Sunday, September 05, 2021

Taking (Democratic) Control of One's Own Traffic

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

That Charles Marohn is a friend to localist movements across the United States and beyond is indisputable. It’s not just that he has said so, repeatedly; both the whole operating premise of Strong Towns, the organization he has built, and the strategy it has followed, has been localist: encouraging ordinary people to attend to their own localities by gathering together, sharing information and concerns about the places where they live, and addressing those problems in small, organic, achievable ways. As I wrote in praise of his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, while Marohn may not be a trained social critic or political philosopher, he has nonetheless, through his insistence upon the necessity of slowly and democratically adapting our urban places in the direction of greater fiscal and environmental sustainability, articulated as clear and as practical a localist theory as almost any other thinker writing today.

The title of Marohn’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (whose release date is today--buy it now!), might suggest a wonky doubling down upon the practical at the expense of the broadly theoretical, and that judgment isn’t wrong. By connecting this set of interconnected reflections to what Marohn now recognizes as the flawed design principles and professional assumptions he internalized during his decades of road-building work as a civil engineer, he has written a book more in the style of a technical manual than a philosophical treatise. But that doesn’t mean the philosophy isn’t there. In the midst short, data-heavy discussions of travel times, risk assessments, speed studies, Marohn’s ideas are very much still present, and in some ways they’re more political than ever.

The fundamental focus in this book is traffic, meaning the movement of people and goods along streets and roads, which is literally the lifeblood, the circulatory system, of any urbanized space. (In a book with more than its share of good lines, Marohn’s two-sentence take-down of the over-inflated complaints about traffic congestion we are all guilty of is perhaps my favorite: “People often say that they are ‘stuck in traffic,’ as if their vehicle is somehow not a literal part of the traffic in which they are stuck. They are not stuck in traffic; they are traffic”—pg. 84.) One doesn’t have to be a student of Gibbons v. Ogden and the Supreme Court’s commerce clause jurisprudence to recognize that this in an inherently political topic, with ramifications for economics, culture, government, and sometimes life and death. Marohn opens the book with the story of a haunting traffic accident, the lessons of which he returns to throughout the chapters that follow, and ends the book with another accident, one that involved himself. He does this not to politicize tragedies or near-tragedies, but rather the show the degree to which human mistakes are enabled by decisions regarding the construction and management of traffic, decisions whose political values should be available to us, but usually are not.  

This is Marohn’s goal in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:  to reveal the undemocratic—because rarely discussed and almost never subject to actual civic input—values which underlie the traffic regime that American cities are overwhelmingly subject to. Chapter after chapter, Marohn, with the zeal of a penitent convert, digs into the practices and norms of civil engineers like himself, teaching his readers—usually with impressive clarity—about LOS (Level of Service) rankings, MUTCD (Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices) warrants, the economic and sociological distinction between “streets” and “roads,” the 85th Percentile Speed rule, and much more. By so doing, Marohn carefully details the disconnect between the people who actually live in urban areas, and those who are tasked with designing the circulatory systems which enable them to move about. That is, he succinctly shows how streets, roads, intersections, traffic signage, bus stops, and more are constructed so as to incentivize—or impel—drivers to act in ways disconnected from—or completely contrary to—what those same people, when truly presented with the full range of traffic options, generally prioritize.

So just what do people—what do we—generally prioritize? Mostly safety and cost, even when such stand in the way of maximizing traffic capacity and speed. Unsurprisingly, the language and methods of urban design in America today (and for most of the past 70 years) privilege the opposite. That does not mean America’s cities care nothing about safety or cost: on the contrary, city leaders hear citizen complaints and respond to them all the time…only usually in ways that complete fail to get at the opaque values at work in the bureaucratic contexts which so often shape our urban environments.

So, insofar as safety is concerned, it would be hard to find an American city dweller who isn’t familiar with wide streets clearly built for speed…which have subsequently been filled with traffic warnings, broken up with poorly coordinated signal lights, and closely attended by police conducting a near-abusive number of traffic stops (the symbiotic relationship here should be obvious). Or, insofar as cost is concerned, it would be equally hard to find an urban resident in America who can’t point to expansive and soaring highway interchanges or grand elevated thoroughfares gracing their city…while at the same time debt-payments and budget cuts and arbitrary ceilings on tax collection have left the basic maintenance of the city’s streets and roads further and further behind. These situations are both common and perverse, the result of city governments attempting to sincerely respond to genuine problems without daring to rethink the decision-making which got them there.

What would that rethinking consist of? Perhaps designing smaller streets for slower speeds and less carrying capacity in the first place. Perhaps organizing city finances so as to serve local sites of commercial intercourse and thus moderating and diversifying traffic flow from its start. And thereby perhaps lessening the overall debt taken on by America’s urban areas, freeing up money for already-existing maintenance obligations. In other words, perhaps the option of actually choosing not to privilege the top-down growth of a city’s traffic footprint, but instead choosing to privilege “more corner stores and neighborhood businesses…more local jobs and housing options…[more] sidewalks and biking infrastructure…more alternative ways to respond to congestion” (pg. 98). That these choices are politically difficult is obvious: the assumption that faster traffic is superior to slower traffic, that automobile access to distant locations is superior to bike or pedestrian access to local destinations, that minimizing automobile delay is superior to making room for transportation alternatives, and that speculative economic growth is superior to preserving community wealth, are all, in the civil engineering and urban design professions, a kind of “orthodoxy” (pg. 12). But that they remain, nonetheless, politically possible is Marohn’s fervent call. By supply his readers with the relevant data, Marohn's Confessions helps explain how.

This push against the presumed necessity of over-building, the supposed “inevitability” of the growth machine in American cities (as Marohn facetiously writes in the book’s introduction, which humorously expands upon his justly famous “Conversation with an Engineer” video, civil engineers are “really in the growth business”—pg. xviii), is what makes his localism populist in the spirit of Wendell Berry, who labeled this same cult of inevitability in The Art of Loading Brush “an economic and technological determinism.“ It’s also what makes his localism profoundly political. In the end, for all it’s technical, economic, psychological, and environmental details, Confessions is a plea for local democracy, as Marohn makes clear throughout the book, from beginning…

[Decisions about street safety, speed, capacity, and cost] are policy decision, and like all policy decisions, they should be decided by some duly elected or appointed collection of public officials. In a democratic system of representative government, representatives of the people should be provided the full range of options and be allowed to weigh them against each other. That rarely happens, and I have never heard of an instance where it has happened for a local street (pg. 6).

…to end:

None of these decisions [regarding all the supposed obstacles to making a busy street more pedestrian friendly] are merely technical; they are all somewhat discretionary and, thus, political….Cities are not powerless. Great local engineers who want to assert the values of the community, instead of opposing them, can become strong advocates….All...common methods of thwarting the public will are merely assertions of power. The engineer has knowledge and access to information that elected officials and the public do not. This makes the engineer a gatekeeper….There are ways to deal with this problem, most of which involve shifting power away from the engineer and the systems which empower their values….There are many great engineers out there ready to prioritize public safety over traffic speed and neighborhood prosperity over traffic volume. There are a lot of engineers ready to step out from behind the shield provided by industry standards and fulfill their ethical obligations to use their professional judgment in the service of the public. Any city council wanting to can find these people, empower them, and then support them so they can do great things (pgs. 209-210).

My reference to Wendell Berry above—whose work has inspired many writers at Strong Towns—is intentional. The political expression of localism is often derided as mere nostalgia at worst, or only appropriate for the increasingly small portion of the American population which lives in rural areas at best. Marohn is no agrarian. But here he shows us a practical localism, one centered upon the admittedly wonky technical and financial designing, building, and maintaining of America’s circulatory systems of traffic, but nonetheless as reflective of the same localist democratic ideals as anything produced within America’s agrarian or Tocquevillian traditions. No, Marohn is not a theorist, and not every argument or example or chapter in this book is intellectually consistent. But enough of them do for me to say: if only traffic engineers and urban designers read this book, the localist cause will have missed out on something great indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Ideology, Abortion, and Schmidt's Confusion (or Not?) over "Choice"

On Sunday, The Wichita Eagle posted a column of mine online (it appeared in the physical paper on Tuesday) which attempted to describe--in less than 600 words--the nature of the ideological confusion which the Kansas Republican party has sown over the past 18 months. I don't think I did a particularly good job. Fortunately, Derek Schmidt, Kansas's attorney general and a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, sat down for an interview with Tim Carpenter of the Kansas Reflector this week, and in the full podcast he expressed that confusion far better than I ever could.

