Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation


Blog # 117a – Boss Trump and the Uses of Humiliation

The manipulation of emotions and their consequences plays a major role in the politics of power i n America today. The emotion of humiliation is a weapon in the hands of Boss Trump, strengthening is power by undermining the resistance to it. Their victims in the broader society litter the landscape of political action. The search for dignity, which may be seen as the opposite of humiliation, is partly in response to humiliation by its direct and indirect victims.  The causes and consequences of humiliation need to be understood by those opposing its human cost.

Calling Michael Cohen “incompetent” as a lawyer is an obvious example, meant to denigrate him and undercut anything he might say. It’s become  standard practice for Boss Trump to let loose twitters aimed at humiliating critics of any of his policies or positions by name. It leaves his victims with a choice between an ongoing contest with someone with a wide audience and a sharp tongue, or endure the humiliation in a silence that is in itself humiliating in its necessity, the choice that Attorney General Sessions seems to be making.  And humiliating his critics directly has a wider benefit for Trump: those witnessing his humiliation of his critics themselves become intimidated by what they see, and restrain any inclination to join in. That they feel thus constrained is itself internally humiliating, and a further defensive reaction can be to accept Trump’s side of the story and persuading oneself of its correctness, a many seem to be doing vociferously at Trump rallies and in interviews. They thus justify a potentially humiliating exchange with an apparent show of support, joining Trump’s reputed hard core loyal base.

But humiliation plays a broader societal role, a role of which Trump is a beneficiary but not a principal cause. It often produces the clichéd “white working class,” response of those who may be active in the work force but still feel insecure, underpaid, working below their capacity or deserts. It can be expressed as a claim to a lost dignity, a feeling of helplessness in conceding to bosses’ power, a feeling that has often fueled labor unrest, but that can also lead to a form of inhibition in its expression by an attribution of the result by defenders of the status quo to lack of ability,  lack of education, laziness, the victim’s own conduct, own fault. That can be a humiliating perception, and because so widely accepted and so insistently reinforced by those in power like but not limited to Donald Trump and his direct entourage, it is also likely to lead to humilitation inhibiting fighting back.

uch self-blaming, such created humiliation and the inhibition to which it may lead is often reinforced by well-meaning critics of the reality it reflects. When Hilary Clinton spoke of “the deplorables,” when the Harvard grads or the lucky investors or those in securely positioned armchairs who view the passing parade and “don’t understand how anyone can swallow Donald Trump’s lies or condone his behavior,” they can easily be perceived as looking down on their fellows, as being members of an elite not recognizing the lived experience of the less fortunate. If many of the “white working class” are emotionally humiliated in the social structure of society as they experience it, so are many of “the elite” inhibited from questioning those social structures that have produced their own advantages for fear of having to face some humiliating causes.  The elite may find it hard to accord to others less well stationed than themselves the dignity that those others feel they also have a right to demand.

Humiliation can also lead to a variety of emotional responses. Opioid addiction, gang membership, street violence, domestic abuse, can  all be read as distorted reflections of a search for a dignity which prevailing relationships do not provide for their  victims.  An unconscious and inhibited identification with the boss can play a role, a desire to be oneself a boss, to have all that freedom which the real bosses have and which they are often faulted for exercising. Such responses often create difficulties of understanding in well-meaning efforts to address their causes

Conclusion: If humiliation is a widespread and debilitating emotion, its existence is not an inherent aspect of human nature. If there is humiliation, there are humilitationees and humilitationors.

When Trump humiliates anyone, what he is doing can be explicitly labeled and condemn as such, without long arguments about who’s right and who’s right in the dispute. Boss Trump can be challenged for simply acting like a bad boss, and who likes a bad boss, even if they’re right every now and then. And if those who are being deprived of their dignity by a bad boss or his lackeys, what is going on can be pointed out without reinforcing it by another form of humiliation in how it is pointed out as a necessary lesson the more well-off need to teach their less understanding others. .

  My thanks to Don Bushnell and Thomas Scheff for the provocation that lead to these thoughts                                                                .          They should not be blamed for the result.

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Blog #90a – The Three Trumps – The Individual, the Businessman, and the Political Campaigner


How do we explain the wide success that Trump has achieved, despite everything that we know about him today?

The argument here is that there are basic lines of division and conflict in society, divisions that have shifted dramatically in the last half century or more from an industrially—based old economy to a high-tech consumption based new economy, profiting some groups at the expense of others, and shifting the lines of division among them (see Blogs #90d and #90e). In reality, Deep down under, those shifts explain how people act politically, including how they vote in elections. Trump has taken advantage of these shifts to promulgate a Deep Story that justifies his own behavior and now underlies his campaign for the presidency. As a businessman, he takes full advantage of the new consumer-based economy while he continues to exploit those in the old economy with whom he has direct business dealings. In his political campaigning, he holds himself out as working for those hurt by the economic change, the loss of industrial jobs, the newer and greater exploitation in the processes of consumption. And as an individual, he claims that his conduct as an individual is an irrelevant and largely malicious topic that should not be related in any way to his activities as a businessman nor his qualifications for the public office for which he campaigns.

