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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Every Jar a Victory, Year 3

Every Memorial Day (or as near to that date as possible), it's the same thing at the Fox household: time to make the jam!

First, out to Sargeant's Berry Farm, to pick strawberries.

Winter's reach into early spring made it a less than stellar year for their strawberries, and unfortunately killed off much of their other season produce as well. And then, the unexpected hot weather in spring resulted in the strawberries they did ripening earlier than usual. So by the time we got out there, their smaller-than-usual crop had already been picked over a fair amount.

Still, we were able to get enough for our needs. (Thank heavens we picked about twice as much last year; we still have jam left over.)

Then, it's back home, for a couple of hours of cutting, mashing, cooking, and steaming.

The results, however, are as wonderful as always.

It occurs to me that there is, if one chooses to stretch the associations a little bit, something appropriate about the fact that we've made this family tradition of ours a Memorial Day occasion. Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day, a day to honor the sacrifice and remember the loss of those who died in the Civil War. Over the past century and a half, it has evolved somewhat into a general day of remembrance--of those who served and have passed on, of course, but also of all those generations gone who have left us something, and to whom we have the responsibility of passing on something worth remembering ourselves. Well, our family has developed an occasion for remembering, remembering the hours my wife's family would spend canning and preserving fruit and vegetables of all sorts for the winter, remembering the pear trees on my grandmother's property, and the fun we'd have in clambering up them, seeking the best fruit to go into the jar. It's fun. It's something we can do all together. It's something that gets everyone outside, with their hands in the dirt, searching for those little treasures of red and green. And perhaps--we can only hope--it's something that will become a part of what our children will someday memorialize with their own families as well.

And, if nothing else, maybe they'll remember the jam.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mulling Over Macbeth

Last night, Melissa and I finished watching Rupert Goold's Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. For now, you can watch the whole thing on PBS here; for right now, here's a wonderful, creepy clip:

As that clip makes clear, Goold's take on the Three Witches is profoundly disturbing, perverse and wicked: the fact that the witches tend to appear out of their different scenes as either as nurses or scullery maids chopping up meat makes it that much easier for him to play around with themes of corruption, possession, and general foulness. It is when the production is that most open in pursuing such themes that I like it best...and as it only rarely seems to take up some other set of themes, that means I liked the production a great deal. It wasn't perfect, I think, but it was damn close.

I'd already been thinking about Macbeth a bit lately, so watching this production fit alongside my thoughts well. Partly I was thinking about it due to this insightful set of reflections upon different productions of the play, written up by Noah Millman. And partly it was because of a conversation I'd had with Marv Hinten, an English professor here at Friends U., who told me that if he ever was to give a graduation address or similarly important speech, and he was expected to make use of a Shakespeare play, he would use Macbeth. I'm in agreement with him there. Macbeth has long been my favorite Shakespeare play, and not just because, as I've written before, I think it has the finest soliloquy that Shakespeare ever wrote. It's because, of all his plays, it is the one which most obviously, and most deeply, address themes of sin, evil, and morality.

I'd never seen nor read a Shakespeare play before I went to BYU, and when I took a course on Shakespeare there, it was, perhaps predictably, taught to me in a way which to some degree surely reflected the peculiar context of reading literature at a religious school. I don't think that was at all a negative thing; reading Shakespeare in an aggressive secular context will have its own pitfalls. But what I did realize, as time went on and I read and saw (one year, fortunately, down at the wonderful Utah Shakespeare Festival) of his plays, that I just couldn't agree with the tendency some scholars have to see Shakespeare as someone who was frequently thinking seriously about religion, healing, forgiveness, and redemption and damnation. I don't really see it in Hamlet or The Tempest, for example. But I admit--I do see it in Macbeth. I particularly saw in one very audacious protection of the play put on at BYU, where the Three Witches were quite explicitly played as demonic figures, constantly lurking about, tempting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (and Banquo too, though he resists), enabling them to accomplish every act of wickedness they open themselves up to (in that production, the Three Witches merged to become the Third Murderer, which I found delightfully horrifying). In that play--and really, this is the way I've experienced the play ever since, and the basis upon which I judge productions of it--Macbeth and his Lady are frankly hypocrites, two people who have put up a show of virtue and excellence to hide the deadly ambitious thoughts lurking within them, whom feel themselves liberated by the prophecies of the Three Witches...but who continually appeal to the darkness, to the forces of evil, and to each other (at least at the beginning...eventually Macbeth shuts his wife out), to keep up their determination for their unnatural, bloody rampage. Stewart and Fleetwood do that as well, I think; in their presentation of the famous "If it were done when 'tis done" soliloquy and scene, we see a Macbeth who really wants to murder Duncan, but recognizes--more of Shakespeare's appreciation of double-mindedness here!--that his "vaulting ambition" isn't quite enough to get him to overcome his doubts, and he rather stiffly announces to Lady Macbeth that he has cold feet...perhaps to goad her into committing herself that much more thoroughly, as a buttress to his own weak, wicked, tempted will.

