This Changes Everything II

There is so much that is good about Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything that we may be inclined to ignore or completely overlook those inconsistencies in her analysis that tend to weaken her (and our) movement. Two inconsistencies in particular stand out: the first comes to light in Ms Klein’s repeated references to “the West” and “Western Culture”; the second appears in her critique of “extractivism” and her failure to grasp the historical and social specificity of extraction. In both of these instances, Ms Klein builds her case on popular, though deeply flawed and superficial, interpretations of what has happened to the world over the past four hundred years. This superficial reading weakens her (our our) movement because it fails to accurately identify the mechanisms driving climate change, diverts our attention elsewhere, and so promotes battles where there need be none while overlooking the sites of contestation that are desperate for our attention.

url-2015-12-22-08-13.jpgThe story about “the West” and “Western Culture” adopted by Ms Klein is itself one of the leading narratives of the culture she is anxious to critique. In its modest version, based loosely on a popularized version of Max Nordau’s turn-of-the-last century Degeneration (itself a popularization of ideas circulating in Europe since the Enlightenment), humankind got off track when we sought to ground our existence empirically, scientifically; when we reduced ourselves to machines, mere bundles of atoms and molecules; when we reduced our minds to Cartesian calculators; when we reduced the world around us to mere cause and effect. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the early prophets to call attention to this degeneration when he noted how civilization and rationality were hostile to the very instincts, feelings, and connections to nature plowed under in the march of civilization. In its more robust version, popularized first by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber, but then by a host of others — Martin Heidegger, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Hannah Arendt, Allan Bloom — the perversion evident in contemporary culture goes all the way back to the dawn of time, when Apollonians, those who think, differentiated themselves from Dionysians, those who feel, and when this differentiation was legitimated and codified among the Athenian Socratics. Within this grand narrative, “the West” and “Western Culture” entail the universalization and globalization of this perversion. Two groups only escape contamination: those at the top, the superior men and women, who act out of themselves, “authentically” as Martin Heidegger has put it, without needing extrinsic, external, authority or law, and those “natural” peoples who escape from civilization and from its enslavement. To be non-Western or to escape from Western Culture means at the very least to reject every “rationalism,” every “scientism,” every “reductionist” or “linear” approach to the world and to embrace the “irrational,” the “sensuous,” the “natural” and “decentred,” “spiritual” character of all reality.

Ms Klein pays homage to this narrative throughout her text. Two sites in particular deserve attention. In the first, Ms Klein pays homage to the second, more robust narrative, here citing Thomas Sancton’s 1989 Time magazine article covering Time’s naming of the Earth “Planet of the Year.”

In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature — the soil, forest, sea — was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it. The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience (74; citing Santon, Time, 1-2-1989).

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the composition of Hebrew sacred text — and I assume this includes Ms Klein — knows, first, that there are few foundational stories embedded in these texts that were not first circulated under different cover throughout the fertile crescent, most notably in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where, as in the Hebrew sacred text, one of the leading themes concerns the conflict between mountain/wilderness communities and urban communities. Second, however, even in the Hebrew sacred text itself, we find a notable tension between those narratives that favor migratory, unsettled, non-urban social forms and those narratives that favor permanent, settled, urban, and predictably hierarchical social forms. Finally, nothing could be more obvious to anyone studying long-term climate change how little sense it makes to ascribe practices that emerged in the late Roman period (i.e., already in the Common Era) to beliefs circulating in the sixth and seventh millennias B.C.E., inviting readers to exhibit just a bit of curiosity over precisely how the first audiences of these babylonian narratives might have originally understood them.

This highlights where Ms Klein is at her weakest, where she seeks to grasp the mechanisms driving climate change. In place of mechanisms, Ms Klein often falls back on pop-psychology and sociology, mistaking individuals within a particular class strata or cultural formation for the mechanism otherwise missing from her interpretive framework. This, in turn, brings her to overlook emancipatory tendencies prematurely excluded by her interpretive categories. Thus, for example, no one anywhere in the world, least of all in “the West” itself, would have recognized western Europe as anything more than the coldest, most sparsely populated, most inhospitable, most backward, most fragmented, and least administratively developed region of the globe prior to the 14th century. Outside of a few pockets of urban settlement, most “Europeans” lived sustainably in small, isolated, semi-migratory communities. Members of these communities were extraordinarily skilled at reading the signs of the world around them — migratory patterns, meteorological patterns, the canopy of the heavens, seasonal shifts, shifts in fern and fauna upon which they depended for their very existence. And, yet, Ms Klein appears to feel that these sensibilities somehow skirted “the West.”

This is a crisis that is, by its nature, slow moving and intensely place based. In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate is about an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird — noticing these small changes requires the kind of communion that comes from knowing a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next. How many of us still live like that? Similarly, climate change is also about the inescapable impact of the actions of past generations not just on the present, but on generations in the future. These time frames are a language that has become foreign to a great many of us. Indeed Western culture has worked very hard to erase Indigenous cosmologies that call on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead ancestors always present, alongside the generations to come (158-159).

When she fixes upon “the West” as a locus of climate-changing ontology, Ms Klein therein no doubt plays to a theme deeply engrained in left-wing and progressive lore, but a theme that completely fails to meet the truth test among trained anthropologists, historians, and social scientists. It simply didn’t happen the way that Ms Klein suggests.

Another way to get at this same theme is to ask why it was in “the West” that the extractivist economy became socially generalized? And one way to answer this question is to take careful note of the notoriously fragmented, decentred, and “backward” character of western Europe prior to the 13th century and then to ask how did it all come together? The answer is not only intriguing, but actually better fits Ms Klein’s emancipatory intentions. When, in the 13th century, cloistered communities were seeking more accurate ways to measure the intervals between times of prayer (since there was a global cooling at the dawn of the new millennium), they hit upon the Chinese escapement mechanism as the perfect solution. The escapement mechanism introduced intervals of abstract, absolutely equal time units to be measured, ringing a small bell that awakened “Frere Jacques” who then awakened the other brothers with a larger bell. The only problem was that the brothers were not the only ones so awakened. Awakened also were country and towns folk scattered in the vicinity of the monastery, folk accustomed to the variable, diurnal rhythms marched out by the seasons. Now they were awakened at all hours of the night. However, it did not take long for entrepreneurs, eager to escape the regulatory restrictions placed on them by crown, cloth, and trades, tested the novelty of regulating the work day in accordance with the rhythms of the monastic bells. As David Landes has noted, this marked the first time, anywhere, that the value of productive human action was measured not by complex political and social negotiations, but by the equal units of abstract time hammered out on mechanical clocks. In another couple centuries, western Europeans were growing increasingly accustomed to differentiating abstract value from the material substances in which this value was felt to be contained, and to differentiating as well a material world lacking in essential value from the immaterial value given to that world by labour. From that point on, Europeans began to shift their focus away from the production of material goods and toward the production of abstract value; that is, they produced material goods in order to produce immaterial value, and not the reverse. Thus was capitalism born, not out of a Protestant Ethic as Max Weber had mistakenly claimed, but out of a transformation in practices and social sensibilities which, in turn, gave rise in the sixteenth century to Protestantism.

Capitalism was the first and only coherent, integrated, rational institutional and legal form known to western Europe, which, owing to its initial fragmentation proved particularly susceptible to capitalism’s unique calibration of time, labour, and value.