At the beginning of the interview, Schmidt talks about his anti-abortion bona fides, and the role he played in crafting the "Value Them Both" amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution which will be on the ballot next August and which the Kansas Republican party is all but entirely determined to see passed. As he commented, "that amendment is a response to what I think is an erroneous decision of the Kansas state Supreme Court which somehow managed to find in the state constitution the right to access abortion services that I just don't think is there." He repeated that point a couple of times. The case he was referring to, and the decision which the amendment would invalidate, is Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, a case from 2019 in which a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure was challenged. Schmidt defended the law, with the state Supreme Court ultimately ruling in a 6-1 vote that, as the language of Kansas's Constitution supports (on those judges' interpretation) a guaranteed right for a woman to choose to access abortion services, state laws which limit that right, such as the one mentioned above, must pass a "strict scrutiny" test to be legitimate. For whatever its worth, I wrote at length about that case and its relevance for thinking about the long-standing issues of judicial review and popular sovereignty here.

One could attempt to qualify Schmidt's interview statement by suggesting that what he labels "erroneous" about the decision is solely the 5-person majority's language which took Kansas's constitutional jurisprudence to such a high level. (Justice Biles wrote a concurring decision which demurred partly from his colleagues' reasoning, stating that the Kansas Constitution's guarantee of  "equal and inalienable natural rights" was best interpreted as applying to abortion in light of the Supreme Court's currently--though perhaps not for much longer--reigning Planned Parenthood v. Casey precedent, which stipulates that restrictions upon the right to access abortion services can be justified only so long as they do not violate the somewhat more moderate "undue burden" test.) That would be an interesting development: that Schmidt only wants this state supreme court decision overturned because he thinks it valorizes a woman's right to choose abortion in a particularly uncompromising way. But no such development will emerge, and the attempts to give context to Schmidt's statement will fail, not at least if (and this is kind of the whole point) you actually take his statements about his beliefs at face value, as the interview itself later shows.

Why? Because once the interview got into the dominant issue in Topeka over the past 18 months--namely, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly's attempts to use her emergency powers to put in place what she and her medical advisors determined were necessary public health measures, and the way Kansas Republican leaders have consistently opposed and limited her efforts--Schmidt explicitly affirmed the uncompromising formulation of "choice" employed in that same decision which he insists needs to be overturned. As the interview turned to the spread of vaccination mandates across the U.S. as a public health measure, Schmidt repeatedly emphasized his opposition, clearly stating that there should be "no vaccination mandates," that the choice to get or not get vaccinated is "a personal decision," an "individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government," and that "people ought to be entrusted with" the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. He emphasizes this, he said, for a "couple of reasons." One is practical; he thinks more people will get vaccinated if you keep the choice entirely voluntary and a matter of public education and encouragement: "you catch more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar." But the other, which he implies he believes is even more important, is kind of fascinating:

People do have a right...well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a "right to bodily integrity"....I don't mean to conflate the two debates [but] is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone's arm.

Carpenter, to his credit, pushed back (though not, I think, as thoroughly as he might have) on this point, observing that a woman's choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one's "bodily integrity," with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being "quite a thing" as well. Schmidt responded:

There is, of course, a difference, which least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons' interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.

Well. Let's unpack that a little bit.

First, if Schmidt sincerely sees his belief that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice reflected in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, then he really ought to read it again. Because the 5-person majority on the Court did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms, presumably in violation of the right to bodily integrity, and they concluded (though I would agree with Biles that they did so much too casually) that their interpretation of the Kansas Constitution's language posed no complications for the well-established precedent of mandatory vaccinations. They did this by citing other decisions which labeled such public health practices as defensible when individual health exceptions are allowed (see pp. 40-41). Whether that's genuinely unproblematic assertion or not, it's connected to language which Schmidt himself uses, so he ought to at least acknowledge it.

Second, there's Schmidt's reference to "two persons' interests" in the case of abortion, a rather bloodless way to talk about the central conviction which has long defined opposition to the availability of abortion services in the United States: that a woman who chooses abortion terminates an unborn life, one which had no choice in the matter. That's a conviction which has been challenged and construed in different ways over the decades in light of arguments over the definition of fetal life, changes in our understanding of (and expanding technological access to) human embryonic development in the womb, and much more--but it remains the core principle that, as Schmidt put it, "those of us on the pro-life side" make use of. What, then, are we to make of someone who holds to that deep belief in preserving life, who then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat which remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death which refusing vaccination is bringing into the hospitals and emergency rooms of America every day, but nonetheless still insists that "the right to bodily integrity" makes not being required to put a needle in your arm the more defensible position, in part because, supposedly anyway, the "vaccination context" is "less" a matter of other persons' "interests" than abortion is?

Well, as I see it, we can make a few different things. One is the observation I made in my original column, an observation rooted in many well-attested political truisms. To expand on it slightly: lots of people believe lots of things, and they believe those things for lots of different reasons. A lot of the exact same beliefs held by some people are held in an equally passionate but entirely different way by other people, and some individuals affirm both those different beliefs at the same time. In short, people are complicated. The existence of such complications make it possible for some people--let's call them "political elites"--to arrange and communicate packages of beliefs--let's call those "ideologies"--to attract the votes and the financial support of people to their vehicles--let's call those "political parties"--for enacting those packages of beliefs. Since these are packages of beliefs, not necessarily bedrock principles, they can always be re-packaged and re-communicated to the American people as political actors feel appropriate, something which has been done by different parties at different times throughout American history. 

In my column, I used the example of "choice," something which most Americans, socialized as most of us are so as to value individual liberty and personal decision-making, respond to positively. Over the course of the pandemic, "choice" has been a valuable tool (or, if you prefer, "ideological package") that Kansas Republicans have used to justify challenging Governor Kelly's efforts to mandate public health measures. We all know this; everyone knows someone who has refused to wear a mask or refused to get vaccinated or complained about restrictions at their workplace or their school or their church because they have--or should have--the liberty to choose to say no: "my body, my choice." It has been very effective politics for them, in that it really has articulated and given partisan direction to a general libertarian, choice-centric sentiment here in Kansas. Which led me to to point out, very simply, that it's a weird and possibly electorally confusing thing for Kansas Republicans to have made use of explicitly "pro-choice" language throughout 2020 and 2021, given that in 2022 they're going to be united around passing a constitutional amendment via referendum which is anything but "pro-choice."

My column prompted two different types of responses, which constitute two other ways of interpreting the confusion here, if that's what it is. The first (which started hitting my inbox as soon as the Eagle posted my column on Sunday) is that I'm wrong, that the positions taken by the Kansas Republican party on vaccinations and abortion actually fit together perfectly, and that if anyone has been engaged in ideological repackaging for political gain, it's been those duplicitous, pro-abortion Democrats, who have abused the notion of personal freedom for evil ends. I really didn't take that stuff seriously, in part because it just confirms what I also wrote in my original column: that beliefs can always be re-interpreted so as to demonstrate consistency, and the resulting ideological packages really can, at least sometimes, logically hold together. That doesn't make such packages persuasive; as I pointed out above, Schmidt's claim that invoking the right of bodily integrity to resist vaccination mandates and invoking the right of bodily integrity to resist abortion restrictions are "of course" fundamentally different is confusing, on multiple moral and legal levels. But still: this is what we free-thinking human beings do. If one group of human beings decide that they believe in libertarianism when it comes to public health but don't believe in libertarianism when it comes to reproductive rights, their justifications may be stupid, but that doesn't mean they're always incoherent. When it comes to defending our prior beliefs, we can be very clever creatures, and the Kansas Republican party (and Schmidt himself) no doubt have many clever people on their payrolls developing their talking points.

