Archive for October, 2011

Occupy Friday Links

October 28th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

At times I am reminded that I do indeed live in a strange foreign land:

Specialite maison: Steak de cheval

But from over here, it seems like life in America got substantially weirder in the past week. A lot of things are happening that I couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

  • Reading assignment of the week: Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, a timeless classic that’s once again been on my mind in light of recent Occupy Wall Street related craziness.

  • You should be reading Aaron Bady for all your news on this week’s police violence against Occupy Oakland. See this post to find out how you can help some of the folks documenting the occupation.

  • Besides being appalling, the decision of Oakland authorities to call in the riot squad is initially a bit puzzling: like the skits on a rap album, it’s hard to understand how anyone convinced themselves that this was a good idea. But Mayor Jean Quan probably just failed to grasp the new dynamic in which protesters actually win standoffs with the police. At any point in the recent past, Quan could have reasonably assumed that massive police repression of peaceful demonstrations would result in a few days of bad press, followed by the whole problem going away. But now she’s finding that times have changed, and she has only managed to escalate the situation and give the movement its first martyr; as an additional bonus, Mayor Quan has temporarily sidelined the “what are our demands” argument by providing Occupy Oakland with the demand that’s worked so well in other places: ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam.

  • I mean seriously, did the cops really think they could stop a crowd that contained Boots Riley and MC Hammer? This picture belongs on Awesome People Hanging Out Together.

  • Speaking of Boots, this is an appropriate occupation soundtrack:

The Machines and Us

October 25th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

The lesser depression has called forth a profusion of new and old theories about what’s wrong with the American economy, and what can be done to put it right. As you can see in Mike Konczal’s topological maps, these accounts can be broadly separated into “demand” and “supply” side arguments. Within the supply side, there is a subdivision between arguments based on government-induced uncertainty (due to taxation, regulation, policy, or deficits) and those centered around labor productivity. Of these I regard the uncertainty argument as opportunistic rhetorical hand-waving, with no real principled rationale; the argument about labor productivity, however, has some real substance behind it.

Curiously, however, the labor-productivity side contains proponents of two antithetical views: one group argues that jobs and income have stagnated because labor productivity is growing too slowly, while others argue that technology has been changing too fast for the labor market to keep up. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, which I’ve discussed before, is an argument for the first proposition. A new book provides an argument for the second: Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. The e-book, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, is a cheap and quick read (I call it a book, but it’s really more like a very long article); it doesn’t provide much detail that will be new to people who follow the topic, but it’s a decent introduction to the effect of technology on the demand for labor. It’s accessibly written without being too dumbed down, although it engages in some of the Gladwellese that seems to pervade recent pop-social science, such as the use of cutesy overriding metaphors (grains of rice on a chessboard, in this case). But while its account of the current economic landscape is useful, its ideas about where we should go from here are exceedingly lame.

Some liberals will probably react unfavorably to the book’s whole thesis, because its emphasis on long-term technology and productivity issues threatens to distract attention from the more immediate problem, which is the tremendous shortfall in aggregate demand. The authors themselves are careful to say that they recognize the current demand problem, and that they do not believe that dealing with technological change should be a substitute for short-term measures to increase demand. Nevertheless, some commentators will no doubt be tempted to misuse the argument this way, as President Obama allegedly did when he used productivity-related claims to dismiss the need for additional stimulus.

But people on the left shouldn’t let such foolishness scare them away from understanding changes in technology and labor productivity. Not only are such changes real and socially significant, but they present us with an opportunity to reorient the economic conversation in a more radical direction. To do so, however, we’ll need to assimilate Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s empirical argument, while rejecting their timid and depoliticized policy recommendations.

Technology and Employment

Race Against the Machine is organized around explaining the same empirical reality that confronts every would-be analyst of our economic woes: the stagnation of median incomes over the past three decades, long predating our current joblessness problem. As I noted recently, many of the underlying reasons for this stagnation are political, and this is something Brynjolfsson and McAfee don’t discuss at all. But the fact that rising inequality and stagnating labor income have a political context doesn’t mean they aren’t also a function of technological changes: what we have seen in recent decades is a continuation of the disruptive and labor-displacing technical innovation that has always characterized capitalism, but without many of the countervailing protections that labor enjoyed in the heyday of the postwar Keynesian compromise. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do a good job of explaining the way labor markets play out under such conditions.

In contrast to Cowen, they argue that recent productivity growth has been quite good, and that published statistics are likely to under-state the increase in our social wealth. We’re able to provide more goods and services with less and less human labor, which ought to make us materially richer as a society. The basic argument is similar to the one made by Farhad Manjoo in his recent series of articles on automation: computers and robots are rapidly permeating every part of the economy, displacing labor from high- and low-skill functions alike. Race Against the Machine gives many examples, from Google’s self-driving cars to automation in Chinese electronics factories to software that can review legal documents. The problem, then, is not stagnation but uneven distribution: GDP per capita has continued to rise rapidly, but median incomes have stagnated, because the gains from growth are now going almost entirely to the very richest.