This also offers a more satisfying explanation for the “extractivism” featured throughout Ms Klein’s account. Yes, civilizations extract wealth — in India, in Mesoamerica, in China, in central Africa, in Rome; that is what civilizations do. But since they aim at material wealth and not abstract value, they quickly run up against material barriers. Where capitalism differs from run-of-the-mill historical extractivism is that, since its aim is abstract value and not material wealth, it is continuously driven to consume and eliminate the material world with ever greater efficiency in order to generate ever higher returns on abstract value. But this also highlights a more compelling reason why, at least where their “productivist” goals were concerned, the Soviet bloc and the capitalist West were a lot closer to one another than many might think. Perhaps following Ferdinand Braudel, Karl Polanyi, and Giovani Arrighi, Ms Klein would like to find this similarity in institutional centralization: “Authoritarian socialism and capitalism share strong tendencies toward centralizing (one in the hands of the state, the other in the hands of corporations)” (178). She also faults both for their expansionist productivist outlooks: “both keep their respective systems going through ruthless expansion — whether through production for production’s sake, in the case of Soviet-era socialism, or consumption for consumption’s sake, in the case of consumer capitalism.”

Again, however, Ms Klein fails to identify the mechanism driving this expansionist extractivism, allowing ideology to fill in the gaps left by weak social and historical analysis. However, a more rigorous approach would actually reinforce Ms Klein’s position. Since both capitalism and Soviet style communism equate value with abstract labour time expended neither is equipped to recognize when and where a material limit has been reached. This also offers a better explanation for why redistribution of wealth, while important, fails to adequately address the question central to climate change, the limits to production and consumption which figure so prominently in Ms Klein’s story. Only as we sever the social, political, institutional and regulatory relationship between abstract value and abstract labour, only as we begin to recover other ways of valuing human action and goods, only then will the limits imposed by what, after all, is a material world begin to reassert themselves.

This mechanism is but poorly captured in terms such as “centralization” or “extractivism” which serve as cognitive, mental snap-shots where what we need are deep causal linkages capturing the social and cultural mechanisms driving human action. It is this, unfortunately, that is lacking in Ms Klein’s otherwise quite informative and important account.

Trump and the Political

Like everyone else I heaved a sigh of relief when traditional French socialists and conservatives teamed up to hand Le Pen and the Front National a stunning defeat in the second round of French elections. And I am comforted to know that should Donald Trump receive the Republican Party nomination, all polling data shows him (and perhaps others who run on his ticket) suffering a similar fate. What worries me is what Carl Schmitt called “the Political.” Carl Schmitt, sometimes also referred to as the “Nazi jurist,” developed and publicized a theory of politics during the 1920s in Germany that isolated “the political” from any substantive content, arguing that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (Concept of the Political 26). Schmitt conceded that in normal times, when economies are growing and jobs are plentiful, the political retreats from view.

Basically, [traditional definitions of the political] provide a practical way of delimiting legal competences of cases within a state in its legal procedures. They do not in the least aim at a general definition of the political. Such definitions of the political suffice, therefore, for as long as the state and the public institutions can be assumed as something self-evident and concrete. Also, the general definitions of the political which contain nothing more than additional references to the state are understandable and to that extent also intellectually justifiable for as long as the state is truly a clear and unequivocal eminent entity confronting nonpolitical groups and affairs — in other words, for as long as the state possess the monopoly on politics (22).

This for the most part would hold true for the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson period when leading members of both parties disagreed over policy choices, but agreed fundamentally over the legitimacy of federalism, republican values, and democratic institutions. Notably, it was also during this period that the Republican Party suffered some of its worst losses, having to accept what seemed permanent minority status. “The political,” by contrast, arises when and where these institutional arrangements lose their legitimacy, when the public questions or, more often, is brought to question whether these institutional arrangements include or, more likely, exclude them. This extreme condition forces the friend-enemy distinction.

The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping. . . . The intensification of internal antagonisms has the effect of weakening the common identity vis-a-vis another state. If domestic conflicts among political parties have become the sole political difference, the most extreme degree of internal political tension is thereby reached; i.e., the domestic, not the foreign friend-and-enemy groupings are decisive for armed conflict. The ever present possibility of conflict must always be kept in mind. If one wants to speak of politics in the context of the primacy of internal politics, then this conflict no longer refers to war between organized nations but to civil war (32).

Carl Schmitt it turns out is a pivotal figure in US politics, for it was when the Republican Party had hit rock bottom and when the economy began to slow down in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the star began to rise on Carl Schmitt’s most celebrated student, the University of Chicago’s Leo Strauss. Strauss, of course, had the misfortune of being a Jew in Germany at the wrong time. Upon his arrival in the US, however, Strauss took up itinerant writing and speaking, warning whoever would listen — which in the 1950s and 1960s was barely a handful — of the dire consequences that would follow from opening the university and opening society at large to democratic influence. Schmitt had taught that it was with the democratization of German society that “the political” had suffered its worst defeat.

The more profound thinkers of the nineteenth century soon recognized this. In Jacob Burckhardt’s Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (of the period around 1870) the following sentences are found on “democracy, i.e., a doctrine nourished by a thousand springs, and varying greatly with the social status of its adherents. Only in one respect was it consistent, namely, in the insatiability of its demand for state control of the individual. Thus it blurs the boundaries between state and society and looks to the state for the things that society will most likely refuse to do, while maintaining a permanent condition of argument and change and ultimately vindicating the right to work and subsistence for certain castes.” Burckhardt also correctly noted the inner contradiction of democracy and the liberal constitutional state: “The state is thus, on the one hand, the realization and expression of the cultural ideas of every party; on the other, merely the visible vestures of civic life and powerful on an ad hoc basis only. It should be able to do everything, yet allowed to do nothing. In particular, it must not defend its existing form in any crisis-and after all, what men want more than anything else is to participate in the exercise of its power. The state’s form thus becomes increasingly questionable and its radius of power ever broader.”

Strauss was an attentive student. Just as he inveighed against the “right to work,” so he also railed (largely to empty audiences) against the dangers of democratizing society and the academy. When rates of profit began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s and when those hostile to the expanding social and political franchise began to explore ways to leverage growing social and political discontent to their advantage, Strauss’ students suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere with a political strategy straight from heaven. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Richard Pearle, father and son Irving and William Kristol, William Bennett, Robert Bork, John Podhoretz; the list is as long as the students and visitors Strauss attracted during his long tenure at Chicago. Outside of government these “Straussians” agitated and provoked with the aim of creating “the political.” In 1980, with the of Ronald Reagan, Struassians piled into leading positions throughout the Reagan (and then the two Bush) administration, reinforcing or generating the friend-enemy distinction wherever they went.

But the point is that even when in 1992, George Herbert Walker was deposed after one term, the Straussians simply picked up where they had left off in 1980, provoking, inciting, destabilizing, accusing — creating “the political” at every opportunity.

Which brings us to Donald Trump and the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates. On some level, it hardly matters whether they win or lose. They are, by definition, constituting, creating, cultivating the political. They are creating the friend-enemy distinction. We, on the outside — the enemy, as it were — cannot understand why they do not admit defeat and return to the negotiating table. We, the enemy, cannot understand why they keep floating legislation — on Obamacare, on tax relief for the rich, on reproductive rights, on funding public radio and television, on politicizing the Fed — all doomed to fail.

