Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Resisting authoritarian populism


The rise of an organized effort to create an authoritarian right-wing government in the United States is palpable. Unhinged Republican elected officials call for political violence and "civil war"; an ideological and Christian-nationalist Supreme Court moves forward unhesitatingly in attacking long-established and fundamental rights, including rights of reproductive freedom; Republican-controlled state houses enact ever-more restrictive legislation and gerrymandered electoral maps restricting voting rights. What recourse do Americans who care about their democratic institutions, rights, and liberties have in face of this rise of populist authoritarianism?

Political sociologists David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow addressed this set of crises in an intriguing volume, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. Regrettably, the book was written too early. It was prepared for publication in 2018, and the political threats to democracy are much, much worse today. Writing in 2018, the editors summarize the situation in these terms:

Importantly, the election of Donald Trump represents an attack not only on the Democratic Party, or the Left more generally, but also presents a clear threat to well-established bipartisan policies, the independence of institutions in the American Constitutional order, and America's place in the world. In this context, it is not surprising that a diverse and volatile opposition quickly emerged. (3)

This is a clear statement, but in hindsight it understates the magnitude of the threat, and unfortunately it seems to exaggerate the strength of the "diverse and volatile opposition" that has emerged. Meyer and Tarrow are social-movement scholars, and they focus on several important examples of social movements and protests that occurred in 2016 and 2017 -- the Women's March (January 2017), demonstrations in support of immigrant and Latino rights, residual Occupy Wall Street activism, activism around climate change, and the mobilization and demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But notice -- with the exception of the Women's March, these moments of activism rarely succeeded in gathering a broad cross-section of the American public. Black Lives Matter generated greater public knowledge and concern about misuse of force by police officers, and climate activists perhaps marginally extended the range of concerned citizens actively concerned about climate inaction by our government. But these causes and organizations did not succeed in engaging a significant percentage of the attention or concern of ordinary citizens across the country. 

So a crucial question demands answering: do these examples constitute a "movement", or do they point to something less focused -- a readiness of many Americans to answer the call to mobilize around specific issues and specific moments of demonstration, rather than a broad-based commitment in support of our democracy? The question is important, because "resistance" ultimately requires widespread, committed, organized, and persistent readiness of large numbers of diverse people to come together in opposition to an ongoing seizure of power.

The assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was the most striking instance of attempted violent insurrection in our country in over a century and a half. So why was there not a massive response from the American public reaffirming the integrity of the election, the fundamental importance of our democratic institutions, and a repudiation of the "Stop the Steal!" lies? Where was the resistance on January 7? Why did corporate advertisers continue to support Fox News with advertising revenue? Where is the American "democracy movement" when we need it?

Effective resistance to rising authoritarianism will require the development of a set of demands that can engage millions of Americans across class, race, religion, and region in a persistent and committed way. Alliances with existing activist groups are valuable, but we need a broader basis for consensus that can give rise to a genuinely broad-based movement of resistance. Perhaps the broad platform for a democratic resistance movement can be as simple as this:

  • "No to all politicians and parties who undermine the legitimacy of our political institutions!"
  • "No to all politicians and activists who call for political violence!"
  • "Yes to full and equal voting rights for all Americans!"
  • "Yes to reproductive freedom!"
  • "Yes to greater equity for the bottom 75% of Americans!"

And the actions that can give force to these demands? Massive, persistent non-violent demonstrations in many cities; boycotts against companies that continue to support anti-democratic parties and candidates; lawsuits against unconstitutional gerrymandering by state legislatures; and effective communications campaigns aimed at broadening the base of opposition. Mass collective action can be immensely powerful.

Or, as composer Frederic Rzewski put it in 1975, "The people united will never be defeated!". The historical moment was the violent overthrow and murder of Salvadore Allende in Chile and the seizure of power by dictator Augusto Pinochet. Where is the next Martin Luther King, Jr., when we need him or her?



Sunday, August 7, 2022

Can we avoid catastrophe?


The three greatest threats we face today seem almost insurmountable. They include global climate change, whose consequences are potentially catastrophic for the whole planet, from Bangladesh to California and Florida; the rise of anti-democratic right-wing extremism in the United States and other liberal democracies, whose consequences threaten the viability of liberal democracy; and the resurgence of aggressive war.

Further, these threats are interconnected. Climate change will produce vast numbers of "climate refugees" and will deepen international conflicts over water and agriculture. Economic insecurity has the potential for worsening the trend toward right-wing extremism. Illiberal dictatorships are less constrained against the use force against their neighbors, and they are less likely to extend assistance to other countries in times when they are subject to powerful aggression by other dictators. And conservative ideologies have shown themselves to be indifferent to sober scientific studies of the dynamics of climate change. Climate scepticism is part of the canon for the far right.

Each of these challenges involves horrendously difficult problems of mobilization and coordination. Addressing climate change is perhaps the most difficult because of its global scope and long time duration. The root cause of global warming is the rapid rise of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases, largely the result of burning fossil fuels, along with massive deforestation (reducing the earth's capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere).

source: J. G. Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World

As the graphs indicate, CO2 concentration and rainforest depletion have increased exponentially since 1800, the beginning of the industrial age. But for many poor and middle-income countries, the urgent problems of poverty and low standard-of-living for much of their population demand solutions, and expansion of industrialization, manufacturing, and transportation all require growth in carbon production. ("Require" is probably too strong a word here, since we know that there are alternative low-emission energy sources; but those sources involve higher costs of infrastructure and operations.) So poor countries are unlikely to successfully support commitments to genuine carbon reduction. Further, about 50% of CO2 emissions are created by three countries, China, the United States, and India (link):


If these three countries fail to substantially reduce their CO2 emissions by 2060, it is hard to see how global goals can be met in time to avoid climate disaster. In the United States, there is an astounding level of resistance by the conservative right to the goal of reducing CO2 emissions (link). Here is the European Union plan for carbon neutrality by 2050 (link), and here are reviews of China's commitments (link) and India's commitments (link) to containment of carbon emissions.

What about the second challenge, the rise of right-wing extremist and nationalist political movements that explicitly threaten democratic institutions? Here the problem is twofold. First, rightwing Republican majorities in Red states have already succeeded in gerrymandering their populations in such a way as to make their electoral majorities essentially immune from future threats; and second, there is a well-orchestrated mobilization of rightwing extremist ideologies among a significant percentage of the public that has made "true believers" of these anti-democratic advocates. Therefore the political challenge of winning back a durable majority of the population in support of democratic institutions and a legislative and political agenda that enhances freedom and wellbeing of the whole population is difficult from the start. The politics of conspiracy theories, lies, and aggressive resistance to government action have created a high level of resistance to democratic change on the part of large portions of the US electorate. At the moment the organized politics of authoritarianism seem to have the advantage (link).

Finally, war. Vladimir Putin made it evident in 2014 that he was an opportunistic power-seeking autocrat, through his invasion and annexation of Crimea. His aggressive and atrocious war against Ukraine since February simply demonstrates how far he -- and the Russian state that he commands -- is willing to go to impose his will on his neighbors. Along with the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainian people, it is the surprisingly strong political will of the NATO alliance in supporting Ukraine that has frustrated Putin's war aims to date. Imagine the world situation if Donald Trump had succeeded in gutting NATO during his presidency. Trump, Orban, and other right-wing rulers have shown that they are only too willing to see the world through Putin's eyes. And that leads to a very worrisome implication: if the extremist GOP wins majorities in the Congress in 2022 and 2024, and possibly wins the presidency in 2024, then the United States could no longer be regarded as a staunch opponent and ally against the aggression of countries like Russia against their neighbors.

We have our tasks in front of us. Most immediately, we must prevail in defending the institutions of our liberal democracy, we must support the US government in establishment of effective climate change goals, and we must understand that military aggression must be confronted effectively, swiftly, and with courage. These tasks begin with electoral politics. We need a Democratic Party that can formulate and articulate an agenda that can inspire voters of every stripe, and we need candidates who can communicate our values effectively and show the mendacity of their Republican opponents. We need a presidential candidate with the brains and values of an Elizabeth Warren, the quick wit of a Jon Stewart, and the courage of an Abraham Lincoln.



Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The growing risk of authoritarian rule in the US

Thomas Edsell's piece in the August 3, 2022 New York Times offers a truly chilling view of the plans currently underway by Donald Trump and his supporters for creating an authoritarian one-party state in the United States (link). Edsell draws primarily from Trump's own words at the America First Policy Institute in late July 2022. 

As he contemplates a third straight run for the presidency, Donald Trump has a multimillion-dollar political machine and a network of tax-exempt advocacy groups at his disposal. He also has a plan. The plan is to wrest control of the federal government from what he sees as a policy apparatus dominated by “radical left-wing Democrats.”

Key to this plan is the goal of transforming Civil Service law to permit the appointment of Trump loyalists at every level of the Federal government:

The architects of one of the most radical of Trump’s proposals have described it as “the constitutional option.” It would provide for the wholesale politicization of the elite levels of the civil service through the creation of a new “Schedule F” classification, allowing the president to hire and fire at will thousands of government employees “in positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policymaking, or policy-advocating character.”

Quoting from an extensive piece in Axios by Jonathan Swan (link), Edsell describes an extensive plan for transforming government power in a way that is genuinely fascist:

Swan described the creation of the Schedule F classification, which would eliminate civil service protection for top-level government workers as “the centerpiece” of Trump’s plans for his second term in the White House, writing that “sources close to the former president said that he will — as a matter of top priority — go after the national security apparatus, ‘clean house’ in the intelligence community and the State Department, target the ‘woke generals’ at the Defense Department, and remove the top layers of the Justice Department and F.B.I.”

This is a genuinely chilling piece of analysis by Edsell, because it describes a very methodical and well-funded process for transforming the independence of key agencies (like the Department of Justice) into an integrated and subordinate arm of the supreme leader, the president. That is a political design very familiar to Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

So what are the options available to citizens who love their freedoms and their democracy -- for themselves, their children, and their fellow citizens?

Lynette Ong's The Street and the Ballot Box: Interactions Between Social Movements and Electoral Politics in Authoritarian Contexts is a very welcome contribution to the problem we all face. The title encapsulates the content of the book. Ong draws upon the literatures of contentious politics, social movements, and electoral politics, on the one hand, and the experience of several countries in which authoritarian rulers have usurped democratic norms and institutions, on the other. The problem she poses is an inherently difficult one: how can a widely extended and often divided population effectively marshal strength for opposing dictatorial and violent rulers? She argues, on both theoretical and historical grounds, that social movements (informal) and electoral politics (formal) interact much more extensively than most observers think. And she underlines that concerted protest through the mechanisms of social movements do in fact have the capacity to topple dictators:

By parsing the causal mechanisms through which “stolen elections” lead to mass uprisings and the toppling of autocratic rulers, I argue that movement–election interactions are critical to understanding regime change in authoritarian contexts. A fraudulent election is a political opportunity that produces powerful emotions of moral outrage that spurs people to take to the streets, and changes their cost–benefit calculation of protest participation in high-risk authoritarian settings. Once it reaches a critical scale, mass uprisings may change the elites’ calculations, prompting some close allies of the rulers to defect, which in turn precipitates regime downfall. I survey a range of country cases across Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia to analyze how different conditions produce successful and unsuccessful revolutionary outcomes. These conditions include widespread regime grievances, availability of mobilizing structures, the movement‘s critical mass, strategic choice of violent versus nonviolent resistance, elite defection, and Western intervention. (2)

(It is of course ironic that in the same month that Ong's book was published, the far right used wholly fictitious claims of "stolen elections" to stimulate mass collective action against the legally elected new president, Joe Biden.) 

There is a great deal of theory conveyed in this short paragraph. First, it raises the question of mass mobilization: what does it take to motivate large numbers of people to come out into the street to protest an authoritarian seizure of power? She refers to "emotions of moral outrage". She also refers to a follow-on mechanism: the discouragement of some elite supporters of the dictator. (A question worth asking in the current moment is whether either factor is present in Russia today with respect to Putin's atrocious war against Ukraine. The factor of moral outrage in the public seems to be largely absent; whereas a degree of elite defection seems to have occurred.) 

Finally, Ong provides a list of prominent causal factors that influence the outcome of struggle between protesters and rulers: the depth of grievances against the regime, the presence of "mobilizing structures" (labor organizations, religious authorities, newspapers, ...); the concept of critical mass (if enough people show up in the streets, this encourages others, leading to a positive feedback loop and greater mobilization over time); the question of the choice of violence or nonviolent resistance (a key choice for Solidarity leaders and activists in Poland in 1980, who wisely chose nonviolence); elite defection; and (in the cases she considers) the possibility of external intervention. (It is dubious whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will come to the assistance of protesters in the United States.) To this list one might add the cultural and ideational factors that Doug McAdam and other scholars of contentious politics have come to give more attention to -- e.g. the strength of conviction that a harmonious democracy is worth fighting for. Elsewhere in the book she emphasizes the critical role of coalitions in opposition -- bringing together different organizations and constituencies that can be brought to see that they have an important shared interest in defeating the authoritarian ruler.

What is particularly evocative about Ong's treatment is her focus on these issues of protest against government in the context of authoritarian political environments. Her account proceeds through careful analysis of several important case studies, most extensively the case of Malaysia, but also the Philippines and the "color revolutions" of eastern Europe (Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia). (Ong frequently uses the term "revolution", but most often it is "regime change" rather than social revolution that she describes.) 

Ong's central view is that "broad-based social movements" have the capacity to force regime-change against authoritarian rulers. 

What qualifies as a broad-based movement? It is one that advocates for a cause shared across large swaths of society and identified by elites and nonelites alike. Such movement rallies are capable of mobilizing society beyond what NGOs and other typical mobilizing structures are able to do.... A cohesive coalition unites opposition parties to compete under the same banner, instead of against each other, and sustains the alliance after it has won power. (24, 26)

So here is the critical question: does the United States have the potential for creating a broad-based social movement to resist right-wing authoritarian seizure of power? Can we build effective coalitions that can agree about that goal -- even if other goals remain separate? We have seen a few national protest movements in the past ten years -- Black Lives Matter protests, protests to protect reproductive rights, and even Occupy Wall Street protests. But none of these protest movements has so far reached the "critical mass" stage, and none have proven to be sufficiently durable to present serious pressure against an authoritarian regime. Can we do better?

(Another invaluable resource for thinking about how to stand up to a fascist seizure of power in the United States is the edited volume by David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. The book was published in 2018, and regrettably, today's situation is even worse than the various authors imagined. This volume will be discussed in a later post.)


Saturday, July 30, 2022

Is there a working class in the US?


There is certainly a working class in the United States, and it is a majority of the population (persons who earn their livelihood through wage-paying employment). But it is highly fragmented, mostly in the service sector, unorganized, and often disinclined to believe in the possibility of serious social change. A recent Brookings research report by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman on low-wage workers provides a clear analysis of the current situation (link). Their report is based on US Census data (American Community Survey 2012-2016). Low-wage workers make up 44% of the US workforce (53 million workers). Median annual earnings of low-wage workers was $17,950 in 2016. 

Once Ross and Bateman have defined the criteria for "low-wage workers", they are able to perform a great deal of useful analysis on the resulting population. Where do low-wage workers find jobs? These are the jobs that represent about half of low-wage workers: retail sales workers, information and records clerks, cooks and food preparation workers, building cleaning workers, material moving workers, food and beverage serving workers, construction trades workers, material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing workers, motor vehicle operators, and personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants (Table 3, 11). The authors partition the data into nine clusters, distinguished by age and educational attainment. The largest cluster (cluster 4) is the age group 25-50, high school or less, with 27.8% of the low-wage population. This is also the largest age group overall, with 56.5% of the low-wage population.)