Three interrelated mechanisms are adduced to explain this lopsided growth: the advantaging of high-skill over low-skill labor, the rise of winner-take-all “superstar” markets, and the increasing returns to capital rather than labor. All three of these trends are facilitated and intensified by rapid technological advances–especially in computers and networks–that are making the skills of many workers obsolete while enriching the owners of capital and a few well-placed workers. Overall, this account of the relationship between technology and employment is the book’s strength, particularly since it manages to avoid two common fallacies that beset such discussions, what I’ll call the “end of work” fallacy and the “end of technology” fallacy.

The end of work fallacy, named for the title of a Jeremy Rifkin book, is the mistaken notion that if most of the labor currently performed by humans is replaced by machines, the result will inevitably be permanent mass unemployment at some point in the future. This is a fallacy for two reasons: first, because it ignores the possibility that we could all work less rather than leaving some unemployed, and second, because it assumes that human societies are somehow inherently limited in their ability to concoct new occupations for people to perform. While they ignore the first possibility, Brynjolfsson and McAfee do correctly point out that there is no reason to believe the second; just as we found new jobs for all the people displaced from working in agriculture a century ago, capitalism is no doubt capable of generating novel occupations for those whose jobs are automated in the 21st century (if all else fails, perhaps we can all become the personal servants of the top 1 percent). They frame this as an optimistic vision of our economic future, but I would interpret it somewhat differently: the gradual disappearance of work may not be inevitable, but it is also not something to fear: rather, it poses a major political and cultural choice for human societies centered around the institution of wage labor; I return to this point below.

Arrayed against the end of work fallacy, one often finds the end of technology fallacy, which insists that there is some obvious limit to just what can be automated. I guess this isn’t so much a fallacy as a failure of imagination: as Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out, such pronouncements can look silly within a remarkably short time. As one example, they cite a 2004 book that confidently asserts the impossibility of something like the self-driving Google car. Today, the jobs most resistant to automation seem to be those that require finer-grained types of manual skill, as robots remain crude and awkward when they attempt to manipulate the physical environment. But while it is certainly possible that some kinds of automation will never be attained, it’s dangerous to base one’s economic analysis or one’s politics on that belief.

While I find Race Against the Machine‘s argument about automation generally persuasive, the general theory of socio-technical development that the authors rely on is somewhat questionable. Citing Moore’s law and the futurist Ray Kurzweil, Brynjolfsson and McAfee portray technological development as a process that starts off slowly but then relentlessly accelerates “into the phase where exponential growth yields jaw-dropping results”. But this is a misleading picture of the history of technology. As Charles Stross has extensively argued, (and as I’ve written about previously), the path of progress within particular technological domains looks less like exponential growth than like a sigmoid curve, in which a middle period of rapid and seemingly exponential growth transitions into a mature plateau of slow progress. It’s tempting, when you’re in the rapid-acceleration phase of the curve, to extrapolate it forward exponentially–but this can lead to extremely misleading predictions. Mid-twentieth century futurists extrapolated the rapid improvements in transportation that they had lived through, and ended up imagining a future with flying cars but not the Internet; anyone who tries to imagine our future without accounting for unexpected and disruptive innovations is likely to be proven wrong as well.

The book’s central claim nevertheless holds up without the dubious assumption of exponential growth. As the authors point out, we are in many ways in the early stages of adopting and integrating the technologies we already have into the economy, and so we can expect much more technological displacement of labor even if Moore’s law slows down. And even if computer processing speed plateaus, some other area, such as biotechnology, will eventually enter the rapid-growth segment of its own sigmoid curve. Hence I generally accept the argument that rapid automation and technological unemployment will be a reality for the foreseeable future, and our societies need to find a way to deal with it.

The Future of Work

But it’s in the recommendations for adapting to technological change that this book really falls short. The program for winning the future, it turns out, consists of encouraging entrepreneurship and improving education. The former, the authors say, will allow us to discover a bounty of new ways of employing people, through the magic of Hayekian tacit knowledge and Schumpeterian creative destruction. And an improved education system will ensure that the general population has the necessary human capital to participate in this magical new economy. This is a remarkably thin vision, redolent of the kind of popular techno-libertarianism that flourished at the height of the dot-com bubble, and it’s no more compelling now than it was then. Brynjolfsson and McAfee write that “the stagnation of median wages and polarization of job growth is an opportunity for creative entrepreneurs”, who can “combine the swelling numbers of mid-skilled workers with ever-cheaper technology to create value”. Aside from the moral gruesomeness of this entrepreneurial paradise built on immiserated and precarious labor, where is the demand supposed to come from to realize all this “value”? This sounds like a recipe for re-creating the bubble economy of the last few decades, where most economic rewards go to capital and the working class props up its buying power with debt.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do offer a more specific 19-point policy agenda. Some of the proposals are good ideas: reducing government support of the financial industry, decoupling social benefits from employment, scaling back copyright protections, increasing government funding for infrastructure and basic research, eliminating the home mortgage interest tax deduction, increasing high-skill immigration. But much of the rest is the usual grab-bag of neoliberal market idolatry: cut back workplace regulation, reduce taxes, make it easier to fire workers. The section on education, in particular, is just a rehash of the usual education reform arguments: less job security for teachers, longer hours, and more testing (though to be fair, they do at least call for higher teacher pay).