So  there are in fact three Trumps: Trump The Individual, Trump the Businessman, and Trump the Political Campaigner, and he keeps the three quite separate so, that their real contradictions do not become painfully obvious, distorting the Deep Story he trumpets on  Twitter, in which his individual characteristics are not relevant politically, his business activities in fact entitle him to public leadership even though they are largely anti-social, and his campaign rhetoric is almost transparently opportunistic

Trump embeds the businessman the campaigner displays in a seductive new Deep Story: the story of a past great America where everyone had job and people knew their places and were happy with them, a Deep Story in which Trump promises as part of a fairy tale to restore a better old world with a sweep of his magical (small?) hand. And many of those hurting from the change from old to new economy, seeing no alternate rescue in sight, buy his new Story, even though, analyzed, it is a jumble of incoherent and little thought out impulsive Twitter feeds..

To look at the Three Trumps one at a time:

To begin with, what sort of person is Trump the Individual? Repulsive, conventionally sexist and racist, with really no self-awareness, ability to see himself as others see him, to the point of obvious excess. That’s Trump, as an individual, an aging bundle of prejudices and jumbled ideas and values, of uncontrollable tics. That’s Trump the Individual. He’s the one who, intrudes on women in the dressing rooms of beauty contestants and gropes them on airplanes and in elevators, insults virtually every minority group in society and one majority group, lambasts war heroes and makes fun of disabilities and displays an egregious egotism and inability to accept criticism.

Perhaps we may also see him for that very reason, as sad, even pathetic, out of control by the forces that control him. And a lot of discussion and theorizing has gone into his psychological make-up, what makes him behave as he does, so often irrationally. Trump the Individual is not, however, the one on whom this article wants to focuses.[1] Rather it is Trump the Businessman who is of concern, the one whose conduct ought theoretically to repel precisely those who proclaim their allegiance to him. He’s the Trump whose actual business policies, writ large, are so much at odds with concepts of social justice

As for Trump the Businessman, the purported billionaire, the real estate mogul, the restless entrepreneur, the competitor and winner in the world of big business, the winner and loser in real life games with large odds, he’s independent of the other two, although he doesn’t fail to have is campaign activities contribute to the income from the various private enterprises n which he has an interest  as a business  matter. And the three Trumps are fundamentally out of sync.

And Trump the Campaigner is of concern even more, the public figure, the candidate for high public office, even trying to imagine what policies he might pursue or endorse as President produces nightmares. . Trump the Individual may have engaged in locker room talk about groping women, but according to Trump the Campaigner he had never, never, never actually done such things. Trump the Campaigner is the one who knows more about military strategy than  the generals, who alone can right the economy, produce jobs, handle Wall Street, deal with Putin. And Trump the Campaigner is not  Trump the Businessman , who exploits his workers, makes money by manipulating banks and credit  institutions extensively uses governmental assistance and  subsidies  in those businesses he actually runs, takes advantage of the bankruptcy laws to avoid paying his creditors when his businesses fail.

What follows is an attempt to go beyond any one of these three views, which deal separately with Trump the Individual, Trump the Campaigner, and Trump the Businessman.  I focus below first on Trump the Businessman with an under-explained pattern of conduct, and then turn to the reality that underlies his business activities and finally to the political implications for Trump the Campaigner of the changes in that reality. I take a key underlying line of division in that reality to be the line that divides a base in the traditional industrial capitalist economy from one based on the new less industrially -based higher-tech market economy.

My hypothesis is that Trump the Businessman represents the distilled essence of the modern businessperson in a post-industrial more market-based economy and neo-liberal political society, and 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 in the changing economy. What is happening is essentially a real conflict between those involved in the class conflicts of the old industrial capitalist system as it the have evolved in the new less-industrially based market system. The contradiction between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the Businessman is a widely accepted paradox, that a billionaire should be leading the downtrodden, the ignored, the insecure.

(Whether there is now in fact a “new” class structure in creation, or simply a new aspect of the on-going development and transmogrification of the old capitalist and working classes, is still a matter under serious debate, but  the answer is not critical for the present analysis, at least in the near future. Likewise, whether today’s economy is post-industrial or not is a matter of much dispute, but by-passed here, simply differentiating the old from the new by the terms “industrial capitalist” vs. “market,” accepting the fact that the two are inextricably mixed.)

