Sunday, January 13, 2019

Musings on Political and Economic Utopianism

 The mistake a lot of political "commentators" make is assuming that there is a perfect system. There is and will never be a perfect system be it a perfect economic system--capitalism as utopia--or a perfect political system--autocracy as utopia. Given the reality that power corrupts it is essential, if a degree of freedom is to be maintained, in a bureaucratic and corporate world, to have countervailing powers checking and balancing each other.

There have been, of course, a variety of governmental forms across human history ranging from the autocratic to the more "democratic". Governments of the more republican variety, can and have served as countervailing forces against the massive power of corporate and consumer capitalism, which has dominated the US and the world since the American Gilded Age. That, however, is not and never has been their only function states or governments, particularly those of the republican variety, perform. They also provide services. The Roman state, for instance, provided its plebs with bread and circuses. The feudal state provided serfs and peasants with protection in exchange for agricultural stay in place labour. The Canadian state provides public services, including health care and retirement pensions, among other things to its citizens that are, again at least in theory, of a non-commercial character.

Economic corporations, which are clearly more powerful than corporate governments, operate in the private not the public interest. They operate for the personal enrichment of a few individuals rather than for the public good. A republican form of government, at least in theory, operates for the greatest good of the greatest number of citizens, I say citizens, by the way, since modern nations are not the product of a bunch of mythic monads but are made up of citizens.

Too many on the uberindividualistic or hyperindividualistic right, embedded as they are in myths rather than realities, don't recognise, first, that corporate power, which is hierarchical and bureaucratic, far exceeds the power of governments. In fact, corporate capitalists control not only the means of production but control many if not all government functions and use these to enhance their own power and and their own profits. Second, those on the right don't recognise the difference between autocratic forms of government and republican forms of governance. Many on the right, in other words, have no conception of historical realities and that there really is a difference between electoral forms of governance and governance based on the autocratic whims of an individual.

In America's current form all the right wing utopia of downsizing government will do, will enhance the private corporate power of the wealthy and rich few, just as it has done in the past, at the expense of non-elite citizens. If you want to increase freedom, in other words, you cannot simply eliminate or downsize modern governmental bureaucratic-hierarchical forms but you must also eliminate or massively downsize economic bureaucratic-hierarchical forms. That means that you have to radically break up corporate forms of the governmental AND the economic variety. And this means that you have to not only radically downsize states and particularly the war making powers of states since, as history shows, economic and political bureaucracies thrive and expand under such conditions, you also have to radically down size economic bureaucracies.

Personally I don't see this happening. Karl Marx's somewhat anarchistic of left libertarian notion that communism will lead not only to the freedom to fish in the morning, work a few hours to meet needs in the afternoon, and then philosophise in the evening, and to the withering away of the state seems to me like a utopian dream, as utopian a dream that corporate capitalism will bring everyone to heavenly nirvana. All corporate capitalism does is enrich the few and here in the States it is the economic few who have control of the government apparatus, such control that they are able to eliminate laws protecting citizens from casino and vulture capitalism and to put taxpayers on the hook for the results of this speculative casino, periodic economic bust. In the meantime perhaps reforms like those proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the best we can hope for in a world dominated by corporate capitalist elites.

The Books of My Life: From the New Deal to the New Right


Joseph Lowndes in his book From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008) takes on the backlash theory that argues that the conservatisation of the Republican Party since the 1960s was a backlash to the Great Society and the civil rights movement and countercultural movement of the 1960s. Lowndes argues that the conservatisation of the Republican Party, contrary to those arguing for the backlash theory, goes back to tentative and selective alliances between Republican conservatives Southern Democrats or Dixiecrats in the later years of the New Deal. Lowndes argues that several streams of conservatism including Southern states rights rhetoric, a rhetoric grounded in a defence of Southern Jim Crow, Republican conservative small government and laissez-fair discourse, and the increasing anti-communist and anti-liberal ideologies of both, were woven together by National Review conservative intellectuals trying to expand conservatism into the sold Dixiecrat South beginning in the 1960s, Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidency in 1964, and finally transformed into a popular discourse that appealed even to middle class and working class ethnic Whites in the North, by George Wallace and Richard Nixon, who borrowed Wallace's populist thunder and ability to talk about race without talking about race, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lowndes argues that it was Nixon who wove populist conservatism into Republican Party policy and government policy and action. In the 1980s, Lowndes argues, Reagan rode populist conservatism to electoral victory and led a Republican Party cleansed of most of its moderates and liberals and now fully dominated by populist conservatism.