Liberalism in one of its typical dilemmas . . . of intellect and economics has attempted to transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary. In the domain of economics there are no enemies, only competitors, and in a thoroughly moral and ethical world perhaps only debating adversaries. It is irrelevant here whether one rejects, accepts, or perhaps finds it an atavistic remnant of barbaric times that nations continue to group themselves according to friend and enemy, or hopes that the antithesis will one day vanish from the world, or whether it is perhaps sound pedagogic reasoning to imagine that enemies no longer exist at all (28).

Similarly, we cannot understand why Donald Trump’s numbers among likely Republican voters continue to improve even though (because?) his bombast grows ever more extreme. Mr Trump has learned his lessons well.

According to Schmitt’s and Strauss’ play book, the Republican Party has us right where it wants us. Like al Qaeda, the Taliban, or ISIS, the Republican Party leadership knows that the more we call “foul” and insist upon “fair play,” the greater the latitude they will enjoy countering our “version” of US history and US institutions — the enemy version — to their own authentic American version. Never mind that we were all on the same page in the 1950s and 1960s. Never mind that their version lines up well not with 1787 or 1865, but with 1783 and 1861; that is to say, the Republican Party is still fighting the battle between federalism and anti-federalism, the battle between states rights and union. They will not accept that those battles were lost, first in Philadelphia in 1787 and then at Appomattox in 1865. That is to say, they cannot allow that the US is, constitutionally and institutionally a republican and federalist political entity; and, so, they must continuously push ahead with their anti-republican and anti-federalist agenda, constituting and invigorating the friend-enemy distinction every step of the way.

In this light, it hardly matters whether they win or lose. They are, by definition, winning. They are constituting the political. They are creating the friend-enemy distinction. And insofar as this is true, they already are “the state.” Only as the Executive and Judiciary are able to delegitimize and, in fact, criminalize their conduct, only so long would the Executive and Judiciary prove themselves in a position to take back “the state.” Yet, here’s the rub. Straussians currently are one vote short on the Supreme Court. And, obviously, they dominate Congress. In effect, we are one branch of government away from overturning 1787 and 1865. And with that, we are one branch of government away from overturning 1964 and 1965.

What if Hillary or Bernie win in 2016? Absent a groundswell of support for the left wing of the Democratic Party, not the center, we are in no better a position than the French, whose electoral gymnastics cannot conceal the fact that Front National is the fastest growing political movement in France today. Take a graph of electoral politics in the 1920s and 30s in Germany. That places us squarely in 1930. I am not comforted. I am not consoled.


FOX and the Evil Empire

I do not watch FOX News, not even for entertainment. So I am glad that someone — in this case’s David Edwards — is paying attention. Edwards calls our attention to a story broadcast on FOX News featuring Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner expounding on the new Star Wars movie above a moving marque reading “News Alert: Star Wars Outrage.”

Ms Turner apparently was the go-to expert called up to respond to MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry’s suggestion that there might be a racial angle on the new Star Wars movie. Was Darth Vader voiced by a black man and dressed in black attire prior to his turn away from the Dark Side? And was he revealed to be a white man after his conversion?

To which, Ms Turner responds that “political correctness is going to be responsible for killing more Americans” because — get this — “the Bible talks darkness and light.  This is about evil and good. Darkness and light.” Uh, ok.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with anything else, this goes back to biblical times,” she continued. “It’s been discussed in the Bible, Jesus talks about it. It’s about darkness and light, evil and good.”

Turner pointed out that it was “always” that way in the movies: “Evil people come up on the black horses, the good people come up on the white horses. I mean, you know, this is darkness and evil.”

According to the actress, the discussion of racial issues in Star Wars is the kind of rhetoric that is “ruining our country and putting us in this clear and present danger.”

Turner said that she had found a clause in the Constitution (Article I, Section 10, Clause 3) that would allow “the states to take this back into their own hands.”

Because the states were facing “imminent danger” they could come together and form their own union to deal with immigration and other issues, she advised.

“We’re in clear and present danger, we’re beyond imminent,” Turner opined. “So the states can legally and constitutionally come together to defend the American people.”

Really? Yes. Really. And, so, Ms Turner transforms what might have been a truly informed discussion of implicit racism in the film industry and popular culture into a truly fantastic hallucination about reclaiming the rights of southern white men in the United States.

Oh, by the way, for those of you who may have forgotten your Constitutional Law, US Const. I.10.3 reads:

No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.

Surely, all of you can see how this clause, originally intended to reinforce the Interstate Commerce clause and so further restrict and constrain the separate rights of states, could (under the influence of powerful hallucinogenics) be interpreted to mean: whenever an MSNBC film critic plays the #blacklivesmatter card, citizens face such an immanent threat as to warrant rejection of federalism and republican institutions.

In a different Galaxy (not ours), where entertainment media was prohibited from falsely representing itself as news and where the public enjoyed sufficient health, education, and security as not to be deluded by Gorgias’ “fine art,” Ms Turner’s dire warnings would be the occasion of no more than hearty bar-room guffaws. In our galaxy, here and now, where people are justifiably terrified for their lack of health, education, and security, Ms Turner’s provocations are themselves evidence that the disease is far advanced.

Speculative Bubbles at the Fed

When I unfurled my weekend WSJ I found, beneath the fold, evidence that it’s editors or even the Fed might, just might, be reflecting critically on the deregulation of financial markets that have plagued the US economy since the late 1970s (Dec 12-13, 2015 “Fed’s Unsolved Puzzle: How to Deflate Bubbles” A1). The opening paragraph gave me reason to hope:

Federal Reserve officials participating in a “war game” exercise this year came to a disturbing conclusion: Six years after the financial crisis ended, the central bank remained I’ll-equipped to quell the kind of dangerous asset bubbles that destabilized the savings-and-loan industry during the late 1980s, tech stocks in the 1990s and housing in the mid-2000s.

Here it comes. I can’t believe it. A solemn confession. An about face. Shame. Remorse. And then — Hallelujah! — recommendations for reining in financial markets with higher taxes on capital gains and more rigorous protections against speculation. But then comes the rub: the Fed can (1) increase/decrease monetary supply; and (2) increase/decrease interest rates.

It is up to Congress to effect fiscal policy: increase and target federal spending on social goals the public has reason to value; increase and target federal revenues in ways that encourage investment in goods that the public has reason to value. The Executive enjoys limited authority where the former is concerned. For most spending, however, the Executive needs Congressional approval. Where the latter, revenues, are concerned, the President is virtually powerless.

In the 1890s the way to deflate bubbles was to make speculative investment so onerous as to compel investors who desire a return to perform due diligence on the long-term value of their investment. In the 1920s, likewise, investors should have looked askance at the unbelievable returns to be had during the post-war speculative boom. And, specially after the JP Morgan-backed speculative boom generated by the Dawes Plan, investors should surely have known (which doubtless they did) that their good fortune could not last. It did not. And in the 1950s and 1960s, investors should have known that eventually Japan and Germany would be back in the game and that their corner on global markets would soon evaporate in a downward spiral arising from competitive pressures.

In each one of these instances the responsible thing to have done would have been to spread efficiencies downward and outward to the consumers responsible for creating these efficiencies in the first place. At the very least this would mean that, instead of throwing money at assets — commercial real estate today, oil tomorrow, virgin forest lands the next day — promising today’s highest albeit ephemeral returns, investors would be moved to invest their money in the communities and their futures — sustainable energy, transportation, education, the arts — by which all of us are and continue to be enriched.

