Monday, July 11, 2016

Boring Radicalism

Disappointed Bernie fans are threatening to vote for Stein or Johnson or even Trump on the theory that half a loaf isn’t even worth half. Of course some of ‘em have bought into the Republican campaign to demonize Clinton and really think that she’s somehow a crook, but I think the deeper reason for this cunning plan to shoot yourself in the foot is the belief that only some sort of drastic, paradigm change will materially improve the situation. From where I’m sitting, there are two problems with this notion:

1.  An earthshaking comprehensive alternative to the neoliberal version of capitalism is simply not on offer. It’s not just that a really radical reorganization of America’s political economy is not politically feasible. It isn’t just the road to utopia that’s missing. It’s a credible utopia. Sanders may get credit for political courage by calling himself a socialist, but that is really a brag since his politics, considered issue by issue, is at most a not particularly left version of routine social democracy. You hear it said that wingnuts are like the dog that chases the truck, i.e., that they don’t have any idea of what to do if they manage to catch up with it; but the crew at the National Review don’t have a patent on that sort of thing. The Left has been searching for a substantive program for a long time now, but only the crankiest of cranks still thinks that a modern economy can dispense with markets. Nobody with any sense proposes to nationalize the toilet paper factory. Sanders certainly doesn’t.
2.  The absence of a vision of a new political economy doesn’t mean that capitalism in its current form is inevitable. Indeed, to judge by the history of the last two centuries, the one thing that apparently is inevitable is that capitalism will change. We still call it capitalism and will probably call its successor capitalism, but the economy of 2016 is a far cry from the economy of the 1950s with its huge centralized factories. Thing is, though, there is no replacement blueprint. That doesn’t mean that political action is futile, however. What the disaffected Left doesn’t seem to notice is that incremental changes can make an enormous difference, which is why the right, which is clearheaded on this score at least, fights apparently commonsensical measures with such passion. Raising the Federal minimum wage to $12 or figuring out how to make college affordable to people of middling means or increasing Social Security benefits or making the income tax more effectively progressive may not reverse the increase in economic inequality that has marked the last three decades but it will accomplish a great deal more than Jill Stein vapor wear. In fact, if you look at the measures of inequality over the last several administrations, you’ll note that for all its ideological impurity the Bill Clinton administration was actually a period during which the Gini coefficient didn’t rise and the incomes of middle class people did. The countless “little” decisions that a regime makes on a routine basis mattered. And there were also all those judges. If four years from now, the Supreme Court has a liberal majority, the entitlement programs are in good shape, we’ve actually taken material steps to deal with global warming, education has become more affordable, the infrastructure is being rebuilt, our immigration policies have been adjusted to reality, and, above all, if the disaffected two-fifths of the nation calms down, it will seem as if a revolution had taken place and not just to hysterical conservatives.

My overall point is this: incremental reform is not only the best outcome anybody can reasonably hope for at this point; it’s actually pretty radical.

Description of the World - Part 66

Top Shelf

Lord Macaulay, The History of England (Despite the title, this history focuses on the Revolution of 1688 and has little to say about the rest of English history except as prologue or consequence of that “Glorious” event. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote the introduction to this abridged edition, sees the work as an answer to Hume, whose own version of the Revolution was the received Tory view. T-R portrays Macaulay as simultaneously hostile to theory and completely dogmatic. That sounds right to me. Macaulay’s Whiggish narrative of progress is political, not scientific; but his assurance that what he says is transparently right is highly reminiscent of the attitude of the New Atheists, who also think they are simply reporting the facts. Hume, who was a philosopher but not a dogmatist, was more empirical as a historian, which is why he didn’t focus so much on political facts and was accordingly sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of various eras. 

Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem: The World Behind the Veil (Of all the books I’ve bought and pretty much forgot I owned, this must be the most unlikely. Although it is a serious account of the custom, the subject is both exotic and erotic and the book is magnificently illustrated. Nevertheless, I don’t seem to have read it. Opening it at random, I came upon one description of one bathing sultana: “She had an indescribably fine complexion! Like fresh feta cheese….”)
K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe (I found my summary of this work on the title page: “some interesting information suspended in a jello of useless theorizing.” I think what especially irritated or amused me (the two things are always hard to distinguish in my case) was Chaudhuri’s rather weird invocation of set theory as “a powerful logical instrument for identifying unities and discontinuities.” I read that and then searched in vain for the payoff. It’s not that you can’t think about such things in terms of sets. You can think of absolutely everything in terms of sets. I have plenty of tolerance for theory, but if you’re going to theorize, theorize. Don’t just throw in a “deconstruction” or two. Claim something.)

Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (I was a little surprised when I realized that this book came out over 30 years ago, not that I actually thought of it as newer. It would fit just as well in the 70s or 90s or the aughts or last Wednesday since the conflicts in America between individualism and social responsibility and “the monoculture of technical and bureaucratic rationality and the specificity of our concrete commitments” are enduring tensions and certainly enduring themes, especially among mainstream sociologists. The moralizing tradition of what Bullah calls “social sciences as public philosophy” goes back to Talcott Parsons in this country and to figures like Durkheim in France. I don’t mean to denigrate this preoccupation. A critique of the limits of individualism, both as an explanation of what happens in society and as a basis for ethics and politics is absolutely needed. I just wish it weren’t so infernally boring.) 

Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Graff uses quantitative methods to try to figure out not only how literacy advanced across world history but what literacy (or literacies) amounted to in practice. “Measuring the distribution of literacy in a population may in fact reveal relatively little about the uses in which such skills can be put.” For example, religions often promote literacy so that people can read the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they want lay people to be able to read critically, and it certainly doesn’t mean they want them to read the wrong kinds of book. Almost all Americans can read, at least at a basic level, but few read more than a single book a year; and, as I’ve been complaining about for decades, college educated people seldom read serious nonfiction books at all. Graff calls the notion that literacy per se changes everything the literacy myth—he wrote a book with that title.)

F.J. Monkhouse, A Regional Geography of Western Europe (Despite the title, this work actually covers only France and the Low Countries as per 1967 or so. Readers of European political, military, and economic history will understand how a book like this can be an absorbing read. I enjoyed it for the same reason I watch the Tour de France. It puts a face on all the names. The setting goes a long way towards explaining the play.)