This map provides information about the absolute number of low-wage workers in US metropolitan areas and the share of low-wage workers in each metro area. The larger the circle the greater the absolute number, and the deeper the shade of orange, the higher the share of how-wage workers in that metro. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach Metro has the highest absolute number of low-wage workers (1.206 million, representing 55% of the wage workforce).


How much economic mobility exists for low-wage workers? Very little, the authors report; only 5% of low-wage workers found a better-paying job within a 12-month period:

Research on whether low-wage jobs are springboards or sinkholes is not encouraging. The economic mobility of low-wage workers is limited—many remain in low-wage jobs over time, even as they rely on their earnings to support themselves or their families. Women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs. One study found that, within a 12-month period, 70% of low-wage workers stayed in the same job, 6% switched to a different low-wage job, and just 5% found a better job. (39)

The authors offer a handful of policy recommendations to address the human hardships associated with low-wage jobs. First concerns education and skill-development. "There is a considerable body of evidence and practical knowledge on establishing and operating workforce programs that prepare workers—primarily those without college degrees—for in-demand jobs. That is not to say it is easy, however, or adequately funded, or that the knowledge is always implemented" (40). Programs for skill development can be funded by by public and private organizations, including Federal and local government and supported by industry and non-profit foundations. Second, they note the ongoing significance of discrimination and bias in the labor market, and the need for effective steps to counter these obstacles to economic mobility. "People of color and women are both overrepresented among low-wage workers. Echoing well-established trends, we found that much higher shares of Black and Latino or Hispanic workers are low-wage compared to white workers" (42). And third, they emphasize the need for regional strategies for economic and workforce development. They note: "A multitude of recent papers, speeches, and initiatives have highlighted structural problems in the labor market, and noted that too many workers will continue to be left behind absent dramatic policy change. Dani Rodrik and Charles Sabel formulate the issue in perhaps the starkest terms: "'Where will the good jobs come from?’ is perhaps the defining question of our contemporary political economy.'"" (43).

What is missing from this analysis of low-wage jobs? Unions, for one thing. The ten industries that represent about half of all low-wage workers have a low level of union representation. Retail sales workers and restaurant workers represent about 6.9 million low-wage workers, and collective bargaining is scarce in both sectors. If these workers -- and the other sectors on the list -- were unionized, it is unavoidable that wages would go up for these workers. But likewise, in line with the ongoing discussion of the prerequisites of significant economic reform, a strengthening of unions is also likely to lead to greater influence for political candidates and parties who support meaningful economic reforms. 

Workers in the gig economy -- Uber and Lyft drivers and food delivery drivers, for example -- appear to fall in the low-wage category, though there are various estimates of Uber driver wages in the press. One careful report from 2018 by the Economic Policy Institute estimates after-expense hourly rates for Uber drivers at $11.77 per hour in 2018 (EPI, Lawrence Mishel, link). This amounts to a fulltime annual wage of about $24,000 -- without health benefits. ZipRecruiter reports wages for Amazon warehouse workers for every state, and hourly rates range from $11.56 (North Carolina) to $18.28 (Washington) (link). The threshold that Ross and Bateman define for low-wage status is adjusted by regional cost-of-living, but ranges from $12.54 (Beckley, WV) to $20.02 (San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA), with a national average of $16.03. By these criteria both gig workers and Amazon warehouse workers fall into the category of low-wage fulltime workers.

That provides some information about the low-wage workers. But the next segment of American working people are only a little better off. Here is a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on weekly earnings of fulltime workers in second quarter 2022 (link). The table illustrates the disparities in wages by race and gender that are mentioned by Ross and Bateman. Here are the data for median weekly wages (top of second quartile) for white men ($1,161), white women ($956), black or African American men ($953), and black or African American women ($840). These are data for individual wage-earners. Household income by decile can be found here, where median household income (CPI adjusted) is reported as $69,202. In 2020 the Federal poverty guideline for a family of four was $26,200, which means that the median household makes out its existence at an income level about 2.6x the poverty line. As noted in the previous post, the economic lives of people in households at or below the median income are likely to be precarious, anxious, and paycheck to paycheck. 

So, again -- does the US have a working class, or are we overwhelmingly "middle class", suburban, and secure? The answer is evident: the majority of the US working population is involved in the wage-labor market, resulting in household incomes that barely suffice for the ordinary expenses of family living, and without significant possibility of accumulating savings or property. Further, 31.2 million people (11.5% of people under 65; link) lack health insurance -- another source of precarity, poor quality of life, and poor health. 

So there is a very large population of working people in the US whose interests are not well served by the current system of employment and social services (including education and healthcare).

But here is the much harder question: does the American political system provide avenues of coordination, mobilization, and power that would permit this majority of the population to express its interests and needs in our electoral democracy? These tens of millions of workers in the low-wage and low-middle wage range -- are they in a position to develop political identities that could underlie effective demands for meaningful change in our economic arrangements? Or are we as a national population so dispersed, divided, and mutually antagonistic that political solidarity is inconceivable?

Monday, July 25, 2022

Gross economic inequalities in the US


An earlier post (link) highlighted the growing severity of inequalities of wealth and income in the United States, as well as Elizabeth Warren's very sensible "billionaire" tax proposal. According to a 2020 article in Forbes, "According to the latest Fed data, the top 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion (or 30.4% of all household wealth in the U.S.), while the bottom 50% of the population holds just $2.1 trillion combined (or 1.9% of all wealth)" (Forbes, link). That bears repeating: 1% of Americans own 30.45% of wealth in the United States, while the bottom 50% owns under 2% of wealth. Those disparities in wealth have worsened during the past two years of pandemic. The Forbes story notes that Elon Musk's wealth increased from $100 million to $240 million in the first eight months of 2020, and Jeff Bezos' wealth increased by $65 billion in 2020.

A recent story in the New Yorker on mega-yachts underlines the obscene imbalance that exists between the super rich and the rest of us. Evan Osnos' "The Floating World" offers a glimpse into the mega-luxury and consumption associated with super-yachts (link). Much of the world's attention to super-yachts has gravitated to the Russian oligarchs and the economic sanctions that have resulted in seizure of a number of multiple-hundred-million dollar ships around the world. But of course, it is not only Russian oligarchs who have captured their nations' wealth. Oligarchs and billionaires from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Central America are part of the same bleak picture.

The level of consumption on luxury involved in the world of super-yachts in the article is obscene in the original sense of the word; it is a conspicuous display of wealth that makes one sick. The idea that a single individual or family would have the financial ability to purchase a 500-million dollar ship (limited by maritime law to carrying only 12 guests and unlimited crew) is grotesque. (Osnos quotes a luxury yacht industry estimate that the annual cost of maintaining a mega-yacht is 10% of its purchase cost. So a half-billion dollar ship requires $50 million in annual maintenance.) And this grotesquerie is especially stark in a world where global and national poverty are persistent obstacles to free human development for the world's population and climate change imperils everyone. (Osnos notes that experts estimate that "one well-stocked diesel yacht is estimated to produce as much greenhouse gas as fifteen hundred passenger cars".)

It is impossible to describe the situation of wealth inequality in the United States as anything other than a "laissez-faire robber baron regime" of wealth creation and consumption. We functionally have no effective tax policy that constrains the accumulation of hundreds of billions of dollars by a small number of individuals and families.

Here is a very interesting video panel organized by the Brookings Institution on the current status of wealth-tax proposals (link). Especially interesting in the discussion is the emphasis on wider positive effects of a wealth tax, including a shift in political power and an enhancement of racial and gender equity.

So what about the rest of us -- the population falling below the 90th-percentile of income? Here is a graph of recent income-distribution data by select percentiles (link):


Several things are apparent from this graph of income distribution. (It is important to recall that the distribution of wealth is much more extreme than the distribution of income.) First, the median household income (50th percentile of households) is $67,463. This is just under 2.5 times the Federal poverty level for a household of four individuals. This income is pre-tax; so the monthly budget of the median household is roughly $4,000 per month. This is a very tight budget that must cover all expenses: housing, food, transportation, clothing, healthcare, and so on. It is clear that households at the 50th percentile are financially struggling, and are unlikely to be able to afford a mortgage on a house. These Americans are also likely to be unable to save significantly, including savings for future educational costs for their children. Second, the 99th-percentile household income is about 7.5 times the median household income. A family with over $500,000 household income has no month-to-month financial constraints; it is not difficult to save significant resources over time; and owning property for this household is entirely feasible. 

