A Note of Encouragement

Two generations ago I sat in a classroom in what is now named George Mosse Hall on the University of Wisconsin, Madison, campus listening intently to a short, stocky, coke-bottle bespectacled Jewish intellectual explain how he was a “happy bourgeois.” This was the same “happy bourgeois” who, two generations ago, introduced me to Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, to Herbert Marcuse and (a still young) Jürgen Habermas. It took hutzpah for this instructor to introduce undergraduate students to the writings of intellectuals who would be among the most challenging they would ever read. Though I don’t know for sure, I suspect that many of his students found his lectures incomprehensible. And, yet, it was these lectures, two generations ago that ignited a movement and two of that movement’s leading journals—Telos and New German Critique—edited all by his students. The lecturers name, which would become the name of the Hall in which he lectured, was of course George Mosse.

On Thursday, January 23, 1999, I received a letter from Professor Mosse, apologizing that he could not keep our dinner-date as planned. I was home for the holidays, home from studies inspired, in part, by Professor Mosse, with a scholar, Moishe Postone, whose research and career Professor Mosse had also inspired. That same morning, however, I had read an Obituary in the New York Times. So I of course knew already that he could not keep his date.

I am thinking of Professor Mosse this evening because I know that most of those who are participating in the current movement are, like George, “happy bourgeois,” which is to say not only that they come from families that bequeathed to them the benefits of leisure time, education, and culture, but also that they do not fault themselves or their families for this bequest. They know—as Professor Mosse must have known—that the knowledge bequeathed to them, this debt, comes at a price. They know, as Walter Benjamin so aptly put it, that

there is a secret protocol [Verabredung] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly.

When we set our knowledge before power and when power recognizes that this is our weapon, we know that it is not only our weapon. For the knowledge we possess, which we have shaped, is not only ours. It is also a bequest, an understanding, an agreement, a Verabredung between generations. We can no more lay down and walk away from this knowledge than we can desecrate the graves of those who have gone before us; or those who are yet unborn, whose very hope depends upon our willingness to bear our knowledge forward. We possess, as Benjamin reminds us, “a weak messianic power.”

The enemies of knowledge, the dumb and deaf embodiments of mere particularity, wish to silence us, wish to reduce us to a special interest. To which I respond that I, too, am a happy bourgeois. But unlike those who wish to silence us, I have not mistaken my leisure. health, wealth and education for a privilege, for a private law offered to the few, but denied to the many.

There is a line of knowledge that the UC President and Regents want to silence. This line of knowledge is the life-blood of our university. But, we have been expected on this earth.

Visions of Helicopter Blades Danced in my Head

Since dawn this morning, I have had the drone of helicopter blades driving through my head. Most of the time it has been a vague annoyance. But the sound struck me as especially sad, even a bit apocalyptic, when I tucked my twelve year old into bed this evening. We live on the edge of a world—only blocks from the University of California, Berkeley, only miles from Occupy Oakland—that uses blunt instruments such as these—the terror of helicopter blades cutting through the air, the fear induced by projectiles launched from guns into crowds—to protect the world of commerce from the world of knowledge.

Yes. The use of these blunt instruments attests to the depth and strength of the skin—not deep, not strong—that stands between knowledge and power. It attests to the fear and terror that knowledge provokes in power and to the powerlessness of power in the face of knowledge. (Do I hear the drone of the helicopter blades subsiding? Or only clearing the way before my son’s dead-tired sleep? I still hear them, hear them both, at a distance.)

We live on the edge of just such a world. The world of commercial power has always felt that the institution just beyond my doorstep, this university, its university, is rightfully theirs. They measured its value, they paid the market price, the fair price, for all its wares. (There. The helicopters are gone.) Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann believed that they had made a fair deal. They paid the market price—in 1978 dollars—for a ballot proposition in California. And now they (or their heirs and assigns) are paying for popular uprisings around the world. (I wonder how much fuel was consumed hovering above Berkeley today?)

But, here is a fact that I know for certain. When Australopithecus differentiated itself 2.5M years ago from its fellows, it possessed and passed on a biological directive that resists placing a price upon its soul or ours. Because the knowledge that it requires to survive and achieve its highest potential it will protect no matter how many projectiles or helicopters you send its way. This knowledge is its life-blood. It knows this in its genes. And so it will resist. It will achieve its goal—not simply life, but the good life—no matter what you place in its path, or it (and you) will die.