In the end, Brynjolfsson and McAfee don’t even try that hard to make the case that their agenda will actually employ everyone or reverse rising inequality and stagnant incomes–they admit that “not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur, and not everyone can or should spend 16 or more years in school”. But they casually dismiss the one thing that indisputably would address the unequal rewards of the contemporary economy: direct redistribution of income. “While redistribution ameliorates the material costs of inequality”, they say in their one mention of the possibility, “it doesn’t address the root of the problems our economy is facing” and “does nothing to make unemployed workers productive again”. There’s an implicit belief here that distributional outcomes somehow aren’t “real” unless they are the result of the private labor market operating in the absence of government transfers. This denigrates the robustness of redistribution as a program: European social democracy, for all its shortcomings, has shown that it’s possible to create an enduring system in which highly unequal market outcomes are ameliorated by government taxes, transfers, and social programs. That’s one reason I’m partly sympathetic to the model of “globalize-grow-give” progressivism, which focuses on remediating inequality through redistribution rather than tight regulation of the labor market: leaving the labor market as it is and then doing lots of redistribution on the back end may not be ideal, but it would be a lot better than what we have now.

But if technology really is dramatically reducing the need for human labor, then we have an opportunity to think bigger and better, getting beyond merely trying to scrape up new skills and new jobs for the displaced proletariat. If you’re a regular reader, you know where I’m going with this by now; as somebody said of one of my earlier renditions on this theme, “we get it–Peter Frase hates work”. Totally missing from Race Against the Machine is any consideration that we might take some of our productivity gains in the form of free time rather than income. Nowhere do the authors even contemplate reducing the length of the work week and work year, or accepting a lower labor-force participation rate. Thus, despite constantly reminding us of all the ways in which technology has improved our standard of living and transformed society, Brynjolfsson and McAfee never question the centrality of wage labor in its current form: they never consider that there is any alternative to a society in which everyone expects, and is expected, to spend the bulk of their life as a 40 (or more) hour per week wage laborer, or as a profit-maximizing “entrepreneur”.

Mostly, the immortality of capitalism is just an implicit assumption. But to the extent that this book contains a defense of the wage labor society, it is this: “the value of gainful work is far more than the money earned”, and “forced idleness is not the same as voluntary leisure”. Both are true, and both are reasons why in the short term, a federal jobs program is a good demand–and one that’s more likely to revive the economy than any amount of education reform or entrepreneurialism. But the question that Race Against the Machine raises is explicitly not about the short term aggregate demand problem, to which some package of monetary and fiscal stimulus could be an adequate solution. If we ever escape from the nightmare of self-inflicted disinflationary contraction, we will essentially be back where we started before the financial crisis–and we will still have to come to terms with the constantly changing balance of labor between human and machine, and what it means for the future of work.

We live in a society in which a huge amount of a person’s status and sense of self-worth is tied up in what they do for money. And the stigma of joblessness, combined with the stresses of job-hunting and dealing with the meager American welfare state, make unemployment a physically, psychologically, and emotionally damaging ordeal. But these aren’t inherent features of the human condition; as another analyst of productivity-enhancing technology said:

Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.

“We clearly are not pessimists about technology and its impacts”, write Brynjolfsson and McAfee. They add that they considered calling their book “The Digital Frontier, since the image that keeps occurring to us is one of a huge amount of new territory opening up because of technological improvement and innovation”. As it happens, I’m not a pessimist either, and I think the Digital Frontier is a wilder place than our intrepid economists imagine. Out there you’ll find the advocates of work time reduction and guaranteed income and plenitude, and many others working to build the realm of freedom and abundance rather than keep capitalism’s engine of artificial necessity and scarcity chugging along. The defenders of the current order will keep trying to convince us that in a technologically advanced world of material plenty, more capitalism is still the solution to all our problems; but perhaps it is capitalism itself that is holding us back, and maybe it’s time for that integument to burst asunder.

Friday links: Coat Sunday Edition

October 21st, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

Peculiar Luxembourg fact of the week: my co-workers informed me today that this is the weekend of “Coat Sunday”, the one day all year when shops open on Sunday, so that people can buy their winter coats. Seriously: “originally this was to allow residents living in the countryside to come down to the towns and buy their new winter outfit”. Anyway, for those of you not too busy travelling to the city for your coats:

  • This story about Occupy L.A. protestors defending a woman from foreclosure and Mike Konczal’s post about the general intersection between Occupy and the anti-foreclosure movement gave me big time nerd chills. I’ve had countless discussions over the years about how modern socialists could learn from the Communist Party’s anti-eviction work in the 1930’s. In my arsenal of talking points about how socialists need to relate to people’s everyday experience, it’s rivaled only by “the Daily Worker had a sports page”.