Melissa isn't as fond as the stark moral reading I give to play as I am, in which the tragedy of Macbeth is that, unlike Banquo--who calls upon God's mercy to protect him from the "cursed thoughts that [his] nature gives way to in repose"--he is a man who is willing to embrace evil deeds when cruelly tempted by their promised end. She is much more comfortable seeing the Three Witches the way Akira Kurosawa presented them in Throne of Blood--as an at least apparently neutral nature spirit, offering merely prophecy rather than temptation, and that the evil of the play comes not from Macbeth's embrace of an wicked promise, but of Macbeth's choices themselves. In that sense, she reads the play as less a religious tale, with witches and ghosts, and more a psychological study: how is it that someone comes to do that which they hold to be wrong, and what does it do to them when they see themselves as the villain? Both will have different implications for what Noah wisely calls Macbeth's "apotheosis of nihilism": is he pondering the fact that he has fallen into (or leaped into) a situation in which all is pointless, where there is no hope or future...or is he slowly, surely realizing that he, unwittingly, has brought such hopelessness to pass, that he has made it his own? Stewart plays it the first way; other great performers have gone the second route. Consider:http://www2.blogger.com/img/blank.gif


...and Ian McKellan

Well, there's no right on wrong here--just possible readings, of a tremendous text. But all this has just left me excited: it's summer, and that means the Wichita Shakespeare Company's outdoor productions are going to begin again. First up, The Taming of the Shrew. Can't wait.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Erik Olin Wright's Real Utopias

I've been meaning to put up this review for months, but I kept waiting to see if the long-promised Crooked Timber symposium about the book was going to take place. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't--but anyway, the book itself has been out for nearly a year now (and Erik Wright himself has been giving lectures and presenting workshops based upon its ideas for much longer than that), and even I've given presentations on it a couple of times. So, sitting here a finishing up my work for the week this Friday afternoon, I didn't see any reason not to finally post it. It's a long post (what else is new?), but for once, I think this is a topic which deserves the length.


Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias didn't provide me with a singular insight that hit like a thunderbolt. Rather, it surrounded me with carefully expressed and focused arguments, and carried me along, from one provocative bit of analysis to the next, leaving me feeling as though I'd passed through a thunderstorm, and that all sorts of half-baked notions and unexamined presumptions in my mind had been washed clean, revealing something new. I suppose someone better read in social theory or analytical Marxism than I might have found parts of the book belabored--and I'll admit sometimes it did seem repetitive, or a little indulgent in its academic excursions, though I think Russell Jacoby was simply talking nonsense when he called the book a "morass". To me, overall, it's a masterful work. Wright's case for separating the socialist project from the conceptual apparatus of traditional Marxism--from its theory of history to its necessarily revolutionary implications--in favor of a "compass" which orients us as we move down numerous different, possibly hybrid routes, towards a greater level of social power and democratic egalitarianism, was entirely persuasive to me. I will never teach socialism in remotely the same way again.

