Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Conservative Mindset on International Relations

I was reading Mark Lilla’s review of Cory Robin’s new book on conservatism and came across a bit of widely accepted conventional wisdom that, while not Lilla’s main point, nonetheless is worthy of critical examination. Lilla says, in trying to defend what he sees as the complexity of conservative thought,  “The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again.” I think the conventional view is that conservatives were isolationist before World War II, but that position obviously failed, so they were forced to revise it and became internationalist thereafter. 
Such a claim can only be made by reducing approaches to foreign affairs to a simplistic binary: internationalism vs. isolationism. But of course there are many more positions than that, and internationalism is more than merely avoidance of being locked up inside one’s own borders. Liberalism’s commitment to human rights since the eighteenth century, combined with the horror of the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars, and other conflicts, produced an aversion and even revulsion to warfare that undermined the old feudal glorification of battle. This, combined with growing trade relations and movements of peoples across national borders, led to internationalist conclusions that a just, rule-based international order was a goal worth working towards, aiming at peace, cooperative security, promotion of human rights and democracy, and shared prosperity. This took the form of a growing body of international law as well as various international institutions, including the League of Nations and then the United Nations, to try to prevent major wars, promote development, and deal with the growing number of issues that crossed national boundaries. This internationalism has had its share of failures, to be sure, but it is a work in progress and not yet an achieved reality.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, conservatives never really accepted internationalism when they gave up isolationism. Instead they became unilateralists, as their preference for large military budgets and their record of UN bashing shows. By unilateralism I mean the idea that the United States should act as it sees fit on the international stage to promote its interests and values, going it alone when other countries disagree, although using alliances and coalitions when convenient. The aim is not true partnership that works toward a stable and just international order, but dominating the world stage in order to promote American security, liberalization of trade, and representative government when it doesn’t conflict with the first two. There is enough overlap between conservative beliefs and internationalist principles to sometimes allow cooperation. But according to this way of thinking, in the last analysis the US has a great deal of power to act unilaterally and should when it can, and this is justified both by national interests and by the myth that the US embodies universal liberal values and therefore will not abuse its power, much less become imperialist. These are, of course, questionable claims.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Market failure

I was walking down the street yesterday morning and noticed the taped-up, dusty windows of a closed business in an office building. Slightly more than half of small businesses fail before their fifth year, a waste of resources and human effort. Such failures can bankrupt the individuals and families that make the attempt, and such people are real entrepreneurs rather than fake ones: this is real economic risk, unlike the "risk" that corporate and financial executives claim to brave when they venture other people's money while protected by golden parachutes when they fail. Aside from small businesses, giant corporations also fail, sometimes so badly that they need government welfare to survive. Even though the public usually bails out companies that are "too big to fail," corporate failure distends itself in other ways, through layoffs, closures of branches, and the like. The economic damage that comes from business failures is real, it ruins lives, and it is wasteful and inefficient.
My point is not that we should demand perfection, for there is waste in any system. My point is to highlight how standard economic theory performs a little conceptual trick that makes these business failures invisible.
In standard economic theory, business failure is wrapped up into the market mechanism and presented as part of the workings that make markets efficient: firms that make mistakes or that can't compete with ruthless competitors get wiped out, to supposedly be replaced by firms that can. The market thus learns from mistakes and, in this theory, becomes more efficient. Things that are, in reality, mistakes and failures are built into the theoretical concept of the market and end up not really being failures at all. It's magic!
But also notice how market believers, whether reactionary conservatives or moderate liberals, are quite ready to condemn government when it fails. It is true that sometimes government bureaus and offices display inefficiencies or have to be shut down or folded into other organizations. But many of these inefficiencies are the result of imperfect institutional accountability or others dynamics inherent to large organizations, whether public or private. Corporations often display a wasteful sluggishness that is similar to government: the "Dilbert" cartoon’s lampooning of corporate inefficiency wouldn’t ring true if it didn't exist. In the freak show of market ideology, government failures are perceived as real, but business failures are not, and government is universally held to be more inefficient than the market. This way of thinking blinds us to the failures of the market, and is is inherently biased.  Business failures don't count, on this model, even though the shuttered business with its dusty windows that I walked past yesterday was still closed. 

