Abolish the states!

As is well-known, the US Constitution includes two major institutions that do not operate according to the principle of majority rule. The first is the Senate, where both California and Wyoming receive the same representation despite their vast difference in population. The second is the Electoral College, which in our young century has twice delivered the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Critics of these institutions emphasize their obvious anti-democratic character, while defenders point to the special role of the states in the federal structure set up by the Founders. Though the system does go against our majoritarian instincts, the story goes, these so-called “laboratories of democracy” are crucial to America’s unique form of constitutional democracy.

Lost in this debate between democratic intuitions and the Founders’ intentions is the empirical question of whether the states as they currently exist actually fulfill a legitimate role in our system. One way to answer that would be to ask what states would have to look like to justify providing them with special representation even if it meant overriding the popular majority at the federal level. Clearly the states would need to have robust and meaningful democratic legitimacy on their own. They would need to represent coherent communities with identifiable and distinctive interests and values, and they would need to display an engaged political culture among their citizens.

Though each of our existing states would fare differently, it is clear that almost no actual-existing state meets those minimal standards of democratic legitimacy. Continue reading “Abolish the states!”

We are not the ones we have been waiting for

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article about how “we” almost stopped climate change. It is a remarkable piece, rich with detail, about how scientists and public officials raised the alarm on climate change and nearly succeeded in getting a binding international treaty capping carbon emissions. I am among those who was very critical of the framing of this story, which concludes with breezy generalizations about human nature that would be more at home in an undergraduate essay than the paper of record. In reality, the general public is not heard from at any step along the way — this is all a story about a power struggle among elites. And all the evidence points toward an obvious conclusion: hardline conservatives in the first Bush administration, following up on the climate nihilism of Reagan, wound up torpedoing the effort, with results that are by now familiar to us.

This critique is obvious. What I wonder about, though, is why the author would choose this framing when it is such a poor fit for the story he is telling. Clearly one motive is to avoid “politicizing” the issue and alienating conservative readers. Indeed, perhaps there was even an effort to highlight the fact that Republicans and industry representatives contributed positively, to encourage them to do so in the future. But it is interesting to me that this attempt to avoid partisanship should take the form of a gesture toward collective guilt. After all, there is evidence that pro-corporate Democrats also stood in the way of action, so why not go for standard both-sidesism? Why blame the people at large for something that happened almost exclusively behind closed doors?

The author of this piece is hardly alone in gesturing toward collective blame, which is one of the most characteristic gestures of contemporary political discourse. For instance, today on Twitter I learned that “we” made a mistake in adopting an ad-driven model for the web. I do not recall being consulted on that decision, nor on so many others where “we” are reportedly to blame. This discursive tic becomes most absurd, of course, when we are talking about the actions of the Trump administration, which was installed against the wishes of the American people, who continue to despise him at record levels. But since an election happened, whatever resulted from it, however perverse, must be “our” collective fault — presumably “we” should have arranged for a population transfer of tens of thousands of liberals into the Rust Belt states in anticipation of the election. Shame on “us” for not thinking of that!

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown talks about the neoliberal strategy of “responsibilization,” which systematically invests formal decision-making power in the bodies least equipped to exercise it. In her example, a university decides to shift health care costs onto individual departmental budgets rather than handling them on an institution-wide basis. The predictable result that departments move toward more part-time labor to avoid ballooning health care costs was presumably what the upper administration was aiming at, but by using the strategy of “responsibilization” they get to blame the individual departments for their “choice” of adjunct labor.

The gesture of collective blame, where “we” are all responsible for political and economic outcomes, is the ultimate extreme of “responsibilization,” and like all strategies of “responsibilization,” it aims ultimately to displace blame for decisions that are made elsewhere. This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

How do we — in the non-scare-quoted sense of actual people with actual identifiable collective interests — respond to this situation? Two possibilities present themselves. The first is to call the elites on their bullshit. “We” didn’t torpedo climate change action, Bush’s asshole chief of staff did. “We” didn’t despoil the planet, corporate elites did. Human civilization has been placed on a trajectory toward extinction by identifiable individuals with institutional power. But to make good on those accusations, we need to take the bad-faith accusation of collective responsibility as a prophecy and become the collective agent that they say “we” already are. That will require developing new institutional forms and modes of leadership, with many contemporary movements giving us promising models. If “we” have any genuine responsibility at the present political moment, it is precisely to become a non-scarequoted we that can really take responsibility.

Fragmentary thoughts on politics

People analyze Trump supporters as though they’re hanging on his every word and willing to defend his every lie, but that describes only a small hardcore faction that spends too much time on line. In reality, most of them are just not paying close attention and don’t need to do much more than deploy the standard “liberal media bias” narrative — wherein anything that sounds too “extreme” must be made up because it can’t possibly be that bad — to keep the cognitive dissonance levels down. It’s not about consciously buying lies, it’s about maintaining plausible deniability through ignorance — and that may be a tougher problem. It’s not even about convincing them of the truth, it’s about convincing them that they could potentially have access to the truth and, even worse, be held responsible for finding it.

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The talk of “treason” leaves me cold. Trump is showing less concrete deference and servility toward Russia than every president in my lifetime has shown toward Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. This is rhetoric that will backfire on the left, just like making the cruelty of child separation be about the sanctity of “family.” And there is also the fact that people are bizarrely using this as an opportunity for redbaiting, as though Putin is a continuation of the USSR — when in reality, he is the kind of right-wing strongman that Marxist theory predicts as the outcome of a failed left project. Not to mention the lionization of the American national security apparatus. I am all for removing Trump by any possible means, but my God, my God. There is no future down this path.