The other type of response however, and the other way of considering Schmidt's statements, is one I do take seriously. It's the suggestion--which I received from some local activists and scholars I respect--is that "coherence" and "persuasiveness" and such are all, like the packages of beliefs themselves, entirely ideological, and thus irrelevant--in fact immoral--in the face of the actual material conditions which the Kansas Republican party's employ of whatever language they choose is attempting to mask. The "Value Them Both" amendment will remove state constitutional limitations which protect a right which many women--particularly those that are poor and without social support--greatly need, and with its removal state laws passed by anti-abortion legislators will cause those women great harms. So what does it matter what Schmidt or anyone else actually believes or not? Treating their language as worthy of engagement, by way of pointing out the packaging involved and the confusions it arguably results in, simply plays their game. My interlocutors didn't paraphrase Marx's famous line from Theses on Feuerbach, but they might as well have: our point should not be to interpret the reasoning by which policies are justified, but to change the policies themselves.

That kind of materialism is, admittedly, bracing. It gives one the frisson of cutting through something, of getting to the heart of the matter, of "getting real," of kicking a stone in some grand Johnsonian refutation. And it's powerful stuff; while Marxist and other forms of critical philosophy are not my areas of special expertise, I think I understand enough of those arguments to be able to appreciate the ways in which talk of "packaging ideas" and "ideological interpretation" can implicitly legitimate beliefs which treat real material consequences as mere matters of ideological debate. The threat of that reductive danger makes maintaining radical challenges to the dominant discourses of liberal democratic and capitalist modernity immensely important, or at least that ethically must be the case for anyone who holds out for a better, less alienated, more democratic, more socially just and equal world. And yet...look at the words I used to make my point in that prior sentence: "understanding," "appreciation, "legitimization," etc. These are all describing intellectual actions which are themselves properties of the discourse about ideas. Absent, I suppose, either 1) the revelation that we really are wholly determined beings, operating in mental environments characterized entirely by false consciousness, like the unliberated captives in The Matrix, or 2) the determination (perhaps following from 1), or perhaps following from a doctrinaire reading of V.I. Lenin) to employ no other methods besides those of revolutionary violence, the brute--even, dare I say, material--fact of pluralism in our late modern condition necessitates the recognition of different existing construals of the same ideas, and the talking about of those differences. And that invariably lead to attempts to construct accounts of those differences, risky as that account-making may be to some. My talk of ideological packaging is one such construction. Does engaging in it--even if while so doing I note the stupidity or unpersuasiveness of some arrangements--functionally risk granting legitimacy to arrangements of ideas which can used to move policies in materially harmful ways? Almost certainly. But despite all my anarcho-socialist, populist democrat, and left conservative sympathies, I'm also still enough of a bourgeois liberal enough to ask: what is the alternative? Because I don't see one, at least not one that is actually available to a critical mass of thinkers and voters and citizens in Kansas, anyway.

Cards on the table: maybe I've gone on at such length because the language of people like Schmidt isn't entirely foreign to me, as it is to many others on the left. Not his or the Kansas Republican party's current (though probably soon to change) employ of the language of "choice," though; while I've grown far less sympathetic to arguments against abortion rights over the years, my old disagreement with centering "choice" in our articulation of the rights which liberal modernity tells us we possess remains firm. The pandemic, and the deadly abuses with the valorization of choice has made obvious, should have made that clear, if nothing else ever has or ever can. But that aside, I'll admit it: Schmidt's pro-life claims don't appear to me as obviously crazy. Wrong? Very much so. His appeal to a right to "bodily integrity" was a way to explain (assuming one even needs an explanation beyond a Republican elite packaging some beliefs so as to beat up on a Democratic governor) why people should be able to choose whether to not to wear a mask or be vaccinated is deeply stupid, and his commitment to that explanation, in the midst of surging Delta-variant numbers, while nonetheless refusing to extend it to women seeking to protect their access to abortion services, is deeply confusing. But not, I think, complete evil incoherence. Stupid and confusing are persuasive enough charges to be brought forward in an intellectual debate, aren't they? Maybe not for everyone, I guess. But for me, they'll do.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Fathers, Friendship, and Holding onto Your Platoon (or Not)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This old Cal Grondahl cartoon, from many years ago, has been on my mind for while:

It first came back to my mind as I was preparing for a sacrament meeting sermon on Father's Day, back in June, the first time I'd been at a church pulpit since before the pandemic. As I've explained before, the ward that my family and I had attended for years officially disappeared over a year ago--and its elimination by the stake, with consequent changes in boundaries which ended up dividing us from just about everyone we were close to in our former ward, has combined with the lock-downs and the many upheavals of 2020 (both personal and political), to make it hard for us to get back into the church-attending habit. The cartoon thus really struck me, because it was, predictably, the husband holding back his hysterical wife, patiently emphasizing the facts of the situation: "there's nothing you can do." 

That's the stereotype, right? When there is a difficult reality to face, when there are hard choices to make, when sacrifices must be accepted and leadership is required, who is supposed to provide it, in the church's official imagination? The husband, of course--the father, the patriarch. It's a stereotype that finds support in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," after all: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” 

Sure, the Proclamation allows that "individual adaptation" may sometimes be necessary, and it's not hard to find statements from general authorities of the church implying how there may be all sorts of undefined exceptions to general principles like these out there as well, and that's even assuming you take the Proclamation seriously as a matter of doctrine (which I don't). But still, it's hard to be a member of such a culturally uniform body of believers as American Mormonism and not feel, as I do, at least slightly condemned for being, as I am, a weak father, someone reluctant to insist, in some commanding way, that my family has to attend a congregation that they mostly do not know, and a church that some of them--and, to a degree, I as well--have come to see over the past year and a half as, institutionally at least, partly irrelevant, morally as well as politically, to their lives. 

Maybe that weakness isn't such a bad thing; maybe American Mormon fathers can flip the cultural script, sometimes, and not necessarily play the stoic, authoritative, "there's nothing you can do"-types. (And considering the fact that our church's demographics skew heavily female as soon as you age out of childhood, that's probably an unavoidable flip, even if the cultural presumptions haven't caught up, and perhaps, given our all-male leadership, perhaps never will.) Still, as our family's participation in Mormonism, after decades of constancy, becomes doubtful and worried and inconsistent in the midst of the changes and covid-19 variants still out there, I can't help but feel somewhat at fault.

Lately though, as my family has continued to struggle along, I've stopped thinking about the husband in the cartoon, and started thinking about the wife, and her plea to hold on to her friends.

When Joseph Smith spoke of friendship as "one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism" he was speaking cosmologically; he may have given examples that were both personal and social, but his aim in introducing the idea, at least as I interpret the passage, is to emphasize how the friendship among members of the Mormon community will revolutionize the world, bringing us closer to the Millennial peace promised by the scriptures. Holding onto the Hendersons, as the cartoon satirizes, probably has no such theological weight. what? Isn't it possible that insisting upon church activity in a particular place at a particular time, and thus upon supporting the leadership and the structures and the expectations culturally coded into the institutions of American Mormonism, all by way of a theological claim (the father in the cartoon might as well have said "Sharon, those with inspired priesthood authority have spoken; you can't challenge that"), is itself a stereotypically..."male" thing to do? Appealing to the cosmological principle of friendship, rather than real-world associations with one's actual neighbors and friends?

Of course, you will all say: dividing a ward hardly means you still can't spend time with the Hendersons! And that's correct. But we also all know that as fallen, embodied creatures, as creatures subject to human time and space, and subject to so many faults and limitations, we depend upon social structures to enable to us find and build upon the associations which bring virtue and purpose and joy into our lives. A Mormon congregation is, to twist slightly the famous Edmund Burke quote, "the subdivision...the little platoon we belong to in society." (Burke was talking at least as much about people embracing their place in the class hierarchy as he was about them loving their locality, but the general conservative principle holds.) 