Yet, here as elsewhere in the world, because legislators and speculative investors are, if not identically the same people, dependent on one another’s good will, there is no will in Congress to divert capital from speculative bubbles to sustainable community development. However, it gets worse, because there is now a move in the Republican Party to make the Fed subject to Congress. Now wouldn’t that be sweet.

Yes, the Fed has no answer to bubbles. Nor should it. That, unfortunately, is in the hands of the Republican-controlled Congress. And we know how well that has turned out.

This Changes Everything I

I am finally getting around to reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (2014) and, by and large, I like what I am reading. Yet, as some of you will know, it was Ms Klein’s misinterpretation of the Chicago School’s approach to economics that inspired my own seminar on the Chicago School six years ago, and was partly responsible for my migration from International and Area Studies to the Economics Department at Berkeley. My problem, then as now, is with an insufficiently grounded account of social subjectivity in general and of “neoliberal” social subjectivity in particular. Ms Klein often mistakes correlation for causation and therein ignores the mechanisms driving social subjectivity. Thus, for example, persons associated with the oil industry — Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, wealthy and not so wealthy — are found to be more likely than others to deny climate change. The implication is that economic dependence on oil brings people to deny its effects on the environment. Ms Klein cites the old Upton Sinclair observation: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” (46). So true. At the same time, Ms Klein devotes many pages to following the money trail from industry through think tanks whose fellows flood media outlets with a climate change denial “science” that for-profit “news” is only all too happy to peddle to unsuspecting, naive consumers. That is to say, along with the economic interests of those dependent in one way or another on fossil fuels, there is also a marketing angle that packages and sells climate denial. These mechanisms — the one existential, the other ideological — at their extremes are mutually exclusive. Where the first theorizes a material causal mechanism, the second theorizes a cognitive-aesthetic mechanism. We will return to these mechanisms in a moment.

Finally, however, Ms Klein invites us to reflect critically on the common ideological roots informing both “disaster capitalism,” the subject of Ms Klein’s ground-breaking Shock Doctrine (2007) and climate change denial: free market fundamentalism.


“In America today we are regulated down to our shower heads, to our light bulbs, to our washing machines,: [Marc Morano] says. And “we’re allowing the American SUV to die right before our eyes.” If the greens have their way, Morano warns, we will be looking at “a CO2 budget for every man, woman, and child on the planet, monitored by an international body.”

Next is Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who specializes in harassing climate scientists with burdensome lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act fishing expeditions. He angles the table mic over to his mouth. “You can believe this about the climate,” he says darkly, “and many people do, but it’s not a reasonable belief.” Horner, whose prematurely silver hair makes him look like Anderson Cooper’s frat boy doppelgänger, likes to invoke 1960s counterculture icon Saul Alinsky: “The issue isn’t the issue.” The issue, apparently, is that “no free society would do to itself what this agenda requires. . . . The first step to [doing] that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way” (32).

In the end, thinks Ms Klein, we are in a “Battle of World Views.” One of these views of the world is “hierarchical” and “individualistic,” the other is “egalitarian” and “communitarian” (36). Sweetening the message by making CO2 regulation sound “hierarchical” or “individualistic” has not worked (58). Moreover, it reinforces values that undergird both disaster capitalism and climate change denial. The answer, therefore, is instead to “make sure you have enough people on your side to change the balance of power and take on those responsible, knowing that true populist movements always draw from both the left and the right” (59).

So what is so problematic in Ms Klein’s treatment of social subjectivity? I think that it is problematic because it suggests that the social subjectivity of climate change deniers is qualitatively and substantially different from the social subjectivity of climate change activists when the social subjectivity of those on both sides of this issue is structured by the same social mediations and social forms. A more satisfying account of the mechanisms driving the climate change struggle would therefore need to embrace a more nuanced approach to the shared social subjectivity driving the conflict.

Happily, Ms Klein takes us a good distance toward recognizing this shared social subjectivity insofar as all agents on all sides are embedded in and shaped by the capitalist social formation, a formation that, as Ms Klein rightly recognizes, is at the root of the problem not only of climate change itself, but also of the ideology of climate change denial. That is to say, albeit in an un- or undertheorized form, Ms Klein calls veiled attention to the substantive, material, and not merely ideological relationship between capitalism, climate change and climate change denial.

In order to construct a more rigorous theory of this intimate relationship, however, we will first have to critically interrogate the couplets hierarchical/egalitarian, individualistic/communitarian, that anchor so much of Ms Klein’s analysis. Our aim here is not to “sweeten the pot” so to speak, but rather to explore the social formation giving rise to the historically and socially specific form of domination displayed in climate change and climate change denial. Although an account reaching back to the fourteenth century might be helpful for a variety of reasons, for our purposes we need go back no further than the seventeenth century, to the English Enclosure Movement, and to the social alignments that emerged in the wake of that movement.

Viewed from the ground up, it is clear that social actors in the seventeenth century had good reason, grounded in Common Law, to resist the privatization of formerly public or common space. It had been their right, recognized in the courts, as far back as there are records, to live on and earn their keep from the landlord’s estate so long as they fulfilled their modest tenant obligations. The privatization of the landlord’s estate and the monetization of their contract with the landlord therefore struck them as a clear violation of established custom and law. Viewed from the ground up, we could say, following EP Thompson, that these residents of the commons exhibited what could be called a “communitarian” posture towards their relationships with one another and even towards their symbiotic relationship to the landlord and the land. And, yet, no one would mistake their outlook as “egalitarian.” To the contrary, social actors in the seventeenth century still displayed great respect for social and economic hierarchy.

What we might call the “egalitarian” outlook appears at two points in history. It appears, first, in those small, mobile, semi-migratory communities identified by cultural anthropologist Nurit Bird-David (1992,1994). Such communities are small enough and their members sufficiently dependent on one another to display patterns of differentiation that nevertheless remain flexible and even interchangeable. Moreover, without the luxury of a fixed, permanent geographical location, there is little opportunity for one clan to capture the efficiencies of outsiders for their own use. Mobility reinforces equality. The other point in history where something like “egalitarianism” appears is in the seventeenth century itself, where theories of natural law and natural right begin to proliferate and challenge the natural privilege and natural difference that otherwise seemed so transparent and obvious for anyone who cared to see. Such notions of equality, however, were grounded in the emerging “personhood” of capital, the notion that all people are equal, but all do not contribute equally to the national treasure. Not blood or private property, but the creation of physical, material wealth was coming to serve as the legal standard of right. This migration of personhood from individual persons of different social standing to the impersonal, universal, and, by definition, equal units of capital made it increasingly possible for two individuals, different in social standing, to petition courts based not on “private law” (privilege), but on the impersonal and universal right of money. It would take another century for this notion of personhood to be written into constitutions, where, irrespective of the actual physical conditions or social standing of any specific individual, the law could proclaim, at least, that all people were “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

But, what this means is that — unless we are contemplating the kind of equality common to migratory communities up to and including contemporary times — we are contemplating an equality that is inseparable from the capitalist social formation itself; abstract, socially disembedded and disembodied personhood before the law. This form of equality — immortalized in hundreds of constitutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — also points to “communities” and “communalism” grounded not in traditional rights and obligations, which, of course, have been swept away, but in the shared, common laws and regulations governing the international production and exchange of commodities. At a deep level that mediates and governs all of our social relations, it is these laws and regulations, and the institutional arrangements that give flesh to their variable enforcement, that accounts for the shared world within which climate change denial and activism take shape.