The election, and the distribution of support for Trump among the electorate, is unfortunately not a good test of the hypothesis, because Trump the Individual features much more prominently in voters’ decision-making than it does in the analysis here. You might think, if the hypothesis above is correct, that Silicon Valley and the hedge fund industry would be strongly pro-Trump as all participants in the new economy, but with minor exceptions they aren’t. Nor should blue-collar working class members be supporting a candidate who has never lifted a finger in his extensive business dealings or as an individual to show any concern for their welfare. But they do support him.

One explanation for this apparent logical discrepancy lies in the image of Trump the Individual and his conduct and rants. It may be that Trump loses support among the college-educated because of the danger they see to the rational conduct of public affairs if he is elected, which may over-ride such other affinities they may have with him as a businessman. Or it may simply be that I, as a college-educated blogger with a real fear of a Trump presidency, simply assume that others similarly situated would be as afraid of a victory by Trump as I am. Or there may be some antipathy for Hillary Clinton, having nothing to do with her actual substantive platform, whose cause lies outside anything discussed here. In any case, election results are not an easy way to test the three-Trump hypothesis.

Neither are the frequently developed analyses of the elections that uses demographic divisions among citizens to predict voting–age, color, gender, generation, education, ethnicity, for example, useful in testing the hypothesis about economic divisions among the electorate. While such divisions are easily analyzed statistically for their level of correlations with voting behavior, some may conceal more fundamental divisions along economic, income, and occupational as well as racial and gender lines.

Demographic categories used statistically, such as millennials, or male and female, or 1% and 99%, or college educated and more and high-school educated or less, are only marginally useful, and their importance needs an explanation if they are to be seriously considered. Categories such as middle class themselves demand explanation if they are to be useful. The prevalence of demographic analysis to explaining political behavior leaves a lot to be desired.

But superficial attributions of cause and effect to demographic changes are only part of the explication of why the Deep Stories that Trump trumpets, described in detail in Blog #90f, have been as effective as they have been in attracting his supporters.

****

In what follows, then, we begin first with  Trump the Businessman, then turn to Trump the Campaigner, , and then view how Trump tries to bring the two together in the Deep Story that he assumes will  justify the actions of both.

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

See Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman: The Commodification of Every-day Life.

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?


Blog #81b: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal?

The debate on the Democratic side in the United States election campaign has seemed at times to be between  answers addressing, on the one said , economic inequality (held to be Bernie Sanders view) and on the other, racial and ethnic disparities (Black Lives Matter often taken to hold that view, and Hillary Clinton’s frequent emphasis). The answer of course depends on the analysis of the problem. If the suggestion of Blog #81a is accepted, that the key definition of unjust inequality, defined in the economic terms of wealth and income, lies in whether or not it arises from the economic, political, and social relations of exploitation and oppression within the society, then that analysis might be applied as well to the issue of unjust non-economic inequalities between black and white, “native” born and immigrant, men and women, religious majorities and minorities, non-conformists generally.

In fact, relations of exploitation and oppression, economic and non-economic inequality, are historically opposite sides of the same coin. As to “race,” slavery of course combined both oppression with exploitation; the attitudes to immigrants does so as well, if in different legal and social ways. The clear disparities in women’s and men’s wages are linked to patterns of sexist treatment that is both economic  and social/cultural,  and patterns of social behavior , such as are embodied in religious codes as well as sexual and gender-related attitudes, play a role in supporting economic structures  as well.[1]

In looking for answers, then, for concrete policies, programs, strategies to rectify these twin economic and non-economic problems, the key is to understand them as linked, parts of a single pattern, and examine proposed answers with those linkages I mind.  Looking at the details of conservative as opposed to liberal as opposed to radical current answers illustrates the point.

The conservative response is that inequality should not be a concern.. Conservatives essentially see economic inequalities as both inevitable and necessary. They defend quantitative inequality because greater wealth or income is the result of differences in effort or ability, or a reward for innovation and hard work; end inequality, and you take away the incentives for an individual to work hard and use the abilities they have to contribute to prosperity and growth. The poor are poor because they have lesser abilities, and it is only poverty or its threat that makes them enter the labor market at all, where they are needed to do the unskilled work that needs to be done. If the market at any point requires less unskilled work  than there are  unskilled workers, that’s too bad, but charity requires that they not be left to starve to death on the streets, but they should not be helped to such an extent that their incentive to work disappears. Inequality is thus the inevitable accompaniment of different natural capabilities, and enforcing equality unfairly penalizes those with greater capabilities, who deserve to have more than less capable others.

