Democracy and Capitalism: An occasional series

As is so often the case, the Economist asks the right questions but is clueless in its analysis. This is not, as some suppose, because it relies too much on neoclassical interpretive categories. The Economist’s cluelessness in this case arises from its faith in a relationship that until World War II was completely unknown: the supposed positive correlation of democracy and capitalism.

Prior to World War II any suggestion that this correlation was positive was dismissed in precisely the circles most committed to neoclassical economic categories: not only at LSE, but also at Cambridge, not only at Chicago, but also at Harvard and Berkeley. This was because economists prior to WWII recognized that the broadening of the political franchise without a simultaneous broadening of the social franchise was suicide to the republican values and institutions most of them had reason to value. Since few of them valued a broadening of the social franchise, they also dismissed broadening the political franchise.

It was the conceit of the Austrian School’s Friedrich von Hayek and von Mises sychophant Milton Friedman that democracy and capitalism somehow naturally suggested one another. What capitalism suggests is consumerism, voting through consumption, voting in order to consume. But consumers are the least well equipped to govern republics. Moreover, in the unregulated, privatized world dreamt by Friedman, those who occupy the lower three quarters of the income hierarchy are doomed to ever declining purchasing power, while those at the top are free to expand the range of their consumer preferences indefinitely.

Only massive public intervention, such as WWII, has proven effective expanding the social franchise. And, yet, so long as public resources are diverted to private production and consumption, they cannot help but reproduce conditions hostile to republican values and institutions.

The Economist editors fantasize a different story. Capitalism generates democracy. Greed, avarice, and corruption destroy democracy. In other words, personal morality is at fault. The message is that we need to promote good people and frustrate bad people. This may be a good message. But it has nothing to do with neoclassical economic theory. The Economist is at its worst when it attempts to find the moral of the story.

In capitalist, there is no moral to the story. William Stanley Jevons, the father of neoclassical economics, said as much way back in 1871. He was right. The Economist is not.

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/11/26/democracy-contains-the-seeds-of-its-own-recovery

Capitalism and the Birth of Religion

Without naming names (there are too many), Marxian thinkers become less than critical, they become religious, when they address religion. They revert to a pre-Marxian, quattrocento, grasp of both science and religion, which fails to grasp the intimate relationship between both in the emergence of capitalism during that same century.

In fact religion did not exist prior to capitalism. What existed was a bewildering variety of animisms. Spirits occupied every thing. And literally every thing was spiritual. The revolution we call the Reformation was a response to, not the author of, the birth of religion. For it was here, for the first time, that religious practitioners first deprived bodies of their spirits and spirits of their bodies. Finally, after so many centuries of darkness and bondage, the spirit was freed from its body. Religion in its full disembodied sense was born.

Science is not simply the flip-side of religion, the disenchanted body. Science is the logic of capitalism applied to bodies. It deprives bodies their spiritual voice. It compels bodies to speak logically, rationally, mathematically. It is then from the vantage point of this disenchanted body that Marxian thinkers often critique their co-religionists, the religious, whose spirit they fail to recognize as their own.

In a non- or post-capitalist world, bodies would recover their spirits and spirits their bodies. And polytheism would once again reign. But religion in its modern sense would entirely disappear. Or perhaps it would be remembered as that insane moment in history, from roughly 1324 to 2050, when we were compelled to hear the world in the foreign language of pure mathematics.

Social Media

Social media is a symptom, not a cause. If you followed the congressional interrogation of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg yesterday, you will know what I mean.