The biggest change in the way I will present socialist thinking to my students thanks to this book revolve around the notion of power. Power has never been absent from my lectures before, of course: Marx's declaration in The Communist Manifesto that "capital is not a personal, but a social power" makes certain of that. But I primarily looked at socialism as a way of critiquing a particular arrangements of social power; I did not spend as much time considering what a capturing of "social power" away from private property and capital and the means of production, and a returning of it to the people as a whole, would really involve. Wright, by contrast, makes that consideration a centerpiece of his work. The key chapter in this book--which comes after his succinct definition of the socialist project as centering upon a "radical democratic egalitarian understanding of justice" (p. 12), his thorough, lengthy detailing of the ways in which capitalism mostly (but not entirely) fails to satisfy radical democratic egalitarian principles (pp. 37-85), and his subsequent rejection of Marx's "intellectually brilliant, if ultimately unsatisfactory, solution to the problems of specifying an alternative to capitalism" (p. 89)--is titled "The Socialist Compass" (pp. 110-149), and is entirely about several different ways of thinking about the democratization and equalization of social power, by which he means "the capacity of actors to accomplish things in the world" (p. 111). Those could be government ("state") actors, corporate ("economic") actors, or community ("social") actors, suggesting a couple of convenient triads: "the state, the economy, and civil society," or "capitalism, statism, and socialism" (pp. 118, 120). From that point onward, the socialist compass suggests ways to measure, assess, and build upon a wide variety of radical democratic egalitarian visions--statist socialism, social democratic statist economic regulation, associational democracy, social capitalism, cooperative market economics, social economics, and participatory socialism--all which arrange and distribute power amongst state, economic, and social actors in different ways. Wright, to his credit, eschews the excesses of ideology--remember: "real" utopias--and regularly returns to the idea that any actual proposal which moves people in a socialist direction will inevitably partake of more than one of these egalitarian visions, and thus will likely be a hybrid of statism, capitalism, and socialism as a result. Indeed, his defense of the possibility of "hybridity" in radical egalitarian democratic thinking, against Marxist and other socialist purists who insist that egalitarianism can only be achieved in isolation from or through the destruction of the market and/or the state, is one of the real highlights of the book (pp. 123-128).

In his respectful but firm turning away from Marxist thought, including both its deterministic trajectory and its complete theory of capitalism's ultimate demise, Wright's book reminds me very much of G.A. Cohen's late work, with its emphasis upon moving "back to socialist basics," and in particular re-establishing community and equality as the two essential characteristics of socialist theory, whether or not the case for moving in the direction of such involved a historical argument about the origins and ultimate fate of capitalism. However, Wright is more willing than Cohen apparent was to credit capitalist markets with a possible role in one or another kind of radical egalitarian and democratic emancipation; Cohen, for his part, saw "community" as necessarily involving the "anti-market principle according to which I serve you not because of what I can get out of doing so but because you need my service....[T]he idea in the primeval socialist slogan constitutes a complete rejection of the logic of the market...[since the] socialist aspiration was to extend community to the whole of our economic life" ("Back to Socialist Basics", p. 9, 11). This is an arguably rather stringent way of expressing the power of "community" which many egalitarians admittedly don't share (I think in particular here of Andrew Sabl's rejoinder to Cohen, "If You're Such a Liberal, How Come You Love Conformity?"), and Wright doesn't strike me as one who sees such a level of incompatibility between the individual variety which markets both enable and depend upon, and socialist principles. While Wright does come across in this book as somewhat leery of wholly market-based socialist proposals (such as John Roemer's "market socialism"--pp. 247-252), he appears even more doubtful of non-Marxist proposals that would seek to replace the market with a different form of economic participation entirely (such as in Michael Albert's "parecon" proposals--pp. 252-265). I don't know how Wright would best characterize his own beliefs about community; he quotes the above passage from Cohen approvingly, but rarely employs explicitly communitarian language in the book, preferring instead to speak of the social power of "civil society". Given his definition of socialism as an "economic structure in which social power in its multiple forms [italics added] plays the dominant role in organizing economic activity", it is not surprising that his primary way of conceptualizing civil society is disaggregated, variable, and associational: for him, civil society is no more or less than "a form of power...rooted in the capacity of people to form associations to advance their collective goals" (p. 145). While capitalism does challenge community values of solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual care (pp. 79-81), those values will invariably make themselves felt as a source of social power in civic life through "a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities" (p. 146). This vision of civic life leads Wright, as I read him, to be somewhat more acknowledging of the information-coordinating and organizing capacities of the market than Cohen apparently ever was; to see egalitarianism as requiring a firmly anti-market stand would work counter to the disparate, sometimes shifting and inchoate quality of the social power which Wright believes is a central component to explorations of diverse radical egalitarian and democratic possibilities.