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to theorize the causal mechanisms driving climate change denial and why, therefore, we are so often thrown back upon ideology critique, is that our interpretations are insufficiently nuanced to grasp the shared social landscape and social mediations driving both climate change denial and activism. No one has witnessed communalism as powerful as the communalism of right-wing religious communities in the US or UK. In France and Germany, by contrast, this same right-wing communalism is more likely to take on explicitly fascist overtones. On some level, these communities are fiercely anti-capitalist. They desire the forcible intervention into the marketplace to eliminate the viewpoints, practices, and relationships that they deem evil or harmful to the nation. But since they misrecognize the agent responsible for their hardship — race, nation, religion, gender preference, ethnicity, language — their anti-capitalism is easily inflected in support of surface economic relations, which are beside the point. “The issue is not the issue.”

But, we could with equal justice take aim at individualism. Individualism might have pointed, as it surely did once point, to as yet unassimilated particularities. So, for example, we are intimately familiar with the destruction entailed in global economic, regulatory, and legal integration, whose success is predicated on the annihilation of local and regional particularities out of step with globalization. When we defend local and regional particularities — or, as GWF Hegel called them, individualities — we are not contrasting this individualism to the equally prominent sense of communal responsibility visible in non-capitalist societies. Rather are we pointing out that it is only within the capitalist social formation that both communalism (e.g., fascism) and individualism (e.g., consumer choice) are bent toward the social reproduction of capital.

This form of analysis, however, also invites us to cast a critical eye back on our own interpretive framework, the standpoint of our critique. Clearly from what has already been said it makes little sense to abstractly defend egalitarianism and communalism or pit them against hierarchy and individuality — as though these were not highly nuanced and, on some level, arbitrary surface inflections arising out of deeper social mediations. Similarly, therefore, when we recognize how capitalism is systemically bound to destroy the climate, we are liable to become side-tracked by issues of individualism and communalism, egalitarianism and hierarchy that fail to grasp the mechanisms driving the conflict. This conflict, I would argue, is not between capitalism and something else, but is a conflict within capitalism between contrasting social forms all of which may legitimately be called “capitalist.” When we point beyond capitalism, by contrast, we are noticing the possibility within capitalism of taking steps out of capitalism. What will the individual or the communal look like from the other side? What will equality or social differentiation look like from the other side? Beyond hints or educated guesses, it is difficult to say.

Yet, like every fundamental social transformation in history, it is clear that whatever life looks and feels like from the other side, it will take the shape that it does because of the decisions we make today, from where we are situated now, which is not on the other side, yet. Ms Klein’s sense of the steps we need to take to mitigate and reverse the worst effects of climate change and her appreciation for the kind of life that might emerge on the other side — better than the current configuration — display a keen understanding of how capitalism is composed and why it necessitates climate change. We could only wish that her theoretical frame was somewhat more rigorous.

Justice Scalia moves to restore 3/5ths Clause to Constitution

When the framers of the 1789 US Constitution debated representation, the southern states were at a distinct disadvantage. No one — north or south — intended anyone to be represented who did not enjoy wealth, education, and leisure. The problem for the south was that there were far fewer residents who met these qualifications. The transcript of the discussions in Philadelphia makes clear what both northern and southern participants in the debates had in mind. Specially since the whole Shays affair had come down, northern representatives were terribly anxious over the possibility that men without property or wealth, considered heroes in the recently concluded revolution, might simply seize what they believed to be theirs by right. Maintaining high property, wealth, and education qualifications was therefore a sine qua non among northern delegates. Southerns entertained similar fears of insurrection by their enslaved African and poor European American residents. Yet, they recognized that without a strong federalism, they would not be able to count on the militias of northern states coming to their defense; who would pay for the deployment? Without the authority to tax, much less to muster a national militia, southern landholders would be at the mercy of the very populations — poor, unschooled European Americans and African American slaves — which it was their intention to deprive of the franchise.

It was in this context that the delegates hit upon an elegant solution, the 3/5ths clause, which, solely for purposes of representation, allowed southern states to count African American adult slaves 3/5ths a person. To be sure, some northern delegates objected, demanding that they too be permitted to count property and personal wealth toward representation. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania may have put the point most clearly:

Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and have them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?

wpid-920x920-2015-12-10-15-20.jpg“Make them citizens and have them vote”? Not in your life. And, so, what happened instead was that southerners accepted federalism in exchange for slavery.

I was transported back to these Philadelphia debates when I read Justice Scalia’s remarks on affirmative action and education. In the best world, Justice Scalia must know, all citizens would enjoy sufficient wealth, education, and leisure to justify their full participation in the social and political franchise. That was the Aristotelian ideal that brought the framers of the US Constitution to limit the franchise to only those who possessed these qualifications. Yet, we clearly see what happens when the economic and social systems embraced by the United States necessarily produce a society where some citizens are granted the tools and opportunities for self-government while others are systemically deprived of these same tools and opportunities.

The question here is not so much one of fairness as much as it is one of the soundness of the republic, the capacity of its people to think clearly and govern wisely. What Justice Scalia is inviting us to accept is not simply a two- or three-tier system in which, based solely upon the accident of birth or upon the institutionalization and legalization of race-based discrimination, some citizens are excluded from the social and political franchise. Justice Scalia is inviting a full restoration of the 3/5ths clause, where some citizens are systemically, deliberately, and cynically deprived of the tools and opportunities to participate actively in their own self-governance while at the same time the value of their labour contributes to their very bondage.

This is hardly surprising. Justice Scalia’s outspoken anti-Federalism would have barred him entrance into Constitution Hall during the debates over the Constitution. No anti-Federalist won entry. In this, Justice Scalia shares a profound philosophical hostility to republican institutions and ideals with many of his colleagues on the Supreme Court. Deprive members of the republic the capacity to fully participate? Easy, since Justice Scalia has never displayed much sympathy for philosophical republicanism. Nor, to be sure, is he a philosophical democrat. Rather do I see him in the role of an Athenian δεσπότης, a master of δοῦλοι, of slaves, who believes that his privileges have won him the right to govern the lives and livelihoods of those who work in his οἶκος, his private enterprise, or in those of his colleagues. That this despotism is precisely what prevents his δοῦλοι from exercising their full rights as citizens troubles him not the least. Without their servitude, his mastery is nothing.

Is this not what Justice Scalia in effect declared on the matter of the University of Texas?

The Apocalypse Part II

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In Apocalypse Part I, I invited readers to consider Professor Eric Olin Wright’s four responses to capitalism: smash, tame, escape, and erode. I asked that we consider these four possibilities in their social and historical specificity, immanently. Though each displayed emancipatory potential, they all suffered from a deficit in immanently identifying the mechanisms and agencies of substantive transformation. But, on some level this begs the question, what do we mean by emancipatory potential? What is emancipation? What does it look like?