For conservatives economic inequalities are  directly linked to and justified by non-economic inequalities: lesser pay for  women explained by sexist views of their work, lower pay for African-Americans by weaker work habits or value  systems, unconcern for living wages for  immigrants by  a logical market reaction to their greater “willingness ” to accept work undesired by natives. Other non-economic inequalities arise from differences in treatment that are experienced as oppressive and painful by African-Americans , women (both married and unmarried, n different and overlapping ways), LGBT individuals, foreigners speaking other languages as their native tongue, some artists, non-conformity of all sorts, are admittedly unequal in the conservative view, but the difference is explained as a matter of voluntary  choice of life style, and Its solution is simply adaptation by those subject to harm to more dominant patterns of behavior. Those not conforming to middle-class values in their behavior are not entitled to claims for equal treatment, and may be forcibly repressed, through police action and incarceration, if they do not behave.  And all-together, the pressure for life-style conformity, even if leading to obvious unjust inequality, is part of that societal pattern accepted as desirable and functional for society, even if criticized as one-dimensional by others. Dealing with non-economic inequality would necessitate government interference in “private” matters, and that is in principle to be minimized. The answer thus is simply to make the system function smoothly, but not to disturb it by artificially countering inequality.

It is a solution that can be made to sound acceptable to a significant part of the population, and will have substantial resources behind its propagation.

The Liberal response (in the current Democratic debates highlighted by Hillary Clinton) recognizes the existence of economic inequalities of wealth and income, but focuses on non-economic inequalities.

In addressing economic inequalities, its answers are to improve incomes and wealth at the bottom of the scale, leaving the top untouched. The response is based on a social morality which objects to gross inequality that relegates some to living in abject poverty for no fault of their own, and finds the answer in alleviating that poverty. The causes of economic inequality are not dealt with, nor are the benefits of exploitation challenged. The argument is perhaps that there is no reason to object to inequality if no one is hurt by it. If all at the bottom have enough for a decent standard of living, why shouldn’t the rich be richer than they? The answer thus lies in  anti-poverty programs, with a focus on who the poor are, how to help them get ahead with education for jobs and careers, if they are doing their best then to support them with subsidies up to the point where all, regardless of natural capabilities, achieve some minimum  standard of living. Morally the rich should act charitably to help the poor, but the fault that creates poverty lies not in their riches, but in the stars, or in the incapacities of the poor, or in the important economic laws that produce prosperity but inevitably have unequal results for some, with results that should be countered by help from the general funds of society. The goal is not reduce inequality per se, but to put a safety net under the poor, to end poverty. The whole society should agree to such a moral goal, in the Liberal view.

The argument that quantitative inequality is unjust because it is morally unfair to the middle class is a different formulation of this approach, perhaps politically more appealing than a purely moral approach because more people identify as middle class than a poor. But that response develops a line between the middle class and the rest of society, the poor and those who, in non-economic life  style ways, are non-conformists, do not share “middle class values” or patterns of behavior , including, for instance gender relationships.. The concern is that the middle class families are slipping out of the middle and into the bottom, and to help them with governmental support, perhaps low-interest loans to encourage their entrepreneurship, labor laws that prohibit unhealthy working conditions, sick leave, rationalized and partially subsidized health care, and expanded skill-oriented higher education. etc. Conformity to middle class values is demanded of recipients of such benefits, but those not conforming may be helped by carefully moderated measures to come into conformity.[2] The response assumes an essentially normal and inevitable quantitative economic and qualitative non-economic inequality to be natural, and seeks to ameliorate it after it has occurred, in the distribution of its results, rather than dealing with the causes that produce it. Consistent with a Liberal analysis, it addresses the wealth of the top only gingerly, by non-confiscatory taxes on the rich only to the level needed to pay for ameliorative support for the endangered members of the middle class and poor. Answers do not question whether the acquisition of wealth by the rich is a cause of the lesser wealth of the middle and poor. And the taxes on the rich must also be kept moderate, because it is assumed that the rich are needed to provide jobs for the middle and poor, and too high taxes would reduce their incentives to do that.

Thus the Liberal response to inequality is to address it only at the bottom and middle of the distribution of wealth, leaving both the political and the economic structures that have created the inequality at the top modified but essentially intact. But it is a solution that might find consensus support among a large part, if not a majority, of the population.

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This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[1] A whole field of sociology explores these relationships , with the Frankfurt School’s critiques , and particularly Herbert Marcuse’s work, One-Dimensional Man and other writings , being (in my vulnerably objective opinion) prime examples ,.

[2] Even if there is no agreement on what such conformity-inducing measures might be. A recent overview of a dominant paradigm of the 19650’s came from the Moynihan Report of 1965, which found that “Almost One-Fourth of Negro Families are Headed by Females,” “which seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” Yet a provocative article by Eduardo Porter in the NYTimes, Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016, pp. B1&7, essentially argues that the problem is basically economic, not marital: better-off single  women have fewer problems than poor ones, and their children do better, but poor married women are no better off than their single sisters. Adding money does more for the children than adding a male (my summary).

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?


Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Odd, in all the discussion of whether “we” lost the war on “poverty,” the question of who the combatants were or are quite escapes notice. Presumably, if the war was lost, the “poor” were the losers – but they’re not the “we” who undertook that war, but if anything they are third party beneficiaries, in the eyes of those who “declared” the war. A cynic might of course argue that some who voiced support for the war were as much concerned with social peace and undercutting of the painful protests of the 60’s urban uprisings and the currents that led to President Kennedy’s assassination as they were concerned with justice for the poor. But be that as it may, if the poor were the losers, who were the winners?

