump/#1cf7d77e790b. Other estimates put it at $4.5. There is little suppot to his oft repeated claims of being worth over $10 billion. http://time.com/money/4443573/donald-trump-is-worth-4-5-billion/  But what difference does $1 or $2 billion make among  friends? http://time.com/money/4443573/donald-trump-is-worth-4-5-billion/

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferwang/2016/09/28/the-definitive-look-at-donald-trumps-wealth-new/#1a1ce98a7e2d, and    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/glil45ikg/from-manhattan-skyscrape/ contains a suggested  itemization of wht is assets are worth.

[7] http://www.forbes.com/donald-trump/#120c581d790b

[8] http://www.itravelmag.com/travel-articles/donald-trump-real-estate-canouan-island-caribbean-2-06/

 —–

Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog #90

 

Blog #90 – The Paradox of Trump and his Followers


What follows is a Work in Progress  attempting to explain a quite  apparent paradox: how is it that Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate developer,  whose claim to fame includes popularizing the slogan : “You’re fired!” can  end up leading a right wing populist following that in fact is plagued by the very  activities he as businessman epitomizes? How it is so many people enthusiastically and vociferously support him, in apparent contradiction to their own interests?

The argument here begins by suggesting that Donald Trump is in fact operationally three different persons, three Trumps (perish the thought, if taken literally!), three entities he has struggled to keep separate: Trump the Individual, Trump the Businessman, and Trump the Political Campaigner. His individual psychological characteristics, idiosyncrasies, if not neuroses, have been extensively examined elsewhere, and are not examined here.

As Businessman, Trump’s activities are a combination of conventional exploitation, underpaying workers in the conventional businesses he operates, principally managing real estate, and an entrepreneurial instinct expanding profit-making by commodifying desires for consumption, for luxury activities providing status over and above actual use. He seeks support as a Political Campaigner for his political ambitions as well as for his businesses, by exploiting conventional aspirations for economic security and social safety, both linked to private enterprise and dreams of wealth accumulation.

As Political Campaigner Trump gains support by latching onto what might be called a Deep Story, an emotionally held ideology and set of values that explains, rationalizes, and legitimates how the world works. Such a Deep Story has long existed as to how the industrialized capitalist world works.  Trump has modified that old Story to proclaim a New version counting on the vulnerabilities of voters and popular media to changes in the economies of the world that have frightened masses of ordinary people seeking assurances that the supposed promises of the old Deep Reality, seemingly vanishing, could be restored quickly and easily by his authoritarian rule. He has used promises of “Making America Great Again” to propagate a new right-populism and a New Deep Story appealing to those susceptible to promises of quick and easy solutions to deeply threatening and hard to understand changes.

Major economic and social developments in the Deep Real Economy have underlain Trump’s success as a Businessman. In these developments profit is derived not primarily from industrial  production but also in the process of its realization in user consumption. The commodification of luxury consumption in which Trump specializes, and the financialization which he is adept at manipulating, is then justified by a New Deep Story resting on a widespread popularly accepted account of how the changed reality works.

I hope in the next week to flesh out the argument here in a series of perhaps six blogs, perhaps as follows

This Blog #90 – The Trump Series: The Paradox of Trump and His Followers

  1. Blog #90a – The Three Trumps: Individual, Campaigner, Businessman
  2. Blog #90b -Trump the Businessman: The Commodification of Luxurious Living
  3. Blog #90c – Trump the Campaigner and his Opposition
  4. Blog #90d – The Deep Realities and The Deep Story of Industrial Capitalism
  5. Blog #90e – The New Deep Realities of the New Economy and its New Deep Story
  6. Blog #90f The Philosophic Explanation of the Persuasive Power of the new Deep Story
  7. Blog #90g The Alternative Reactions to the New Deep Reality: Right, Middle, and Left

****   WORK IN PROGRESS   ****

#70 – The Causes of Discrimination


Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination

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To a large extent the limits of the new Affirmatively Advancing Fair Housing Rule are connected with a weaknesses in the underlying assumptions being made in both of them, specifically, in the implicit causative role assigned to the legacy of slavery as an explanation for why discrimination exists today, to the neglect of addressing the fact that current actors and current interests and current structures maintained in use in fact need to be dealt with if the problem of discrimination is to be solved.

A detour to examine the causes of discrimination is briefly necessary. It involves examining two different emphases in explaining current discrimination — The Legacy of the Past, and the Actors in the Present. Which is adopted makes a real political difference.

The United States is hardly a post-racial society. Certainly black residents don’t think it is; a growing number in recent years, even before the spate of police shootings miscarriages of criminal justice. An increasing number of black Americans regard race relations as one of the most pressing problems facing the country. [1] And much rhetoric has been expended on bemoaning racial prejudice, with frequent references to the lasting legacy of slavery, and the direct reminders of that legacy, as in the controversies about the states flying the Confederate flag by state agencies on state buildings or land. Barack Obama’s election, seen by many hopefully as a turning point, has not turned out to be that; if anything, it has hardened some pre-existing lines of political division. There has been a lot of response focused on the legacy of slavery concept, with real victories on the flag issue, and explicit condemnation of racial and minority stereotyping, as in the condemnation of Donald Trump’s blunt expression of his views. And this aspect of the problem, call it historical, ideological, psychological, remains important – look at the votes Trump garners in even in blue states. But optimism is not so clearly warranted and more analysis of cause as well as effect is required

There is indeed a legacy of slavery, and it does have to be dealt with. But focusing on its historical impact is misleading if it does not deal with the contemporary patterns of discrimination[2] and exploitation that use that inescapable legacy as explanations for contemporary wrongs, present discrimination. An eloquent Opinion piece by Isabel Wilkerson in the New York Times expresses a deep-felt hope:

“The day after the flag went down in South Carolina, an editorial in The Richmond Times-Dispatch made the stunning declaration that it was finally time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that Virginia should take the lead. “Accounting has not occurred,” the paper wrote, “the half remains untold.” This is precisely what history demands and what this moment requires. Perhaps a new reconstruction could truly take hold and inspire the rest of the country if it sprang from the region that resisted it in the first place.”[3]

Present discrimination is not simply the consequence of that the legacy but it also helps explain its survival. Ignoring or minimizing the present conditions of discrimination leads to exactly the wrong conclusions, reverses cause and effect.