We come into a subdivision, and we build, over time, memories, patterns of relationships, referents to people and events and experiences upon which we tell stories to ourselves about service, sacrifice, and simple pleasures. Can we do that anywhere, with any group of people, at any point of time? In theory, yes. But in practice, that kind of insistence (just start over again somewhere else!) valorizes exactly the kind of supposedly seamless, transactional modernity which, on a certain philosophical level at least, Mormonism ought to resist. In actual embodied life, becoming attached to a congregation takes time and costs effort--and as so many of us have experienced, the ward platoon we find ourselves may resist our best efforts at association (or, perversely, may bring out the associational worst in us). Thus to lose a subdivision that, over the years, came to mean seeing and catching up with and being comforted by the presence of genuine friends at Sunday meetings may well justify Sharon's desperate response.

Some will argue, not unreasonably, that the Mormon church is officially moving away from this kind of reliance upon congregational "platoons" anyway--that (perhaps inspired to prepare for the ward-and-activity-shuttering pandemic we have all experienced, and continue to experience) Mormonism is to become a "home-centered, church-supported" entity, and not just in the operations of Sunday School. To which I respond: well, maybe. If such decentralized hyper-localism--indeed, familialism--is to be the future of the faith, with our families (however we define them? or would only a clearly defined set of family associations count, perhaps those with the right sort of "Sharon, there's nothing you can do" patriarchs at their head?) serving as our "platoons," then some things needs to be seriously rethought, callings and boundaries and membership lists being just the start. In the meantime, though, we baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we covenanted members of this particular interpretation of the body of Christ, are called to attend and support and receive the ordinances of salvation in our several subdivided places. And the difficulty of returning to such, for families like my own at least, remains.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Why Councilmember Brandon Johnson Matters

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

My title is pretentious, of course; Brandon Johnson—the councilmember representing Wichita’s heavily African-American and traditionally Democratic District 1, a longtime community activist and an alum of Friends University where I teach, as well as someone I have a friendly (if not close) relationship with—matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons, most of them far beyond the specifics of current Wichita City Council debates. But as a someone who has spent decades observing and thinking and writing and teaching about politics, Brandon Johnson’s comments, towards the end of another marathon session dealing with the proposed non-discrimination ordinance before the council, were, whether he realized it or not, a deeply profound perception about the nature of political life, and it speaks well of his intelligence and perception that he said them. Watching the whole thing is a revealing as well as often depressing slog, but if you zip to the 4 hour and 6 minute mark, you’re hear this (edited slightly for clarity):

A 'community divided' [over]...a non-discrimination ordinance? I don't know if I would go that far. There are upset people. There are people who have questions right now. I forget how many e-mails I've gotten; from organized groups I may have had six or seven hundred e-mails. We may have seen the people outside. But [whether the delay is] 90 days or 90 years, there are going to be people who are concerned about this because it is offering protection to groups who are discriminated [against]....Whenever those opportunities come up, there is disagreement; there is division. Folks [will be] upset....Everybody's not going to agree with protecting folks. It's not going happen. There are folks who want to be able to do what they've been doing, think how they've been thinking. We've seen that the/ 'locker room' talk. We've seen this in some of the stuff we heard today, the 'I love you, but'. That doesn't change in 90 days. It's not. They are going be folks who are upset, still in 90 days.

The context, and the primary point, of his comments are actually quite straightforward, I think, even if that straight path is only clear in hindsight. So bear with me as I quickly run through the past four weeks….

A month ago, a proposed ordinance that would specifically require that national and state anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment, and public accommodations be enforced locally appeared upon the city council’s docket. The actual details and timeline of its preparation remain unclear--though it should be emphasized that Wichita currently has no locally specific civil rights ordinance at all, and it is to Mayor Brandon Whipple’s great credit that he saw the need for one. Unfortunately, in the originally presented ordinance, many of the terms describing those classes of individuals that would be protected were vague or undefined, and despite its stated intention, it actually included no specific enforcement mechanism, nor did it identify penalties should such a mechanism be put into effect. One thing that was clear from the outset, though, was that for both proponents and opponents of the ordinance, the point was the protection it provided to LGBTQ individuals, the state-level protections of which most people sympathetic to their concerns consider lacking, hence the move by several cities to make specific their inclusion. (The proponents of this effort regularly insist that this is a broadly motivated concern—Johnson explicitly says so in his remarks mentioned above—and yet no one really believes this, and no one really should: the arguments over the past month have overwhelming involved matters of gender identity and sexual orientation and the religious—specifically, the overwhelmingly conservative Christian—objections to such.)

The problems with the original ordinance resulted in a flurry of activity over the weekend, as Mayor Brandon Whipple scrambled (while away from Wichita attending a wedding) to placate furious LGBTQ activists and organizations, some of whom saw the proposed ordinance as a hastily slapped together affront to those who take LGBTQ concerns truly seriously. He was successful in this effort: by Tuesday morning, when the ordinance came before the city council for its first official reading, it had been significantly re-written, and it was representatives of Equality Kansas, and not the city’s staff, who providing explanations of the ordinance’s fine details. The frustration over this hurried process was immense (and I think, at that point in time at least, entirely justifiable). Councilmember Jared Cerullo’s objections to having been substantively excluded from the whole drafting process, despite being the only LGBTQ individual on the city council and thus an obvious partner to these discussions, was, I though, particularly poignant. It is very likely, despite Whipple’s impassioned pleading (in contrast to Johnson’s quietly supportive approach), that the whole thing would have been voted down if Councilmember Becky Tuttle hadn’t gotten the city’s legal department to assure the council that the whole ordinance could be effectively re-written again before its second reading. With that, it passed 4-3, with Tuttle and Councilmember Cindy Claycomb joining Whipple and Johnson in voting it through.

By the time the ordinance came before the city council again, however, it was clear that enough changes had to have been made to its language, its details, its definitions, and its enforcement process, that it was substantially a brand new ordinance, requiring a reset to the whole process. The new first reading was an endless, 5+ hour parade of opposition—again, overwhelmingly reflecting conservative Christian concerns—and, in a much smaller key, support. In the three weeks since the prior discussion of the proposed ordinance, there obviously had been a lot of organizing, yet little formal discussion in the venues established for such—specifically, the DABs, the advisory boards established for each city council district. Part of the reason for this was the July 4th holiday, which made it hard for people to get together and actually have an organized conversation. And in this vacuum a lot of misinformation predictably spread, in particular from the Sedgwick County Republican Party, though the local Democratic party’s response to the GOP’s attack got things about the proposed ordinance wrong too. (It’s worth noting that some local conservative activists went beyond talking points to calling upon their followers to contact—or maybe outright harass—certain councilmembers at their homes, and tell them that their election prospects depend upon their changing their votes.)

All of this, from what I can tell, simply served to underline an emerging consensus, one which I heard repeatedly when I attended Councilmember Bryan Frye’s re-scheduled DAB meeting after the first reading of the new, substituted version of the ordinance: this whole discussion has been unnecessarily heated and hasty, and has sown division and disagreement throughout the city, because of both confusion over, and the disrespect shown for, the city’s normal legislative process. For myself, while I have no disagreement whatsoever that the process in bringing this ordinance forward has been a complete mess (and while there is a lot of fault for that, it has to begin with those who wrote it and introduced it in the first place, particularly Mayor Whipple), the result at this point in the process is nonetheless, actually, a pretty excellent non-discrimination ordinance, one that would serve an important purpose. On the basis of some exchanges I both listened to and had with Councilmembers Cerullo and Claycomb at different events during this in-between time (both of them had ended up supporting the ordinance at the previous marathon city council meeting, and both of them are up for re-election this year), I thought sympathy for the resulting policy would win out over anger regarding the process. I was wrong—which is what brings me back, at last, to Councilmember Johnson’s wise comment.