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The irony of the present moment is that the right is more internationalist than the left, where the debate is centered on economic nationalism and reclaiming the power of the nation-state. Again, there is no future down this path.

Whiteness is the crisis

A lot of times, when governments do horrible things, they can point to some kind of crisis. Maybe there is a war or insurgency going on. Maybe they are in the midst of an economic collapse. Maybe there is a major crime wave underway. In those kinds of circumstances, government officials feel entitled and even obligated to take extreme measures to get things back to normal. Sometimes they use the crisis to do something they wanted to to anyway, as with the Iraq War, but sometimes they are acting out of genuine fear and panic.

What we are seeing at the border today is not like that. The U.S. is in a state of undeclared war around the world, as it almost always is, but there is no substantial foreign threat to the U.S. mainland and no attempt to even claim that there is one. There are still economic problems, most notably wage stagnation, but unemployment is very low, the stock market is still booming, and the Global Financial Crisis is ten years in the rearview window. There is no evidence of an increase in attempted undocumented border crossings, nor of any crime wave associated with undocumented immigrants — just the opposite, in fact, as immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than good old native-born Americans. Nor are we coming off a period of lax enforcement of immigration law, as Obama (shamefully, in my view) stepped up deportations to an extreme degree. And yet here we are, witnessing children, even infants, being torn from their parents for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor.

From any reasonable viewpoint, this policy is completely gratuitous cruelty. Yet from the unreasonable viewpoint of the racists in charge of our federal government there is an emergency underway: the U.S. is in danger of losing its white identity. Continue reading “Whiteness is the crisis”

Paying attention is the hardest thing

I don’t think we need to get better at listening to each others’ opinions and viewpoints. We need to get better at not presuming to have opinions and viewpoints on every single thing in the world — and to get better at not assuming that the things people say amount to opinions and viewpoints. We don’t even need to get better at suspending judgment, because that presupposes that the goal of a conversation is a judgment.

We just need to get better at paying attention to things and finding ways to talk about what we see when we pay attention to things.

How might this work in a political context? I haven’t talked to a Trump supporter about the separation of children at the border, but I can vividly imagine how it would go — they would keep throwing excuses and distractions at the wall until either something stuck or they wore me out (most likely the latter). All of that would be to avoid confronting the simple fact of what is happening: agents of the government are stealing away the children of immigrants, making no effort to keep track of them or guarantee their safe return, and sticking them in ad hoc camps. That is what is happening.

“But it’s Obama’s fault, because he made the policy.” Fine, but this is what your guy is doing now. “He’s just following the law.” He has a majority in both houses of Congress — he could change the law if he wanted to. “It’s all part of a negotiating strategy to get a better immigration policy.” Yes, but it’s ruining lives, probably irrevocably, in the meantime. “It’s their own fault for breaking the law.” This was never a consequence of breaking that law before. Does it seem proportionate?

I’m not sure I want to change their opinion or persuade them to vote for a Democrat or whatever, so much as to force them to actually face the fact of what is happening. That would at least give me some information — if they can see the horror, then there may be some hope for them; if they can stare down what is happening and say it’s worth it, then they are lost. We can’t tell a person is lost simply from the fact that they are spouting the talking points, because it is a very human (though very selfish) thing to want to look away from something terrible like this and especially to try to avoid any complicity or blame. This is what I mean by not assuming that the stupid things they say amount to “opinions” that we must counter or take seriously — they aren’t EVEN opinions yet, they are ways to avoid confronting the situation and forming an actual opinion.

Learning to talk to each other like human beings

In the last week of the senior capstone class, I suggested that one of the most important things we do at Shimer is develop the habit of actually talking to each other like human beings. Not spouting off opinions, not yelling at each other to beat everyone into submission, not positioning and posturing and signaling, above all not trying to “win” at something or avoid admitting we were ever wrong, but actually talking — about something of substance, which we have all done some work toward understanding. We’re not perfect. It doesn’t always come together. Personal conflict and fatigue and flagging interest all work against us. But every day, in every class, we try to learn how to talk to each other like human beings, and after four years of doing that every day, in every class, everyone gets at least a little better at it.

Every morning when I read the news and the inane commentary on it and the clever but ultimately unsatisfying riffs and jokes on it all, I become more convinced that we all need to learn to talk to each other like human beings. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most revolutionary thing or the most important thing — but it’s a necessary thing, if we don’t want to trust our fate to the loudest and most brutal person on “our side.” Maybe that will work, but it probably won’t, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any way to figure out what went wrong and what we can change.

The Decline of the West

In the New York Times, David Leonhart worries that Trump is consciously attempting to destroy the West. Now I have no great affection for the Western alliance or the global free trade regime — and in any case, the Bush years teach us that neither can do much to restrain US excesses. So I could see a kneejerk case to root for Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop routine.

The problem is that Trump is trying to construct a world order that doubles down on everything that is worst about the NATO-IMF-World Bank regime and gets rid of even the faintest illusion that some kind of ideals may be remotely involved in any of it. You may say that the Trump version has the virtue of being honest, but I wonder how “refreshing” or “clarifying” that honesty feels to the inmate of an ICE concentration camp.

It’s similar to the delusion of a left-wing version of Brexit — it’s not that I am rooting for the EU as such, but the people who are in a position to administer the alternative are psychotic austerians who want to use “freedom” from the EU to brutalize immigrants and turn the UK into an open-air work camp for the poor.