Friday, August 26, 2022

Philosophers and Marx in the 1950s

In the 1960s, as an undergraduate and eventually a graduate student in philosophy, I had the strong impression that Anglophone philosophy did not pay much attention to the philosophy and theories of Karl Marx. He was regarded as a "dead dog". His work was rarely treated in the history of philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s or in survey courses in social and political philosophy, and the impression given was that history had moved beyond that nineteenth-century thinker — though notably not beyond Marx’s contemporary John Stuart Mill. Neglect and disrespect were the primary features of Marx's presence within philosophy in that period, it seemed. To many students gaining their philosophical and political identities in the 1960s, this seemed to be both arrogant and ignorant on the part of the discipline; philosophers in this tradition simply did not pay attention to the details of Marx's theories in spite of the grave social and economic issues of the day. Studying Marx carefully, as a philosopher might study Aristotle or Spinoza, was looked at as a waste of time.

Possibly the Cold War had something to do with this disdain within analytic philosophy; it is possible that the antagonism between the US and the USSR, representing liberal capitalism and communism, filtered into the profession of philosophy for a few decades. Certainly the crimes of Stalinism and Soviet Communism were considered a blot against Marx's ideas. Another relevant factor is the availability of texts from Marx's corpus: many important texts in which Marx expressed some of his key ideas were either unpublished or untranslated through the 1970s. (Marx's Grundrisse only appeared in English in 1973.)

This situation of neglect in the 1950s and early 1960s did not extend back into the 1930s. In those earlier decades some philosophers took an active and professional interest in Marx's ideas, including John Dewey, Morris R. Cohen, Bertrand Russell, and Sidney Hook discussed earlier (link). And what is most striking in that earlier philosophical debate about Marxism is the high quality of understanding that all these contributors had of Marx's social and economic theories. This level of familiarity was not to be found in philosophy again until the 1980s and 1990s.

Sidney Hook's account in the 1934 debate of Marx's analysis of the sociological circumstances of capitalism in The Meaning of Marx (link) is worth reading by itself. Hook did an excellent job of capturing Marx's views about the intricacies of an economic system divided between owners of productive forces and owners of labor-power (39-45). Hook showed a detailed understanding of the premises and assertions of Marx's theories of history, politics, and political economy, based on extensive textual knowledge. Hook plainly had exerted himself in studying the details of Marx's writings (those available in the 1920s and 1930s in German or English).

Marx was not featured at all in the course in social and political philosophy I took at the University of Illinois in 1968 or 1969. Some of Marx's ideas were included in the survey course on the history of social and political philosophy that John Rawls taught at Harvard for many years, including the years 1971-1976 when I was a graduate student in his department. In an earlier post I have reviewed the material and ideas that Rawls included in the several lectures on Marx's thought; and during the early 1970s these materials were quite limited (link). Their primary focus was on the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Marx's theory of alienation. Rawls also discussed Marx's polemical essay "On the Jewish Question". There the main focus was on the distinction between political emancipation and full human emancipation. The lectures devoted to Marx that are collected in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy were written sometime after 1984, according to Sam Freeman’s notes in the introduction to the volume, and they provide the student with more understanding of Marx’s theory of how a class society works, how capitalism is a system of exploitation and domination, and how the labor theory of value served Marx’s purpose of showing how that system worked. But even the final versions of the lectures do not indicate a broader range of either Marx’s texts or current secondary sources on Marx’s thought. Probably half of the content of these later lectures focused on one question that emerged in the analytic Marxism literature and was of special interest to Rawls: “Did Marx believe capitalism is unjust?”.

It might reasonably be argued that philosophers in the seventies had defined their discipline in ways that made them honestly doubtful that Marx’s writings made a substantial contribution to their discipline — however important they might be to sociology or history. Marx’s theories were not, after all, a continuation of the social contract tradition (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), and his empirical and historical claims about the modern world were not primarily normative. Normative ethical theory was just in the process of moving beyond “meta-ethics” (“Three Ways of Spilling Ink”), and perhaps Anglophone philosophy was not ready for a conceptual revolution within which social philosophy needed to be both normative and empirically substantive. Moreover, if we thought of Marx simply as a post-Hegelian philosopher of social dialectics, as H.B. Acton did (link), this neglect might well be deserved. So maybe the neglect of Marx was not entirely ideological, but more a question of “knowledge frameworks” or paradigm shifts. Marx’s theories did not fit readily into the conceptual frameworks of mainstream Anglophone philosophy. (Imagine J.L. Austin trying to make sense of the Grundrisse.) But that paradigm shift did eventually occur, and social philosophers came to recognize the ground they needed to share with social scientists, biologists, and historians — including Marx. Substantive theories about how the world works — including the social world — are indeed relevant to the main problems of social and political philosophy.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Organizational factors and nuclear power plant safety

image: Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responsibility for ensuring the safe operations of the nuclear power reactors in the United States, of which there are approximately 100. There are significant reasons to doubt whether its regulatory regime is up to the task. Part of the challenge is the technical issue of how to evaluate and measure the risks created by complex technology systems. Part is the fact that it seems inescapable that organizational and management factors play key roles in nuclear accidents -- factors the NRC is ill-prepared to evaluate. And the third component of the challenge is the fact that the nuclear industry is a formidable adversary when it comes to "intrusive" regulation of its activities. 