What would a more equitable world look like? Robert Lynch attempts to construct a rough estimate of the economic benefits of achieving economic equity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines in "The economic benefits of equal opportunity in the United States by ending racial, ethnic, and gender disparities" (Equitable Growth, link). Here are the reforms that Lynch believes are crucial for substantive progress on equality of opportunity without regard to race, ethnicity, or gender:

To achieve an equal-opportunity society where there are no barriers to economic success that are the consequence of race, ethnicity, or gender disparities would obviously require tackling overt racism and sexism.

But true equal opportunity requires more than that. It involves addressing many other disparities that undermine worker productivity, such as unequal access to jobs, education, credit in the form of home mortgages and business loans, affordable child care, high-quality pre-Kindergarten, and senior care; inconsistencies in family leave and workplace policies and in treatment in the justice system; imbalances in access to healthcare and insurance; unequal exposure to damaging levels of environmental pollutants; and inadequate and unequal access to high-quality physical infrastructure, which is essential to maximizing economic efficiency.

Here is his conclusion:

The U.S. economic consequences of eliminating racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities are large, particularly for individuals of color and women. The total earnings in the nation would swell well beyond what they currently are, and the incomes of Black, Hispanic, and Asian workers would be substantially higher. The largest earnings gains would be experienced by non-Hispanic White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian women.

Whose wealth is it anyway? The libertarian laissez-faire ideology is that the "creators" of wealth are solely responsible for this wealth, and it morally and legally belongs to them. But a much more credible view is that a national economy is a vast and extended system of economic cooperation, with a substantial "social product" that should not be captured by a small number of strategically located actors. The term "rent-seeking" appears to apply perfectly here. There is also the familiar but spurious argument that vast inequalities are needed in order to generate incentives for productivity and innovation. This argument is spurious: first, much innovation comes forward from ordinary participants in economic activity who rarely see financial benefits from their innovations; and second, it is laughable to imagine that only the prospect of a $200-billion windfall would motivate an "entrepreneur" to his or her wild and crazy new ideas. Would the prospect of a billion-dollar windfall not work as an incentive? Would $100 million not work? Ha! The idea of the moral or economic inevitability of unlimited wealth accumulation is simply self-serving ideology.

In large strokes the Warren wealth tax proposal represents a moderate tax on the super-rich; and it could have a very large impact on a range of issues of political stability, economic equity, and equality of opportunity that are crucial for the future of our democracy.


Monday, July 11, 2022

English socialism



What were the social conditions that led many English intellectuals in the 1930s to engage in fundamental critique of the society in which they lived? Why was social criticism so profound and sustained in Britain from the time of Carlyle and Engels to the surge of English socialism in the 1930s?

The answer, of course, is the harshness and cruelty of capitalism and the rapid industrialization and slummification of cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and London in the 1840s and the century that followed. It was the perfectly visible immiseration of British working people, and the growing conviction that this was a systemic consequence of the new economic order, that inspired observers as politically diverse as Carlyle and Engels to write their descriptions and denunciations of the emerging economic system (link, link). And it was this perception of systemic exploitation and ruin that led critics to try to imagine a social and economic system that would make those evils impossible.

These critiques were not primarily driven by ideology; they were not driven by an antecedent political program. Instead, many of these social critics were conducting what we might today call "micro-sociology", investigating and documenting the modes of life found in particular communities. The programs for radical change came next. Radicalism did not create the conditions of poverty, bad health, and demoralization that Carlyle, Engels, or Orwell described; rather, the range of socialist visions that appeared were responses to the social dysfunctions that were entirely visible in 19th- and 20th-century capitalism.

If one witnesses the debris and death of a plane crash, one is saddened for the loss of life, but it is possible to think of the crash as a tragic accident. But when one reads of the extraordinary rates of fatal and maiming accidents in the coal-mining industry, the "unfortunate accident" view is not tenable. The high rate of accidents observed is systemic, deriving from the management's failure to invest in appropriate safety equipment and processes as a means of propping up profits as well as the utter lack of effective state regulation of mine safety.

Likewise, a single impoverished family is a sad event; whereas a whole impoverished class is systemic and must be treated as such. A social order that consigns 40% of its population to extreme poverty, illiteracy, and poor health is an unacceptable social order. It must be changed. This was the conviction that was shared by a broad swath of observers of English society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But what form might that change take? That was the question that faced social critics at the end of the nineteenth century. And the question continued through the Great Depression into the 1930s. For many critics, the answer was some form of socialism.

Consider George Orwell and his work of documentary journalism, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). The book was commissioned by the Left Book Club, organized by Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski, and John Strachey, to investigate unemployment in the Midland industrial regions. The first half of the book is based on careful and exact observation of the conditions of life and work of the coal miners and their families in industrial northern England. (Wigan is roughly midway between Manchester and Liverpool.) The conditions of work and living that Orwell describes are horrible and dehumanizing. The work of coal mining was highly dangerous, with high rates of injury and death; the pay was poor, with many deductions; the work was physically tasking in the extreme (Orwell describes the harrowing trudge from the "cage" to the coal face in terms that are almost Promethean in their physical demands); and the working day involved manually moving tons of coal from the coal face to the conveyer belt by miners crouched on their knees. Living conditions were awful as well, both in the central slums and in the scarce and shoddy new housing slowly being built by the municipalities. Sanitation was primitive, living spaces were damp and bug-infested, and every lodging was severely over-crowded. And work was scarce, with high rates of unemployment in every family. Orwell conveys great respect for the men and women whom he meets during his time in the industrial north, but he is also clear-eyed about the dehumanization created by poverty, malnutrition, and precarious and squalid housing.

The critique of the systemic immiseration created by capitalism raised the urgent question of change. But it doesn't determine the answer. Can the worst features of capitalism be reformed? Can the effective political power of working people be increased and brought to bear in support of measures like unemployment insurance, retirement security, and access to education and healthcare? Can extreme economic inequalities be managed through tax policies? That is, are there possible adjustments to capitalist ownership that retain the main features of capitalism but ensure the fundamental interests of working people? We might describe this as reform of laissez-faire capitalism in the direction of "capitalism with a human face", welfare capitalism, or social democracy. Roosevelt's New Deal represented ambitious efforts along these lines, including programs to address mass unemployment (the Works Progress Administration) and old-age poverty (the Social Security Administration). Marx and his followers in the serial Internationals argued that piecemeal reform of capitalism was not possible -- "capitalist ownership implies capitalist dictatorship" -- but that is simple dogma. Perhaps strong labor unions and a progressive political party can institute and preserve social-democratic reforms within the broad confines of a market economy.

Second, if the critic is persuaded that private ownership and management of industrial firms is itself the cause of immiseration -- because owners are under constant profit imperatives of cost reduction, leading to negative pressure on wages and strong resistance to taxation for social programs -- then a second broad avenue for reform is democratic socialism. If private ownership of industry leads to immiseration, then reformers are led to consider social ownership of some kind. Here the slogan might be: democratic institutions govern the state, and a system of social ownership owns and manages productive wealth. Here again there are multiple scenarios to imagine. One possible arrangement of social ownership might involve municipal ownership, much as utility companies were once owned by public authorities. Another possible arrangement is workers' cooperatives (link, link), in which the employees of a firm are also the owners. Again, this is not an unknown arrangement even within an advanced capitalist economy. These alternative systems of social ownership can be described as varieties of democratic socialism, with distributed ownership of the means of production.