In the debate around public policy dealing with race, the failure of full analysis of causes and results comes about in two ways: 1) Minimizing the extent of the problem, and 2) assigning responsibility for present conditions to the legacy of slavery. There is of course some truth in both points: important aspects of discrimination have been of diminishing impact, particularly since the New Deal days of the 1930’s, anti-discrimination legislation after World War II, and the 60’s. Certainly the legacy of slavery has enduring consequences. Both neither point is the end of the matter. In fact, both may be, if unintentionally, distractions from getting at real causes and framing really effective responsive policies.

On the first point, minimizing the extent of discrimination suggests that things are indeed progressing very well, present policies are already effective, we need no different or more radical governmental policies, one needs to find the sources of what problems remain elsewhere than in the absence of current policies to eliminate racist practices. The conservative Manhattan Institute, in a much publicized study,[4] speaks of the “end of segregation,” and its author is cited as saying:

but the best way to do so is by expanding and improving educational opportunities for poor people of color and “by helping families and investing in kids at an early opportunity and instilling a love of education in them while they’re young. I don’t think that switching them to a different neighborhood is going to accomplish that.”[5]

A classic blaming the victim argument: if only black kids would have “a love of education,” everything would be all right. That their apparent lack of a “love of education” has something to do with the schools to which they are required to go, whose segregated attendance was a primary mover in the whole civil rights movement, is not relevant, and whose continued attendance at segregated schools, segregated today by neighborhood schools in themselves based on segregated neighborhoods, is somehow not the problem. It is the children’s lack of love of education, not the segregation of their neighborhoods, the underfunding of the schools in those neighborhoods, the conditions of life at homes in those neighborhoods, the restricted opportunities children from those neighborhoods face when (if) they graduate from those neighborhoods, which need to be addressed. Changing their neighborhoods can be accomplished by moving them to other neighborhoods, or changing the neighborhoods where ty are, but racial segregation today is a major blockage to any such efforts. And the Fair Housing Act,[6] and the new regulations calling for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (hereafter AFFH)[7]are precisely what is needed, and much, much more. See below.

On the second point, focusing on the legacy of slavery, is often coupled with an unbalanced celebrating of the positive reactions to Ferguson and the Charlestown church shootings, to the significance of the confederate flag removals, HUD’s Affirmatively Fostering Fair Housing Regulations, and similar public responses. But seeing these responses as a turning point, has, intended or not, a similar result to minimizing the extent of actual discrimination in today’s society. The argument here is not so much that which comes from minimizing current discrimination that leads to blaming the victim and his or her mentality (“no love of learning) for what remains, but blame the legacy of slavery and the discriminators’ lack of understanding, or our own lack of understanding, for what discrimination continues to exist. It easily takes changes in discourse for changes in actions and policies.

That the discourse has changed, and that more understanding all around is need, is certainly true and needs to be said, but one could easily draw very wrong conclusions from it. For instance, David R. Williams, a Harvard sociologist, is quoted in Isabelle Wilkerson’s piece, above,[8] as writing:

“We have to come to grips with the reality that this racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that it shapes how we see the world, it shapes our beliefs, our behavior, our actions toward members of other groups. We have to examine ourselves in a profound way.”

Who “we?”

The problem – and it’s an important one – is that there isn’t just one “we.” There are multiple “we’s,” and they are very different and often n conflict with each other. There are actually three “we’s,” and realizing that they are different is crucial if anything is to be changed. Certainly everyone has to come to grips with how deep racism lies in us, but its manifestation is very different in different “we’s”, their resulting behavior is very different, and it has to be very differently addressed. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

The “we” that is written about in the Williams quote is not the heartless, not those who deliberately and intentionally discriminate, but those with hearts who do not do enough to implement what their hearts know they should be doing.[9]

Ignoring who holds what beliefs, whose behavior it is that must be changed, and assuming “we” are all in the same boat, denies the fact that not all of us have the same interests in ending discrimination, that there are those that are victimized by racism and those that benefit from it. This ignores the necessity of some redistribution of power and wealth if racism is to be ended. It leads to conclusions like the Manhattan Institute’s that the answer is instilling a love f education in black kids. That is pure blaming the victim, and at best may help some of the poor but ignores the need for redistribution that would affect the rich as well as poor.

In broad terms, three different categories of actors can be distinguished, whose beliefs and actions need to be addressed to defeat discrimination.

 The thoughtless. Perhaps the large majority of individuals, subject to all the influences of the world around them and the country’s history and prevalent prejudices, conditioned by prevailing stereotypes , and thus reflecting prejudicial beliefs and largely acting on them, but without reflection, without thought about the impact on others, on minorities, acting essentially reflectively. Many, perhaps of good will, simply not realizing the confederate flag is painful to so many of their fellow citizens, are not struck by the fact that their proud tradition of valor and Southern culture is a painful tradition of slavery and despair for others.