The helicopters have departed. I hear my son’s breathing even out. The knowledge of life and the life of knowledge are not for sale.

Rally and Walkout, November 9

The action scheduled for November 9 has so many applications to the topics we have been studying in PEIS 101, Contemporary Theories of Political Economy, that it seems specially designed to suit our course.

Of course, the days of res publica ended long ago, overtaken by demokratia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Any nostalgia for those days is surely misplaced, not because we should no longer strive for res publica, but because the concept the framers held of the public in 1887 was surely more limited than the concept we (or, in any case, I) would entertain. Since 1887, the (potential) “realm of freedom” has expanded beyond our wildest imagination.

At the same time, for similar reasons, we also would be mistaken to aim for FDR’s New Deal, itself a version of Lord Keynes’ res publica of fiscally-driven consumer-based demokratia. Lord Keynes’ surely knew better than most of us that an Oxbridge education and Bloomsbury cultivation cannot be delivered to or purchased from a supermarket shelf.

But, finally, we cannot aim for a res publica or demokratia grounded in the fruits of empire. Yes, we are spending more on garrisoning our own (and others’) armed forces around the world than ever the old USSR, Nazi Germany, Napoleon, the Caesars, the Ming, Pericles, or Darius ever spent. Surely, relative to our outlays for education, housing, healthcare delivery, or (dare I say) liberty. My insatiable appetite for oil, for tungsten, for manganese, for lithium, and increasingly simply for water and oxygen, is costing the lives of (mostly southern, mostly poor, mostly African American and Hispanic) men and women who, like Caesars’ or Pericles’ classical jarheads, serve and die neither because they believe in the empire of commodity production and exchange, nor even because they believe in res publica, but because, for many, this is the surest path to the “fruits of liberty” denied them by a private economic system (oikonomia) that is the antithesis of res publica or politeia.

There is, I would argue, a globally sustainable path that both leads to and arises from our shared or common wealth. The University of California generally and the University of California, Berkeley, in particular, needs to display (in GFW Hegel’s terms) greater universality and less particularity as it attempts to grasp the interrelationships that knit our faculties, students, researchers, and administrators into a global network of learning and practice. We are now moving swiftly into ever greater dependence upon and service of particular interests, therein losing a grasp of our debt to the whole and, therefore, the legitimacy of our claim to universality itself. In this rescission into particularity, knowledge itself is wounded because knowledge depends for its very life on independence from the realm of necessity.

When the University of California ties its fortunes to the fortunes of private self-interest it renounces its claim to knowledge.

We are better than that. Tomorrow we will meet in the Library of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church of Berkeley, conveniently located across Bancroft from the Rec Center. We will read and discuss the authors in our syllabus, authors whose writings are uncannily well-suited to discussing our refusal to submit to the unequal discipline imposed on us by particular self-interest and our interest in freeing the University of California, Berkeley, to resume its unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

Robert Lucas

On its face, the flat tax will strike most of us as a hair-brained idea. For those of us on the top of the income scale, it fails to acknowledge the qualitatively more productive character of our investments and therefore does not allow us the write-offs for investments to which we have grown accustomed over the past thirty years. For those of us in the lower range, it takes away allowances to which we have grown accustomed. (Should families living in poverty pay taxes at a rate similar to those living off of their investments?)

Robert Lucas’s “Supply-Side Economics: An Analytical Review” is an invidious article. If you read it with ease, you are ready for Basic Course 301. If not, you will, I am afraid, not make the cut.

No matter. You are still undergraduate students and still have time to build up your “Calc Cred.”

Nevertheless the essential point in Lucas’s article is clear, even without the calculus. The current tax code punishes those whose wealth generates efficiency while rewarding economic actors whose contributions lie in the wings so to speak. If we remove all policy goals from the tax code and allow each economic actor the luxury of being taxed at the same rate irrespective of the volume of their capital gain (or loss), Lucas estimates that we could increase our capital stock by 35%, which of course is huge.

Here is the flat tax’s economist. Here is the mathematician who will show (1) that the free market is the only and best form of democracy; and (2) that this democracy works only when capital is its only citizen.