Yet another arrangement that might capture the purposes of democratic social control of the economy and decent outcomes for all members of society is the system that John Rawls describes as a property-owning democracy (link). On this view, political institutions embody democratic values of maximal equal liberties and democratic decision-making. And economic institutions are essentially arranged around "mutual funds" owned by all citizens that own enterprises and are subject to democratic oversight by their shareholders (citizens). Rawls writes:

Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle. (Justice as Fairness, 138)

Paradoxically, the worst conception of change, though also the most appealing to critics who demanded radical change quickly, was Lenin's: revolution rather than reform, dictatorship of the proletariat rather than broad democratic equality. We can now see that the Leninist program was wrong from the start, because it presupposed the establishment of a totalitarian state through which the "bourgeois dictatorship" of property would be abolished and the dictatorship of the vanguard party would be installed. The NKVD, the Gulag, and the Holodomor were the consequences of that vision.

So what did progressive, independent English observers want when it came to social reform? What did Orwell want? Orwell declared himself in favor of socialism and against Soviet Communism, and he was consistent in both views from the 1930s through the end of his life. But what did he mean by socialism?

One place where Orwell stated his ideas about the future fairly clearly was his 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" (link). Here is a passage where he addresses the meaning of socialism directly:

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea, etc., etc.) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment. (Part II, section i)

This paragraph demonstrates what is in hindsight a regrettable lack of nuance: Orwell moves directly from "common ownership of the means of production" to "the State ... owns everything". But as noted above, there are many ways of designing a system of social ownership of the means of production (municipal ownership, workers' cooperatives, ...) that do not involve state ownership. So Orwell slips too quickly to the conclusion that a socialist economy must involve state ownership of the means of production. And second, the paragraph is utopian in its assumption that "The State simply calculates what goods will be needed...". The experience of state-owned ministries in the Soviet Union and China demonstrates the failures that are likely in the model of centralized state planning and management of the economy to which he refers (link). So Orwell's summary definition of socialism is flawed on its face. But Orwell has the foresight to add several crucial qualifications to "state ownership" in the next paragraph:

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. (Part II, section i)

This is the needed corrective. Here we have a capsule description of democratic socialism, involving some form of social ownership of the means of production; a commitment to preventing excessive inequalities (through taxation and egalitarian educational opportunity); and a commitment to political democracy and individual rights and liberties.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell proposes a six-point plan for socialism in Britain that expresses a more modest goal of "social ownership":

I. Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
II. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
III. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
IV. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
V. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the [colonized] peoples are to be represented.
VI. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers. (Part III, sect. ii)

Most of the elements of this program are resonant with the model of democratic socialism described above. Moreover, much of the first recommendation (nationalization of major industries) was in fact carried out by the post-war Labour government, through nationalization of the coal industry and eventually railroads, natural gas, electricity, and iron and steel. And the other points illustrate valid socialist goals as well: constraining economic inequalities; ensuring equality of opportunity in education; and divesting Britain of its colonial empire.

All of that said, Orwell was not Keynes; he was not a systematic thinker about social and economic institutions. If we want a detailed, plausible, and workable version of a democratic-socialist Britain, we will have to look elsewhere. Rather, Orwell was a social observer who was passionately committed to the value of the full human development of all members of society; secure equality of opportunity; constrained levels of economic inequality; and full embodiment of political and individual rights and liberties. What he observed in the slums and coal mines of Yorkshire and Lancashire was a human reality at a vast distance from full human development and the equal worth of all members of society. What he demanded was a social, economic, and political order that ended these inexcusable conditions for a large fraction of British society.

(Here is a post that offers a critique of contemporary conditions of work in a large American industry -- Amazon fulfillment centers (link), and the dehumanization and economic stagnation that this business model implies for its workers. One can only hope that union organizers will become increasingly successful at Amazon warehouses.)


Thursday, July 7, 2022

HB Acton's version of Marxism


H. B. Acton gained celebrity with the publication of Illusion of the Epoch in 1955, supposedly as a serious philosopher's even-handed exposition of the philosophy expressed in Marx's writings. Acton was not an especially influential philosopher, and he certainly does not stand in the first ranks of post-war British philosophy. He taught philosophy at the London School of Economics, Bedford College (London), the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Chicago. (It is difficult to find biographical information about Acton; for example, where did he complete his doctoral studies, and who were his primary influences?) And the book misses much that is of interest in Marx in the interest of tying Marx to Hegel at one end and to Lenin and Stalin at the other.

It seems likely that much of the celebrity of the book derived from its title, "Illusion of the Epoch", which seemed to imply that Acton would unveil Marxism as the illusion of the epoch of the 1930s through 50s. But he never explains the title, and in fact it is borrowed from the German Ideology in an entirely different context. The conservative foundation and publisher Liberty Fund republished the book in 1962, and it is easy to speculate that "the Marxist illusion" was a major selling point of the book to the New Liberty editorial board. Certainly Acton's book falls far short in two crucial ways: it is not a credible interpretation of Marx's philosophical ideas, and it does not expressly say why Marxism is an illusion. We can guess, but the book doesn't provide an argument or explanation.

Most fundamentally, Acton's premise in Illusion was ... illusory. He began with the assumption that the philosophy expressed in Marx's writings is fully and adequately expressed in the writings of Lenin and Stalin; in fact, he treats "Marxism" as "Marxist-Leninism". As a result, he vastly overestimates the importance of "dialectical method" in Marx's writings -- let alone the coherence or importance of "dialectical materialism" for Marx, since this is not a phrase that Marx used anywhere in his corpus. (The phrase was coined by a follower of Marx four years after his death, in 1887.) This takes us off on a wild-goose chase in the book, since the reader came with an interest in Marx's thinking as a philosopher, and what the reader got instead was a rowboat piloted by Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. But if -- as I believe -- Marx put aside the philosophical claptrap of Hegelian dialectics when he turned to thinking seriously about history and political economy, then the elaborate exposition that Acton provides interpreting Hegel on the one hand and Lenin on the other hand is entirely useless when it comes to interpreting Marx's philosophical and theoretical thinking.

The superficiality of Acton's treatment of Marx is evident throughout the book. Here are a few broad, sweeping, and silly statements:

We have now seen that, on the Marxist view, everything is changing, and that periods of gradual change are interspersed with sudden changes in which new types of being come to birth. Marxists regard it as a merit of their theory that it is also capable of explaining why nature changes at all. (85)

We have not so far discussed the proposition that all things are ‘‘organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other.’’ That things are not so connected is the thesis of ‘‘metaphysics,’’ in Engels’ sense of the word. What sort of unity of the world, then, do Marxist philosophers assert? It is easy to see that, on their view, nature is one, inasmuch as it is fundamentally material—there is nothing in nature that is not based in matter. (91)

These are certainly not Marx's views. Whether it is a credible interpretation of Engels' view or Lenin's view, I'm not sure. But Engels and Lenin are not Marx. And it is hard to see how a person who has read Capital could seriously suggest that these views underlie Marx's effort to understand capitalism.

Part I of Illusion is therefore fundamentally irrelevant to Marx's approach to understanding the contemporary world (capitalism). What about Part II, where Acton turns to "historical materialism"? Here Acton adopts another red herring -- the idea that historical materialism is meant as a serious effort to explain religion and religious consciousness and ideology (100). These are highly subordinate concerns for Marx, and he gives little specific attention to how material social institutions influence or "determine" ideological frameworks. Rather, Marx is interested in explaining the large systemic changes in history.