For them, David Williams’ advice is appropriate, and needs to be affirmatively supported with funding, research, policies across the board of government and private actors. They should read Go Set a Watchman and support taking down the confederate flag.

 The perpetrators. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those would directly benefit from discrimination, for whom talk of culture or historical legacy is simply an ideological legitimation for what they do. When Donald Trump attacks immigrants as rapists, he is consciously appealing to a prejudiced segment of the voters in the quest for votes to sustain his own ambitions. When real estate developers build gated communities, they are directly profiting from the concerns of potential buyers about the dangers of racial and class mixing. When employers pay minority workers less than white workers, give them the most menial jobs, they are not only profiting directly by the discriminatory treatment, but using it to keep white workers from complaining too much because they are still treated better than those others of a different color. The discrimination in the criminal justice system which imposes harsher treatment on African-Americans than on whites contributes to the maintenance of a law and order which controls the militant protest of the worst off of the 99% and their potential disruption of the ordinary course of profitable business, for the benefit of the 1%

These are the perpetrators of discrimination, the actors who directly benefit from the gap between whites and blacks. Williams’ advice is directly against their own interests, and will not be followed. Their conduct directly produces the adverse disparate impact that parts of the law are being targeted to remedy. It is their behavior, motivated at least as much by their self-interest as their beliefs, that needs to be controlled by law. And public policy and the law must deliberately take into account the impact of their behavior in all of its actions.

 The unwitting collaborators. The unpleasant truth is that the majority of white people in the United States benefit indirectly discrimination. Prices at Walmart are lower because it pays its workers less, and prejudice dampens their protests and their breadth of their appeal. If the combination of poverty and discrimination leads to a criminal response, peace loving citizens benefit from a police force that keeps them secure. If teachers do not have to struggle with the difficulties of likely very differently prepared youngsters in integrated classes, their jobs are easier and their students and their parents happier. If neighborhoods are segregated, and if infrastructure, education, public services, parks community facilities and parks, sanitation, are all worse in minority neighborhoods than in exclusionary wealthier ones, white taxpayers achieve a savings through the disparate public expenditures in what are typically white and black districts.

But, although the beneficiaries of these disparities, of this discrimination are indeed collaborators in the discrimination, they in a sense have little reasonable alternative. They collaborate unwittingly. If the system works in such a way that white schools are better than black schools, reasonable persons will send their children to white schools. And shop at Walmart. And report criminal behavior to the police. And seek higher rather than lower paying jobs, interesting work over routine menial labor. They are, in a sense, trapped in a system that provides real benefits for them, even though it may actually violate their own personal belief in justice or equality. Williams’ advice may give them a guilty conscience, but for them following their conscience to its logical conclusions will not be an easy choice.

The victims/opponents/critics.. For every disparate impact of discrimination benefiting a perpetrator there is a symmetrical victim disadvantaged by that impact. Profits for some mean losses for others; a favorable economic climate for some is bad weather for others; competition inevitably means, at least in the first instance, victory for some and losses for others. In old-fashioned terms, the exploitation of labor means profit for capital, housing that is deliberately exclusionary leads to enclaves of the rich and ghettoes for the poor. But those at the losing end of the competition, are not likely to be passive. There will be actors in a resistance to disparate distribution of benefits and costs. And there will be opponents and critics pained by the system, ideologically critical, culturally injured, morally repelled, in various stages of resistance. The more democratic the political system, the greater the disparities, the more intuitive rules of fairness are violated, the more active will that resistance be. And, to complicate things, some are both victims and perpetrators, unwilling collaborators or simply thoughtless, whose actions may be self-contradictory and unpredictable.

And of course of all actors operate within the rule laid down by the system, the political, economic, social, and ideological patterns of the society, established over the course of history by the outcomes of the various conflicts and the relative powers of the various actors involved. Ultimately, whether specific problems can really solved, and even the extent they can be superficially remedied, depends on what those rules are: how the economy functions, how the law defines private property, what goods and what services are distrusted through the market and what through the state, what ideologies are developed and supported, and by whom, that support the status quo and what that critique it. The complexity the inter-relatedness of allof these structures , what makes capitalism the name of a single system affecting all that is done within it, the importance of what is coming to be called intersectionality, all this is strikingly apparent in the housing field. Think of just one issue: “home ownership.” Private ownership of land is historically a recent development, and what priority the law gives to rights of “ownership” is bitterly contested. How real estate taxes are calculated, who benefit and who pays, is important. What security it provides fluctuates. , and the psychological importance placed on what security it does provide is centrally determinant of the actions of many actors. The financialization of housing plays a large role, and has global causes and consequences. Even the aesthetics of architecture and its link to social status is are involved. The actors specified above determine their own actions and make their own policy decisions, but not under circumstances and structures of their own choosing.

So what are the possibilities for affecting housing and planning outcomes to end discriminatory adverse disparate impacts?

The answer is two-fold:

First, public policy must act aggressively against the perpetrators of discrimination and penalize discriminatory behavior, for not only will that action prevent its undesired disparate consequences, but also by seeing it penalized, it will help unwitting collaborators regain their wits and motivate them to change their own behavior, producing the results that Williams hopes for from self-examination.

Second, however, and in the longer view, that system, those structures, that produce the chains of discrimination, with its consequent aligning of the interests of collaborators with those of the perpetrators, must be changed.to change the system that gives them the guilty advantage, the system that chains together discrimination in one field to effects on another, low wages for Walmart workers to low prices for collaborators as consumer, segregation and exclusionary enclaves to safety on the streets for their resident collaborators, profits from technological advances for some to unemployment for others. And since that system benefits the perpetrators and harms the victims more than it benefits the collaborators, there is are complex underlying conflicts of interests involved that must be faced and worked with if discriminatory behavior is to be banished.