Within the classical world, emancipation was clear enough. If you worked in another’s household, irrespective of whether or not you were compensated, you were by definition not emancipated. Rather, as Aristotle made clear, you were a δοῦλος, a slave. Emancipation entailed owning your own household, your own οἶκος, where you would be δεσπότης, a despot or master, over your own δοῦλοι. The composition of the classical household and the codes governing household economies (οἰκονομία; thence “economics,” the study of private enterprise), are familiar to Christians from the pseudepigraphical writings once attributed to the Apostle Paul: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. While in all likelihood faithfully transmitting some authentic Pauline utterances, these texts are devoid of the signature Pauline critique of the households codes displayed in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. This critique, in turn, was grounded in Paul’s conviction that God through Christ was emancipating those deemed weak, ignorant, and lowly by the wise, strong, and noble. In essence, through Christ God was redeeming individuals from their domination under the household codes.

In the late Middle Ages, these codes of domestic domination were graphically epitomized by the beast of the apocalypse consuming the bodies and souls of the damned. Frequently, however, since these works were commissioned by the only families notable for their wealth for installation in institutions similarly dependent on the same wealth, the classical context of emancipation/enslavement within the private enterprise was elided. It appears briefly — ever so briefly — in the texts of the radical reformers, in Dante, in Dürer, in Erasmus; but then retreats again into the transcendentally inflected mythos of the high Reformation.


Still, it is important to note how, at least in Paul’s authentic letters, the constraints imposed by the domestic household provide the leading organizing principle for conceptualizing emancipation/bondage. And, since this is so, Paul holds that those who crucified the Palestinian Jew Jesus did so because they had naturalized and ontologized their privileged status. Rather than appreciating the material conditions for this status, the wealthy, powerful, educated and noble-born had mistaken their conditions as naturally given and fixed. In other words, they had mistaken Stoic teachings on social being and law for eternal cosmic law. And in this they failed to recognize the divine intention to emancipate those enslaved in their households.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

Why did God choose the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, things that are not [τὰ µὴ ὄντα]? Within the dominant Stoic frame, it is this τὰ µὴ ὄντα that is the most damning. The dominant members of society, those who own and manage their own households — δεσπότες, despots — believe that they occupy the positions they do because in a well ordered universe relations of domination and submission are as necessary as light and heavy, dry and wet, high and low. Such hierarchical relationships define the universe as it is. So Paul, in Romans 13:1-7, accurately describes the ontology behind secular, pagan governing power in the Roman Empire:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Here it does not matter if the authorities, Nero and his staff, use your taxes to support temple prostitution or to finance the very soldiers who are decimating your community. It does not matter that Nero raped and then killed his mother. In Stoic terms, insofar as he exists and exercises power — since there is no power except from God — it follows that Nero is a servant of God, appointed to uphold the order of the universe.

When, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 2 Paul discloses that God’s secret intention is to take τὰ µὴ ὄντα, that which is not — that which has no being, no power, no existence — and use τὰ µὴ ὄντα to bring to nothing those things that are, it is as though Paul were saying: yes, the Stoic universe appears solid, immovable, eternal, and stable. But God chose you “who are not” to bring to nothing those things that appear to be. Even more remarkably, however, is how God intends to perform this emancipation: not by transferring power from the οἶκος, the private household, or its δεσπότες, its masters, to their δοῦλοι, their household staff, their employees, but by overturning the very principle of domination and subordination itself. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This is the apocalypse — the revelation, the disclosure, the uncovering — that cannot be seen from the vantage point of those who have naturalized and ontologized their position of privilege.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

That is to say, the hidden, secret wisdom of God — God’s emancipatory intention to eliminate relationships of power and domination — is virtually impossible to appreciate from within a world in which such relationships of domination and submission mediate all objective social relations and all social subjectivity. For, clearly, had the rulers of this age understood this emancipatory intention, they would not have crucified the Palestinian Jew. Nor is this emancipatory intention a mere side show or good idea. It is not a good rule of thumb for other purposes; i.e., to be a good leader or manager. Rather is it the mystery of the entire world.

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

God’s emancipatory intention is to destroy every ruler and every authority and power. That is why God reigns. This intention also sheds light on the limits of divine power: “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Who are God’s enemies? Those who reproduce relationships of domination and submission. When will God abdicate? When these relationships no longer mediate social action and subjectivity. In the mean time, within the community of faith, immanently, there is emerging a better way. Or, at least, this is Paul’s hope.

Of course, on some level it matters deeply and therefore contingently whether the community of faith understands and embodies this message. On another level, however, whether the Church gets this message or not is somewhat beside the point. For as Theodor Adorno correctly observes in the “Finale” to his Minima Moralia:

Finale. – The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.

Viva la France

Among the most widespread conceits driving political discourse today is that further degradation will eventually bear the fruit of meaningful social and economic reform. But this is simply another version of the seeds that economic determinism believes to be germinating in the decaying body of the old society. This both undersells and oversells the brilliance and hard work of the oppressed. By implicitly giving oppression credit for igniting the the fires of emancipatory action, this line of reasoning weds the latter to the former and oversells the services of the oppressor. What it removes with one hand, it strangles with the other. If the oppressor is granted credit for instigating the “double movement,” this implicitly transfers agency from the oppressed to the oppressor. Herein is denied what the modern epoch has almost universally attested: human beings under the most extreme conditions can be incredibly resourceful, not only defending their humanity, but doing so with dignity without conceding the moral high ground.

Ever since 1789, France has been held up as an exemplar of humanité; entirely ignoring the reign of terror, Napoleon, the Restoration, and, most famously, collaboration. Which is to say that the French, when pushed to the wall, respond in manners keeping with humanity at large. So it was without surprise that I listened to results from the first round of France’s national elections ( So much for the magic of the French.

There is, however, a deeper lesson for Europe and for the world in these results. Chancellor Merkel, note bene. As the social, economic, and political fabric continues to unravel, and as the combined first world response to this fraying is, with virtual unanimity, military might, the consequences of this martial strategy are playing out before our eyes. Less frequently remarked, however, is the relationship this strategy itself bears to the unraveling. It was with disbelief that voters in the 1970s faced the great economic downturn inaugurated in 1968. In 1976 they could still elect a Presidential candidate and a Congress that, when compared to today’s President and Congress, fall somewhere to the left of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or the Buddha. A decade of downward plunging indicators were enough to convince US voters that enough was enough. Their own declining fortunes, rising unemployment, declining purchasing power, and rising insecurity convinced US voters that Ronald Reagan’s militarist, investor-friendly message was what the US needed. Great Britain’s poor fortunes convinced Englishmen and women, a year earlier, to embrace the same misguided message: here on the lips of Margaret Thatcher. Hardship and hurt do not bring emancipation. Hardship and hurt inspire demagoguery and poor judgment. Here in the 1970s begins the downward spiral.

It was this initial downward turn in investor fortunes, itself predicated on the return of Japan and Germany to global markets in the 1960s and the downward competitive pressures introduced by this return, that lent credibility to Prime Minister Thatcher’s and President Reagan’s campaign to roll back the very conditions that make for democratic process and republican institutions. Ever since the fourth century BCE, political theorists have recognized the dependence of republican institutions on the conditions of voters. Ever since the fourth century BCE, when Aristotle’s students published his lectures on Politics, those who reflect critically on political life have recognized that clear and cogent political decision-making is contingent on the well-being, the education, the security, the leisure, and the health of voters. Insecure, sick, poorly educated, and over-worked voters make poor decisions. This was the secret to Conservative and Republican Party success. Catch the public when they feel terrible and exploit their disease for political advantage, not by alleviating their disease, but by institutionalizing the conditions that perpetuate their pain. Since socialist policies are predicated on a public reasonably well-educated, healthy, and sufficiently leisured to reflect critically on the details of those policies, the declining social conditions of voters naturally favors the right wing.