Theories of Human Nature

Human beings are highly complex organisms that have shown a remarkable ability, in different times and places, to create very different ways of social life. Theories of human nature are, mostly, social and political constructs that forget that history. Different ideologies each present a different theory of human nature that supports its agenda: for example, the family of liberal ideologies (libertarianism and classical and welfare liberalism) believes in homo economicus, the idea that human nature is self-interested and competitive, and this it defines as "rational." Communist theory maintains an idea of man-the-maker, sometimes called homo faber, which defines humans as laboring beings who creatively transform nature to meet their needs. (These are hardly the only examples: Nazis and fascists have had their own views of what it meant to be or not be human, while today's conservatives usually conjoin homo economicus with the idea that humans are fundamentally flawed and/or sinful.) These partial views of human nature have negative consequences. The neoliberal view of homo economicus has promoted a selfish, narcissistic culture in advanced capitalist societies and the United States in particular. Communism’s view of homo faber arguably overemphasized human cooperation and creativity and, by neglecting human domineering capacities, failed to prevent totalitarianism in its name.
Thus theories of human nature, in a supreme act of cherry-picking the evidence, single out one, or at most a few, aspects of the human organism’s highly complex biology and psychology, emphasize them over the rest, and declare them to be the core part of our being. Other human traits get shoved to the side and conveniently ignored, or are put into the categories of the undesirable, the abnormal, the less-than-human – when in fact they too are natural human qualities and a natural part of the human experience. "Reason" historically was elevated this way in the western canon, with emotion marginalized as irrational, and while this has been slowly changing this binary is still widespread. Yet emotions are arguably more central to the human experience than cold reason is, and reason itself is proving to be an embodied, mostly subconscious, and highly emotional aspect of human functioning. Reason itself is not definitive of being human, it is only part of the picture.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science tells us what human nature is, or will someday, once it has a more complete understanding of our physiology. But this mistakes the kind of construct that a statement about human "nature" is. A claim about human nature is a speech act that asserts that some aspect of the human organism is the core of humanity, defining what it means to be human. (Even if a speaker means it differently, a claim about human nature will normally be understood by the audience in this way. We do not determine our definitions alone.) And indeed some neuroscientists and practitioners of evolutionary psychology, overwhelmed in recent decades by the non-positivist epistemologies of social constructivism and postmodernism, are desperately seeking a core essence or nature of humanity as a fundamental foundation. They have faith that science will be able to give humanity a universal morality one it has discovered what human nature is, a project that I think is likely to be a horrific failure, as the history of eugenics, which was once considered a legitimate science, warns us.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Be Proud to Be Progressive!

The Left side of the political spectrum can claim a long history of social progress, fighting for democracy, and advancing justice.  If you’re on the Left, whether you call yourself liberal, progressive, radical, whatever, you probably have the following traits (feel free to add other strengths):
A critical thinker about yourself and society
A long-term thinker
A big-picture thinker
You are also probably committed to:
Human Rights
Freedom, positive and negative
Public service
Human development
Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom of religion and identity
The good of all
Now, liberals and progressives have flaws too, but it is often good to revel in your strengths. And you have these strengths! They are things to be proud of! 

Conservatism is failing from its own delusions, waste, ignorance, mediocrity, and hubris -- and you ARE the future that will in time replace it. These qualities and these values make you an alloy of political steel, strong and sharp yet flexible like the blade of fine sword. 
Remind yourself every day that you have in you the strength that comes from being progressive.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Alarming Political Capitulation

This week saw further establishment movement not only away from progressive politics, but from basic liberal principles of government: 
  • Friday's budget deal included a walkback on the Keystone Pipeline decision, such that a decision will have to be made within 60 days rather than after the election in November 2012. The Keystone Pipeline is an environmental catastrophe in the making: not only is tar shale some of the dirtiest oil around, we'd be pumping even more carbon into an already-overburdened atmosphere. Climate scientist James Hanson says that if we burn that oil, it's "game over" for the climate. Given the DC centrist capitulation machine’s history and willingness to sacrifice science to politics, I doubt the decision will be the right one.
  • This earlier affront to progressive taxation is even stupider political as it is bad policy, given current negative public opinion towards bankers and the wealthy, and poitive opinion regarding equality.
  • The Defense Authorization bill, which includes language allowing indefinite detention without trial of American citizens on American soil, voiding the right of habeus corpus, a principle of basic justice in place for centuries. It is patently unconstitutional - the Constitution only allows suspension of habeus corpus during time of war, and, call me old fashioned, but despite our constant fighting in the War On Terror, Congress never issued a declaration of war, and that still counts (even if ignored by those in power).