In one reading, the aspects of today’s societal system that account for the undesired disparities of discrimination with which we are here concerned is its reliance on profit-seeking as it motors, acceptance of wealth creation as its goal, the market as its means. What is needed instead is rather solidarity and mutual caring as its motor, social welfare for all as its goal and informed democratic discussion as its means. But that is topic for another and broader discussion!

[This blog is one of 5 taking up the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas vs. Inclusive Communities and HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation (AFFHR), and some general principles dealing with the meaning of social change and the efforts to accomplish it

.Blog #68 – Evaluation of Recent Developments, examined the reception the Court’s decision and the AFFHR have received and their respective roles in dealing with housing discrimination.

Blog #69 – Fair Housing: Limitations of Supreme Court decision and AFFHR, took up the limited scope of the AFFHR, the weaknesses in the Court’s decision and the problems of implementation for both.

THIS Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination, opens an analysis of the current causes of discrimination, and the attribution of causes to the legacy of slavery and to present actors—the thoughtless, the perpetrators, the collaborators, and the victims, the structural context in which they operate.

Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions, then proposes some immediate remedies, and then some principles for real solutions.

Blog #72 – Beyond Fair Housing: Some Elusive Principles for Societal Change, raises some questions about elusive general principles for societal change.]

——————————-

[1] According to a Gallup poll cited by the New York Times, Magazine section, July 5, 2015, p. 14.

[2] A note on terminology: “discrimination” is not the same as “differentiation,” though the Supreme Court seems not to acknowledge the difference (See Justice Kennedy’s comment in the Texas case calling for remedies that do not differentiate by race, that are “race-neutral”) “Discrimination” as used here means causing an adverse disparate impact to protected minorities, with a focus on African-Americans or Blacks. “Race” is used, although an outdated concept, simply as shorthand for those adversely affected by discrimination.

[3]

[4] THE END OF THE SEGREGATED CENTURY: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010,

Edward Glaeser, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Jacob Vigdor, Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_66.htm

[5] Experts Attack Manhattan Institute Study Claiming End to Segregation in U.S. Cities.By Marjorie Valbrun. America’s Wire, available at http://americaswire.org/drupal7/?q=content/experts-attack-manhattan-institute-study-claiming-end-segregation-us-cities-0.

[6] The Fair Housing Act, text available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/title8.php or https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/3604

[7] Federal Register / Vol. 80, No. 136 / Thursday, July 16, 2015 / Rules and Regulations, available through http://www.huduser.org/portal/affht_pt.html#final-rule.

[8] Supra note 2.

[9] A reviewer in The Nation long ago formulated in: when I write “we” I mean “me and my friends.” Period.

Blog #54 – Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms


Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms

That New York City has a housing problem is rather well known. The devil here is indeed in the big picture as well as in the details. 47% of the city’s low-income renters[1] pay more than half of their incomes to obtain housing. Imagine what paying half your income just for housing means for the ordinary person, let alone one with limited income. 24% live in overcrowded quarters, more than 1.5 persons per room in the standard definition. Neighborhoods are clustered by race, ethnicity, income, household composition –what impolite critics call segregated, one of the most segregated (84.3 on the widely used dissimilarity index, where 100is completely segregated. Only Gary, Detroit, and Milwaukee, of the 314 other metropolitan area in the United States, are more segregated.[2] 224,000 units were in physically poor conditions. 164,000 units were vacant but not available for sale or rent, according even to the official figures.[3]There were 15,993 mortgage foreclosures in the city in 2013;

Bloomberg News[1] headlined the fact:

FORECLOSURES SURGING IN NEW YORK-NEW JERSEY MARKET.

Community Land Trusts may have a significant effect on New York City’s housing crisis, may affect struggling and even prospering neighborhoods, may achieve significant savings in the city’s budget for housing while increasing the afford housing supply for families in trouble. But their long term impact may go further, and be a transformative new way of looking at the housing market and its limits, and model the way it can best function to serve the needs of all the city’s resident.

 

The federal government has, in its fashion, responded to such problems; New York City has the highest number of public housing unit, owned and managed, and maintained (in niggardly fashion) by the New York City Housing Authority itself. New York State has, if reluctantly, permitted the city to establish limits on the rents that can be charged for a declining portion of the city’s large renal stock. Mayor Bloomberg responded by pushing for extensive new construction of units, with a minor allocation to those most in need. Mayor de Blasio has put forward an extensive and expensive new housing plan that envisages 200,000 new units, and more, in the next 10 years.

 

But of course, when we say “New York City has a housing problem,” hat does not mean everyone in the city has a problem. The New York Real Estate Board holds that the real estate market has rebounded from the bursting of bubble that the industry, with the active encouragement of the financial sector, itself produced so recently. Rents going up are good news for landlords, if bad for tenants.[5] Mortgage foreclosures by banks and other financial institutions provide opportunities for big operators to buy up homes at a bargain, throwing home owners willy-nilly onto the rental market, shattering hopes of accumulating wealth by investing in “asset building” in a housing market sure only to go up, not down. At the same time, a Rent Stabilization Board makes sure rent regulation won’t prevent landlords from covering the costs when they go, protecting the profits from their investments, regardless of whether that means their tenants chances of meeting their basic needs are widely jeopardized. Talk of inequality!

 

A tiny new non-profit, called NYCCLI, somewhat incongruously pronounceable as “nicely,” the New York City Community Land Initiative,has just been incorporated in New York. What does it hope to offer to deal with this situation? Quite a bit, it turns out. NYCCLI’s formal incorporation papers describe it purpose as “advocating for community land trusts.”