Calling it a war on “poverty” is an elegant way of avoiding that question. “Poverty” is not a combatant, a set of people, of actors, but a condition from which some people, the poor, suffer, a condition other people create. . A real war on the causes of poverty would have to look at who the poor are – surely we are not declaring war on the poor, but rather on those who are causing their poverty. And the question is “who,” not “what,” is responsible: the conditions, institutions, laws, economic and social relations, policies, that produce poverty in as rich a society as ours. These are all conditions produced by “who’s”, by people. And, unless one wants to revert to the discredited mantra of blaming the victim, it is the non-poor who are responsible for poverty. But while that formulation may be logically and morally correct, but it will hardly fly politically. Hence, opportunistically, a war on a condition, not its cause.

So, generally, it must be the non-poor who are the winners, who are or believe they are better off if the war on “poverty” is lost. Are they the 1%, or the top 10%, or those earning over a million dollars a year, or simply those “in power?” A debatable question, but one which the language of “a war on poverty” elegantly avoids.

A war on inequality would be another story. If taken seriously, it highlights that some are getting more, and others less, of society’s wealth. It requires, if really thought about, naming the winners as well as the losers in the fight. That is the Pandora’s Box the Occupy movement’s 1%/99% opens, and that Bill de Blasio highlighted in attacking inequality in the New York City mayoral race. But think about it this: a tax increase of less than ½ of 1% on those earning over $500,000 to help poor children have pre-kindergarten, as he proposes – if that is defeated, won’t it be crystal clear who lost the war on poverty, and who won it?

(On “poverty” vs. “inequality” as the target, see Blog #44, coming.)

Peter Marcuse

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Postscript:

The debate between Governor Cuomo’s Pre-K plan and Mayor de Blasio’s plan  is a perfect example of the different between attacking poverty and attacking inequality.  Both wish to provide universal pre-kindergarten education of all children. Governor Cuomo wishes to finance it out of general revenues, and combine it with tax cuts primarily favoring corporations and upper income households.[1] De Blasio wants to finance it with a dedicated tax on incomes of $500,000. Cuomo’s approach is legitimated as an attack on poverty, de Blasio’s as an attack on inequality.

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[1] On the proposed tax cuts, see Michael M. Grynbaum and Thomas Kaplan, “Pre-K Plan Puts Cuomo at Odds with de Blasio,” New York Times, January 22, 2014, p. 1 and 16.

Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City


Blog #40 – Reading the Right to the City

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND..

It’s no accident that the discussion about the right to the city emerged just when it did, or that it has become a hot formulation again just now.

To summarize, the critical milestones (viewpoint: U.S.A./Europe) were perhaps –

1919, unrest and failure of the classical Marxist revolutions in /Europe, expected to arise semi-automatically out of the exploitation and immiseration of the working class and their understanding of their exploitation., led by the working class and party.

1934 – election of Hitler, resulting from that immiseration plus the insecurity of the middle class, successfully manipulating discontent culturally/ideologically towards fascism

1946 – defeat of fascism, replaced by the welfare state, dealing with the same issues by concessions and the counter-manipulation of the promise of consumption, One-Dimensional Man, rapid technological advance

1960 – wide=spread unrest, led not by working class but in the United States at least by those excluded from the welfare state, discriminated against in recognition and benefits, primarily African-Americans, and by revulsion against the ideological manipulation and emptiness of values of consumption , led by the discontented, supported by groups of the excluded, barely by the exploited, with tensions among them

1970 – calming/suppression of the unrest, period of prosperity, conformity/collaboration with the system, rising public benefits and private consumption, globalization of production

Today, 2080-2010 – growing disillusionment, growing criticism of capitalism, financialization, growing search for alternatives, by the excluded, the exploited, the discontented.

A growing body of theory has analyzed these developments. Key contributions appeared in the aftermath of the unrest of the 1960’s, largely relying on new readings of Karl Marx and  including work of Henri Lefebvre, critically paralleling analyses of the Frankfurt School and particularly Herbert Marcuse[1]. It sought to go from critique to the possibilities of fundamental social change.

But where to turn to find agents of such social change? Henri Lefebvre, facing that question, developed the formulation of call for “the Right to the City” as an answer.

What he meant by that was not always clear; I have dealt in several pieces with alternate reading of what he has written.[2] It is relatively clear that he continued to see the working class as important actors in efforts for social change, but as increasingly inadequate and often recalcitrant ally in efforts for change. Rather, he saw the motor force for change outside of the work-place, not in the factories or the offices, but in the experiences of everyday life of all kinds of people in their home, in their schools, in their communities – and, yes in their cities.