  • This is kind of on the abstruse philosophy tip, but as someone who does a lot of Critique and finds Spinoza/Nietszche/Deleuze annoying, this from Benjamin Noys spoke to me. And I think it actually bears on the marvellously contentious Jacobin OWS debate in an oblique way. Perry Anderson argued in Considerations on Western Marxism that the Western Marxists (Frankfurt School, Coletti, Althusser, etc.) all tried to tie Marxism back to some prior trend in the history of philosophy, and there was kind of a three-way split between those who went with Hegel, those who went to Kant, and those who went with Spinoza. The “anti-critique” tendency derives in some ways from the encounter between Marx and Spinoza in this period, of which Althusser was the primary exponent, but it’s filtered down in many ways to the type of anarchism you see in the Jacobin debate. “The invocations of radical imagination, of the valence of utopia, of transcendental ‘ideas of communism’, and so on, seem to me to forgo or forget this labour [of critique]. Motivational as they may be the effect of such receding moments, whose empirical instantiations are often questionable or vague, is to offer false consolation.”

  • A faction of the Occupy Wall Street crew (including some of my friends and comrades) is trying to win people over to a demand: jobs for all. I share some of Jodi Dean’s discomforts, which won’t be a surprise if you’ve read me on jobs and full employment. But I’m enough of a political pragmatist to think that this is probably the best program to get behind right now, and one that could lead in more promising radical directions in the future.

  • Ari Berman’s profile of “the Austerity Class” fits in nicely with my post from a few days ago, in which I identified austerity politics as the ideology hiding behind post-partism “centrist” posturing. The open question about these people, as Mike Konczal says, is whether the anti-growth agenda of the austerians represents a material interest or merely false consciousness among the capitalist class.

  • On a related note, “Economists say” is one of the most ubiquitous ways that reporters launder their right-wing opinions into “objective” news.

  • “These are the dwindling options facing the Obama administration now that it’s gone down the road of killing an American citizen without due process and covering up the rationale for doing so under the veil of state secrecy. Welcome to absurdity.”

  • Great line from Jorge Albor’s discussion of Batman: Arkham Asylum: “I find it hard to relate to a rich white playboy who secretly buys expensive toys and uses them to beat people up.”

  • I, too, tend to tune out when I hear the phrase “peak oil”, but this really could be a problem.

  • Democratic feudalism watch (cf. Corey Robin): you can get corporate donations to your nonprofit, but only if you’re willing to lobby on behalf of your corporate masters.

Labor’s Share in Cross-National Perspective

October 21st, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Social Science, Sociology

Peter Orszag has a column about the diminishing share of labor in national income, relative to capital. Mike Konczal provides some useful additional discussion. Both of them frame the issue as a new empirical mystery, because it contradicts a “stylized fact” that economists have long assumed about capitalist economies: that the relative share of labor and capital in national income remains constant over time.

I try to avoid the characteristic sociologist’s vice of economics-bashing, but this does rather strike me as a case where economists are betraying their insularity by purporting to discover something that other social scientists are already talking about. Mike quotes (the generally excellent) Arjun Jayadev musing that “A more comprehensive account should really take a look at the politics of this shift and there is some evidence for the contention that an eroded bargaining power of labor is an important factor.” As it turns out, someone has looked at “the politics”, although they’re not an economist. Last year, the American Sociological Review published a paper called “Good Times, Bad Times: Postwar Labor’s Share of National Income in Capitalist Democracies” by Tali Kristal of the University of Haifa, which bears directly on this issue. (An un-gated version is here.)

One of the tricky things about explaining long-term economic trends is that we don’t have access to the counterfactual: what would the U.S. economy look like if, say, we still had 1950’s levels of unionization? As a next-best solution, though, we can contextualize the United States by comparing it to other rich countries. The global economy is characterized, as Trotsky put it, by “combined and uneven development”: while the declining share of labor income is a cross-national phenomenon, it has not been experienced or responded to in exactly the same way everywhere. Kristal’s paper compares the U.S. to 15 other countries in the period since 1960, in an attempt to identify some of the factors behind labor’s declining income share.

Even if you don’t want to wade through the text, I highly recommend giving it at least a “quant-jock read”–that is, have a look through the charts and tables. I’ll try to summarize the main argument and findings of the paper here. Kristal shows that Labor’s share of income has risen and fallen over the past century, “stylized facts” notwithstanding. In the United States and and the UK, much of the increase in labor’s share took place before and immediately after World War II; there was a substantial postwar increase in continental Europe, the Nordic countries, Australia, and Japan. Since 1980, labor’s share has generally declined everywhere. But the scope and timing of this decline differs across countries, indicating that the relative position of capital and labor is related to the economic and political particularities of the countries.