 

And what is a community land trust? A community land trust is a trust that typically owns land, on which the housing unit or units are leased, for 99 years, to a limited equity co-op which provides homes for households, typically lower to moderate income, who occupy the buildings as members of such a co-op and have all the rights a home owners would have except for the right to sell the unit at a profit. Their sales price is set by a formula approved by the trust, typically permitting recovering the purchase price plus improvements plus some cost-of-living adjustment, but excluding the value of the land, which of course remains with the trust. The trust that owns the land also sets some basic rules for its use, basically to ensure that the housing on it will be permanently available to household who need it at the most affordable rents possible. The board that runs the trust is typically composed 1/3 each of residents of it housing, residents of its neighborhood, and supporters, who may come from government, advocacy groups, or technical experts who may be helpful to the trust. [6]

 

What good are community land trusts? They have four major advantages:

 

First, they make possible the creation of affordable housing on a permanent basis, especially for lower income households. CLTs make a key trade-off: they give up the possibility of speculating on an abnormal increase in the dollar value of the home in return for the security of knowing there is no threat of loss if housing prices go down and no danger of eviction if the cost of occupancy become unaffordable because of job loss or ill health or other circumstances beyond a household’s ability to control. And unlike almost all currently existing affordable housing programs, if a community land trust receives public subsidy, its benefits remain permanently available to their targeted low/moderate income recipients, and do not expire after a fixed time period of 20 or 30 or 40 years, and costs for such future residents have been permanently fixed to exclude any increases in the speculative value of the unit.

 

 

Second, community land trusts build communities and stabilize neighborhoods. They provide for deeply democratic management of their housing. By having not only residents but also neighbors and supporters from the wider community on their boards, they can provide diversity, establish priorities for expenditures, achieve efficiencies of scale, and put the strength of the trust behind individual members falling on hard times

 

Third, community land trusts represent a whole new approach to the principles governing the way housing is distributed, occupied, and used in a democratic society, limiting the intensity of the inequality induced by a private market which sees housing as a commodity to be bought and sold for its exchange value, for the profit it may produce, instead of for the needs it may satisfy, its social use value. NYCCLI’s approach can help change housing from a symbol and magnifier of inequality to address at least in part one of inequality’s main causes.

 

But fourth, and in the long run perhaps most important, they can be transformative.

 

Community land trusts challenge the arrangements of a housing market used to the pleasures and pains of speculating on housing value, which is, economically, fundamentally speculating on the value of a given location, and instead see housing as a necessity of a decent life and a supportive environment for all. And they provide the same opportunity for “wealth creation” or “asset building” as does buying a house with a mortgage and paying off the mortgage: put the equivalent of what is put into paying off the mortgage principal and interest on the land into a savings account or other good investment, and you have the accumulation with perhaps even less risk. Putting this together, they can move from seeing housing as a commodity, valued for its exchange value, the profit it can produce, and see it rather as a necessity of life, even perhaps up to a certain configuration as a public good.

 

The different tenures of housing and the legal and financial relationships householders have to the housing they occupy have major implications for the way people live. Community land trusts can provide a form of home ownership for a resident that combines the privacy and security and insulation of the American Dreams’ single family suburban house with the solidarity and support and social richness of the ideal urban life-style. Immediately, to reach the lowest income groups, they will need some public support for acquisition or basic running costs, and they richly deserve such support.[7] In the long run, transformatively, they can benefit not only their residents but the neighborhoods and the housing system

 

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[2] Censusscope, available at http://www.censusscope.org/us/rank_dissimilarity_white_black.html

[3] The Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey for 2011,. The count by Picture the Homeless suggests a significantly higher figure.

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[5] The Real Estate Board summarizes:

“,,,notable gains this quarter, as compared to the second quarter of 2013, included: the 19-percent-increase in the average sales price for all homes in Brooklyn to $715,000; the 15-percent-boost in coop sales in Queens; and the 13-percent-increase in the average sales price for a coop in New York City to $768,000. The residential market in Manhattan also remained strong with the average sales price for all homes increasing by six percent to $1,491,000 year-over-year” http://www.rebny.com/content/rebny/en/newsroom/press-releases/2014/REBNY_2014_2Q_Report_Improving_Economy_Drives_Residential_Sales.html

[6] Detailed information is available from the national Community Trust Network, whose website, at http://cltnetwork.org/, contans extensive references to further materials, as do NYCCLI’s own educational materials.

[7] And remember the enormous subsidy that inures disproportionately to higher income households from the mortgage interest deduction in our income tax system.

Blog #44 – Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?


Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

The language in the slogans used to address what most see as the basic social problem in the United States varies significantly. The key terms run from “war on poverty” to “ladders of opportunity” to “upward mobility” to “fight against inequality.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in his inaugural address as Mayor of New York City called on the City “ to put an end to economic and social inequalities,”[1] President Obama before his second inaugural wanted to make inequality the “defining issue” of his second term,[2] but that language changed to creating “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address.

Do those different terms all mean the same thing, or what difference is there among them? Lots.

The War on Poverty (see Blog #43 on the phrase), in fact as well as in words, addressed itself to the condition of the poor: lack of educational opportunities, weak family structure, discrimination in employment, residential segregation, gender discrimination, inadequate workplace safety, predatory ending. It contained an undercurrent focusing on encouraging the poor to help themselves, “empowerment,” enabling the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. That undercurrent becomes the dominant theme in the conservative Republic answer to poverty through education and job training of the poor, “making the workforce investment system more responsive to the needs of employers.”[3]

The ladder of opportunity” language to which President Obama has turned at least permits the image of a ladder with both a bottom and as well a top. De Blasio’s language of inequality pushes that image to recognition of the fact that those at the top are in fact responsible for the fact that others stay at the bottom. Recent research on upward income mobility similarly raises the question of the inability of the poor to improve their relative position over several generations.