Thomas Wellock is the official historian of the NRC, and his work shows an admirable degree of independence from the "company line" that the NRC wishes to present to the public. Wellock's book, Safe Enough?: A History of Nuclear Power and Accident Risk, is the closest thing we have to a detailed analysis of the workings of the commission and its relationships to the industry that it regulates. A central focus in Safe Enough is the historical development of the key tool used by the NRC in assessing nuclear safety, the methodology of "probabilistic risk assessment" (PRA). This is a method for aggregating the risks associated with multiple devices and activities involved in a complex technology system, based on failure rates and estimates of harm associated with failure. 

This preoccupation with developing a single quantitative estimate of reactor safety reflects the engineering approach to technology failure. However, Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, Scott Sagan, and numerous other social scientists who have studied technology hazards and disasters have made clear that organizational and managerial failures almost always play a key role in the occurrence of a major accident such as Three Mile Island, Fukushima, or Bhopal. This is the thrust of Perrow's "normal accident" theory and Vaughan's "normalization of deviance" theory. And organizational effectiveness and organizational failures are difficult to measure and quantify. Crucially, these factors are difficult to incorporate into the methodology of probabilistic risk assessment. As a result, the NRC has almost no ability to oversee and enforce standards of safety culture and managerial effectiveness.

Wellock addresses this aspect of an incomplete regulatory system in "Social Scientists in an Adversarial Environment: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Organizational Factors Research" (link). The problem of assessing "human factors" has been an important element of the history of the NRC's efforts to regulate the powerful nuclear industry, and failure in this area has left the NRC handicapped in its ability to address pervasive ongoing organizational faults in the nuclear industry. Wellock's article provides a detailed history of efforts by the NRC to incorporate managerial assessment and human-factors analysis into its safety program -- to date, with very little success. And, ironically, the article demonstrates a key dysfunction in the organization and setting of the NRC itself; because of the adversarial relationship that exists with the nuclear industry, and the influence that the industry has with key legislators, the NRC is largely blocked from taking commonsense steps to include evaluation of safety culture and management competence into its regulatory regime.

Wellock makes it clear that both the NRC and the public have been aware of the importance of organizational dysfunctions in the management of nuclear plants since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. However, the culture of the organization itself makes it difficult to address these dysfunctions. Wellock cites the experience of Valerie Barnes, a research psychologist on staff at the NRC, who championed the importance of focusing attention on organizational factors and safety culture. "She recalled her engineering colleagues did not understand that she was an industrial psychologist, not a therapist who saw patients. They dismissed her disciplinary methods and insights into human behavior and culture as 'fluffy,' unquantifiable, and of limited value in regulation compared to the hard quantification bent of engineering disciplines" (1395). 

The NRC took the position that organizational factors and safety culture could only properly be included in the regulatory regime if they could be measured, validated, and incorporated into the PRA methodology. The question of the quantifiability and statistical validity of human-factors research and safety-culture research turned out to be insuperable -- largely because these were the wrong standards for evaluating the findings of these areas of the social sciences. "In the new program [in the 1990s], the agency avoided direct evaluation of unquantifiable factors such as licensee safety culture" (1395). (It is worth noting that this presumption reflects a thoroughly positivistic and erroneous view of scientific knowledge; linklink. There are valid methods of sociological investigation that do not involve quantitative measurement.) 

After the Three Mile Island disaster, both the NRC and external experts on nuclear safety had a renewed interest in organizational effectiveness and safety culture. Analysis of the TMI disaster made organizational dysfunctions impossible to ignore. Studies by the Battelle Human Affairs Research Center were commissioned in 1982 (1397), to permit design of a regulatory regime that would evaluate management effectiveness. Here again, however, the demand for quantification and "correlations" blocked the creation of a regulatory standard for management effectiveness and safety culture. Moreover, the nuclear industry was able to resist efforts to create "intrusive" inspection regimes involving assessment of management practices. "In the mid-1980s, the NRC deferred to self-regulating initiatives under the leadership of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). This was not the first time the NRC leaned on INPO to avoid friction with industry" (1397). 