Finally, after dozens of pages, Acton arrives at a sensible statement of Marx's theory of historical materialism:

The main point, then, of the Materialist Conception of History is as follows. The basis of any human society is the tools, skills, and technical experience prevalent in it, i.e., the productive forces. For any given set of productive forces there is a mode of social organization necessary to utilize them, i.e., the productive relationships. The sum total of productive relationships in any society is called by Marx its ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, he holds, is the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. Radical changes in the basis sooner or later bring about changes in the superstructure, so that the prime cause of any radical political or moral transformation must be changes in the productive forces. In effect, the idea is that human society has a ‘‘material basis’’ consisting of the productive forces and associated productive relationships. This is also called the ‘‘economic structure.’’ This, in its turn, determines the form that must in the long run be taken by the legal and political institutions of the society in question. Less directly but no less really dependent on the economic structure of society are its moral and aesthetic ideas, its religion, and its philosophy. The key to the understanding of law, politics, morals, religion, and philosophy is the nature and organization of the productive forces. (128-129)

This is a reasonable statement of Marx's general theory of historical materialism; but it is no more than a close paraphrase of the summary offered by Marx in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) (link). No subtle reinterpretation of Marx's meaning is required; Acton's paragraph simply paraphrases the parallel text in the preface to the Contribution. And, once again, Acton defeats his own goal (to interpret Marx's philosophical ideas) by turning immediately to Stalin's and Lenin's counterpart ideas.

In Part III Acton turns to what he calls "Marxist Ethics". Here again, much of the discussion has to do with what Lenin and Stalin had to say about ethics. But, as above, this is a different subject. Here is an example:

It will be remembered that in Chapter I of Part One of this book I called attention to the fact that one of Lenin’s arguments against phenomenalism was that phenomenalism is a form of idealism, that idealism is a disguised form of religion, that religion is dangerous to communism, and that therefore phenomenalism should be rejected. Basic to this argument is the assumption that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to be a hindrance to the victory of the proletariat under Communist Party leadership. In still more general terms, Lenin’s argument assumes that it is legitimate to reject a philosophical theory on the ground that it appears to conflict with a political movement supposed to be working for the long-term interests of mankind. (191)

As a treatment of Marx's thought, there is almost nothing to recommend in Acton's book. So why dwell on a book that has so little philosophical insight into its subject matter? Because this book is one of the texts from the 1940s and 1950s that set the terms for philosophers' understanding of Marx; and because the book is a bumbling trivialization of Marx's ideas. A much better introduction and overview of Marx's thought was provided by Isaiah Berlin in 1939 in Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. And Berlin was a much more penetrating philosopher than Acton. (Using Google NGram tool, it emerges that book mentions of Isaiah Berlin are more than 1000 times more frequent than for Harry Acton since 1950.) Even Sherwood Eddy's introduction to Marx in the 1934 volume The Meaning of Marx, short though it is, does a much better job of introducing the reader to Marx's central ideas (link). On the other hand, if we want to understand why Stalinism was a moral catastrophe, we would do better to read The God That Failed, including autobiographical essays by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender. (Richard Wright's essay is particularly powerful.) These personal statements make much more vivid the appeal of Marxism for intellectuals concerned about social justice in the 1930s, and shed much more light on the totalitarian disaster that doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism led to at every level -- from Moscow and Kiev to Berlin to Milan to Chicago.

Acton's book reflects the very low level of interest or knowledge that analytic philosophers of the 1950s had in Marx as an original thinker, as opposed to a talisman and predecessor for totalitarian communist regimes in the USSR and its satellites. A return to serious, critical study of Marx would have to wait for another generations of philosophers in the 1980s.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

Sidney Hook's theory of education in a democracy


Philosopher Sidney Hook is best remembered for his debates with other philosophers and engaged political figures about Marxism and Communism (link). My interest here is in a different part of his work after World War II, his philosophy of education. Hook was a student of John Dewey, the author of Democracy and Education, but ultimately Hook had more to say about what educational values ought to guide a modern university than did Dewey. Much of Hook's theory was expressed in Education for Modern Man, published in 1946 and republished and extended in 1963. The book has a striking degree of relevance today in the context of debates over curriculum both inside universities and outside. What is the value of a liberal education? Is a "Great Books" curriculum a good basis for a liberal education in a democracy? How should the content of a liberal education be made compatible with "education for a career"? And what ideas are out of bounds within a university classroom? Hook had trenchant answers to all of these questions. (Here is an earlier post on the question of how to define the goals of a liberal education; link.)

Let's begin with Hook's assessment of the state of liberal education in post-World War II America.

Whatever a liberal education is, few American colleges offer it. Despite the well advertised curricular reforms in a few of our leading colleges, by and large the colleges of the country present a confused picture of decayed classical curriculums, miscellaneous social science offerings, and narrowing vocational programs -- the whole unplanned and unchecked by leading ideas. What one finds in most colleges cannot be explained in terms of a consciously held philosophy of education, but rather through the process of historical accretion. The curriculum of a typical college is like a series of wandering and intersecting corridors opening on rooms of the most divergent character. Even the cellar and attic are not where one expects to find them. (4)

Hook proposes that educators need to think more carefully about the purpose and goals of a college education.

The discussion will revolve around four generic questions:

  1. What should the aims or ends of education be, and how should we determine them?
  2. What should its skills and content be, and how can they be justified?
  3. By what methods and materials can the proper educational skills and content be most effectively communicated in order to achieve the desirable ends?
  4. How are the ends and means of education related to a democratic social order?

A satisfactory answer to these questions should provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of what constitutes a liberal education in modern times. (6)

He unpacks these questions around a statement of seven fundamental "learning goals" for a university education:
  1. Education should aim to develop the powers of critical, independent thought.
  2. It should attempt to induce sensitiveness of perception, significantly associated with the different receptiveness to new ideas, imaginative sympathy with the experiences of others.
  3. It should produce an awareness of the main streams of our cultural, literary, and scientific traditions.
  4. It should make available important bodies of knowledge concerning nature, society, ourselves, our country, and its history.
  5. It should strive to cultivate an intelligent loyalty to the ideals of the democratic community and to deepen understanding of the heritage of freedom and the prospects of its survival.
  6. At some level, it should equip young men and women with the general skills and techniques and the specialized knowledge which, together with the virtues and aptitudes already mentioned, will make it possible for them to do some productive work related to their capacities and interests.
  7. It should strengthen those inner resources and traits of character which enable the individual, when necessary, to stand alone. (55)
Each of these goals is noteworthy. Goals 3 and 4 are "content" goals concerning the kinds of knowledge that graduates need to have gained in order to be able to confront the personal and social challenges that lie in their future. Goal 6 recognizes and endorses the idea that the graduate needs to be prepared for productive work and career. Goals 1 and 7 concern the qualities of character we can hope for in our graduates: independence of mind and courage of their convictions. Goals 2 and 5 are specifically important for "education for democracy": cultivation of the skills of understanding and accepting difference (racial, religious, economic), and cultivation of loyalty to the institutions of democracy and freedom. (Hook specifically calls out the fact that Weimar-educated engineering and technical students were among Hitler's strongest supporters; 24-25.)

An important goal in Hook's account (goal 2) is preparation of the student for a diverse world of different people, different religions, and different races. Hook describes the goal:

The existence of democratic communities in which individuals of conflicting religious faiths and metaphysical beliefs sincerely co-operate in democracy's support indicates that it is possible to find criteria for accepting democracy that do not depend on revelation or intuition. (62)

In our language today, we might say that Hook in interested in education for inclusiveness in a pluralistic society. How can we go about that task, in Hook's view? Part of his answer is the experience of thinking imaginatively about the human experience of others, and this means cultivating the skills of empathy and compassion.

What does it mean to think about a play, or about a poem, or about people? It means also to feel, to imagine, to conjure up a vision. Not only that but also that. Why is it that we often say to some thoughtless person, "Put yourself in his place"? To another, "You haven't got the feel or the hang of it"? To a third, "You understand everything about the situation except what really matters"? We do not convey truths by this way of speaking, but we help others to find the truth. (27)

Here the idea is the importance of helping the student to gain the cognitive-emotional capacities of "understanding the other person's experience", or empathy. And this can be part of many aspects of a university experience, from reading history to studying and experiencing art, poetry, and drama. (In this way Hook seems to anticipate Martha Nussbaum's arguments in Cultivating Humanity.)