Of course, this conceptualization of the forms of social power gives rise to an important question: would democratically empowered networks and associations of diverse communities and groups, exactly the sort of thing which gives rise to flourishing markets in the first place, actually be a force for egalitarian emancipation? Would they actually affirm such principles? Because, as Wright notes, many actually existing expressive associations in civil societies around the globe clearly do not (pp. 146-147). The anarchist response is that such is the wrong way of looking at things--a civil society that can "achieve sufficient coherence as to provide for social order and social reproduction" is all that one needs hope for. But a proper socialist response, a radical democratic egalitarian one, would have to be different; it would have to "require a state...with real power to institute and enforce the rules of the game," to construct or at least preserve that which is democratic and egalitarian in the midst of "pluralistic heterogeneity" of the "public square". Wright continues:

There is no guarantee that a society within which power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges: how to devise institutional rules for the game of democratic deepening and associational empowerment which would foster the radical egalitarian conception of emancipation (p. 147).

And so Wright acknowledges that, as we commit ourselves to experimenting upon different paths and testing different theories in pursuit of greater community and equality, as the socialist compass directs, certain kinds of institutional brakes or controls need to be kept in mind. Some of these brakes and controls should probably be liberal ones, thus pointing towards the well-understood controls provided by the language of rights and constitutional balances. Wright, however, appears reluctant to grant even a rather progressive liberalism too significant a role in the search for emancipation: "egalitarian taxation and transfer policies that reduce inequality might further egalitarian ideals of justice, but they do not themselves shift the economic structure towards a hybrid within which social power has greater weight" (p. 192). So perhaps the framework provided by liberal rights and guarantees, though certainly relevant, is less than ideal for thinking about constructing the terms by which the wide range of associational expressions that community feelings of different sorts give rise to may wield social power over the economy. As he explores various real-world examples of social economics ("economic activity that is directly organized and controlled through the exercise of some form of social power"--p. 193), social capitalism ("institutional mechanisms and social processes through which social power rooted in civil society directly impinges on the exercise of capitalist economic power"--p. 222), and cooperative market economics (basically worker-owned firms, "the oldest vision for an emancipatory alternative to capitalism"--p. 234), a different set of brakes and controls seemed clear to me...but they are ones which Wright himself never discusses explicitly, perhaps because they are distasteful to him, or because he finds them too banal, or perhaps because his sociological approach leaves him without a terminology to fully appreciate them. They are, very simply, disciplines over community expressions and civil associations which the local culture exercises--or at least potentially sometimes can exercise, if the radical democratic egalitarian project is not so committed to cosmopolitanism as to dismiss them out of hand.

The degree to which socially empowering economic and political reforms need to be, or at least should be, entwined with cosmopolitan aims has been debated on Crooked Timber recently, and it was a theme that I brought up in my thoughts about Cohen's last book Why Not Socialism? It is sometimes a hard matter for folks on the left--influenced by both Marx's universalizable class analysis of capitalism and by the political alignments which have brought projects of anti-colonialism and ethnic and sexual liberation over to mostly the same side in these struggles as the egalitarians--to take seriously. Surely a radical democratic egalitarianism should not be subject to, or even be expected to articulate itself through the context of, a specific local set of communal or cultural or historical or religious feelings, should it? Yet, if we truly are to take "the social in 'socialism' seriously", as Wright puts it, and if we are not going to, at the same time, necessarily conceive of that social power as tied to a single common measure of communitarian expression--as Cohen put it, "that I treat everyone with whom I have any exchange or other form of contact as someone toward whom I have the reciprocating attitude that is characteristic of friendship" (Why Not Socialism?, p. 52)--but rather will make use of the power of sociality in all the variable associational and embedded forms that it will inevitably take, then perhaps liberal and cosmopolitan--namely, universal--conditions and expectations would, at least sometimes, run counter to the sources of this social power which Wright sees the potential of harnessing.