A serious event at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 1983 focused attention on the importance of management, organizational dysfunction, and safety culture, and a National Academy of Sciences report in 1988 once again recommended that the NRC must give high priority to these factors -- quantifiable or not (Human Factors Research and Nuclear Safety; link).

The panel called on the NRC to prioritize research into organizational and management factors. “Management can make or break a plant,” Moray told the NRC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards. Even more than the man-machine interface, he said, it was essential that the NRC identify what made for a positive organizational culture of reliability and safety and develop appropriate regulatory feedback mechanisms that would reduce accident risk. (1400)

These recommendations led  the NRC to commission an extensive research consultancy with a group of behavioral scientists at Brookhaven Laboratory. The goal of this research, once again, was to identify observable and measurable factors of organizations and safety culture that would permit quantification of the quality of both intangible features of nuclear plants -- and ultimately to permit incorporation of these factors into PRA models. 

 Investigators identified over 20 promising organizational factors under five broad categories of control systems, communications, culture, decision making, and personnel systems. Brookhaven concluded the best measurement methodologies included research surveys, behavioral checklists, structured interview protocols, and behavioral-anchored rating scales. (1401)

However, this research foundered on three problems: the cost of evaluating a nuclear operator on this basis; the "intrusiveness" of the methods needed to evaluate these organizational systems, and the intransigent and adversarial opposition of the operators of nuclear plants against these kinds of assessment. It also emerged that it was difficult to establish correlations between the organizational factors identified and the safety performance of a range of plants. NRC backed down from its effort to directly assess organizational effectiveness and safety culture, and instead opted for a new "Reactor Oversight Process" (ROP) that made use only of quantitative factors associated with safety performance (1403).

A second and more serious incident at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in 2002 resulted in a near-miss loss-of-coolant accident (link), and investigation by NRC and GAO compelled the NRC to once again bring safety culture back into the regulatory agenda. Executives, managers, operators, and inspectors were all found to have behaved in ways that greatly increased the risk of a highly damaging LOCA accident at Davis-Besse. The NRC imposed more extensive organizational and managerial requirements on the operators of the Davis-Besse plant, but these protocols were not extended to other plants.

It is evident from Wellock's 2021 survey of the NRC history of human-factors research and organizational research that the commission is currently incapable of taking seriously the risks to reactor safety created by the kinds of organizational failures documented by Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, Andrew Hopkins, Scott Sagan, and many others. NRC has shown that it is aware of these social-science studies of technology system safety. But its intellectual commitment to a purely quantitative methodology for risk assessment, combined with the persistent ability of the nuclear operators to prevent forms of "intrusive" evaluation that they don't like, leads to a system in which major disasters remain a distinct possibility. And this is very bad news for anyone who lives within a hundred miles of a nuclear power plant.

Friday, August 19, 2022

A Trump-era atrocity

The family separation debacle during the Trump presidency seemed horrible at the time. Thanks to a superb piece of investigative journalism in the Atlantic, we now know how much worse it was. Caitlin Dickerson's piece "We Need to Take Away Children" (link) provides previously unknown information about the program and the decisions that led up to it, and the picture is horrific. Consider just a single scene:

But when [Neris Gonzalez] walked into the processing center for the first time after Zero Tolerance was implemented, she saw a sea of children and parents, screaming, reaching for each other, and fighting the Border Patrol agents who were pulling them apart. Children were clinging to whatever part of their parents they could hold on to -- arms, shirts, pant legs. "Finally the agent would pull hard and take away the child," she said. "It was horrible. These weren't some little animals that they were wrestling over; they were human children. (64)

This is simply barbaric; it is an American atrocity. It is hard not to think of the violence against the innocent in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen in 1941 when we read this description. These children were not to be killed, of course; but they were being harmed in a very profound way, with great emotional pain, for very deliberate political purposes. (Gonzalez had a different association: "For her, the scene triggered flashbacks to the war in El Salvador, where thousands of children were disappeared and the sound of their wailing mothers was hard to escape" (64).)

It is hard to read Dickerson's piece without thinking of other instances of historical evil -- genocide, mass imprisonment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government, the 2014 killing of 43 students in Mexico (link). The child-separation plan was not just bad policy -- it was state-sanctioned evil. Of course the immigrant toddlers and children were not killed -- but they were forcibly removed from their families, in some cases never to return, causing unimaginable suffering for both children and their parents. What a fundamentally inhumane policy this was, lacking utterly in compassion and respect for the human dignity of other human beings. 

This practice began in secrecy; it was wrapped in lies; and it led to permanent harm for infants, children, and parents.