THE SIX READINGS OF THE RIGHT TO THE CITY

Lefebvre’s own reading. For Lefebvre, the right to the city is a political claim: a cry and a demand, for social justice, for social change, for the realization of the potential that technological and human advances had made possible after the second World War. It was a battle cry, a banner in a fight, not simply for the eradication of poverty but for the abolishment of unjust inequality.

In a way, it was an ill-chosen formulation, because it was not intended to be taken literally: Not a Right in the sense of a legal claim enforceable through the judicial system, but a moral right, an appeal to the highest of human values. And it was not a right to the City, not a right to be included in what the city already was, but rather a right to a city that could and should be, to the city as a metaphor for an new way of life, one whose characteristic were directly related to the new processes of urbanization, which for Lefebvre encompassed a new way of life, of everyday life as well as of government, or a social system as well as, even more than, a physical place, a particular built environment or legal jurisdiction.

For Lefebvre, the call for the Right to the City was a revolutionary call, a call produced by and justified by the urban revolution of which he wrote as a new stage in the historical development of civilization.

And it was not limited in any way to the physical city, but understood “city” as a synecdoche for “urban society:”

As Lefebvre put it,   the city

“cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life as long as the ‘urban’ [is a] place of encounter, priority of use value,.”[3]

Lefebvre even says, at one point:

“…from this point on I will no longer refer and to the city but to the urban”[4]

Lefebvre’s reading clearly implies the necessity for an analysis of the structures of power that hold back the transformation of life that he envisages. Lefebvre’s own analysis is essentially Marxist, even if it does not expore that analysis as intensively as, say, the New Left, Herbert Marcuse,, or David Harvey have. But some such analysis is required to make it effective.

2.      The strategic reading. In practice, the Right to the City banner has been picked up as the umbrella under which a wide variety of groups suffering from the existing conditions of their lives in the new urban society: the very poor, the homeless, those dependent on welfare grants or charity, those discriminated against because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mal-educated, the legal restrictions of citizenship laws, gender inequality. These are groups whose economic position does not give them the power, through the withholding of their labor, to threaten the functioning of the economic system, and whose political power can be effectively reduced through the power of the 1%, despite their much larger numbers, in a democracy still subject to the disproportionate power of the rich. It was the basis for the formation of coalitions of those groups, realizing that they needed to pool their efforts to have any influence at all. The the formation of the national and local Right to the City Alliance in the United States and abroad.

 For them, the impulse of their action is initially simply to be included in the existing city, to obtain the benefits of existing city life from which they have been excluded: to obtain decent shelter in existing empty and warehoused living units, to get paid at least living wages in the already existing jobs, to be treated with the dignity and respect accorded as of right to all other citizens of the city, to be protected by the  police that provides security for others, rather than being stopped and frisked routinely without cause.

The strategic reading of the right to the city  is not in contradiction to the Lefebvre ran reading, but in a sense a step towards it, but one with more limited claims, but perhaps also more urgent ones.

Look at the members of that coalition in New York City, as an example:

The Right to the City Alliances in in the United States, and the Right to the City Alliance inNew York city, are both alliances of other, preexisting groups, 43 for the national, [5] 12 for the New York City Alliance. All of the member organizations of the two pre-existed the formation of the respective alliances. They represent a wide range of interests: Homeless, welfare recipients, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, LGBT, folk, service workers, environmental groups:

[The Right To The City Alliance] is a multi-issue national alliance of base building and grassroots organizations and allies working to advance an urban strategy to ensure the rights of low income people of color to urban places and spaces in our cities.[6]

They cooperate closely with labor unions who are interested in cooperating with them. E.g. the Service Workers International Union, both unions are not members. The Alliances represent the deprived, both of material welfare and of dignity. But they do not occupy positions immediately essential to the operations of the system that is oppressing them, as unions and their working class members do – if clearly less so that 50 years ago. Bringing Alliance member groups together with each other, and then with organized (and unorganized, as in Workers’ Centers) workers is a matter of urgent strategic necessity. Both are materially deprived of material goods, but also of the dignity and respect which members of a just society should accord each other. They are, together, large in numbers, but weak in economic power, as technological advances, automation and globalization permit the system normally to remain profitable without their active consent.

Bringing these forces together in a strategic alliance requires an analysis of the power relations that underlie its necessity, and that links those supporting the call together. In practice, that analysis certainly has to include a discussion of existing relations of power, and what changes might be produced within those relations as they exist. It may or not press that analysis into specific examination of the possibilities of fundamentally changing those relations of power. How far the analysis then goes, and how convincing it can be made to the members of the Alliance, will determine whether it pursues Lefebvre’s own reading of the Right to the City, or limites itself to intermediate goals that may or may not lead in that direction.