The conclusion, then, if inequality rather than just poverty is the focus, is that something must be done about what keeps some so rich, as well as what keeps some so poor.  Calling in “inequality” is easily mistaken for substituting a measurement for a cause. The conservative challenge that inequality doesn’t cause poverty is quite right. But the conclusion that limiting the wealth of the rich won’t help the poor is quite wrong. It raises the question of the relation between rich and poor, exactly the question that the language of the War on Poverty or the enabling/opportunity approach conceals.

For in fact it is indeed the way the rich obtain their wealth that accounts for the poverty of the poor. A short piece like this is no way to engage that issue fully, but the outline of an answer may be suggested: The specific mechanisms are known:

  • Exploitation at the work place. Keeping the pay for workers as low as possible is an inherent part of running a business and making a profit: the lower wages are, the higher profits are. Employers are “job creators” only against their will; the fewer workers they need use to produce a different product or service, the better off the employer is. The high pay for business executives and dividends to shareholders are directly at the expense of the workers in their businesses. .
  • Exploitation at the consumption end. Increasing the demand for ever more consumers goods, of course necessarily paid for out of wages, increases the profits of the producers of those goods and the wealth of the owners of the firms that produce them. Inducing demand artificially, through advertising and the wide array of cultural patterns of the kinds long documented by sociologists and economists,[4] supports the consumption exploitation of poor (as well as middle class[5]) consumers, to the benefit of the rich.
  • Exploitation at the financial end. Where, after all, do extraordinary profits of hedge fund managers and bankers come from? Ultimately, of course, from the prices paid by the purchasers of the goods and services they are financing. Their interest and dividend incomes and high salaries are really based on the profits of those making their money from more direct exploitation of the poor.
  • Exploitation of the benefits of land ownership, an obvious and pervasive monopoly, paid, as economists put it, by rent not for anything that the recipient of rent payments has produced or done, but solely extracted by him through the possession of something in limited supply for which there is demand. Property owners and developers are among the richest of the rich (think Donald Trump), in large part because they are able to benefit from the speculative increases in the pries of land which they own.  Ultimately, those benefits are paid for in the prices consumers pay and the rents that tenants pay, a regressively distributive system enriching land owners at the expense of all others.
  • All four of these forms of exploitation are among the primary causes of poverty and, centrally, inequality.

Digging deeper into what a war on poverty ought to be about would lead to examining, not only how the poor might be directly helped, but also how the rich might be constrained in those actions that keep the poor in poverty. Digging deeper into how inequality might be reduced would lead not only to measuring the extent to which it is reflected in income inequality and be ameliorated by boosting the incomes at the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity but would lead also to the same concern for limiting the way the rich get to the top of the ladder to begin with.

The dispute between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over the financing of preo-kindergarten for poor children a vivid example of the difference, Cuomo’s insistence on paying out of general funds, does help to alleviate poverty, but it also avoids de Blasio’s proposal for  paying through a dedicated tax on incomes over %$500,000 addresses inequality directly. Thus Cuomo may alleviate poverty but de Blasio aims further to directly reduce inequality, looking both at the top and the bottom of the ladder. Reducing poverty is much less controversial than reducing inequality, which confronts more basic vested interests.[6]

———————

[1] Text at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/nyregion/complete-text-of-bill-de-blasios-inauguration-speech.html.

[3] Republican Senator Tim Scott, setting out h is bill to implement the war on poverty, at http://www.scott.senate.gov/press-release/senator-tim-scott-introduces-opportunity-agenda.

[4] See the work of writers such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Thorsten Veblen, and many others.

[5] It should be clear that exploitation is not limited to “poor”  workers, but is drawn from the contributions of the unemployed, the excluded, as well as the “idle class,” in the multiple ways they contribute to the functioning the system that perpetuates the unequal division of wealth.

[6] The debate between David Brooks who has the same political analysis as above and comes to the conclusion we should all focus “on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/opinion/brooks-the-inequality-problem.html?_r=0 and Robert Reich,who concludes “The concentration of power at the top — which flows largely from the concentration of income and wealth there — has prevented  Washington from dealing with the problems of the poor and the middle class,” http://robertreich.org/post/73764746576, reflects almost exactly the above discussion.

Blog #29 – Premature Democracy, Congress, the 99% and the Tea Party


What’s the matter with the United States Congress? Too much democracy? ? “Premature democracy”? If the 99% are dissatisfied with the status quo and it only benefits the 1%, why don’t they change it? What explains the Tea Party’s positions and its power? Need it be dealt with? How?

 To put it another way: Why do we have serious problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that has the resources and claims the values to remedy them. Why then do they exist, why is not the government addressing them actively and effectively? Is the problem with our democracy?

Blog #29 suggests three answers; Blog #30 gives examples..

Summary:

 1)      Political procedures and material development. Congress’s rules are quite democratic (small d). They are not so different, for instance, from those governing Occupy Wall Street’s General Assemblies, although they do need significant change. Nor is the material level of development that is sometimes held a prerequisite for democracy missing, although also needing significant change.  Specifically, inequality in wealth permits undue influence  to be exerted in the electoral and political processes, over and above procedural rules and practices.

2)      Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns. What keeps the 99% from acting in its own interests is the gross disparity in power between the 99% and the 1%, both in political governance and private wealth. It is power both reflected in and buttressed by a set of cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns, a consciousness, which results in substantial support for the 1% even among the 99%, a support represented by the tea party movement in the United States.