The assumption that labor’s share of income is constant implies that gains in national income due to increasing productivity are always shared equally by labor and capital. Kristal shows that this is not the case: in the 1960’s and 1970’s, labor income grew as fast as or even faster than productivity, whereas since 1980 labor income has lagged far behind. In other words, this pattern is valid cross-nationally:

image

Kristal makes the interesting point that this dynamic isn’t necessarily related to the much more studied phenomenon of rising income inequality. Income inequality could increase if one group of workers captured most of the wage gains, which would keep the overall labor share of income constant. And as Kristal wryly notes, studies of income inequality “tend to identify the capitalist class as a subset of the self-employed.”

In attempting to explain the changing fortunes of labor, economists are generally inclined to reach for explanations rooted in the market rather than the political sphere. Thus, as Kristal explains, the two leading explanations for the declining labor share of income have been technology (i.e., the adoption of labor-saving production techniques) and worker bargaining power (declining unionization, competition from abroad). But workers can alter their share of income by political means that go beyond the immediate power of unions in wage bargaining. When social democratic parties are in power, they can shift income shares by shielding workers from market forces, expanding public employment, and regulating the workplace, as well as by taking steps to strengthen labor unions.

Kristal attempts to capture these dynamics with a regression-based analysis, in which labor’s income share in a given year is predicted based on both economic and political variables. Changes in productivity, inflation, unemployment, union power, the strength of left parties in government, and several measures of economic globalization are all combined in the model. To quote from Kristal’s conclusion:

Labor’s share of national income increased in the 1960s and 1970s due to unions organizing new members, the surge in strike activity, and the consolidation of the welfare state. These factors all increased labor’s compensation faster than the economy’s income. Labor’s share declined since the early 1980s with the decline in unionization rates and levels of strike activity, stagnation in government civilian spending, and bargaining decentralization. Labor’s capacity to influence state policies has also declined across countries, and governments’ targets of full employment have been abandoned in favor of labor market flexibility and low inflation. The current decline in labor’s share of the national income can also be traced to an increase in imports from developing countries and the increased presence of foreign affiliates of multinational firms.

Technology, meanwhile, looks like it is not an independent source of labor’s diminishing share. That is, while increasing productivity is associated with a lower labor share of income, this association has always been present, even in the earlier periods when productivity growth and income growth matched up in the aggregate. What has changed is the countervailing political factors that used to ensure that a share of economic growth was paid out to workers.

You can question some of the particulars of the modelling that leads to this conclusion, and in general it’s hard to disentangle the causal relations in this kind of bird’s eye view quantitative analysis. But as an overall correlational picture of what’s happened to labor in the past 50 years, I think there’s a lot in this analysis that people can learn from–maybe even economists.

Jacobin OWS Debate Video is Live

October 19th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

You can now watch the full video of last Friday’s contentious and exciting intra-left debate about the way forward for Occupy Wall Street, organized by my collaborators at Jacobin. See the Jacobin blog for the video and an introductory write-up by moderator Seth Ackerman.

Polarization and Ideology

October 19th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

Now that TPM has sent me a tidal wave of traffic, I’m kind of itching to correct something from my last post. Some criticism I’ve gotten has convinced me that this was a bit poorly stated:

In the United States, the diminishing distance between the parties–and the total incoherence of the Democratic side–has led the ideological and the partisan to become totally disconnected. Thus we see the parties locked in ever more vicious and polarized combat, even when both sides seem to be marching to the same neo-liberal drumbeat.

The talk about “distance” and “coherence” is confusing here, because some people read me as saying that the Democrats used to be more ideologically coherent than they are now, which isn’t really the case. What I was trying to say, however, was that the very well-attested evidence of increasing polarization between the parties doesn’t imply a widening ideological divide in our political debates. To use the language from my last post, things like the McCarthy, Poole, and Rosenthal measures of polarization really only speak to increasing partisanship; they have little to say about ideology. It’s possible for partisan polarization to increase even as the ideological range of the political debate is narrowing, and I’d argue that’s exactly what has happened. I’ll just belabor the point a bit more with two extreme hypothetical examples.

First, consider a world in which the only issue is the tax rate. Democrats favor a plan where everyone pays a 31 percent tax rate, and Republicans favor a plan where everyone pays a 30 percent tax rate. Democrats will always vote for the 31 percent plan and against the 30 percent plan, while Republicans will always vote for the 30 percent plan and against the 31 percent plan. By the standards of the political science literature, this situation would be extremely polarized, because Democrats and Republicans never vote with each other on anything. But the ideological distance between them is minimal, and the distinction between having one party or the other in the majority is only a tiny difference in your taxes.

Now consider a world in which the only issue is whether the government should attempt to promote white supremacy and racial segregation, or whether it should promote racial equality and civil rights. Both parties contain a mixture of civil rights advocates and racists, and so any given civil rights or pro-segregation bill can attract bipartisan support. This is, of course, only partly a hypothetical–it’s kind of how politics worked in the mid-20th century. In contrast to the previous example, this situation is not polarized by party at all, and you can’t directly predict policy outcomes based on which party has a majority. But the ideological stakes are obviously huge, and the range of debate is far wider than in the previous example.