3.      The discontented reading.  For many of those not thus excluded inclusion in the existing city was not enough. Lefebvre’s call was for a new and better city, new and better way of life. Many of those already included in the existing were discontented, and profoundly. They felt their own potentials were constricted, their human values distorted, their aspirations for the future pushed into a quest for conspicuous consumption, their search for social support and solidarity defeated by the pressures of competition, competition for goals they did not share but were force to pursue – and convinced to value by an extreme cultural and ideological apparatus, against their own deepest desires.

 The discontented, in this reading, were those that were the activists of the New Left, about whom Herbert Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man: students, teachers, intellectuals, artists, idealists, those that felt themselves misfits in a society over which they had no control.

But the analysis underlying the discontented reading does not suggest an overall path towards achieving its goals. No one argued that the discontended, while having the demand for the right to the city, had the power to achieve it. Herbert Marcuse was explicit in saying that, while they might provide leadership, it required larger forces, in particular among the exploited and excluded, to achieve it. That in turn required changes from within those groups: to achieve anew society, new men and women are required. But to support the development of new men and women, a new society was required – a paradox to which he proposed no solution other than its recognition. Lefebvre’s reading implicitly agreed; as David Harvey reformulated Lefebvre, the argument was that the right to the city included was “a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”[7]

In practice, the focus on discontent as the motor of efforts to achieve a right to the city that will deal with its particular manifestation is likely to lead to a leading role for those most directly affected – not somuch the exploied or excluded, but the students, artists, idealists etc. who are generally materially free to concentrate on such concerns. That leads to the dangers of elitism, to tensions among those sharing a material interest in the principles of the Lefebvre’s reading of the right to the city. In terms of policy polsitions, it is a tension between shorter and longer-term goals; in organizing, between, in this case, members of the constituent groups with the Right to the City Alliance and their “allies, ” often academics and intellectuals generally more in a position to elaborate analysis and program details.

4.      The spatial reading. Many read Lefebvre’s right to the city call as one aimed specifically and literally at the city as a built environment, as physical space, and saw the call of the right to the city as a call for designing and running a better city, a more beautiful city, and healthier and more environmentally sustainable city. Some were professionals, architects, urban designers, planners, geographers, who used the call for the right to the city as support for calls for the better utilization of what they were trained to do, and wanted to do. And they saw their work as supporting and modeling what a right to the city for all might look like, in the flesh.

In practice, the spatial reading is a narrow reading of the right to the city. It appeals to specific disciplines, professionals, interests focused on the material built environment of the city, and often tempted to see such changes as dictating social patterns and determining issues of justice and well-being by themselves. Some argue for what might be called a modelling approach, the development of model communities, model businesses, model spaces, that might demonstrate in the flesh what is possible: spaces of hope, new economies. In more comprehensive struggles. The spatial reading may be one that is distracting from broader goals, one that is more likely to demonstrate alternatives for the discontented than to change the power relations that lead to exploitation and exclusion. Linked to analysis that includes a central place for consideration if issues of power and conflicting material interest, it can be a useful adjunct to movements for the right to the city.

5.      The collaborationist reading. Then there is a reading which uses the call for the right to the city as in fact support for their own efforts at mild reform, the reformist reforms of which Andre Gorz wrote and which are that matters about which liberal and conservative supporters of the welfare state content. To many, recalling Lefebvre’s own reading of the right to the city, this is pure co-optation, a distortion of the radical content of the slogan. When the right to the city becomes embodied in an officially adopted Charter of the City, adopted by public institutions, whether local, national or international, that have neither the power nor the desire to implement such rights, however defined, the fact that Lefebvre’s call recognized the inevitability of conflict, the necessity for struggle, is blatantly denied concealed, made toothless behind a façade of good intentions, rationality, quest for consensus.

Needless to say, a collaborationist reading interferes with, rather than promotes, militant action to achieve in the real world of inequalities of power and conflicts of interest. A litmus test might be the view of the right to the city a a right for all, as to which consensus is the goal, rather than a redistributive and transformative approach to change.

6.      The subversive reading. A very political reading of the right to the city is however also possible, one that combines the thrust of Lefebvre’s own radical intent with the practical realities confronted by Lefebvre’s own reading, the strategic reading and the discontented’s reading. Such a subversive reading is implicit in, and has surfaced in, the Right to the City Alliance in the United States, in its search for transformative[8] claims and demands, for programs and goals that will both give priority to the immediate needs of the excluded, the ultimate goals of the discontented, and the claims of those not (maybe not yet?) accepting the slogan or understanding its content, but yet exploited by the same existing patterns from which the deprived, the excluded, and the discontented suffer – specifically, the working class, labor, organized and not, the very poor, the discriminated against, the excluded.

The strategy here is implicitly founded on the same understanding guiding the Right to the City Alliances, as in community-labor centers, etc. The key word used in this subversive reading is “transformative:” demands and claims action for which can produce immediate results, but which point towards the radical goals of Lefebvre’s original work, and the related goals of the social movements and economics struggles that produced and have continued to inspire political protest movements throughout history.