3)      The need for radical/utopian critical challenges. Those patterns, and the material economic relations on which they are based, need to be addressed directly and frontally at the ideological level as well as the political and economic if fundamental change is to take place. Liberal reforms are needed. But they must ultimately challenge the underlying structural aspect of power which keeps the 1% where they are, even at the expense of being called utopian. The ideology and consciousness that must be challenged is represented, symbolically, by the tea parties and their elected representatives in political office. The challenge must be addressed front on.[1]

 * * * * *

 1)      Political procedures and material development.

 “Premature democracy” is a phrase Slavoj Žižek refers to in a provocative discussion[2] of current criticisms of democracy. It suggests that you can’t expect democracy if the ground is not prepared for it.

 There are many in the mainstream who so hold.  They may allude to “failures of democracy” in countries recently moving from real existing socialism towards capitalism as in Eastern Europe and China, or in countries with deep ideological or religious cleavages, as in the Near East, or countries with deep ethnic or tribal divisions, as in parts of Africa. Perhaps some level of economic development is necessary before democracy can work, they argue.[3] A significantly high level of nationalism supporting a unifying national identity may be necessary, others hold. Or a sufficiently sturdy set of institutions. Or a consensus on the very idea that democracy is desirable. Or simply time, experience with democracy in practice.

 But the material developmental conditions for democracy in the United States seem to be sufficient. The evidence is overwhelming that the country has ample resources and productive capacity to feed, clothe, and decently house its entire population, and provide it with the material conditions of life adequate for the full and free development of all members of society. Living conditions that would have been considered utopian in any previous era, and that to many may still seem so today in comparison to what they experience, are in fact well within reach today. Lack of material actual productive capacity is not the problem.

 Nor are the formal rules of political participation necessary in a democracy fundamentally lacking. A focus on the actual procedural rules being followed, both for voting in and for Congress, are  a part, but only a part, of the problem.  Pointing at the procedures Congress follows as undemocratic and requiring reform isn’t enough. Occupy Wall Street struggled to put into practice as thoroughly democratic a process as is to be found in public use today. It allowed for anyone wishing to speak at a meeting on an issue to speak, in the order requesting permission, it provided for voting by show of hands almost by request any time (and informally by hand gestures after any speaker), for super- majorities to carry a vote, and even then Occupy permitted anyone with deeply felt objections to block the result. Anyone displaying an interest was entitled to vote. Some objected that it was not a very efficient way of making decisions, but it was considered an affordable price to pay for a vibrant democracy, which indeed it was.

 Surprisingly, Congress actually follows the rules Occupy uses pretty closely in practice.  It isn’t that Congress’ formal procedures are non-democratic. Those that are, like gerrymandering or interference with the ability to vote, could all be changed by Congress if it wanted, even  within existing procedures, to do so. It could regulate campaign expenditures more than it does, even given current Supreme Court rulings, and the impact of those expenditures depends on many factors other than their quantity.

 The problem Congress faces goes beyond procedure. What Republicans do now that is called undemocratic, like the filibuster,  Democrats might wish to be able to do if party strengths were reversed, and it is a form of protecting rights of small minorities. Arguably even removing the road-blocks to fairness in existing procedures would only make a marginal difference in the results, and going whole hog to the Occupy model might have even worse results. Apparently even the massive money sloshing around and used in the last election did not make a major difference. Private lobbying, given members of integrity, is not per se undemocratic.

 Blaming “Congress” for the current impasse on budget expenditures and taxes, and arguing that a change of rules would solve the problem, is in any case fallacious. It is the position of the Republicans, and only some fraction of them, that is immediately to blame.  Wherever the difficult line between the protection of minority rights and the implementation of majority desires might be drawn, few would argue on principled procedural grounds that it has been crossed. The filibuster rules in the Senate are perhaps the one exception, but even those can be changed under the Senate’s own rules as they now exist.

 So it is not that Congress is fundamentally an undemocratic institution, but that it substantively reflects the fact that a significant part of the electorate disagrees significantly with the majority, a large enough part so that according them minority rights does not violate fundamental democratic precepts.

 But does Congress really reflect the electorate?  the hope for democracy in the United States premature?

 That depends on how democratic the election process is, and thus on what the rules for electing members of Congress are. There are certainly large questions about how democratic those rules are. But the election of right-wing Republicans is not solely dependent on the bias in those rules. Conservatives benefit disproportionately from those rules, but their successes are only in part due to them. Certainly there are problems with registration procedures, with gerrymandering, with the Electoral College, big problems with access to the media and the role of money in elections. And certainly those rules can and should be made very much more democratic. The end result would be much more reflective of what one person – one vote would produce if all the ideal formal rules of democratic procedures were followed to the letter.

 Yet one would have to admit that, if Obama squeaked through the 2012 election with a mere 52% of the votes on a moderately liberal platform, whether the percentage of votes going to a more challenging platform have been greater, or lesser,  is an open question, even under procedurally better conditions.

 So all of the necessary conditions for success by any of these standards exist in the United States, and none of the conditions predicting failure.

 But the conditions need examination. Both the effectiveness of the procedural rules of democracy, and the benefits of the existing productive capacity, are dependent on the distribution of power that lies underneath them, and that in turn is determined by something other than sheer numbers involved in voting or in production.

 2)      Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns.