Of the several "real utopias" that Wright lays out for his readers' consideration as evidence of different ways of following the socialist compass further in the direction of democratic and egalitarian emancipation--and here I don't mean his close examination of different theoretical and perhaps constructs, such as an unconditional basic income (pp. 217-222), but rather his actual instances of social empowerment--only one, I think, fits in the stereotypical liberal/cosmopolitan model: Wikipedia. In Wright's view, Wikipedia--with its "non-market relations, egalitarian participation, deliberative interactions among contributors, democratic governance and adjudication"--is "thoroughly anti-capitalist" in how it is organized and operates (pp. 195, 199). Every other example he gives, however, is far distant from the decidedly non-embedded, participatory but individualistic realm of exchange of Wikipedia; in every other socialist case he presents--whether discussing the participatory budgeting process in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil (pp. 155-160), the social organization of the childcare and eldercare economy as well as investment capital in Quebec (pp. 204-212, 225-230), or the worker-owned cooperative firms of Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain (pp. 240-246)--Wright is addressing forms of associational power which both emerge from and contribute to a specifically and culturally embedded form of community feeling. Sometimes Wright acknowledges this is a positive way (he notes that Quebec has a "highly favorable social environment" for associational economies to take root, due to the province's extensive history of "social movements, cooperatives, and civic associations" by which the province has worked to maintain the "strong sense of solidarity" which goes along with being a minority linguistic community--pp.211-212), sometimes more as an obstacle (he also notes that the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, in expanding beyond the Basque territory and purchasing firms elsewhere in Spain and around the world, faces a "global melding of capitalist and cooperativist principles," a melding complicated by the fear many in MCC have about the "dilution of solidarity [which could result] from the inclusion of so many worker-members from outside the region"--p. 245). Either way though, the feeling is there.

Why do I suggest these local and cultural attachments (along with at least some legitimate liberal restrictions) as important candidates for ways of conceiving the directing and promoting of social power over the economy in democratic and egalitarian directions? Because they present a set of conceptual boundaries that, should one avoid the unnecessary violation of them, function as potentially protected spaces, relatively secure from the sort of disruptive projects (whether generated by the invasive state or by capitalism) that can generate resentments and alienation, which are obvious enemies to legitimate democratic and egalitarian emancipations. True, there is no obvious reason to assume that a feeling of popular economic or cultural security will make any given society more amenable to an immanent critique that pushes it in the direction of more radical democratic egalitarianism. But so long as one wishes to enlist the social world and its diverse resources into the construction of alternatives to capitalism, then one must at least acknowledge that a lack of respect for and recognition of those attachments and spaces may result in levels of resentment and alienation which would make such emancipatory critiques that much more politically difficult to pull off.

At this point, one could perhaps challenge Wright from a revolutionary direction, and insist that such resentments are part and parcel of any good strategy of "heightening the contradictions," which by separating the working class from their local and cultural attachments turns them into more effective agents of disruptive change. Wright fairly summarily dismisses this argument, at least as a stand-alone claim: he concludes that "large-scale ruptural strategies for constructing a democratic egalitarian socialism...seem implausible in the world in which we currently live," and suggests that other strategies should be pursued instead (p. 320). One of those strategies is "symbiotic," which is Wright's way of talking about "class compromises," and the social democratic realization that "[f]orms of social empowerment are likely to be much more durable and to become more deeply institutionalized, and thus harder to reverse, when, in one way or another, they also serve some important interests of dominant groups, and solve real problems faced by the system as a whole" (p. 337). Another strategy, the one which I find much more fruitful given the attention Wright pays to the variable manifestations and historical developments of social power, is that of "interstitial" actions, which "by-pass the state" and seek to manifest their power via sites of activity "that are not directly governed or controlled by the dominant power relations and principles of social organization" (pp. 322-323).