We are now witnessing the consequences of these choices. Distributing the social franchise more broadly, restoring the wealth to Africa and South America plundered from those regions, would have held the promise of a broadly educated, reasonably healthy, and secure global public, a global public equipped to meet today’s challenges with something other than force and violence. A Europe more broadly educated, reasonably healthy, and secure would have recognized in the refugees spewing forth from hot spots created by first world wealth long-standing and long overdue obligations owed to the peoples of a world whose wealth they had plundered.

We can no longer look to states to resolve these problems, since states are but clients of larger international interests, but also since statesmen and women must respond to constituencies whose bodies and minds bear the wounds of state policies and who are therefore inclined to favor fascists over republicans, demagogues over representatives. We have no other option but to appeal to that thin layer of international actors whose unparalleled wealth needs to be leveraged in the interests of balance. There will be no return on their investment. Their holdings will be depleted. They will become merely wealthy men and women. But they will bequeath to future generations a world where lives we have reason to value are sustainable.

The alternative is France and the National Front and endless rounds of violence, war, terror, and death; which, might I suggest, would also be a memorable bequest.

The Apocalypse Part I

It may be inevitable that the subjects covered in my courses provoke reflection among students on the apocalypse. Indeed, one should think that ἀποκάλυψις (ἀπό [away,off] + καλύπτω [to cover]; hence dis-close, dis-cover, reveal) would be among the principle aims of all teaching and learning. Even when students “know” the end of the story, as they do, for example, in ECON 105, The History of Economic Thought, their reflection easily migrates to questions about what is next. That what is next could be a καλυψις or concealing rarely if ever occurs to students, though it is probably more likely than revelation.

wpid-Durer_Revelation_Four_Riders-507x700-2015-12-7-10-23.pngAnd then, of course, there is the natural assumption that we will find what is revealed attractive and welcoming. Were the four horsemen of Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse attractive? Were they welcoming? And what about the disclosure announced by their appearance?

Recently a student shared with me an article written by Eric Olin Wright published recently at The article, “How to be an anticapitalist today,” explores four alternative paths to an anticapitalist future: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, and eroding capitalism. Both the interest attracting readers to Professor Wright’s article and the motivation behind his article could be described as apocalyptic. Professor Wright is seeking to disclose or uncover a different future. His readers would like to discover a path leading to this post capitalist future. Where, in my view, Professor Wright’s article falls short is not so much in the mediations that could plausibly give rise to an alternative, post capitalist future, but the present social mediations that could illuminate these paths. Is there a light that the capitalist social formation sheds on itself, immanent to its own formation, that illuminates the way toward a post capitalist future?

When posed from this vantage point, Professor Wright’s four paths invite us to reflect on the social and historical specificity of each of these paths. Do we live in such a time when violent agents who embrace emancipatory ideals and who enjoy the means for institutionalizing these ideals are in a position to smash and replace capitalism? As I survey the global landscape, it strikes me that the agents who enjoy the means to smash the current institutional arrangements either lack emancipatory ideals (e.g., the United States, Israel, China, Russia) or mistake for emancipatory ideals which are themselves oppressive (e.g., ISIS, al Qaeda, Taliban, Aryan Nation). What can be said about these agents is that (perhaps deliberately) they are both responding to and helping to accelerate systemic dysfunctions and breakdowns from which it is difficult to conclude that emancipatory outcomes will flow.

At first blush, therefore, taming capitalism appears a much more realistic alternative. Here we can identify socially and historically specific conditions — climate change, growing income inequality, racism, nationalism — that are bringing progressive political actors to conceptualize building a more sustainable, perhaps emancipatory, future. There is only one problem: since our social relations are mediated by a social form — the commodity — that derives its value from abstract labour time expended and since the endless production and consumption of material wealth is among the necessary by-products of this form of mediation, it is difficult to identify where and how or when political actors, no matter how progressive, will shift their focus away from concerns over distributional justice and toward the underlying social mediations that give rise both to inequality and to the unending production of abstract value. When, for example, we argue for a meaningful reduction of our carbon footprint, we need to be absolutely clear that the size and depth of this footprint is inextricably tied to a variety of social mediation that produces value as its signal product and material goods only for the sake of this value. Taming capitalism — allowing the logic of capital to persist while regulating its effects — means that the social logic reproduced in commodity production and exchange still forms the guiding structuring principle within society.

Escaping capitalism is non-responsive in obvious ways. And, yet, it still holds a certain attraction particularly for those individuals whose accumulated wealth and value grant them the luxury of carving out pockets of social life mediated and structured (or so they would like to believe) in a post capitalist, emancipatory manner. Even assuming that personal wealth holds the key to personally escaping the mediations that structure social life under capitalism, since these alternative mediations are predicated upon and underwritten by capitalist social forms, they escape with one hand what they restore with the other. This is not to say that this escape might not hold part of the solution to our problem. Yet, on its own, the path it illuminates is the pathway to capitalism, not post capitalism.

Perhaps the most illusory, but for this reason most attractive alternative is eroding capitalism. This, I take it, is the premise of Naomi Klein’s recent cover on climate change: This Changes Everything. Here is the deus ex machina, the environment itself, the material precondition for sustained biological reproduction, erecting its own indomitable barrier to a capitalist future. We can either await the environment’s certain erection of this barrier or we can deliberately chart a course that is sustainable. Either way, capitalism is coming to an end. More modestly, however, this line of argument will be familiar to anyone who has heard or repeated that “Capitalism contains within itself the seeds to its own destruction,” whether in the revolt of the industrial working class, the revolt of the global south, the revolt of the dispossessed, or, now, the revolt of the earth itself. As shorelines retreat and oceanside metropolitan areas sink below sea level, wealth itself may find it expedient to broaden even further the walls separating their air-conditioned luxury from the damp and diseased territories crammed full of the less fortunate. Nor should we anticipate more than terroristic interventions into the peace and quiet of those who can afford climate change. Among the systemic qualities immanent to revolt is the un- or ill-preparedness of those most oppressed by and, therefore, those most motivated to lead their oppressed brethren out of bondage into the promised land. For the fact is that we know of no precedent — 1789? 1848-49? 1914? 1918? 1932? 1949? 1989? — when the oppressed were the architects of an emancipatory future.

But let us suppose that our capacity to produce material wealth has become increasingly attenuated from its foundation in abstract value-creation. And let us therefore suppose that we come to question and politically challenge the legitimacy of the social mediations that perpetuate abstract value-creation: the laws, regulations, institutions, practices, etc. At this point I would argue that two conceits intrude into our apocalyptic rationale. Both are fundamental. First, the conceit that the technology and machinery generating such mountains of wealth are somehow independent from the social mediations upon which such wealth is predicated. So that, for example, as we pivot from a society mediated by the production of abstract value toward a society mediated by relationships among family members, sustaining our physical world, exploring the endless varieties of language, music, and art, it strikes me that we would be foolish not to recognize that the very mechanism generating wealth — the pursuit of abstract value — would without question be a casualty of this transition. A future post capitalist world would therefore of necessity be deprived of some of the efficiencies won through the pursuit of abstract value. There is, in other words, a trade off in this shift of social mediations. We simply do not know what a world would look like that was mediated, let’s say, by familiar and communitarian relations, by care for one another and for our world, by enjoyment of performance, song, art, food, drink and text. The material world — including its capacity to generate material wealth — will be altered as we pivot away from abstract value production.