Everyone following the news knows what happened yesterday: another long parade of opponents, though this time with an almost equal contingent of better organized, better informed supporters of the proposed ordinance, followed by an even more contentious display of accusations, insults, apologies, and bargaining involving the five councilmembers who had supported different versions of ordinance at different times (most of which revolved around the mayor, who started out loudly demanding passage but quickly found himself on the defensive—as Whipple himself once quoted his wife as saying during a class I’d invited him to speak at, with his election at least city council meetings aren’t boring any longer). Councilmember Tuttle proposed tabling the ordinance for 90 days, until early October at the soonest, to allow for more DAB participation, a city council workshop day, and the involvement the city’s new Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, which relatively quickly garnered majority support on the council and passed 5-2. (The arguments over the Civil Rights Advisory Board have been interesting—originally it was Mayor Whipple who claimed, when challenged over their lack of involvement in the shaping of the ordinance, that the board was just starting out and couldn’t productively play a role yet, but when Whipple, accepting that he’d lost the votes of Tuttle, Cerullo, and Claycomb, suggested quickly involving the board and bringing the ordinance back for another second reading in 30 days, it was Tuttle who said they board was just starting out and wasn’t organized enough to do so.) It is at this point that Johnson’s comment, which was framed as kindly rebuke to Tuttle’s successful motion, becomes relevant.

In the larger scheme of things, Tuttle’s proposal is perfectly reasonable. As Max Weber famously put it more than a century ago, politics is the “slow boring of hard boards.” It’s a difficult and time-consuming process—so why not take some more time to work through these hard questions? Johnson’s response, which explicitly referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with its condemnation of “white moderates” who told King to slow down and wait (Johnson could have just as easily referenced King’s blistering 1964 follow-up to that famous letter, Why We Can’t Wait), puts things in a different context. A focus on the legislative process, and the time and compromises involved, can be civically empowering, and is often central to any serious effort to think clearly about what “government by the people” actually means. But just as often, unfortunately, a focus on process can become an almost rote incantation, something imagined—usually not explicitly stated, though it sometimes is—as an entirely apolitical, non-partisan, and non-“divisive” way to address the reality of disagreement in our pluralistic society. As I observed in a recent column in The Wichita Eagle, this ideal is an old one, but it is also one that has never consistently worked, and today increasingly does not represent reality. The growing recognition by some that the contentious “management” of deep disagreements, through allowing everyone to organize and have their say (sometimes endlessly) and then somehow discovering a compromise in the midst of the fighting, rarely results in a policy that satisfies anybody or even works is, to say the least, kind of frightening.

Johnson’s comments, without ever going into this kind of theoretical detail, foregrounds this reality. When you are talking about really deep disagreements—and you can’t get much deeper than those between people who, on the one hand, draw upon long personal histories with discrimination of and contempt for their sexual identities and orientations, and people who, on the other hand, draw upon devout religious beliefs and (more relevantly) presumptions about the legitimate social expression of those beliefs—why would you think anyone will change their mind? However poor the process of shaping the proposed ordinance was up until yesterday (and it definitely has been poor, though there are examples from recent Wichita history of controversial decisions being made with even fewer and less transparent conversations than this ordinance has gotten over the past month), there is no reason to believe that the process going forward from this point on promises any kind of revolutionary break-through. As Johnson subsequently said, the only options going forward now are maintaining the protections provided by the ordinance, or weakening them by allowing more exceptions to be introduced. (Johnson didn’t mention the third, entirely obvious option: that more discussion might actually result in the ordinance being defeated entirely, despite a clear majority of members of the city council being on the record saying that local enforcement of state and national non-discrimination laws is necessary.)

Tuttle defended herself politely here, insisting that she wanted this ordinance passed, but believed that the delay—with more DAB discussions, with a council workshop, with formal Civil Rights Advisory Board involvement—will actually make it stronger, with broader public support, or at least great public acceptance. Johnson clearly disagreed with her, and I feel he was right to do so. I can’t emphasize this enough: taking the painstaking, slow, civic-minded approach to crafting rules and making decisions is absolutely essential when your goal is to increase public involvement with a problem, because the problem is general and the possible responses to it are multiple and unclear. This is exactly why I and many others have insisted, for example, that the city council must go slow in making decisions about the future of Century II; despite the efforts of some to present it as an all-or-nothing choice, it obviously is and shouldn’t be.

But as you get close to the point—by whatever the means you get there—where all those multiple options narrow down to one solution or one proposal or one course of action, one which you can only support, oppose, or amend, the civic essentialness of continuing engagement rapidly diminishes. There comes a point where rehashing the process becomes mostly a way to make attacks against (or defend yourself from against) the existing solution. Again, we all know this—we’ve all been part of meetings which never end and never accomplish anything, because someone is always upset with whatever might be done. As Councilmember Johnson said, the one thing you can count on in a free and pluralistic society like our own is that “there is disagreement, there is division.” You can argue, of course, that when it comes to this non-discrimination ordinance, Wichita—or at least our city council—is not at that narrow decision-making point yet. But that is a judgment call, not a determination that can be made in a dispassionate, objective, principled way. And if I may conclude by beating a favorite dead horse of mine, this is exactly why parties, and partisanship, is both 1) useful, and 2) unavoidable.

Why useful? Because parties frame for voters the sorts of priorities that will guide the judgment calls which different politicians will make after everything that goes into the legislative process is done, and thus allows voters to have some input over how and when and for what reason their elected representatives will say “okay, no more talk; it’s time to vote.” And why unavoidable? Because, as much as many city councilmembers (including Johnson himself!) may profess a deep commitment to just neutrally following what staff provides them with and making whatever decision their constituents seem to prefer, much of the time, in actual fact, voting in response to party priorities is exactly what they are doing anyway. I’m sorry if some take offense at that, but I can only plead that it’s very difficult to look at the votes that have been cast and the justifications that have been offered over this past month and yet still believe that the necessity of these people to negotiate the reality of both Republican and Democratic voters in their districts isn’t a central part of their decisions as well.

As another old saying puts it, politics is like making sausage—you shouldn’t look at it too closely. For better or worse, the people of Wichita have been granted, over the past month, a close tour of one particular sausage factory. The process was flawed, as legislative processes so regularly are, and if you want to hold Mayor Whipple responsible for that, you certainly could (I do, at least in part). But the resulting sausage is also, if you’re in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, pretty good. Of course, if you’re not in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, you probably don’t think it’s good at all. That’s called disagreement; that’s the nature of politics. When a city like Wichita comes to the point of division, you could wait in the hopes the divisions go away, or that your staff will come up with some new approach to mollify things, or that some other process could be tried to moderate extremists on both sides. I might work; hey, I might be wrong! But I don’t think I am, and I don’t think Councilmember Johnson is either. Hence today, after a very long month for every member of the city council (and three more months, at least, before they do it all again) I salute him and thank him for his clear-eyed perspective. As the man said, eyes on the prize, sir; eyes on the prize.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Why Championing American Values May Not Be Enough

[This is an expanded version of a column which appeared in The Wichita Eagle on Sunday, July 11.] 

When Mike Pompeo launched his "Championing American Values” political action committee recently, he employed what some would call some pretty dark and defiant language. The Biden administration's economic policies are "sickening," and their foreign policies are "naive." Claiming that the United States of America is "the most exceptional nation in the history of civilization," Pompeo insisted that America today is confronting “the dividing line between freedom and oppression.” Leaning heavily upon his military background, Pompeo's PAC foregrounds the idea of a conservative, pro-Trump, Republican calvary riding to battle against the Biden administration and the Democratic party, filled with "pipehitters" who will "never give an inch...against the radical Left’s agenda." A milquetoast foray into national politics this was not.

Personally, I don't find any of this language all that unusual, or even especially extreme. It doesn't frame itself in terms of an apocalyptic culture war, as so much political rhetoric today does, after all. Instead, it's actually entirely conventional for political action committees: it aims to win elections, specifically to "take back majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and in state legislatures." You can't get much more normal for American party politics than that.

But perhaps the very normality of Pompeo's stated intentions is what makes his language stand out to some observers? Hard to say, but the fact that some people can look at something as routine as a political action committee and see it as a frightening harbinger perhaps says something about the broader fears held by some in America today.