My position is that we’ve moved in the direction of the first hypothetical, where sharp partisan division conceals ideological homogeneity. Even when political rhetoric seems to imply ideological divides, the results of governance tend not to bear this out: Obama didn’t stop torture, close Guantanamo, or get tough on the banks, and I don’t think the Republicans will actually “repeal Obamacare” or institute a flat tax. Which isn’t to say that there is no difference between the parties, only that the differences are much less than the rancor of partisan politics might lead you to believe. To borrow a quip from academia, “the politics are so intense because the stakes are so low”.

The narrowing of ideological divides has, in some cases, worked in a way that I find politically desirable–i.e., it’s no longer acceptable for a mainstream politician to explicitly defend white supremacy. But with respect to the welfare state and the redistribution of wealth, the ideological narrowing has been quite pernicious, and that’s the dynamic I hope things like Occupy Wall Street will begin to change.

The Partisan and the Political

October 18th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

Update 10/19: I have a clarification to part of this post here.

Lately I’ve noticed some concern over the intermittent tendency to portray Occupy Wall Street, and other insurgent movements, as somehow “neither left nor right”; recently, we can see Matt Taibbi engaging in this rhetoric, and Richard Seymour found it cropping up at Occupy London. This is, I agree, an annoying rhetorical tic; maybe even a dangerous one. Digby, in the link above, attributes this framing to a quixotic desire to escape political conflict; others suggest that it reflects an unwillingness to confront the class struggle at the heart of populist “99-percenter” rhetoric. Maybe, but I suspect it’s also something else: less a product of wrong ideology than of an impoverished political vocabulary, which is the inevitable consequence of the decline of the left and of political consciousness generally. This decline has produced widespread confusion about the difference between, on the one hand, the way political partisanship operates in contemporary politics, and on the other hand, the importance of actual contests of political ideology. In such a period, morbid symptoms appear.

To summarize the thesis: ordinary people hate partisanship, and elites hate ideology. Hence the elite is constantly attempting to misrepresent the latter as the former. And the masses sometimes respond by repudiating ideology when they mean to reject partisanship.

By partisanship, I mean adopting positions or taking actions based purely on what is immediately advantageous to your “side”, party, or faction. (On the far left, this usually goes by the name of “sectarianism”.) When Republicans denounce a health care plan that they were promoting a few years before, just to make the Democrats look bad, they’re being partisan. When Democratic-aligned lawyers go from vigorously denouncing Bush’s imperial presidency to giving legal cover to Obama’s death squads, they’re being partisan. A lot of people find this kind of behavior objectionable, because it is so transparently cynical and unprincipled, motivated by the desire to win tactical–and personal–advantages even at the expense of larger ideals and strategic objectives–that is, at the expense of ideology. What this sort of partisanship ultimately amounts to is the conviction that politics is about winning power for its own sake, rather than using that power for some larger purpose. The Wall Street protests seem to have drawn a decent number of people who were disengaged from the political system, perhaps from a revulsion at this kind of cynical partisanship, combined with a vague ideological intuition that neither side of the mainstream partisan divide is actually pursuing anything that is in their interest.

I recognize, of course, that ideology ultimately requires partisanship, since principles can only become political works through the vehicle of some kind of organization or party. The attempt to permanently separate the two runs aground in an individualistic sort of anarchism. But ideology and partisanship can only be aligned in specific circumstances–as, for instance, when the political system features parties with coherent and clearly opposed ideologies. In the United States, the diminishing distance between the parties–and the total incoherence of the Democratic side–has led the ideological and the partisan to become totally disconnected. Thus we see the parties locked in ever more vicious and polarized combat, even when both sides seem to be marching to the same neo-liberal drumbeat.

So while we might wish for an organized partisan vehicle for radical ideology, we also have to deal with the reality that one does not yet exist. Hence, firm ideology often manifests itself in opposition to partisanship; Glenn Greenwald, for example, has come down hard against the lawyers who wrote Obama’s death squad opinion, just as he did against John Yoo and other architects of Bush’s torture regime. He does so because he has an ideological commitment to civil liberties, due process, and the rule of law, which supersedes partisan loyalty to Democrats or Republicans.

Many people will profess to admire principled ideological stances like Greenwald’s, even when they disagree with the specifics of the ideology. But the one group that is implacably hostile to such displays of principle is the world’s economic and political elites. That’s because they benefit from a situation in which their preferences and goals are treated as objective common sense, and alternative ideologies cannot be considered or even articulated. It’s in that light that we should consider the continual elite longing for a “centrist” or “post-partisan” leader to deliver us from the evil of political polarization. What this yearning represents is not so much a desire to escape from narrow partisan cynicism as it is an attempt to prevent the drawing of clear distinctions of political principle.