We are going in the wrong direction, and it’s going to get worse before we can make it get better - but make it get better we will. Eventually, I am very confident that what is happening in Wisconsin - rejection of abuse of power and of the austerity agenda - will happen on the federal level too. There are historical and current examples of people all over the world who have stopped their government from abusing power, and we will stop it too.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Contemporary Demagoguery: the Right-Wing Media Blob

A demagogue is someone who manipulates and misleads the common people in order to use them to accumulate power and advance his or her own personal or factional interests rather than the common good. In classical political thought demagoguery was believed to be one of the major flaws of democracy: common people tended to be relatively uneducated and uninformed, and were subject to the whims of their emotions, all traits which opened the doors for a demagogue to swoop in and manipulate the people into giving him or her dictatorial power.* Usually this went hand-in-hand with a critique of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, which was thought by many political philosophers, ancient and modern, to enable and magnify demagoguery by enhancing persuasive power in a way that promoted misinformation and lying. 
In the modern/postmodern world, the contemporary equivalent of rhetoric is propaganda and advertising (which both use the same techniques; the term “advertising” is just a euphemism for commerce-promoting propaganda that makes it sound banal). Our media-saturated culture,with screens and images literally everywhere, is awash with forms of communication that do not appeal to or exercise our rational, deliberative faculties but trigger our subconscious, impulsive drives and often turn them against us. Already a century ago commercial advertisers had figured out what psychological buttons to push to induce desired behaviors in populations of people, and while they use their techniques to sell people things, political advertisers use them to win political power for their candidates. History shows that advertising/propaganda can be used to persuade people to go to war, to accept dictatorship, to commit genocide. It should go without saying that Americans are not immune from such manipulative techniques.
The biggest and most effective propaganda machine in the world today is the Right-wing media behemoth consisting of Fox “News,” conservative talk radio, the conservative think tank network (Heritage, Cato), and conservative publishing both on the internet and in print (Drudge, Breitbart, National Review). The mainstream media in America is today center-right, despite conservative complaints to the contrary, and should constantly be called out as such by the Left; only on issues of diversity do they trend liberal, not on issues of class. Constant conservative complaining that the “lamestream” media is liberal is merely part of their propaganda package. This Right-wing media monstrosity is like the alien monster from the movie “The Blob”: it is a massive, globular, all-enveloping corrosive force that penetrates into the cracks and crannies of society and eats away at all intelligent life that it encounters. (Would it be wrong to point out that many of the finest practitioners of this propaganda, such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, are themselves massive globular corrosive blobs?) That the Right-Wing Media Blob misinforms and misleads is supported by the recent study showing that people who regularly watch Fox “News” are less informed than if they were to watch no news at all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This is the Opposite of Political Fortitude

This headline says it all:
“WASHINGTON -- After months of arguing that millionaires should have to pay their fair share for the costs of the president’s job bill, Democrats are poised to drop a provision that would make them do so.”
NO: insist that it stay in and that the House go back and re-vote on the issue. And when they don’t, use their support for millionaire’s welfare as a giant sledgehammer against them in next year’s campaign, as loudly and as often as possible. Not only will that lead to electoral gains, in the long run it will re-establish the idea that the wealthy should pay their fair share of into the public treasury. 