Of course, fear is actually part of Pompeo’s argument. If “the encroachment of socialism” and “the woke cancel culture” really are dire threats to “our liberty and freedoms,” as Pompeo’s announcement suggests, then perhaps every America should rightfully fear whether our constitutional democracy will survive. But if so, then the fact that Pompeo’s appeal does exactly what, according to at least one understanding of our constitution, we are democratically expected to do suggests that seeing our current constitutional situation as especially dire may be flawed.

The constitutional reading and democratic expectation I'm talking about is the Madisonian one, laid out in Federalist #10. His entire vision of our constitutional system will handle disagreement and diversity is premised upon the idea that we Americans, in order to promote our disparate values, will form discrete factions. Through those factions--which came to be most purely embodied through the mechanism of political parties and interest groups, though it is doubtful Madison himself had any so institutionally formal in mind--voters can attempt to influence the government one way or another, by recruiting candidates and lining up voters and cultivating donors with resources and more, all with the aim of winning elections. But given the diversity of America, none of these factions will ever elect enough people to be able to achieve majority control of the government on their own. Thus they’re forced to compromise, to work together. None of the relevant groups ever get all that they want, but all get enough to keep on going.

As I said, that’s one understanding—an understanding that looks at Pompeo’s new PAC, and salutes him for taking the exact same electoral actions which every other political action committee, working on behalf of every other possible set of values, also does. We may be deeply divided in our policy preferences when it comes to what we want our government to do, but how can we worry too much about the influence of one division or another when we’re all going about our political business in the same way anyway?

Some worry, I suspect--and I count myself as one of them--because we recognize that the bumpy but supposedly consistent “going” mentioned above actually doesn’t always work the way some constitutional thinkers believed it would. For me, the reasons it doesn't work the way it was supposed to are rooted in democratic theory itself; as I've written before, I suspect that Madison's vision of pluralism presumed a controlling classical republic background (as represented by the men who would be the presumed default leaders of these factions; "men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters" as Madison called them), and thus by praising factional interactivity as he did, he was actually undermining the conceptual requirements of his own constitutional vision. But even if I'm wrong, and Madison really was just a pragmatic liberal all the way down, with little interest in the common good, preferring just to manage our diverse, we still must confront the fact that he was a product of his time and place. Worried American citizens today don't have to know anything about Madison's philosophy or constitutional theory to suspect that things may go very wrong when factions, thanks to long-standing government dysfunction and increasing cultural divides, become sources of permanent frustration and anger. The hard truth is that the traditional story of American pluralism provides no solution when such impasses emerge. The Civil War, which there was no compromising out of (despite the delusions of some revisionists), is proof of that.

True, vague talk about how we may be facing “another civil war” is pretty common, on both the left and right, so much so that, as I wrote above, Pompeo's language might arguably even seem tame by comparison. And frankly, such language is arguably to be expected. Madison's whole system assumed people will be passionate believers, and will fight hard for their factional causes. But that fighting, at least in the century between the end of the Civil War and the breakdown of the New Deal party system, took place in a context where, among other things, media outlets were subject to political requirements which standardized a certain degree of regional variety and fairness, the controlling presumption of whiteness effectively enabled cross-ideological compromise, and campaign finances were closely watched enough that there was rarely any upside in political extremes. But the civil rights and women's movements, combined with technology and money and deregulation, have long since broken down most of these electoral structures and practices which once defined our factions, with the result that political movements are increasing driven by which ever micro-faction can effectively leverage grievances over values, so as to allow them to dominate their fellows by pure momentum. As a result, it’s become easy for the passionate believers to assume they face uncompromising extremists, not fellow citizens that they’ll have to deal with eventually. As that assumption becomes standard it become self-fulfilling, making Madison's vision seem ever more quaint and out-of-date when we consider the cultural conflicts of today.

I confess I have come, over the past 10 years, to embrace this dark diagnosis almost entirely. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of reasons to think things aren’t all that bad; locally, in particularly, I suspect good government through traditional pluralistic politics is still possible. When all is said and done, though, if you’re one of those who look at political actors like Pompeo and—even if you agree with the values he expresses—wonder a little about just what the endgame of his absolutist language is, then you’re like those of us who are beginning to fear that our constitutional machinery for dealing with disagreement may not be able to handle the internet-empowered, shame-resistant, mutual-destruction, cultural factions of today. Does that mean that some entirely new electoral and political machinery is necessary? I suspect so—but unfortunately, getting any compromise on what that machinery should be remains far away as well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Some Comments on the Possibilities for Mormon Socialism, or Communalism, at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

1) First things first: obviously, there isn't any real world possibility for the (re-)emergence of Mormon socialism, or communalism, at the present time.

2) That doesn't mean there aren't any Mormons anywhere who advocate for one or another version of socialism, or live in some kind of commune, or both; there certainly are, especially outside the United States. Still, given that (broadly speaking) Mormon culture is pretty authoritarian, and given that (again, broadly speaking) the clear majority of Mormon leaders who wield that authority--certainly the American-born ones, at least--are more or less obviously politically conservative, economically libertarian, and/or just plain tend to vote Republican, for lots of geographic, demographic, and theological reasons, the prospect of a large number of Mormons, particularly in the U.S., organizing around specifically Mormon articulations of socialist or communalist economic alternatives is pretty unlikely.

3) This is unfortunate, since as many of those close to the grass-roots where experiments with and arguments about socialism and communalism are most vigorously taking place can affirm, the Mormon history with both of those ideological constructs--which of course were never used under those names, but it's hard to imagine just what "united orders" and calls for "stewardship" and "consecration" involved if not what those constructs imply--is filled with instructive parallels to how those ideas are developing today.

4) I won't pretend to be neutral in this matter; I'm deeply committed to doing what little I can to get liberals and progressives and anyone else even just vaguely counter-cultural to become cognizant of the fact that employing terms like "socialism" or "communalism" in describing efforts to extend equality and strengthen community no longer automatically implies something revolutionary or anti-religious. It never did, necessarily (there were numerous radical Christians and democrats and anarchists who were taking up Marxist ideas but shelving their materialist and revolutionary conclusions while Marx himself was still alive), but things are especially different today.

5) Whether you want to attribute it to Bernie Sanders or COVID-19 or any number of other generational or technological variables, the truth is that the past decade has witnessed more and more activists, scholars, teachers, politicians, and most of all just ordinary folks like you and I, dealing with an often dysfunctional government and an increasingly unequal economic system, embracing local, collective, mutualist solutions. Call it the sharing economy, call it the new communalism, call it decentralized socialism--whatever its name, the number of community gardens, ride-sharing networks, mutual aid societies, neighborhood associations, church-based co-ops, employee-owned start-ups, and all forms of internet-enabled crowd-sourcing that we've seen multiply over the 2010s, both in the United States and around the world, are underline the same development: anti-capitalism has taken, at least in the eyes of many, what might be called a consecrational turn.

6) That's a broad claim, to be sure. Still, when the Democratic Socialists of America hosted a recent conference on "Building the Religious Left," with a huge range of panelists from diverse religious traditions, many of whom focused on state-level organizing regarding the usual (and necessary!) left approaches--immigration reform, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, cancelling student debt, etc.--I don't think it escaped anyone's attention that the conversations so often ended up revolving around what local congregations and faith communities were doing, in terms of providing welfare and sanctuary and building sustainable alternatives for people locally in need. And the fact that Mormon perspectives were so often entwined with these conversations (nearly half of the participants in one "Protestant" break-out group had a Mormon or Community of Christ background), with the conversation often turning to Doctrine and Covenants 42 and the law of consecration, which just happened to be the assigned Sunday School reading for the day? That may be just a grand coincidence...or perhaps it isn't.