President Obama is of course an exemplary case of this kind of post-partisanship, which substitutes image for substance; the latest iteration of such nonsense is the Politico‘s new “primary”, in which Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen propose several candidates who will transcend “Washington and conventional politics” and “harness the public’s hunger for something new, different and inspiring”. As Greg Marx documents, the discussion of these fantasy candidates is almost entirely vacuous, characterized by “indifference to policy, an eagerness to see politicians as products to be marketed, undue deference to institutional authority, a fetish for ‘centrism'”. Thus it’s tempting to dismiss the whole exercise as the effluvium of political horse-race journalism and its fatuous, intellectually bankrupt culture; but this kind of posturing is, in fact, satisfying someone’s “hunger”–just not the general public’s.

VandeHei and Allen are careful to avoid attributing any kind of ideological substance to their proposed candidates. Instead, they describe them with empty signifiers like “authentic outsider”, “a combination of money, accomplishment and celebrity”, “a strong leader [voters] can truly believe in”, and “someone who breaks free from the tired right-versus-left constraint on modern politics”. But that doesn’t mean there’s no ideological agenda here. There is, and it leaks through in their profile of erstwhile Deficit Commissioner Erskine Bowles: “The most depressing reality of modern governance is this: The current system seems incapable of dealing with our debt addiction before it becomes a crippling crisis.”

It’s hardly worth pointing out anymore that there is, in fact, no debt crisis; on the contrary, sensible observers are wondering why the government is bothering to collect revenues at all, when the cost of borrowing is hitting zero. By now, everyone who cares has realized that fear-mongering about the debt and the deficit is a trick used opportunistically by those who want to reorient government around their particular priorities. And the priorities of the deficit scolds, judging by the work of creatures like Pete Peterson, are to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state and transfer even more money to the already wealthy. Ranting about the deficit is merely a means to this end, if it facilitates goals such as the elimination of Social Security and Medicare.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen probably don’t consciously believe that they are ideologically committed to immiserating the working class in order to further enrich themselves and their ultra-rich friends; as career journalists, they have no doubt internalized the bizarre conceit that they are merely objective chroniclers with no political orientation whatsoever. Nevertheless, defending plutocracy is, functionally, their ideology, for it is the ideology of the elite–and by promoting the fantasy of non-ideological “bipartisanship”, they further the agenda of those who are already powerful. If the reporters themselves actually believe in their centrist platitudes, so much the better; as the philosopher Costanza once remarked, “it’s not a lie if you believe it”.

But by conflating partisanship and ideology, elite discourse tends to discredit the latter; thus, just as elites tend to cloak their ideological program in the veil of post-partisanship, contemporary popular movements sometimes attempt to do the same. But they, too, are ideological whether they want to be or not. Some of this is on display in the Occupy Wall Street protests: these have been characterized by an almost obsessive desire to avoid specific ideologies or even specific demands, in a way that tends to grate on those of us with more traditional leftist sensibilities. Doug Henwood recently commented on this in a post where he lamented the ideological confusion of the protesters, and quoted a 25-year-old photographer stating that the protests were “not about left versus right” but about “hierarchy versus autonomy”.

The uncharitable reading of this is that it reflects a naive avoidance of politics and the worldview of, as Doug puts it, bourgeois individualism. But a more generous reading is that this man is simply partaking of the same collapsing of ideology and partisanship that pervades the society he grew up in. If you’re 25 years old, there’s a good chance you haven’t had much or any contact with what remains of an actual “left” in this country; instead, your experience of politics will be one in which “left versus right” is used interchangeably with “Democrats versus Republicans”. In other words, a discourse in which ideology is reduced to an empty, symbolic partisanship. Rather than an attempt to deny ideology and politics, we can see statements like the one I quoted as an attempt, however confused, to reclaim them from the clutches of the major parties and their hack apologists. Because whatever they might say, Occupy Wall Street has an ideology, even if it is still an inchoate and jumbled one. Mike Konczal has done some excellent work trying to extract that ideology from the protests themselves and the “We are the 99 percent” Tumblr; meanwhile, the right clearly recognizes it as an ideological challenge as well, which is why their polemicists are producing counter-programming like We Are the 53 Percent.

That’s not to say that the obsession with centrism and post-partisanship hasn’t infected the masses to some degree as well. The other day I was listening to an NPR call-in show about Occupy Wall Street, and I heard the kind of infuriating caller you often get on these programs, who lamented extremism and polarization and said that we need to work together with Wall Street to solve our problems, blah blah blah. But positions like that are only tenable in the wake of the elite campaign to efface all conflicts of interest or ideology, and replace them with the illusion that there is some technocratic compromise that would equally benefit the 99% and the 1%. Barack Obama’s latest move on behalf of that campaign is his bizarre argument that the democratic socialist Martin Luther King “would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there”. But this is no time to shrink from a bit of demonization. The best thing leftists can do to combat this sort of nonsense, then, is to help draw out and clarify the implicit class ideology of the protestors, rather than condemn them for not drawing political demarcations in the way we would prefer; as the young Marx put it, “We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

October 15 Protests in Luxembourg

October 16th, 2011  |  Published in Luxembourg, Politics

Yesterday there were big protests all over the world; Aaron Bady has lots of great photos over at his place. From what I hear, the march back in New York was large and successful.