The history of socialist thought, or at least Marxist socialist thought, has generally not been kind to strategies such as these. While Marx himself varied in his opinions about unions and worker co-ops and other such "local" interventions against the power of capital and the state, originating from outside of both, his attitude towards the fully anarchist movement to focus on complete alternative forms of social life was never friendly. And this lack of support for the creative and emancipatory potential of committed, distinct, disparately and deeply rooted communities is reflected throughout much of modern socialism. As David Leopold has observed, the Fabian socialists, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, distinguished between what they called "horizontal" and "vertical" visions of the gradual growth of socialism. In the former, the idea was to create a "partial community" which embraced, in one manner or another, the "whole faith" of socialism, and by successful example would encourage other partial communities to do the same, spreading "horizontally" from one nook or cranny of society to the next. The Webbs rejected this approach as utopian, and not scientific; what was needed was a "vertical" approach, whereby the whole society embraces, a bit at a time, a portion of the socialist worldview; in this way, small steps towards equality could be taken and entrenched, in a strategic fashion (Leopold, "Socialism and (the Rejection of) Utopia," Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2007, pp. 224-5).

Wright is clearly not discounting the vertical approach, which matches what he calls the "symbiotic" one, a represented by such models as social democratic statist economic regulation and participatory socialism. But his title alone, to say nothing of his arguments, makes it clear that he wants us to consider the horizontal, "utopian" one as well. And on my reading of his accounts of social empowerment, this means wrestling with the problem of associational forms which may "interstitially" bring to bear on the economy a communitarian power that is not, in fact, necessarily always egalitarian and democratic. It also means respecting that the best possible way of continually addressing and re-addressing that particular problem may be found within the local and cultural context by which the emancipatory solidarity potentially emerges in the first place. Consider the case of Mondragón again. By most measures, these worker cooperatives, and the effects they have had on the distribution of social and economic power throughout their home region in Spain, represent among the most successful examples of a cooperative market economy anywhere in the world. Yet there is more than a little criticism of MCC from the left. Part of it is the legacy of a doctrinaire Marxism which rejects the idea that worker cooperatives can ultimately contribute a socialization of power relations within a country; part of it simple cultural and historical suspicions (Mondragón's founder was a Catholic priest who eschewed any talk of "class struggle" and was at one point honored by General Franco); part of it derives from specific, arguably anti-democratic actions which MCC itself has taken. Wright's own analysis of these latter actions suggest they have their roots in the tensions and expectations which have come to the corporation as the successes of its worker-owned firms and egalitarian pay distribution have obliged it--or tempted it--to expand beyond those conceptual (meaning, local and cultural) boundaries within which the participatory ethos of its founder was first promulgated and embraced:

Since the mid 1990s, the MCC has adopted an aggressive strategy of expansion beyond its historical home in the Basque country. This has, above all, taken the form of buying up capitalist firms and turning them into subsidiaries of the cooperatives within the corporation....[For example] Fagor Elian, a cooperative that manufactures various kinds of auto-parts, created a new wholly owned subsidiary in Brazil, to manufacture parts for the Brazilian arm of Volkswagen. The director of the MCC explained...that although the Fagor Brazilian plant loses money, the Volkswagen Corporation insisted the Fagor Elian provide parts to its Brazilian operation if it wanted to continue to supply parts to Volkswagen in the EU....[Hence, the] MCC believes that, given market pressures linked to globalization, this strategy of national and global expansion is necessary for the survival of the Mondragón cooperatives in the twenty-first century. Whether or not this diagnosis is correct is a matter of considerable controversy, but in any case the result of this expansion has been to intensify the capitalist dimension of the Mondragón economic hybrid (pp. 243-244).