And then there is the question of "relevance" versus "traditional civilizational texts and values". Hook thinks this is a false dichotomy. He entirely endorses the idea that a college education should prepare the student to think critically and courageously about the most important problems that confront him or her at the present; so involvement in contemporary issues and problems is important (relevance). But he also believes that the history of human texts -- Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe -- can provide the student with some of the resources of imagination and understanding that are necessary for this task (119 ff.). Consider his view of what a student needs in order to come to grips with fascism or totalitarianism:

Let us examine some concrete illustrations of contemporary problems and issues, so despised by traditionalists, in order to see what would be involved in their adequate understanding. Nothing is more contemporary than present-day totalitarianism in its various forms. Can its nature be understood without a social and economic analysis of capitalism and its periodic cycles? Can we come to grips with its rationalizations, and understand our own minds in relation to it, without some study of the ideas of men like Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Hegel, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato? Can theories of race and racial supremacy be exposed without a sound knowledge of biology and some familiarity with the elements of scientific method? Can an intelligent analysis be made of proposals that the West disarm unilaterally in the belief that the Soviet Union will follow suit, without a study of the pacts and treaties previously entered into by the Kremlin and the score of their fulfillment? (124)

In other words, a broad and deep exposure to history, literature, social science, natural science, and philosophy is highly "relevant" to the problems associated with confronting totalitarianism.

Hook is most assuredly a harsh critic of the "Great Books" theory of college curriculum (St. Johns College, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler). His objection is not to "dry-as-dust" old books; rather, it is an objection to the dogma that the books speak for themselves, and that there is no need to try to connect the insights of these authors to the problems of the present and the recent past. This is to make a fetish of the "monuments" of Western civilization.

Hook also argues for the importance of knowledge of "social studies" -- the basics of economics, sociology, political science -- for every student, because these areas of knowledge provide the context for events, crises, and problems that arise in every profession and every period of history.

The knowledge and insight that the social studies can give are necessary for every student because no matter what his specialized pursuits may later be, the extent to which he can follow them, and the "contextual" developments within these fields, depend upon the total social situation of which they are in some sense a part. An engineer today whose knowledge is restricted only to technical matters of engineering, or a physician whose competence extends only to the subject matter of traditional medical training, is ill-prepared to plan intelligently for a life-career or to understand the basic problems that face his profession. (140)

This is a prescient point, and the examples of engineering and medicine are especially important. (Think of the moral and social complexities of facial recognition technologies.) The liberally educated engineer or physician is much better prepared to confront the social and moral complexities of their work than the physician who pursued the bare minimum of "distribution courses" in a race to get to an engineering graduate program or medical school.

This point has to do with a graduate's readiness for his or her professional responsibilities. But Hook observes that one's responsibilities as a citizen within a democracy have even greater need for a basic understanding of the social processes that surround government, the economy, social inequalities, racism, or health disparities. It is impossible to engage fully and productively in the affairs of a democracy if one has no understanding of how social and economic processes work.

And now we come to the role of values within a college curriculum. Hook believes that there are a range of "civic" values that universities must help students attain -- respect for others, devotion to the rule of law, commitment to democracy -- which means that a college education is not fundamentally value-free. Universities do indeed need to convey values to their students. But these are civic values -- the values that are necessary for a democracy to thrive.

Finally, to teach values means to develop within students a willingness to commit themselves to new values, and to reaffirm or to reject the values to which they find themselves previously committed. When this is done after the value alternatives which are being excluded have been presented, then it can be said we are teaching that some values are better than others. (178)

This is not dogmatism or a doctrinaire approach to values education; it is couched in terms of critical thinking and reflection. But its goal is to reinforce the stability of a democracy -- a condition that Hook knew only too well could not be taken for granted.

Hook's philosophy of education, formulated as it was in the late 1940s, is remarkably relevant to the current challenges that universities face in providing their students with the tools they will need to be independent thinkers, effective professionals, and committed citizens. Much better it would be to have this conversation with Sidney Hook and John Dewey than with Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

A 1934 debate about communism among American philosophers


The appeal of Marxist socialism -- communism -- as an alternative to the consumerism, inequality, and exploitation of European and American capitalism was a powerful draw for many intellectuals in the 1930s, especially in the context of the great Depression and widespread crisis and deprivation of the 1930s. This interest extended to many prominent American philosophers. It is a credit to philosophy that these philosophers took on the great issues of the day and engaged seriously with them.

1934 was an especially intense time for intellectual and political debate between defenders of liberal democracy and advocates for some version of communism. The Depression was in full swing, and there was a widespread view in Britain, France, and the United States among intellectuals that capitalism was bankrupt -- incapable of solving the social problems it created and confronted. On the other side, the enormous failures of Stalinist Communism were not yet as visible in the west in1934 as they would be in 1954. The Moscow Show Trials were still five years in the future, the Holodomor was not yet widely known in the west, and -- at least in its propaganda image -- Soviet economic planning had succeeded in transforming a backward society into a rapidly developing modern industrial economy.

A particularly interesting document from 1934 is a symposium called The Meaning of Marx (link) including contributions by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, and Sherwood Eddy. All of the contributors except Eddy are leading philosophers in the analytic and pragmatist traditions of philosophy, and their comments and reflections on communism as a social-political system are highly interesting.

Sherwood Eddy and Sidney Hook frame the symposium with articles entitled "An Introduction to the Study of Marx" (Eddy) and "The Meaning of Marx" (Hook). Dewey, Russell, and Cohen offer brief essays on the topic, "Why I am not a Communist", and Sidney Hook has the final word with an essay called "Communism without Dogmas". This period of debate is much more interesting and substantive than the vitriolic animosities expressed in the 1950s under the conditions of McCarthyism, because each of these authors makes a serious and sustained effort to make sense of the historical events through which they are living. (In 1937 Dewey and Hook were also actively involved in supporting Leon Trotsky against Stalin's accusations following the Moscow show trials of 1936.)

Sherwood Eddy

Sherwood Eddy is not a familiar name, but he was a prominent Protestant educator and missionary, educated at Yale and Princeton Theological Seminary. What is striking about Eddy's essay is the unstinting admiration he expresses for the ideology and values of Soviet Communism. Eddy's interpretation of social change remains "religious" in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx; most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and "continuing revolution," when to Marx's philosophy is added Lenin's false dictum that "great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force," most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being "wreckers," class enemies, etc. When this philosophy--that great problems are solved "only by violence"--is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)

Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin's version of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". The war on the kulaks -- the Holodomor -- was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook was a well-known philosopher, with a political commitment to radical change and a willingness to defend Communist ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s. He became anti-Communist and anti-Stalinist beginning in 1933 and broke fully from the Communist International by 1939, but remained on the left as a democratic socialist. Hook came to be regarded by some on the left as a renegade and new conservative, but Tony Judt disagrees strongly with that view:

He became an aggressively socialist critic of communism. The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 226)

So what was Hook's position in 1934? He believed that it was valuable to distinguish between Communism (the specific version implemented after the Russian Revolution) and communism (the ideal theory implied by Marx's writings on post-capitalist society). Hook's goal in "The Meaning of Marx" is to express what he thinks Marx's writings actually imply about "communism". And he believes, even in 1934, that Stalinism was a cruel perversion of that vision of the future, but that Marx's own conception was the correct pathway for modern people to follow.

Here is the first premise of Hook's view:

Marxism [urges] social action which aims by the revolutionary transformation of society to introduce a classless socialist society. (33)

What is a "classless society"?

The abolition of private ownership of the social means of production spells the abolition of all economic classes. (38)

This point reflects a double-pronged theory on Marx's part: ownership confers massive economic advantage to one group over another, and that advantage is transformed into the political power needed to sustain the class system itself against the protests of the under-class.

Hook then turns to the political implications of this socio-economic analysis of capitalism. How can the working class gain political power over the propertied class? His account has three features -- militant action by the masses of workers for improved conditions, coordination with "intermediate and subordinate groups" to change the existing order, and to "destroy the myth of the impartiality of the state" in order to effectively demand social and political revolution (47).

So what about dictatorship and democracy in Marxist socialism? Hook argues that Marx's conception involves a genuine version of democracy that is different from liberal democracy: "proletarian democracy".