Here in Luxembourg, things were a little more sedate. Here are some pictures of varying quality, which you can click to expand.

I got downtown at around 4:30, at which point the rally in the Place d’Armes had already been going for half an hour:

Stage shot

The speeches only lasted another 10 or 15 minutes after I got there; what I heard (and was in a language I understood) was pretty broad stuff about global economic justice, nothing too exciting to report. That crew on stage punctuated every brief speech with music though. I’m bad at estimating crowds, but there must have been a few hundred people there at least:

The Crowd at the Plaza

That might not sound very impressive, but keep in mind that Luxembourg City is a town of 80,000 people, of which some substantial fraction are bankers, and I think some folks went up to Brussels for the big demonstration there.

One thing that was very much absent was any of the major political parties. This guy’s swag from “The Left” was exceptional:

dei Lenk shoulder bag

The organizers had covered the stage with signs, which reflected Luxembourg’s crazy quilt of languages and ethnicities. The messages on the right are, I believe, in the local Lëtzebuergesch language:

Signs in French and Luxembourgish

The dominant inspiration for yesterday’s event wasn’t Occupy Wall Street as much as it was the Spanish “indignados”:

If you're not indignant, you're not informed

There were also messages related to more general European-level concerns:

Against the Euro Pact

We Don't Want to Save Banks!!!!

And some good old anti-capitalism:

Capitalism = Cannibalism

That’s not to say that USA-related messages were absent:

USA-themed signs

And the “99%” meme has made it here too. I swear I took this picture yesterday, even though it looks like it came from some kind of activist stock photo site:

Luxembourgers are also the 99 percent

After the speeches wrapped up, we started marching through downtown Luxembourg City. Note what you won’t see in the following pictures: cops. I literally didn’t see a single one either at the rally, or as we marched around town, alternately on the sidewalks and in the streets. In fact, I’ve only seen the police once in the nearly two weeks I’ve been here, which really underscores the awful militarized quality of everyday life in American cities. I miss a lot of things about the U.S., but I’m very happy to be 3000 miles away from the nearest NYPD officer.

We were led on our march by this crew of singers and musicians; I guess they’re supposed to represent a cross-section of the working class, but they kind of look the activist Village People:

The Activist Village People

We stopped in front of the Grand Duke’s palace, which is the sort of thing you don’t get to do at American protests. Note the lone armed guard marching in the background:

At the Grand Duke's palace

Another shot at the palace

We wrapped things up at this overlook; protesting in Luxembourg can be very scenic!

A scenic end to the march

Finally, this has nothing to do with the protests, it’s just some miscellaneous awesomeness. On my way home, I came across these kids breakdancing underneath the main bus terminal:

Breakdancers!

Friday Links: We Won Something!

October 14th, 2011  |  Published in Uncategorized

For the time being, mayor Bloomberg and the owners of Zuccotti park have backed down, abandoning their plan to clear out Occupy Wall Street after a huge crowd gathered at the park and prepared to nonviolently resist the police. My favorite reaction came from historian Angus Johnston on Twitter: “We won. We NEVER Win. Wow.” I think that pretty much sums up why the Occupy movement is so exciting even to those of us who are critical of some aspects of it. Of course, the city may have decided to wait until most of the crowd goes home before moving in for the kill, but this still looks like a huge win. (Also, from what I’m seeing on Twitter, there’s still some ongoing craziness between marchers and police downtown, which I can’t yet get any confirmation about.)

Periods of Discouragement

October 11th, 2011  |  Published in Politics

Chris Maisano’s whole interview with Frances Fox Piven is worth your time, but I think this is the money quote that everyone should be carrying around in their heads right now:

It’s also true that when I say I think we may be on the cusp, at the beginning of a another period of social protest and [Occupy Wall Street] is the sign, I don’t think that social protest works as a little explosion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s much more interrupted, dispersed, there are periods of discouragement — 1959-1960 the civil rights movement people thought it was over, after 1962 in Albany, Georgia — this movement is going to be like that too.

It’s entirely possible that the Zuccotti park encampment and the nationwide flare-up of occupations will burn themselves out before they succeed in stoking a sustainable movement. If that happens, leftist pontificators will come out of the woodwork to tell us how they were too disorganized, or needed clearer demands, or had the wrong ideology, or didn’t connect enough with labor, or weren’t diverse enough, or whatever; then they’ll go back to lamenting that Americans aren’t rising up and the left is doomed. This cautionary note from Piven–who knows from insurgent popular movements–is a useful corrective to that. The important thing is to recognize that in terms of changing the terms of mainstream debate and activating a lot of depoliticized people, Occupy Wall Street has already been a huge success no matter what happens next.