Social media users are in pain. And I am not only referring to users at the bottom of the income hierarchy. Or consumers of social media. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are in pain. Social media investors are in pain. And, of course, users at the bottom of the income hierarchy are in pain. They are turning to social media — all of them — to solve a range of problems that social media cannot solve. Social media can solve one problem: it can win returns for investors. And were the absence of returns the cause for the pathology investors suffer then social media would offer an appropriate treatment. But this is not the pathology from which investors suffer.Social media reinforces what we already (think we) know. It reassures us that we are members of a much larger community whose members are plagued by the same pains, the same pathologies, we are. Social media might also inform. But information falls far down on the list of reasons we turn to social media. I still wake up every morning and read the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde. I still listen to the BBC and NPR. These are my daily sources for information. I still read the Economist, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal for information. Next to these outlets, Twitter and Facebook have nothing new to say.This is because when they are not consoling me with empty feel good aphorisms or funny pet videos, Facebook and Twitter are simply aggregating pathological communities, communities of shared pain. But unlike the synagogue’s or mosque’s or church’s grieving circles, Facebook and Twitter do not actually console. Instead, they heighten my sense of pain.That is because this pain is caused by the very social media to which I am turning for consolation; it is caused by my acting on the belief that my pain is caused by a lack of information or a lack of community, which I am now seeking on social media, which is incapable of providing either. Moreover, by validating my belief that it will solve these problems, social media deters me from exploring the social and economic and political dimensions of my pain. It tells me that what I need are more friends and better information.How do Twitter and Facebook make money? Why would investors choose to invest in them? Is it because investors want me to be better informed or cared for? Really? Were this the cause for investors’ interest in Facebook and Twitter, they would do better to lobby for strict limits on campaign spending, strict enforcement of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, forgiveness of student loan debt, universal single-payer healthcare, strong independent institutions of public learning, and strong independent public outlets for media. Instead, Twitter and Facebook have managed to make money both out of my interest in these causes and out of the interest of others in opposing them. Heads they win; tails I lose.In case you need a name for this pathology, its called capitalism; and Twitter and Facebook perfectly illustrate how it works, not to eliminate pathologies, but to reproduce them.Time for me to go post this on social media.

Not enemies?

National Public Radio broadcast a chilling interview with Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan this morning.

It is chilling because it confirms that better than seventy per cent of Republicans polled believe that against all evidence the election was rigged against their presidential candidate. The truth is that Republican state legislators and governors have worked tirelessly over the last twelve years to deny working families and people of color representation commensurate to their population in Congress. The truth is that Republican state legislators and governors have done everything within their powers to restrict voting rights. But, as professor Nyhan notes, we live in times when the public has apparently lost interest not simply in political truth, but in institutional truth more generally.

Two points of light shine through in Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s interview with professor Nyhan. First, if only seventy percent of Republican voters believe the election was rigged in Joe Biden’s favor, thirty percent do not. Added to the 76M who voted for Joe Biden that is a pretty good number. The second point of light is professor Nyhan’s observation that this number shifts dramatically if we select for income and education. Wealthy, healthy, educated Americans overwhelmingly trust America’s scientific, educational, and government institutions. This means that we have a fairly good grasp of the mechanisms at play in the rejection by almost three quarters of the republican electorate of institutional process. But this is also where the light grows specially dim. If thirty percent of Republican voters trust the process, where were they on Election Day? Where are they now? If we know the mechanisms at play in declining confidence in institutions, then where is the public outcry on behalf of income equality, educational equality, and health care equality?

Instead, Democratic National Committee members are once again tripping over one another to be first to recommend a pull-back from “radical” democratic messaging. This widespread denial, it should be noted, is just as pathological, perhaps even more pathological, than republican denial. It arises from an incapacity — not unwillingness — to face, much less accept, the social character of the collapse of democracy and democratic institutions in the United States. It arises from an incapacity — not an unwillingness — to face, much less acknowledge, the central role the Democratic National Committee played in the transition from republican values and democratic process to post-democratic, white Christian nationalism in the US. However, if professor Nyhan is correct then wealth inequality, exploding university tuitions and student debt, privatization and deregulation — all of which were eagerly, enthusiastically, supported by the DNC — were born in the womb of a Democratic Party that wholesale abandoned working families, women, students, and people of color.