Against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, Marx opposed the ideal of a workers' or proletarian democracy. His criticism of political democracy in bourgeois society is that it is a sham democracy for workers--a sham democracy because, no matter what their paper privileges may be, the workers cannot control the social conditions of their life.

In the nature of the case, a workers' democracy--based upon collective ownership of the means of production--does not involve democracy for bankers, capitalists and their supporters who would bring back a state of affairs which would make genuine social democracy impossible. (49)

How is proletarian democracy different from dictatorship?

According to Marx, in at least two important respects. First, it expresses the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, and by providing a social environment in which human values rather than property values are the guiding principles of social control permits the widest development of free and equal personality. Second, as the democratic processes of socialist economy expand and embrace in its productive activities the elements of the population which were formerly hostile, the repressive functions of the estate gradually disappear. (49).

This paragraph has the tragic ring of utopian optimism about the "withering away of the state", and observers of the logic of Stalinist repression would note -- this expectation of gradual democratization is absurdly unlikely. It sounds like an op-ed piece in the Daily Worker. Hook is strongly opposed to the dictatorship of the party (50); but the logic of power demonstrates that what he describes is a fairy tale. And later in his career, it is doubtful that Hook would have claimed or expected such a benign development. I will return to Hook's views later.

Bertrand Russell

Russell responds directly to the question, "Why I am not a Communist'. He makes it clear that by "Communist" he means "a person who accepts the doctrines of the Third International" (52) -- that is, a Stalinist. His reasons are stated succinctly. He denies "historical necessity" to any particular process of historical change -- including the necessary triumph of socialism over capitalism. He finds the theories of value and surplus value in Marx to be indefensible. He rejects the concept of "heroic infallibility" of any individual -- whether of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Unlike Hook, he takes the "dictatorship of the proletariat" at its plain meaning and rejects it because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. As a sociological fact he observes that Soviet Communism is highly repressive of liberty -- freedom of thought and expression -- and he rejects it on that basis as well.

He also has several more minor objections. Marx glorifies manual work over intellectual work. "Class war" is unlikely to succeed, and politics should proceed through persuasion rather than violence. Communism is grounded in hate, and hate is not a basis for social reconciliation. The claim that we must choose between communism and fascism is a wholly false choice; there is a third alternative -- liberal progressive democracy.

John Dewey

John Dewey's response to the question is similar to Russell's. Soviet Communism is authoritarian, repressive, and dogmatic. The Communist view of history is deterministic and monistic. The primacy Marxism gives to class conflict over-estimates this particular economic source of conflict within society Worse, the threat of proletarian uprising is likely to bring about fascism. Communist politics -- the behavior of the Communist state and its functionaries -- rely on lies, deception, and betrayal. And social change created only through violence by one group against another cannot succeed.

Were a large scale revolution to break out in highly industrialized America, where the middle class is stronger, more militant and better prepared than anywhere else in the world, it would either be abortive, drowned in a blood bath, or if it were victorious, would win only a Pyrrhic victory. The two sides would destroy the country and each other. (56)

Dewey's response gives the impression of a person who has reflected seriously both on history and on the pro's and con's of communism. His rejection of communism is fully considered and reflective.

Morris Raphael Cohen

Morris Cohen too gives powerful intellectual and personal reasons why he is not a communist. He finds Marx's political economy highly illuminating; but the associated theory of revolution and socialism is unacceptable to him. Most importantly, the experience of Soviet Communism is a humanly appalling example of repression and dictatorship. Cohen makes a very interesting historical point: uprisings by single groups almost always lead to disaster, massacre, and oppressive reaction (58). Profound social change requires a high level of social concurrence. He draws attention to the social violence that the USSR is brought to impose:

To this day the Communist regime dare not declare openly in favor of nationalizing the land. Their system of cooperatives is frankly an attempt--and I do not believe it will be a successful attempt--to evade the peasants' unalterable opposition to communism so far as their own property is concerned. (59)

(Here again -- the collectivization of farmland in Ukraine and the horrendous war of starvation against the kulaks was just beginning in 1933-34 in the USSR.)

Rather than harsh dictatorial imposition of the will of one class over another, Cohen offers the view that real social change requires cooperation among social groups:

If the history of the past is any guide at all, it is that real improvements in the future will come like the improvements of the past, namely, through cooperation between different groups, each of which is wise enough to see the necessity of compromising with those with whom we have to live together and whom we cannot or do not wish to exterminate. (60)

And, like Russell, he believes that the argument that one must choose between communism and fascism is entirely specious:

When the communists tell me that I must choose between their dictatorship and fascism I feel that I am offered the choice between being shot or being hanged. It would be suicide for liberal civilization to accept this as exhausting the field of human possibility. I prefer to hope that the present wave of irrationalism and of fanatical intolerance will recede and that the great human energy which manifests itself in free thought will not perish. Often before it has emerged after being swamped by passionate superstitions. There is no reason to feel that it may not do so again. (62)

Sidney Hook (rebuttal)

The primary line of criticism of Communism offered by Eddy, Russell, Dewey, and Cohen is their forthright rejection of the dictatorial and repressive nature of the Communist regime in the USSR, along with their view that these features derive in some way from some of the features of Marx's own theory of socialism and class conflict. Hook too rejects dictatorship and repression. But he argues that these features are not inherent in a Marxist-socialist revolutionary regime; they are accidents of history. In this it seems that history has plainly refuted him.

But let's ask the more fundamental question: why did Hook remain a committed Marxist? Why did Hook persist (in 1934) in affirming the importance of socialist revolution? It was because he continued to pay a great deal of attention to the other aspect of Marx's analysis: the systemic exploitation, domination, and indignity to which the working class is subject within capitalism, without any realistic hope of change absent comprehensive economic revolution. He was Marxist in his socialism because he was Marxist in his diagnosis of how capitalism unavoidably works, and he thought there was no other way to end exploitation and domination of the working class.

It is the absence of a realistic alternative program and path of action which makes the criticism of the communist position -- justified as it may appear to be from an abstract ideal position -- irrelevant to the pressing tasks of combating capitalism, fascism and war. (65)

However, this is intellectual stubbornness, because there were in fact realistic alternative programs. Laissez-faire capitalism was not the only non-communist political-economic regime to serve as an alternative to communism. The germs of social democracy were already visible in western Europe in the 1930s, including in the socialist and workers' movements in Britain.

It is hard not to see Hook as an apologist for communist dictatorship in this period of his thinking -- even though he explicitly rejects Soviet repression and dictatorship. "My own position is briefly that the fundamental doctrine of communism is sound but it has been so wrapped up in certain dogmas that its logic and force has been obscured" (74). This is either simple naïveté, or simple apologetics. Further, his unwarranted confidence in the Communist movement shows up here:

Communists would not martyrize an entire people as the fascists have done, they would not countenance wholesale massacres of innocent victims, they would not pound and torture women and children in order to achieve power. (71)

The year of this symposium was 1934. And the Soviet Union was engaged in precisely those practices at that time, including especially the horrendous war of starvation against the Ukraine, with four million deaths by hunger. It is interesting that Hook quotes New York Times reporter Walter Duranty. Duranty was the journalist in 1932 who popularized the aphorism, "If you want to make an omelette, you've got to scramble eggs" (link).

Hook closes his rebuttal with an indefensible call to repeat a failed experiment: "The time has now come to build a new revolutionary party in America and a new revolutionary international" (89). In this debate, Dewey and Cohen show the greatest wisdom: work towards greater fairness, equality, and liberty through cooperation among social groups in a democratic society.

What I find interesting about this debate is the fact that it is much deeper, about issues that really matter, than any discussions of alternative futures for humanity that might be feasible for future generations that are in the air today. What was at issue in 1934 was whether it was possible to have a decent society for all citizens within the framework of a democratic market-based economy; or, instead, only collective ownership and party rule could ensure equality. There are alternatives -- for example, social democracy and the Nordic model -- but we no longer seem to want to have those fundamental conversations (link).