 If all rules achieved perfect democracy, there would be, in today’s United States, a substantial minority that would support the position of the right wing Republicans, say of the Tea Party. It is substantial even if only 8% of voters consider themselves Tea Party members (already a significant number, since membership implies active support, not simply voting), but according to polls 30% look favorably on it, and only 49% do not.[4] It is a large enough minority to be entitled to a substantial role in the deliberations of any democratic body, even with discounts for all the undemocratic elements contributing to its electoral strength. If there is substance, even if not mathematical accuracy, behind Occupy’s slogan: “we are the 99%, they are the 1%” why do 48% of the electorate vote with the 1%? Are their votes “freely” cast?

 The argument is strong that voters are not free to decide for whom to vote, in any but a limited formal procedural sense. The votes of a substantial number today do not reflect their actual material interests, or the results would be much closer to the 99%/1% split of Occupy. As Arundhati Roy frequently says, “We are many, and they are few.” Material interests are important, and material inequality stands in the way of a full actual realization of material equality, a realization sharp enough to determine a vote. Voters are in fact very unequal and those at the losing end of inequality are not free in their voting.

 To be fully free, voters would have to be in a position to have access to and interpret the necessary information free of manipulation by others. They would have to be free of material pressures forcing a vote against long-term interests, requiring a suppression of actual preferences in favor of satisfaction of immediate needs. That would require a higher level of material equality than we have today, one at least guaranteeing for all some minimum threshold, of income, education, health, personal security, the effective ability to exercise political, social, and economic rights. Material burdens get in the way, in a vicious circle, of the ability to comprehend the cause of those burdens. Even for Tea Party members not immediately subject to direct want, the worry about the future, interpreted for them by others in so many ways, has the same effect as if it were actually fully present today, whether or not its danger is in fact real, as it is for some.

 These material burdens could, theoretically, be changed immediately by the strong concerted action of the 99% that would benefit from change. Yet the strength of the labor movement, which might be taken as one indicator of the power of that 99%, is weaker today than it was at any time since the New Deal, and the militancy of social movements today is demonstrably less than it was then. But even a return to New Deal levels of political and social action seems remote today.

 The problem has a deeper dimension.  Even, say, a return to the social provisions of the New Deal, or even of the most social welfare oriented countries of Europe today, would likely make a limited difference. Such provisions might deal with one dimension of the problem, but a deeper dimension would remain: the ideological/psychological. It is the blocked dimension of the consciousness of alternatives. The blockages keep individuals from realizing, from visualizing, what the alternatives might be to the problematic situations they face now. Other dimensions deal with what the relations among people would be in a truly  equal society, what alternatives for the organization of society might exist, what other motivations besides profit might drive the economic engine – and what individual values might provide satisfaction  with one’s life.

 The realization of these alternate dimensions is blocked by characteristics imposed subtly but pervasively on individuals in our present society: the felt need to consume ever more goods, live in ever bigger houses, compete forever for greater incomes and wealth and power. Culture is a weak name for the pattern. Ideology, the explicit formulation of the rationale behind the system as it is, is another contributor to the blockages. Ideologies are of course directly connected to material relations, but not automatically, and are part cause as well as consequence of the material, and retain an independent and growing role in the nature of the order of society.  As long as these characteristics of the present social and economic relations persist, political relations will be subject to their influence, and the steps from 52% voting majorities to close to 99% voting majorities will be blocked.

 3)      The blockage of radical/utopian critical challenges.

 The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy, and the second is to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. But undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.

 The problem of the tea party—of a response to the problems with which the existing system seems incapable of dealing—is one embodiment of what needs to be dealt with. The tea party is made up of many diverse types, and supported financially by some in different positions but having a vested interest in its success.  For an apparent majority, the liberal side, the apparent slight majority within the 99%, the system produces enough to prevent reactions of desperation for material change, and provides enough immediate benefits to suppress troubling consciousness of underlying problems mentioned at the beginning.  More, its benefits block    visualization of how change could fundamentally create the better society necessary to deal with those problems.

 The tea party reacts to those deep-seated problems from the right, as the discussion here reacts from the left. Lacking a vision of a different future, it looks to the past it believes it had, realistically or not. It embeds the concerns it does have in a framework that past, one which includes belief in what it considers free markets, competitiveness, individual responsibility, the value of consumption, small government, nationalism verging on imperialism. That ideological frame needs to be criticized, explicitly and directly. But for most in the tea party, that frame is probably best not criticized at the beginning, but rather starting from a base of agreement on the problems and some immediate steps towards solution on which agreement can be reached, then linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.

 * * * * *

Conclusion:  The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy. That will help with the second task, but is not sufficient for it: to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. Undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, which again will help with the first two: opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, radical and perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to transformative proposals based on a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.

 That is the third task that needs to be undertaken. Blog #30 addresses how this third task might be addressed, with some examples intended as provocations rather than full-fledged proposals.


[1] I have elsewhere written of this, following the reasoning of Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation, as the need for the “liberation of consciousness.” See my article in Andrew Lamas, Ed, Occupy Consciousness: Reading the 1960s and Occupy Wall Street with Herbert Marcuse, in Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 16, 2013, forthcoming.

[2] Slavoj Žižek “What Europe’s Elites Don’t Know:When the blind are leading the blind, democracy is the victim” Available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/14617/what_europes_elites_dont_know1

[3] Suggested by Zakaria, Fareed. 1997. “The rise of illiberal democracy.” Foreign Affairs, Vol 76,No. 6 (November-December), pp. 22-43, in the article from which Zyzek quotes the phrase.

  [4] According to a new Rasmussen Reports poll, available at http://www.allgov.com/news/controversies/tea-party-membership-or-those-who-admit-to-it-plunges-to-8-130110?news=846706. And see my Blog #14: “Who is the 1%: The ruling class and the tea parties.”