7) The Mormon experience with consecration isn't unique, of course; as I explained in my contribution to the conference, the idea of building a better world "horizontally"--by gathering together around principles of mutual support and shared resources, enabling all who come together to partake commonly and equally in a spirit of love, as opposed to attempting to shape society more broadly through top-down actions--has been a constant throughout Christian history, going all the way back to the earliest Jesus communities described in the Book of Acts. But the Mormon experience provides particular inspiration nonetheless (see my discussion with a present day commune in Wyoming here). It is unfortunate that the rich Mormon legacy of socialist experimentation, of egalitarian communities and of consecration to the local, collective good, is so little appreciated among its own descendants, at a time which challenges to the capitalist order are both intellectually and practically more amenable to decentralized communal and cooperative efforts than has been the case in more than a century.

8) Little appreciated, perhaps, but not little noticed, if only people can learn to recognize what is right before their eyes. So much of the Intermountain West was developed, irrigated, and constructed through communalist pratices; every time a Salt Lake City Mormon (or anyone else) walks into the ZCMI Center Mall, they're moving through a space originally defined by Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution--a company which the Mormon church built with the explicit purpose of enriching the saints collectively, rather than rewarding investors with profit. That purpose has been abandoned (the church sold off ZCMI in 1999), but its built legacy remains.. and that means its communalistic, even socialistic, aspirations remain embodied for all to see and learn from. For folks like me, that's a hopeful thing.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Regarding Mutualism, Cooperativism, and Other (Interstitially) Anti-Capitalist Alternatives

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

If future historians wish to find some silver lining in COVID-19, the rise in mutualism in response to the shut-downs and dislocations it made necessary may be a good candidate. Community gardens, neighborhood associations, right-to-repair networks, business co-ops, crowd-sourcing approaches to providing health care and jobs and basic financial support: all increased in number and reach over the past 15 months, sometimes greatly. Examples can be found everywhere, from major American metropolises to small Welsh towns. To be sure, the pandemic has not transformed the American economy into a 21st-century version of Spain's famed Mondragon (the worker cooperative founded by the Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrietain in 1956 in accordance with the principle of solidarity, which has flourished and been much imitated ever since). Still, over the past year business advisory groups, scholars, and think tanks have more and more often embraced the local and the cooperative as crucial for charting a sustainable, post-pandemic path forward. Whether this burst of interest in mutualist economic alternatives will last remains to be seen--but at the very least, those who have long worked to build these alternatives ought to be feeling some gratification right now.

This shift hasn’t been solely the result of the pandemic, of course—more democratic and decentralized economic forms, and the arguments on behalf of such, have been achieving greater prominence for well over a decade now. This prominence has inspired some writers to look back, allowing those who have long been refining their communalist, mutualist, and cooperative alternatives a chance to make their case. Perhaps by studying these cases, and thereby adding to the foundation of this shift, we can strengthen it, or even encourage ourselves to get involved in these projects (or start our own!).  But if that strengthening is to happen, it will require, I think, a clear sense of what these alternatives are premised upon, and how those premises prevent them from falling into centralized, capitalist ruts.

But before premises, some particulars: what is meant by mutualism and cooperativism, and why should they be understood as standing distinct from the usual capitalist routines of our economy? The simplest answer is that any organization of economic activity that has woven egalitarian and communitarian practices into their daily operations—whether in terms of ownership, production, decision-making, pricing, wage scales, distribution, or anything else—is, to one degree or another, pursuing a path which gives place to something other than profit-maximization and consumer-individuation, and thus is departing from the ideal capitalist form. That doesn’t mean that profit and consumption never matter to communes or co-ops or credit unions or anything else crowd-sourced; the human desires and pressures that give rise to markets can’t ever, and shouldn’t ever, be ignored. And by the same token, it's not as though the capitalist form has ever existed anywhere solely as a pure ideal, without any concern for community or equality. The point to grasp is simply that mutualist economic alternatives emerge organically, democratically, as people confront the failures of the market and work out ways to change or improve or work around them. They are, by definition, works of compromise, though no less aspirational for all that.

Thus a “mutualist economic alternative” could be something as formal as a utopian commune, with people living and eating in the same buildings, satisfying their limited needs entirely through agrarian autarkic practices. Or it could be something as informal as a group of neighbors spread out over a few suburban blocks, who got to know each other through church or work or their kids' school, who all share a single lawnmower, rotated according to a vaguely defined schedule, with everyone filling it up with gas when they finish using it. The pandemic may not have provided us with many more of the former, but much evidence suggests that the past 15 months (or, for that matter, the past 13 years), we’ve been seeing more and more of the latter. (The economist Juliet Schor noted this slowly emerging transformation--which she called the shift towards "plenitude"--over a decade ago.)

The one thing this enormous range of local and collective actions have in common is that they are all, as the late Marxist scholar Erik Olin Wright thoughtfully labeled then, “interstitial.” Wright links together religious monasteries, labor unions, Amish farming villages, employee-owned businesses, mutual aid associations, and many more, presenting them as all part of the distinctly non-revolutionary project of “eroding” (not smashing--even the most convinced socialist probably knows that this is and must remain a historical dead end--but rather resisting and taming and dismantling and escaping) capitalism. “We can get on with the business of building a new world, not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old” (How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century [Verso, 2021], p. 63).

True, enlisting all co-ops, communes, credit unions and crowd-sourcing networks into a single “anti-capitalist” project is a harder sell for some than others. Consider two recent books, Nathan Schneider’s Everything for Everyone: The RadicalTradition That is Shaping the Next Economy and Sara Horowitz’s Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up. Both are excellent. They are also quite different, despite their shared, hopeful conviction that the “next economy” is going to be a more democratic, more social, more cooperative, and more mutual one, and despite essentially addressing a more or less identical range of alternative economic forms. Most importantly, though, they both show, in different ways, the difficulty, I think, of accepting the “project”-implications of what they describe.

Schneider’s book is the more comprehensive of the two. Published in 2018, Schneider explores the whole economic and social history of people forming cooperative associations to access markets, share information and resources, and strengthen their communities. The book is full of insightful observations, beginning with the dual inspiration of Elinor Ostrom’s important work on how communities manage “common-pool resources” (key point: borders and enforcement mechanisms are essential) and the Roman Catholic catechetical teaching of “the universal destination of goods” (which means, among other things, that “private property is an aberration, though under the conditions of fallen human society…a necessary arrangement”—pp. 20-21, 23-24). This mix of the practical and the moral is exactly what those thinking about communitarian alternatives need, and it shapes Schneider’s engagement with cooperative groups, businesses, and organizations both locally and internationally. In following examples from Kenya to Colorado, his awareness of the precariousness of communal alternatives—the way they require both “a supportive, nourishing culture from below and enabling policy from on high” (p. 14)—is a constant, and that’s valuable, encouraging stuff.

I wonder, though, about Schneider’s perspective on building cooperative alternatives to capitalism in today’s thoroughly globalized world. Given both his generation (he was born in the 1980s) and his vocation (he is a journalist and scholar of media studies), it is perhaps to be expected that Schneider would spend large part of his book discussing the (arguably entirely hypothetical) community-building potential of phone apps and crypto-currencies. While he is fully conscious of how “the lords of the cloud” will never allow the internet to become “an egalitarian commons of borderless, permissionless, peer-to-peer productivity,” he nonetheless appears ambivalent about attempts to reclaim the faded, real-world cooperative accomplishments (the grain elevators, the fisheries) of “sedentary peoples,” with he and his family instead being committed to “staying as nomadic as we can manage” (pp. 215-217). This is unfortunate, I think; it reflects a disengagement with place which leads Schneider to be more enamored of whatever he can designate as “half-socialist, half-libertarian”—really, anything that replaces government with “cooperative mechanisms” (pp. 185-188)—than perhaps he should be. The reality is that building sustainable alternatives must engage multiple levels of governance, taxation, and regulation—what he elsewhere wisely calls the “local, diverse, compromised legacies” of co-ops across the country and around the world—if they are going to have the social and economic power to maintain their ground. He is absolutely correct that “a generation gap divides the cooperative movement today” (pp. 232-233); it’s a gap that I think he recognizes his own place within, and one that I trust he will move out of, eventually.