There are, to be sure, many ways in which we might contemplate and develop responses to the pressure which exist in the global marketplace--and some undoubtedly, ought to involve more "vertical," comprehensive, or "cosmopolitan" parameters. But there remains the fact that a reliance upon those parameters moves one away from the diverse forms of real solidarity and social power which the hope for radical egalitarian and democratic transformation in part depends upon. So why would it not be equally viable--why would it be any less "utopian"--to approach the compass of socialist empowerment and look for ways to preserve the local and cultural environments that provide spaces for emancipation in the first place? The struggles of Mondragón mainly have to do with maintaining a reliable cooperative ethos while simultaneously handling an enormous increase in workers pressing for membership. Perhaps that could be achieved through developing procedures for encouraging "spin-off" cooperatives to be formed, or abandoning the "unitary organizational form" which have guided the cooperatives from the beginning, and accepting that the push for democratic and egalitarian reforms will have to come through unionization in the subsidiaries, rather than full participatory membership. Would any of these struggles have arrived in a global marketplace more resistant to globalization, and where national economies--and the firms that operated within them--enjoyed greater self-sufficiency (which, yes, would also mean the national markets they supplied would also "enjoy" greater restrictions on the range of pricing and goods available)? Perhaps they would have anyway--but then again, in a global economic environment less hostage to the neoliberal terms of the IMF and the EU, perhaps the Mondragón cooperatives would have developed as an even stronger example of the socialist ethos, one less implicated in the tensions that could pull an association away from radical democratic egalitarianism, because the sources of that tension would be, in a sense, literally "foreign" to the local, cultural, "interstitial" site wherein this particular association was able to plant its socialist seed.

Wright's masterful book plants numerous seeds all its own, most of which give rise to ideas that, on my reading, support each other in development towards both known and as-yet speculative radical democratic and egalitarian futures. I suspect one of those futures will need to make a space for local instantiations of socialism, and that defending and promoting such will require those on the left to make peace with more than just liberals, whom have long been their allies in many respects anyway. There will also need to be some peace, at least some of the time, between different types of culturally communitarian movements and institutions, because those locally embedded expressions of social power cannot help but be a significant component of any proposal to involve the wide range of civil associations and groups in countering the power of corporations and the state. One of the most obvious of these in the United States is the "faith-based initiatives" begun by President Bush, and frequently derided by those on the left, as exclusionary, illiberal and borderline theocratic. Wright himself is not so critical of them, simply noting that church-state partnerships to provide social services to the poor have "at best an ambiguous relation to the emancipatory project of social empowerment" (p. 213); I think his cautiousness in judging them is correct, given that the faith-based experiment, far from being a necessarily sectarian project, in fact reflects a long argument in social democratic circles, and draws upon egalitarian and subsidiarian principles from two centuries worth of European history. Whether that particular seed will grow in the direction of true socialist emancipation is probably doubtful, given the realities of American party politics (particularly the GOP); but whether it, or other locally and culturally grounded sources of community action and power like it, can be part of orientation towards true socialist emancipation, is far less doubtful, I think.

Wright's book teaches us that the movement towards radical democratic and egalitarian ends will, and should, involve multiple hybrid forms, moving on many distinct fronts--some confrontational, some "liberal" and symbiotic, and some, quite importantly, being local, cultural, and interstitial--indeed, it may often be the case that the latter will require action on the part of the former to long survive. If Wright's book has made that point well--if it helps convince those on the left that the communitarian component of social empowerment, when properly recognized and tended, needn't be either something singular and forced, or something which necessarily undermines egalitarianism from within--then his book has done something important indeed.

Friday Morning Videos: "The Tide is High"

If the Go-Gos from last week had stayed punk rather than turned pop, and if they'd left California and went to New York, they might have sounded like this:

Buy some low-rent Star Wars-era costumes from a neighborhood shop, hire some extras for $20, manage to stay off the drugs for an afternoon of wandering around shooting footage, and hey, you've got a video.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Because I'm an Enormous Dork, That's Why

You can name all of the featured actors and their characters, can't you? What, you can't? Oh, so I guess you're one of those people with balance and focus in your life.

[Update, 5/27/2011, 12:04pm: And still more...