Confidence Springs From Action

Most people seem to think that confidence is something that must precede taking action; the common assumption is that anxiety or fear rises up and prevents acting, so you have to summon courage up to overcome the fear. Only then can you actually engage in the action you desired to take. But in my experience just the opposite is true: confidence comes after one has initiated an action, and it is acting that causes anxiety and fear to melt away. Anxiety has to be treated not as a barrier that prevents action, but simply as a temporary unpleasant sensation like hunger or tiredness that, while making you not want to do a thing, technically do not stop you and, if you desire strongly enough, you can, in fact, initiate and perform the action. 
Like most people I was not a natural-born public speaker, but I have learned over time to become confident and engaging in speaking, to the point now where I usually do well at it and often receive compliments from others about it. Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for fully three decades, once said in an interview that even after thousands of television shows he still got nervous every night before going on stage. Yet once he got out there he found his groove, mentally got into the process, and gave the impression to most of America that he was as comfortable speaking to an audience of millions as your best friend is when speaking to you. I have a similar experience when I speak in public: despite having taught hundreds of classes and given dozens of presentations, I still get a little nervous beforehand, but once I start, my confidence arises, I go with the flow, and even enjoy the process. I don’t need courage beforehand to start - I just have to start, and courage eventually comes once I do. And, of course, that initial nervousness diminished over time as I became more practiced and experienced. Confidence follows action: once you start fear begins to fade, and the more you do a thing the more confident you become. 
I think this is true of political life as well. The Left has been suffering a terrible inferiority crisis for the last three decades as the Right has shoved it aside and defrauded or intimidated everyone into carping their ideology. But there’s no rational reason for this diffidence: the Left has better ideas, and even a better record of governance in economics, quality of life, and foreign relations. But the Left has gotten into the habit of not combatting the Right ideologically, intellectually, morally, and legislatively, and this avoidance has cost it its confidence. Remember this past August during the administration’s capitulation to conservative deficit bullying? The internet was awash with progressives who, long demoralized by their leader’s constant capitulation, had finally lost hope altogether and had completely given up on politics in disgust and despair. But then some students and artists in New York took action and Occupied Wall Street, inspiring many thousands of others to act as well. And now step back and assess the mood of the Left: despite the crackdowns on the Occupy movement, we feel the stirrings of hope, optimism, and confidence in a way that we haven’t in a long time. We certainly haven’t reached our full measure of confidence and courage yet - that will take many years - but defeatism has been pushed aside and the public discourse has been completely changed: equality is part of the debate again, the conservative candidates all look like fools, and the Left feels confident that it will win some victories in Wisconsin and elsewhere next year. Our side took political action, the direction of our politics changed to at least some degree, and we feel a lot better about ourselves. We should keep repeating that until our true confidence returns.
Confidence springs from action!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Economic Alternatives

For many people, a major mental barrier to accepting economic change is the lack of a conceptual alternative. It’s not just enough for Leftists to criticize the current system: people can move past their accustomed patterns of thinking only when you offer them a new model to replace the old. The Left, however, has become really bad at getting new ideas heard, because its centrists constantly resist casting a vision in moral terms. And we need the world to start thinking now about change if we are going to be nimble enough in the coming decades to successfully face our many self-created crises.
I have been thinking about economic alternatives for a long time, so it is very easy for me now to imagine all kinds of different economic arrangements. Our current system calls itself a free market democracy, but it is really a consumerist corporate oligopoly, although it wasn't always so. There are many alternatives to consider that would be beneficial for people and the environment, and I will discuss some of them in future posts, but for now I’ll just list a few. These are just a start, and there are many more: 
  • Worker’s Cooperatives, such as Mondragon, in which workers own their enterprises and run them democratically
  • Parecon, or participatory economic councils where interested stakeholders like town and cities help organize economic activity
  • Strict anti-trust laws and enforcement to keep businesses small and subject to the discipline of both competition and rational government regulation
  • Intentional communities, such as cohousing and even self-sustainable ecovillages 
  • Permaculture and local agriculture
  • Dispersed renewable energy – not massive power plant or even giant wind farms, but smaller, networked generation
  • Local currencies
  • Public enterprises – nationalization or utilities – where appropriate, such as in the finance, energy, defense, and infrastructure sectors, and to some degree communications and transportation. 
  • A rational industrial policy, to promote diversification of the economy away from finance
  • Much greater public investment in research, infrastructure, and environmental renewal, through public research institutes and a revitalized Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. 
  • Remove basic goods, such as milk and bread, from market pricing altogether, an idea of Howard Zinn’s, who argued that we can surely do so with the incredibly productive economic engine we have
  • Free public education at all levels, even up through college. 
  • And the full scale of social insurance in health, retirement, unemployment, injury and disability, and parenting.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What is the Standard for a Good Economy?