Horowitz’s book similarly makes use of history to make an argument for cooperative alternatives that is both practical and moral, but the history she makes use of is intensely personal, something Schneider's writings could only invoke to a limited extent. Horowtiz’s frankly remarkable family history (her father was born in 1918, and worked closely his own father in building up union power for garment makers and others in pre-New Deal days) allows her a perspective on the possibilities for mutualism which is much needed in America today. Far from encompassing a wide range of communalist endeavors, Horowitz sees mutualism as most obviously something built by those looking to establish the conditions under which they work under industrial capitalism—in other words, through the building of unions. While her history makes use of Marx, Proudhon, Tocqueville, and many others, the heart of her historical argument never really strays far from the way Roosevelt’s New Deal, through legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, legitimated and empowered the associational efforts of people like her grandfather and father, only later to see that power taken away. As she somewhat rhapsodically describes those years:

[T]he success of Roosevelt’s top-down approach to social change via government programs created the sweeping national initiatives—the Civilian Conservation Corps, the orks Progress Administration, and so on—that we associate with the New Deal today….But I see another important element to the story. Roosevelt recognize the limits of what government could accomplish on its own….Rather than build new institutions from scratch, he looked at the ecosystem of mutualist organizations that already existed and realized that unions were the perfect tools to find workers where they already were….[The New Deal] would enshrine, protect, define, and bolster the labor movement, and in particular the strategy of industrial unionism. Whereas before…organized labor had been a diverse and idiosyncratic mutualist movement that was constantly experimenting….Roosevelt had in effect given unions a “job” in the post-New Deal economy. By putting a legal structure around the right to collectively bargain, Roosevelt had given unions a mandate--to bargain for higher wages--while also giving their economic model a regulatory backdrop….The New Deal created the business model that let unions thrive through the middle of the twentieth century (pp. 150-152).

Horowitz is not a labor historian, and there are many that might dispute the mutualist sympathies she sees embedded in that legislation. Still, her perspective--as the child and grandchild of labor organizers, she has an intimate understanding of the pre-political, associational, communal histories of diverse workers striving to carve out for themselves a place in late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial America--should be taken seriously. In fact her tale, and the way she extends it into such practical matters of raising capital and establishing revenue streams to support mutualist organizations, probably captures the point of Schneider’s observation about alternatives to capitalism requiring both a supportive culture below and enabling policy above better than any story he actually shared in his own book.

Like many others who succeed in building alternatives, though, Horowitz tends to see her particular alternative as a singular, necessary answer. A life-long contract worker, who founded the Freelancers Union and the Freelancers Insurance Company, she is quick to take decentralization to an extreme: “We live in a decentralized economy, and the next safety net will be no less decentralized” (p. 45). Her contempt for a Democratic party whose demographic base today is mostly disconnected from unionization and prefers national, redistributive solutions instead isn’t as great as her contempt for a Republican party which has consistently worked to undermine union power...but it is pretty great nonetheless. (Her story of how the FIC found itself discriminated against by President Obama's Affordable Care Act is one every reformer should read.) Her insistence that “[t]here’s no reason that proposals for nationalized health care can’t co-exist with mutualism, but mutualist organizations themselves—unions, cooperatives, mutual aid societies, faith communities—are uniquely position to be the delivery mechanism for that care” (p. 191) makes obvious sense…until one remembers that she is essentially describing Canadian Medicare with their Local Health Integration Networks, and now here come the (basically accurate, I would say) accusations of “socialism” again, which Horowitz insists--wrongly, I have to say--“couldn’t be more different” from her mutualist approach (p. 49). It would be interesting to know if Horowitz imagines a mutualist potential embedded in President Biden's American Rescue Plan Act, and if she doesn't, where exactly she thinks difference between Biden's ambitious and Roosevelt's actually lay.

These kinds of arguments--which really come down to what kind of "project" one is willing or unwilling to see one's alternative aspirations to encompass--all turn on the degree to which one understands these efforts in terms of people as opposed to ideas, and it is here where a return to Mondragon is helpful. Both Schneider and Horowitz dedicate part of their book to the aforementioned Mondragon Corporation, and it is worth considering its example as an important complement--and perhaps correction--to some of their insights. Father Arizmendiarrieta, universally known as “Arizmendi,” arrived in the Mondragon Valley of the Basque region of Spain in 1941 and began to teach, with an emphasis on vocational skills and cooperative techniques, with the aim of building up the collective wealth and the sense of solidarity within his community. When he established, along with five graduates of the school he’d established, the first Mondragon co-op, manufacturing paraffin burners, his goal was--and remains for the next 20 years, until his death in 1976--to change lives by changing, cooperatively and mutually, the economic conditions within which those lives were lived. "The interesting and key thing," he wrote, "is not the cooperatives, but the cooperators. Likewise, it is not democracy, but democrats. Not so much ideas as life experiences."

Since his death, Mondragon has expanded internationally, moving into multiple areas of manufacturing, retail, and finance, with its mutualist and cooperative principles mostly holding firm. For example, to enable to genuine mutual feeling between workers and managers, wage differences are tightly controlled, with the democratically chosen directors of different Mondragon cooperatives earning wages no greater than 9 times that of the lowest-paid worker in the firm, with the usual difference being held to 5-1. Unsurprising, many socialist thinker—including Wright—have seen this successful commercial venture, the seventh wealthiest company in Spain in terms of assets, as a vital anti-capitalist model for others as well.

Whether it is or not will be argued about for as long as the terms themselves are debated. But whatever its correct description, it is unfortunate that Arizmendi’s collected Reflections—the which are only now finally being made available in English thanks to a translation project spear-headed by Solidarity Hall—weren’t available to either of the authors discussed here, or so many others who strive to hold build communalist or mutualist or cooperative economic alternatives. (Though Schneider provides a forward to the Solidarity Hall publication.) Arizmendi and those who followed him have negotiated, experimented, tapped local resources, lobbied national parties, and appealed to international bodies; they have, in short, truly lived out Arizmendi’s profoundly pluralistic vision of cooperative empowerment. In the end, if the goal is worker empowerment, community solidarity, and Christian love, then focus first on the person, and who cares what ideological category such a personalist focus falls under? The radical possibilities of disparate alternatives which emerge over time and experimentation must not be disregarded just because they seem to challenge accepted patterns of economic behavior, whether left or right:

Our cooperatives must primarily serve those who wish them to be bulwarks of social justice, and not those who see cooperatives as refuges or safe spaces for their conservative inclinations….We cooperators have in our minds the idea that the future society will probably have to be pluralist in all aspects, including economics: the state and the private sector, the market and the planned economy, various entities, be they paternalistic, capitalist, or socialist, will be combined and coordinated. If we really believe in and love people, their freedom, justice and democracy, we will need to treat each situation, the nature of each activity, the level of evolution and development of each community, on the basis of an approach that is overarching but not exclusive (Arizmendi, Reflections, p. 100).

Popular discourse in the United States today—as well as in many places around the world—hasn’t been so open to alternatives to the liberal capitalist mainstream for close to a century. Partly this is a result of the economic catastrophes of recent years: the beginnings of the Great Recession 13 years ago, and of course the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic, beginning last spring. But it is also the result of political leaders who have been willing to forthrightly identify themselves with different forms and degrees of anti-capitalism, and even more so it is the result thousands of people--both those who have labored, locally and collectively, over decades to hold on to and to share the resources their communities and vocations and places have brought to them, as well as those who are attempting, for reasons of both curiosity and desperation, to rediscover these mutualist, communalist, and cooperativist possibilities today. Being clear on the levels involved in building and recovering such practices, and being willing to embrace their sometimes discomforting ideological plurality and breadth, will be essential for anyone who hopes, in the neighborhoods and churches and communities, to do their part. Schneider’s and Horowitz’s books provide some excellent perspective and guidance, and I strongly recommend them. But I also recommend contacting and learning from those who are doing this collective, cooperative work, whatever they may call it, wherever they may be. Whatever such hands-on learning involves and whatever ways it is described, Arizmendi would be proud.