The second conceit, perhaps even more significantly, concerns the agents of this pivot. The narrative we are inviting social actors to entertain tells a story about the increasingly tenuous relationship between material wealth and value. Automation, mechanization, and robotization are making human intervention into the production process increasingly obsolete. But precisely because this obsolescence is grounded in the relatively greater value produced by shedding human labour, this means that its capacity to produce both value and wealth are predicated upon an ever larger part of the workforce becoming less valuable, socially, than the machines that have taken the place of their labour. Human beings are then compelled to work for increasingly less of the social product at jobs so degrading and demeaning that they are not even suitable for machines. There are some jobs that even machines won’t perform. Human beings locked into such degrading and demeaning jobs almost always find themselves at the bottom not only of the income hierarchy, but also at the bottom of the educational goods market, the health care market, the security goods market, and the family systems market. That is to say, far from being or feeling themselves freed from their compulsion to labour, they instead find themselves bound ever more tightly to increasingly degrading and demeaning labour. Moreover, absent the leisure, health, security, and education that might grant them time to reflect critically on their circumstances, the working poor are also the least likely to recognize or seize the opportunities presented in the isolation of value from material wealth. To the contrary, their very degradation marks them as targets for demagogues pandering to their well-founded fears and pent-up anger. Such are not likely to be the agents initiating the pivot identified above. Rather are the working poor likely to demand more work for more money to buy more things, therein underwriting the social mediations responsible for their own domination.

To find the agents most likely to effect the pivot described above from value production to forms of mediation more appropriate to human dignity, we must instead look precisely to those whose wealth, leisure, health, education, and security have brought the possibility of this pivot to their attention. Clearly this narrative is problematic, not least among progressives, because it does not identify the agencies of the oppressed with the potential for their own emancipation. Rather does it invite the wealthy and, in fact, the extremely wealthy to underwrite a social transformation in which, on some level, they would be net losers. And, yet, at least in my experience, borne out by survey research and voting records, the extremely wealthy are intrigued by their own power to provoke substantive social change. Such curiosity helps explain the large portions of their fortunes the wealthy donate to charitable foundations in general and to educational institutions in particular. Can my wealth make a difference? is a question the super wealthy ask every day. To be sure, the wealthy are not immune to psychopathologies. Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers are notorious for their hatred of humanity and their willingness to crush the life out of every living creature that stands in the way of their diabolical dreams. And, yet, for the most part, what the super wealthy lack is not a soul, but a narrative that places them at the center of emancipatory history.

And what might that history entail? It would entail sending the efficiencies seized by the wealthy back down the income hierarchy — not in the form of money, but in the form of health, leisure, security, and education. Spreading these efficiencies downward and outward could hold the promise of helping constitute the possibilities and capabilities that the seizure of wealth has deprived the working poor. Imagine, for a moment, if the same capital investment enjoyed by today’s congressional misanthropes were earmarked for candidates committed to broadening the social franchise of the working poor; expanding their health, leisure, education, and security and therein underwriting their political independence. On some level, of course, this would constitute a regression to the deus ex machina; but here in the guise of a modern-day Rockefeller or Carnegie. Yet, if we believe that even the capacity to think and reason clearly is not independent of the security of our bodies and minds, then it stands to reason that those bodies and minds best able to think for themselves are those that are secure in their freedom.

Clearly what we are talking about here is Class. And the question that we are raising is whether abstract value has so isolated itself from material wealth that historically and socially specific agents can deliberately and knowingly act to transform how our social relations are mediated in an emancipatory way.

I have not thought about Eric Olin Wright, author of the article in, for almost forty years. It was in the early 1980s that I enrolled in Professor Wright’s sociology seminar on Class. His ideas still provoke. Perhaps they also disclose, discover, and reveal.

Trump and the GOP

I received my December 5 Economist in the mail today. On its cover: “Donald Trump: a danger to elephants.” Really? Donald Trump epitomizes the Republican Party. Trump is the GOP’s most illustrious creation.

To be sure, were Dwight Eisenhower or even Richard Nixon to encounter Donald Trump — or any of his Republican rivals — they would no doubt believe that they had stumbled upon a Nazi meeting. But we are not talking about the Republican Party of the 1950s or 1960s, which, say what you will about their hawkishness or their racism, knew enough to stay clear of the anti-Federalism of the Dixicrats and so for the most part still embraced something approaching republican institutions.

No more. When Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush filled their cabinets with certified Straussians and when George W. followed suit, they clearly declared their break with and fundamental opposition to democratic procedures and republican institutions. Leo Strauss many will recall was the most celebrated student of Carl Schmitt, also known as the architect of National Socialist jurisprudence. Strauss, however, was unfortunate to have been born a Jew and was therefore compelled to flee from Hitler’s Germany and hence from Carl Schmitt. Neverthelss, Strauss continued to defend many of Schmitt’s best known principles, such as the “Noble Lie,” the Friend-Enemy distinction, and the Führerprinzip (in English, the Executive Principle).

The Executive Principle holds that all appointees within the Executive Branch are bound to answer not to the US Constitution, or to the charter of their department, but to the Executive, the President. So, for example, when George W. took office, he prohibited funding any research at the National Institutes of Health looking at teen sex because the Executive held that sex among teens is morally wrong. No more research into how teens contract HIV and AIDS, or into how to prevent them from contracting the same. Similarly, when John Yoo authored his famous torture memos in support of the Executive Branch’s decision to torture prisoners, his obligation to do so was based upon the Führerprinzip or unitary executive principle. However, it also illustrated Schmitt’s Friend-Enemy distinction, which holds that politics consists of identifying and disarming or eliminating the enemy. Could Congress or the Judiciary have prevented the President from engaging in torture, they would therein have exhibited their capacity to identify and disarm or eliminate the political enemy. But since neither Congress nor the Judiciary were inclined to contest the Executive’s decision to commit torture, it was the Executive that, in effect, created new law by fiat. Yet, it is Leo Strauss’ defense of the Noble Lie that has become the most prominent feature of Republican politics.

Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss justify the Noble Lie with an argument originally found in Plato’s Republic, where, in Bk 3, 414e-415c, Plato constructs a lie for the purpose of distinguishing the wise from the foolish. Those who do not know that they are being lied to are clearly among the foolish. But foolish too are those who recognize the lie, but who then complain about being lied to. The wise, by contrast, understand that it is the people who are foolish and because the people are foolish they are incapable of understanding the truth. Therefore the wise understand why it is necessary to lie to the people. Wise politicians, according to Strauss, must lie to the people, even to their political supporters, because the wise politician knows that the people, including their supporters, are foolish.

When in 1980 Ronald Reagan packed his cabinet with self-identified Straussians, he deliberately shifted the center of gravity of the Republican Party away from democratic process and republican institutions toward post-democratic and explicitly anti-republican strategies and procedures. George H.W. and George W. followed his lead. Donald Trump may epitomize these post-democratic and anti-republican qualities better than any of his opponents, but there is not a Republican presidential candidate, and surely no Republican member of the House or Senate, who is not fully on board with these strategies and procedures. “A Danger to Elephants”? Hardly. Donald Trump is the essence of the Republican Party today.