Trump-administration officials insisted for a whole year that family separations weren't happening. Finally, in the spring of 2018, they announced the implementation of a separation policy with great fanfare -- as if one had not already been under way for months. Then they declared that separating families was not the goal of the policy, but an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally with their children. Yet a mountain of evidence shows that this is explicitly false: Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer. (39)

There is another dimension of this case that needs emphasis. Donald Trump himself did many "wrong" things while he was president. But this policy emanated largely from senior and mid-level administrators within his government -- not the president himself. And this fact underlines something that all of us should be very, very concerned about: when an autocrat takes power, he or she creates a "team" of powerful subordinates who can use the power of their offices to carry out horrible actions. Authoritarianism is not simply a manifestation of "one bad person" in control of government; it is the establishment of a government hierarchy that is broadly aligned with the values and goals of the boss, but empowered to create their own policies and rules to bring about outcomes that they believe will serve their party's interests. This is another reason why Trump's stated goal of attacking and dissolving the independence of the Federal civil service is deeply alarming.

Dickerson spells out the broad administrative involvement in the family separation policy by numerous US Federal agencies, and the bureaucratic collaboration that implementation required:

It is easy to pin culpability for family separations on the anti-immigration officials for which the Trump administration is known. But these separations were also endorsed and enabled by dozens of members of the government's middle and upper management: Cabinet secretaries, commissioners, chiefs, and deputies who, for various reasons, didn't voice concern even when they should have seen catastrophe looming; who trusted "the system" to stop the worst from happening; who reasoned that it would not be strategic to speak up in an administration where being labeled a RINO or a "squish" -- nicknames for those deemed insufficiently conservative -- could end their career; who assumed that someone else, in some other department, must be on top of the problem; who were so many layers of abstraction away from the reality of screaming children being pulled out of their parent's arms that they could hide from the human consequences of what they were doing. (39)

This is the behavior described by historians in the administration of the Final Solution -- what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil, and what organizational sociologists and psychologists refer to as compliant organizational behavior. "Hiding from the human consequences" indeed -- this is key to the bureaucratic implementation of an evil plan against innocent human beings. Dickerson poses the toughest question directly: "What happens when personal ambition and moral qualm clash in the gray anonymity of a bureaucracy? When rationalizations become denial or outright delusion? When one's understanding of the line between right and wrong gets overridden by a boss's screaming insistence?" (39). Stephen Miller and Gene Hamilton were strident advocates of this policy among others, but its implementation depended on the collaboration and compliance of numerous other actors as well. 

Moreover, this policy was not an accident or oversight or side-effect of other policy initiatives. Dickerson makes it clear, through ample documentation, that the goal of the policy was deterrence: to discourage persons from crossing the US southern border illegally with the threat that their children would be taken away -- possibly forever.

An important part of Dickerson's research in this piece is her effort to reconstruct the intellectual, professional, and moral backgrounds of some of the key administrators responsible for the family-separation policy. Especially interesting is her thumbnail account of the transformation of Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the critical time. Initially opposed to the policy, she eventually succumbed to pressure from the immigration hawks in positions of power around her -- including especially Stephen Miller. 

Dickerson has investigated this story throughout the Zero-Tolerance period, and her article documents time after time when administration officials and spokespersons directly and explicitly lied about the existence of a family separation policy. "Waldman and Houlton [DHS spokespersons] provided a statement for my Times story, insisting that families were not being separated for the purpose of prosecution and deterrence. All the while, separations were still increasing. By April 23, three days after the story was published, documents show that De LaCruz had tracked 856 separations, more than a quarter of which involved children younger than 5" (57).

The article quotes Federal estimates that a minimum of 5,569 children were separated from their families during this period. The harm that these children suffered is incalculable -- trauma, fear, long-lasting psychological and emotional consequences for which they will have virtually no help in resolving. And the trauma for the parents was equally deep, including PTSD (74).

The brutality of Zero Tolerance was immediately evident. The father of a 3-year-old "lost his s---," one Border Patrol agent told The Washington Post. "They had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands." The man was so upset that he was taken to a local jail; he "yelled and kicked at the windows on the ride," the agent said. The next morning, the father was found dead in his cell; he'd strangled himself with his own clothing. (62)

And, perhaps worst of all, Dickerson presents evidence showing that "inside DHS, officials were working to prevent reunifications from happening" (65). She quotes from communications from Matt Albence (a deputy administrator at ICE) specifically concerned that prosecutions were happening too rapidly, allowing families to be reunited in just a few days. 

"We can't have this," he wrote to colleagues, underscoring in a second note that reunification "obviously undermines the entire effort" behind Zero Tolerance and would make DHS "look completely ridiculous". (65)

This is diabolical. As of June 2022, it is estimated that about 180 children have still not been reunited with their parents (link). It is surprising that there was little international protest or formal legal objection to this policy, since it seems to be a clear instance of a crime against humanity and an example of atrocious lawlessness. 

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.)