What is this pathology? The answer lies in the “incapacity” itself. The Republican Party is selling “capacity.” It is selling a message of responsibility; the capacity to respond. You may remember that this was the cornerstone of the Clinton/Gore victory in 1992. The DNC genuinely believes that the message of capacity — Yes We Can! — is key to their future. But this means that they are incapable of facing the social and institutional, structural, grounds for post-democracy in the US. For to do so would entail admitting their constitutive role in the slide into post-democracy in the US; it would fundamentally undermine their entire vision and agenda. Moreover, it would suggest that the elites, the so-called “meritocracy” that currently governs the DNC did not earn its right to govern out of merit. It earned its right to govern out of privilege. The leadership in the DNC would have to face this privilege — the “private law” that empowers its members — in order to recover its capacity to govern differently.

I would like to believe that thirty percent of those who voted republican in this election could join those who voted democratic in a grand coalition of individuals ready to support republican values and democratic process; a grand coalition ready to embrace science and public institutions.

And, yet, if the DNC leadership is itself incapable of facing its demons, it seems unlikely that the Susan Colins of the world will be capable of facing theirs. They have built an entire ideology around personal responsibility. To shift now to a message of social, political, and economic enfranchisement would be even more difficult for republicans than for the DNC. Which is why we are still sliding into a post-democratic — our grandparents called it “fascist” — consensus in the US.

In search of white

Our community of faith, which is overwhelmingly European American, is exploring white blindness to racism. It is intense. Among our readings this week was David Dean’s “Roots Deeper than Whiteness” (embedded).

There is so much that is good about the essay that I might leave good enough alone. Except that Mr Dean’s answer to my racism is that I locate and follow the historical trajectory of my own community from its own freedom in what I take to be western Europe’s late Middle Ages into its own class bondage and racism in the Early Modern period. What Mr Dean wants me to discover is, first, that my ancestors were not racist, were deeply committed to the commons, to community, but, second, that they were coopted by capitalism and were offered the wages of whiteness in exchange for a living wage and racial harmony.

I have several problems with this story. First, I do not believe that my mixed Irish-English-French-Ashkenazi ancestors’ way of life was any more authentic than my life today. Both, I would argue, are equally inauthentic, constructed, shaped, and structured. I am as much related to John Doty, the indentured servant who arrived on the Mayflower to whom my mother’s family traces their arrival, as I am to the Jewish community from which she took her surname. Since my practices are qualitatively different from theirs, it is silly for me to attempt to “recover” my “authentic” pre-racist ancestral identity.

Second, the story Mr Dean tells about capitalism reinforces the authenticity of pre-capitalist social being. It reduces capitalism to bad people doing bad things to good people. As a social formation, however, this story bears no resemblance to how capitalism actually emerged, in Ghent, in 1324, in the parish of St John at the Abby of St Pierre. It emerged when the abbot of St Pierre directed the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently built there. It marks the first time anywhere productive human activity was measured in equal units of abstract time. From there, the new technique for measuring value spread throughout Western Europe, generating the compulsion unique among Europeans to generate more with less. To this compulsion we owe not only the insatiable appetite for El Dorado, but also the insatiable appetite to lower costs of production and increase the marginal product, appetites directly related to “liberating” serfs from their traditional lands and re-enslaving them, along with Africans, in the expanding empires of Europe.

I do not change this history by recovering my pre-capitalist ancestors in it. Doing so makes me no less racist. It makes the capitalist social formation that has thoroughly shaped me no less constitutive both of race and of racism.

Third, in this way the story Mr Dean tells reinforces racist metaphors by counting ancestry as something ontologically fundamental and given, while treating what has happened since the 15th or 16th century as constructed and superficial. Capitalism gives rise to a real, comprehensive, and therefore all the more terrifying totality, in part, because it drives me to search for my authentic (racial? cultural? linguistic?) roots.

This I have to assume is not Mr Dean’s aim. I think I have some idea of where Mr Dean wants his argument to go. As a historian, I am fundamentally committed to grasping how history has shaped us, shaped me. And it is absolutely critical that I understand, that we understand, that race and racism are constructed, and that they are constructed within capitalism. Which is one of the reasons why it is absolutely important not to ontologize something fundamental, irreducible, within us. We are constructed and grasping how we are constructed is key to acting and working and thinking and caring our way from capitalism and racism into post-capitalism and difference.