I liked Lowndes focus on culture and the role it played in instutitonalising populist conservatism in the Republican Party and eventually into American governance itself. I liked how Lowndes tied the new conservatism not only to cultural discourse but to interactions between cultural discourse and broader economic, political, and cultural events like the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and Watergate. I found Lowndes critique of backlash theory and the role Southern states rights anti-statism played in the rise of modern conservatism quite compelling. If further proof of the Lowndes thesis is needed may I present for your consideration Republican president Donald Trump whose I am not a racist or a White separatist or supremacist racist White supremacist or separatist rhetoric of rage, clearly shows how the modern day Republican Party has been dixiefornicated and is now the party of Dixie. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in recent American history, New Deal and post New Deal politics, the American right and the modern American right

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Eternal Return: Musings on the American Culture Wars

Recently I heard the rumour that Julian Zelizer, who used to teach history at the University at Albany until he moved to Albany's more prestigious political science programme and from there on to even more prestigious Princeton, and Kevin Kruse, another Princetonian, had published a book entitled Fault Lines: A History of America since 1974 with Norton. Hey, I was just struck by this thought: ain't cultural capital wonderful? I haven't read the book but I did listen to their discussion of it on The Majority Report With Sam Seder. Here are a few of thoughts on the subject of American fault lines or culture wars.

America was formed in the crucible of fault lines, fault lines, for example, between Protestants and Enlightenment philosophes and fault lines between Whites and Blacks. Slavery and race, of course, has been a fault line that has characterised the United States since the beginning and continues to divide America today as the country seems to be returning to the 1930s once again. We ended up fighting a war over slavery and race, a war, which in retrospect seems more like a battle than a war to end all wars. WWII, in this context, is an anomaly, an anomaly that manufactured a kind of consensus that lasted into the 1970s when Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil crisis rent the "consensus" asunder and revived the culture wars that characterised the US even before it was the US. We have to, by the way, in order to construct the post-New Deal and WWII American consensus of Schlesinger, Bell, and Herberg, ignore the dissonant fundamentalists, evangelicals, Birchers, and Southerners lurking beneath that perceived calm of the end of ideology era.

On Watching John Cleese and Michael Palin Debate Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop...

I recently watched a debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and Malcolm Muggeridge on YouTube. The debate, which took place at the height of mania over the controversy about the Python's film Life of Brian, took place on the BBC show Friday Night, Saturday Morning on 9 November 1979.

I came away from the debate thining about Malcolm Muggeridge and Christian ethnocentrism. Malcolm Muggeridge's reputation, it seemed to me after watching the debate, greatly exceeds him. I knew Muggeridge from his recurring role as staff doctrinalist on the Bill Buckley Show, Firing Line, and his recurring role as if you need a Christian intellectual call Mug. I really never paid much attention to what he said, however.

I was forced to pay attention to Muggeridge after watching the "debate". Muggeridge's argument that Christianity is true because it is the zenith of global intellectual culture is monumentally stupid. I don't know whether Muggeridge's moronicity is the stupidity of omission or the stupidity of commission. Anyone who has studied, global history, however, knows that Indian and Chinese intellectual cultures--which thanks to global economic and cultural exchange likely had an impact on Western thought and which existed well before Christianity arose--were and are easily the equal of Mediterranean and later European Christian intellecual culture and were and are arguably even more sophisticated and thoughtful and intellectually stimulating than Christian intellectual culture.

At least the Bishop of Southwark was somewhat humourous...He was, however, not very good at prophecy as Life is Beautiful shows...

The Books of My Life: The Incorporation of America


 Alan Tractenberg, in his superb interdisciplinary synthesis, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, twenty-fifth anniversary edition, 2007 [2982], argues, in the the concluding chapter of his book, that two key or central symbols, tell us much of what we need to know about the broad contours of Gilded Age America’s economy, politics, and culture. These two key symbols that express broader economic, political, and cultural aspects of the of the Gilded Age, according to Tractenberg, are the company town of Pullman, Illinois near Chicago and Chicago’s 1893 White City.