 ****

 The six different readings of the Right to the City suggest different strategies. A further  possible strategy might be to work sector by sector, looking at sectors as wholes interdependent with each other but having different problems and different potentials for change. Such a strategy might focus on expanding existing areas of public provision, as in police protection, fire protection, public education, some forms of research and development, fighting privatization of public functions and pushing the desirability instead of expanding the public sector. Socialism one sector at a time, perhaps,[9] or the long march through the institutions.

Revolution as such remains off the range of possibilities, force available to the elite is overwhelming, viz. Near East. But the Occupy movement suggests another and further possibility: physical space not contested in its built form, not building physically a new city, but Occupying an old one with a new content.  The slogan there after all is Occupy Wall Street, with both a spatial and an economic and political meaning  Build on the existing, keep some of its usable forms, but change the power relations that determine how they will be used. That, perhaps occupying one sector at a time, seems to me a possible path ahead.

But that’s a long discussion, for another time.

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[1] Marcuse, Herbert. 1972. One-Dimensional Man, .Boston: Beacon Press, and Marcuse, Herbert. 2005. The New Left and the 1960s, vol. 4 of Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, edited by Douglas Kellner, Oxford: Routledge. While technology plays somewhat the role with Herbert Marcuse that urbanization plays with Henri Lefebvre, their fundamental analyses are largely similar.

 [2] Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “From critical urban theory to the right to the city : What right, whose right, to what city, how?” in Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse And Margit Mayer, eds. Cities For People, Not For Profit: Critical Urban Theory And The Right To The City, London: Routledge.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. 1996 [1967]. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, ed. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, London: Blackwell, P. 158

[4] Lefebvre, Henri. 2003 (1970).The Urban Revolution. Foreword by Neil Smith. Translated by Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press, p. 45.

[7] David Harvey, “The right to the city,” New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, available at http://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city

[8] See Blog #30, Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformational Provocations, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com

[9] See Marcuse, Peter. 2010. “Socialism One Sector at a Time.” ZNet and in: Charles Reitz, ed. Crisis and Commonwealth: Marcuse, Marx, Manifesto, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books

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.”

Blog #20 – The Debates – Principles or Details?


Blog #20 – The Debates: Principles or Details?

Instead of clichés that are remarkably similar on both sides (who doesn’t love the middle class, or promise to reduce the deficit?), how about going back to basics? Sometimes the devil is in the principles.

1. The role of government: Government is not “them,” as in “keep their hands out of our pockets”), it’s “us.” In a democracy, it’s what we are collectively, not what strange entity is. It’s the “we the people” of the constitution. Whether it’s “big” or “little” isn’t the point; the point is, case by case, should we do it together, or should we do it separately.

What should government do? Is it what we do collectively together because no one person can individually pay for its being done, it can’t efficiently be done for just one person, or you can’t do it for some and not for others. Is it ensure the provisions of what economists speak of as “public goods,” or “collective consumption,” of items such as fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems, or, locally, police and fire protection, street lighting.

Or is it what are called merit goods: goods (or services) which everyone is better off if everyone has them, such as inoculations against contagious diseases, a good education, a healthy diet, prohibitions against racism, where everyone is better off if more have them?

And if not these things, then what? A basic question.

2. Caring for others: Do we only care for others if they live up to our standards of conduct, so we ourselves will be more secure, or to teach those we don’t help a lesson? Is inequality only bad because it interferes with growth; would we still care about injustice to others if it improved growth? Should we only care for others if we can do so without raising taxes?

Or is our society rich enough so that we can afford to help all those who need help, because all are human beings and “created equal,” regardless of the source of their need?

And if not, where do we draw the line? Another basic question

3. Is winning all? Is the most important purpose of the current election campaign to defeat the other side, as Mitch McConnell explicitly said, and must therefore every speech, every debate answer, every platform paragraph, be written to first serve that most important goal?
Is the holding of a quadrennial election under today’s conditions the single most important definition of our democracy, and should its results pre-empt all further discussion or action to affect policy??

Or is the ultimate purpose of democracy to advance a higher goal, to implement more fully the inalienable right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with elections every four years being simply one means to that end, others including popular education, illumination of public issues, influencing government policy through other democratic means, pressing the arguments for fundamental principles?

4. The federal deficit: Is reducing the federal deficit a holy grail, so that all budgetary decisions, as to both revenues and expenditures, must be subordinated to it, whether they harm the most vulnerable or the best off, whether they reduce or expand production of goods and services, whether they add to or subtract from security, personal and/or national?

Or are promises to reduce the deficit meaningless, avoiding the real issues, unless they specify what will be cut and/ what taxed and for whom?

Sometimes the devil is indeed in the details.