Aside from the question of who the economy works for, another basic question is, What is the standard for judging how good an economy is? Or, restated, what is the basic organizing principle for an economy? Is it efficiency, growth, how much “wealth” is produced, or sheer amount of materials goods? Or something different, such as equality? Is there more than one standard that should apply? 
One standard I would like to propose for judging economic institutions is interconnectedness. Most of our problems are a result of the alienation inherent in modernity’s instrumental rationality - the mindset that everything is potentially a tool or instrument for human purposes and that sets human utility as the standard for measuring value. Instrumental rationality, by failing to recognize the dignity of humanity and the awe-inspiring majesty of nature, and by reducing both to mere economic means, produces an alienation or separation of people from each other, from nature, and even from psychologically from themselves. Alienation is the separation of things that should be connected, the division of that which should be whole; it is a concept of Marx’s but one even used by some conservatives, when they want to show that commercialization can alienate people from tradition or religion.
It seems to me, therefore, that the solution to our current Great Crisis is to do anything that directly overcomes alienation and re-connects people: any economic program or policy that leads to greater, healthier interconnection is a candidate for a legitimate economic and social policy change. New economic practices and arrangements should make for greater interconnection, stronger communities, stronger families, thriving societies, and a healthy globe. We can overcome alienation directly by promoting reconnection, re-integration, healthy interdependence, and a solid connection to the larger wholes of which we participate.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Restore Political Fortitude II: the Grass Roots

Before 2011, Leftist political protests were ineffective for decades, not so much because of the failings of protesters, but because the powers-that-be have, since Vietnam and the Civil Rights era, conducted a campaign to diminish the effectiveness of anti-establishment protest, mainly through a media campaign of marginalizing, dismissing, and dehumanizing protests. Occupy has started to change that, producing a public debate on inequality, but since at least the Battle In Seattle in 1999 protests have been an almost useless, sometimes even counter-productive, political tactic: those globalization protests were made into a laughing stock by the mainstream media, who marginalized protesters as naive dirty young complainers who didn’t know what they were talking about and were only causing trouble. And remember the literally millions of people who protested the Iraq war in 2003? Zero effect on policy. The same counter-protests strategy, applied persistently, has now had some success with Occupy, and when marginalization alone didn’t work they called in the cops.*
Protests may now be more useful again, and hopefully we will see many more until a Left-wing agenda is in place. But they have to be understood as part of a long-term campaign to create a lasting critical mass of people to place continual demands on the government and exercise enough power to have those demands met. We should aim for a permanent majority who will vote in and implement a Left-wing economic, political, and environmental agenda. That campaign will involve mass protest, but demonstrations cannot be all there is to that campaign. There will have to be lots of work done during political campaigns and elections, and during the law-making process, before this comes to pass. Note that in Ohio and Wisconsin some policy changes have been made, and that’s because protests were just a starting point for legislative and recall campaigns change laws and law-makers. You have to have follow-through.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Easy Economic Dichotomies: Communism vs. Capitalism

One of the legacies of the Cold War in economic thinking is a simple either/or, good/evil dichotomy between overarching economic systems: communism or capitalism. This simple dichotomy makes capitalism seems good by comparing it with the old Soviet totalitarian system and by making any changes to capitalism appear to be the first steps on the road to communist serfdom. In this way of thinking, legitimate public solutions, or ones that balance public and private, become half-evils, and creative solutions from outside the conventional “state vs. market” framework can’t even be grasped. Most of today’s conservatives and libertarians, as well as many centrists, are still mired in this simplistic construction.
Today’s problems can’t be understood, much less solved, within the conceptual limitations of this simple either/or framework about the overall economic system. Most current economic proposals for change are not about the big system, but involve small changes to sub-system institutions and practices. Examples include promoting a green energy infrastructure or turning all privately-owned corporations into worker-owned cooperatives. These smaller changes aren’t about imposing a total economic system, but about implementing rational programs or changes in law to improve the current state of affairs. Of course, they would require changes in law or different forms of government action, but they are hardly Stalinist communism: even Adam Smith believed that infrastructure was the purview of government, so if government’s going to do it anyway, why not do it in an environmentally friendly way? And such solutions often include a market component as well, or simply re-shape the market so it works under a different set of rules: having workers own their companies rather than absentee stock-owners doesn’t impose state control over the market, it only changes the rules of the institutions operating within it. The question then ceases to be, “capitalism or communism?,” but “what changes are for the better?”