Pullman was a planned community built by corporate capitalist George Pullman owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the company that made cars for America’s railroads. It was, as Tractenberg notes, a planned community whose function was to provide a steady work, good morals, and peaceful environment for Pullman’s labourers. Pullman was a planned community of distinctive row houses with indoor plumbing, gas, libraries, and sewers. Pullman town was also an environment that was planned in such a way to assure that Pullman’s workers would be obedient toward their corporate benefactor George Pullman, acquiesce to the knowledgeable guidance and cultural uplift of their corporate benefactor George Pullman, cultural uplift that included instruction in the civilised arts of thrift, cleanliness, and happiness, thrift, cleanliness, and happiness in the way that George Pullman understood them. The company town of Pullman, in other words, was a paternalistic community meant to uplift “savage” workers and turn them into “civlised” and obedient employees.

A second key symbol of the Gilded Age Tractenberg explores is the White City. The White City, as Tractenberg notes, was, like Pullman, a planned community, this one built, under the watchful eye of architect Daniel Burnham, for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. The Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, was one of a number of World’s Fairs that took place during the nineteenth century. 
On one level, Tractenberg argues, the White was a map of the past. The White City was built on land that was once marsh and sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. The White City, in other words, was ordered out of the chaos of the wilderness just like, at least in the American imagination, America was in the 19th century.

On another level the White City was, according to Tranctenberg, a mapping of the present. The White City was a private enterprise created by the state, in this case the state of Illinois, and run by a board of directors whose goal it was to serve the interests of and reward its shareholders, just like the other corporations that dominated American economic life in the Gilded Age. The spatial arrangement and spatial divisions of the White City were hierarchical, just as Gilded Age America was segmented or fragmented into classes, upper class, middle class, and lower class. The order of the White City in contrast to the disorder outside the White City said that America’s corporate elite had brought corporate capitalist order out of pre-Gilded Age proprietary capitalist chaos. The Midway Plaisance, which stretched form the White City west along what are today 59th and 60th avenues, was, thanks to its carnivalesque atmosphere and its exoticism, marked off as quite different from the White City. The World’s Congress Auxiliary Building, which now houses the Institute of Art, which was stands today on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street in Grant Park north of the White City, and which was the site of a series of meetings on a variety of cultural topics including religion, was also geographically and culturally or ideologically marked off from the White City core.

On still another level, Tractenberg argues, the White city was a map of the future. The White City was constructed on an iron and steel skeleton covered in staff, a substance that gave the illusion that the White city was built out of marble. The material culture of the White City was symmetrical and harmoniously laid out and it was monumental. Its buildings generally reflected the neoclassical style of the baroque era but the style of the White City’s buildings was not meant to symbolise nostalgia for a golden past. Instead the White City’s monumental architecture symbolised a utopian future. It was a future that corporate America would dominate. The Columbia pediment at the eastern entrance to the Machinery Hall, for instance, depicted Columbia at its centre, Honour to Columbia’s left, Wealth at Columbia’s feet, inventors, and two lions, symbols of brute force, subdued by human genius, by American genius. America, in the form of Columbia, the pediment clearly said to those who looked at it, represented the economic and political future of the world. The White City was divided into departments that included agricultural, mining, transportation, invention, art, and cultural departments. In the exhibit halls of the White City one found exhibits brought to the fair by corporations from all over the world, artworks, mechanical wonders, and examples of the homes of the future, including a model electric kitchen of the future. In between the monumental buildings of the White City were monuments, statues, canals, lagoons, plazas, and a wooded preserve. The White City was lit by 10,000 electrical light bulbs driven by two dynamos telling visitors that the future would be bright. All of these, the buildings, the built natural environment, the sculptures, the pediments, and the exhibits, the dynamos, and the cultural lectures, together, symbolised, in its material culture, human material progress, human spiritual progress, human evolution from savagery to civilisation, and the progressive human future to come.

The modern woman had a place in the White City. The Women’s Building, which was designed by a female architect, was guided by a Board of Lady Managers, and included exhibits on mothers as homemakers, cooks, and teachers. There were lectures on women’s history at the Congress. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, lectured on suffrage, Susan B. Anthony on women and politics, and Jane Addams on housework and factory work. These lectures were, however, marginalised since they were given in the World Congress Auxiliary Building rather than in the Women’s Building. The modern woman, the domestic displays in the Women’s Building argued, was a homemaker, a comforter for her harried husband, and a teacher to her children.

The meaning of the White City was not only, Tractenberg argues, in what it clearly said but also in what it didn’t say. It was also in the White City’s silences, and in the White City’s exclusions. Blacks were excluded from the White City, save as menial labourers, and were denied permission by those who ran the White City to exhibit at the Exposition. The famous ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas did speak at the Exposition but to a largely Black audience. America’s contemporary First Peoples were excluded but the “savage” Indians of America’s past and their “primitive” modes of life, their “primitive” customs”, and their “primitive” arts, representing lower levels of human evolution, were displayed in ethnology exhibits at the Exposition. The old world “customs” and “folklore” of Africans, Asians, and Muslims were displayed along the marginalised and exoticised Midway Plaisance. All of them were the “others” of incorporated corporate America, “others” who would be uplifted by the progress the White City promised.

In its material culture the White City said, in its interpretations of the past, that chaos had been converted into order by an alliance of America’s economic and political elite. It said, in its representation of the present that incorporation or corporatisation in America had brought hierarchical order to mass chaos bringing wealth and culture to America in its wake. It told the world that America’s corporate elite had led the world to the cusp of a mechanical utopia. It told the world that in the future the bounty of consumer goods, of wealth, of harmonious order, of marvellous inventions, and of uplift could be everybody’s if they simply copied America’s economic, political, and cultural models. The monumental structure and technological and industrial exhibits of the White City said that America was ready and willing to take its place among the great powers of the world thanks to its corporate society. Soon, of course, the US would fight a war with Spain, a war from which it emerged with colonies in the Philippines and Cuba.

There were in the Gilded Age and there still are, as Tractenberg notes, alternative visions of the future to that of the corporate elite who manufactured the White City. While the White City offered a monumental neoclassical and monumental future dominated by economic and political elite, architect Louis Sullivan advocated a national architectural style that was organic and represented democratic rather than corporate ideals. Sullivan’s skyscrapers, however, seemed to reflect the aspirations of the corporate elite they housed rather than the aspirations of a democratic society. Labour, which was not really present at the White City—those who laboured to build the White City were hidden and guarded during construction while the power of labour was elided by the power of machines—also offered an alternative to the corporate culture of the White City. In 1894 unionised workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike against the company after their wages were cut by 30% to 40% while their rents in the company owned and run town where workers lived in were not cut. Eventually US Army troops and US marshals broke that strike. Farmers were not really present in the White City either. The Agriculture Building housed displays of weather stations and model farms, models of a corporate farming future, in other words. Farmers too offered an alternative to White City corporatism. Populism and its labour and farmer alliance together offered the model of another future, one that was associative rather than corporate, one that was grounded in the fellowship of farmers, workers, immigrants, and women, rather than corporate and hierarchical control. And while Sullivan’s and the Populist’s models were marginalised by corporate America they pop up now and again. They popped up, for instance, in the Great Depression, in the 1930s, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

There you have it, the broad contours of the Gilded Age in a nutshell…corporate…mass capitalist…mechanised…hierarchical, economically, politically, culturally…oligarchic…ordered...spectacular consumption…citizens passive spectators…paternalistic...women in the home…labour in the shadows…Blacks, largely excluded…corporate-politician-industrial-science alliance…racist...imperialist...utopian...America, Inc.

The Incorporation of America is one of the best social science books I have ever read. Tractenberg is attentive to the economics and politics of the Gilded Age and how incorporation, segmentation, or modernity, call it what you will, was woven into the new cultural forms of the Gilded Age. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know how modern America was made. I was a bit baffled by one thing, Tractenberg’s lack of acknowledgement of Max Weber’s theory of modernity, a perspective that places modern mass supposedly rational and efficient bureaucracies at the heart of the structure of the modern. Weber’s approach to modernity is very similar to Tractenberg’s exploration and analysis of the incorporation or corporatisation of American during the Gilded Age. The Incorporation of America has only a single reference to Weber’s, his exploration of the rise of the professional politician, something Tractenberg sees as arising during the Gilded Age. Go figure?