The Bicycle: "An Instrument of Experiential Understanding"

Being the verbose, overtly intellectual loudmouth that I most assuredly am, I've tended to get long-winded when talking about my bicycle before. (That's my wonderful, humble Trek 7100 to the right, upon which I've now put over 6000 miles of urban and suburban commuting.) I've even gotten all academic about the topic on occasion. Fortunately, there are better writers than I out there--and I've just run across one of them, thanks to Lee McCracken (who has just started using CapitalBikeShare in Washington DC to help him get around, and he loves it). He links to an essay, "The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities", and the author gets it exactly correct:

We all know the talking points. The benefits of bicycles have been tirelessly elaborated upon; bicycles improve health, ease congestion, save money, use less space, and provide efficient transportation with zero fuel consumption and zero carbon emissions....However, none of these come close to the most meaningful aspect of cycling, a factor that cannot be quantified but has endless value to those fighting to improve their communities. The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.

On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities....I cannot approach the average citizen and explain the innate intricacies of land use and transportation relationships, how density is vital to urban sustainability, how our sprawled real estate developments are built on economic quicksand, how our freeways shredded the urban fabric like a rusty dagger, how deeply our lives would be enriched by a collective commitment to urbanism. Aside from glazed eyes, I will be met with outrage. No one wants to be told that they must radically alter their lifestyle, no matter how well you sell it.

The bicycle doesn’t need to be sold. It’s economical, it’s fun, it’s sexy, and just about everyone already has one hiding somewhere in their garage. Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle....Suddenly livability isn’t an abstract concept, it’s an experience. Human scale, connectivity, land use efficiency, urban fabric, complete streets… all the codewords, catchphrases, and academic jargon can be tossed out the window because now they are one synthesized moment of appreciation. Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding--become hooked on the thrill of cycling, and everything else follows.

Become hooked on the thrill, and everything else follows--yes! That makes as much sense as my theorizing ever will, as much as I might believe that there's something to all my connections between the bicycle, technology, simplicity, sustainability, and "socialism" (or as my friend John Buass has put it, "autarchy"). What really makes us bicycle commuters passionate (passionate, I think, usually in a rather different way than competitive sports cyclists are, though there is some overlap there all the same) is this experience of what the author of the above piece calls "enlightment"--or what I called "arriving at place where independence is connected to more people being equally familiar with their place and their capabilities, thus making civic life even more meaningful and fair". It's downright transformative, the bicycle is.

Anyway, had a great ride in this morning: blue sky, bright sun, cool wind, colors of growth and business and daily life all around. Looking out my window, hearing the sound of the lawn mowers and the birds, I'm already looking forward to the trip home. I suppose you can and do get all that sometimes in a car...but not nearly as often, I'm sure.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes!

Don't take your eyes off this trailer. Be sure you stay until the very end.

Only possible complaint at this point: where are Statler and Waldorf?

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Like the Sourdough He Appears to be Made Of!"

I've actually never thought Stephen Colbert was nearly Jon Stewart's equal. But making use of John Lithgow, the Second Hardest Working Goofball in All Media History. to give voice to Newt Gingrich? Pure genius. (If Lithgow doesn't win another Emmy for 4:04, there is no justice.)

(The Hardest Working Goofball in All Media History is, of course, here. And here.)

Friday Morning Videos: "Our Lips Are Sealed"

Last week, something loud. This week, something a little quieter. Maybe.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The History and Legacy of Kansas Populism

Just about exactly a month ago (April 22, to be exact), I was invited by the Wichita Pachyderm Club (yes, a Republican club--I'm an equal opportunity intellectual) to give a presentation at one of their downtown lunchtime meetings on the populism and politics in the state of Kansas. I was happy to oblige them, and I found the discussion after my lecture to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable. I've meant to get a copy of my presentation up for weeks now; for those who have been interested, my apologies for the delay. Anyway, here's pretty much the whole thing.

I begin this discussion with two figures: John Brown, and William Allen White. Neither of these men were populists in a formal sense (White, in fact, vigorously opposed them), and only one of them were truly Kansans. They are, nonetheless, important figures in the history I'm going to talk about, because Kansas populism has a complicated relationship--both parasitic and antagonistic--with the ideology of the Republican party in Kansas, and that ideology, at least within our local political culture, provides both insights into and reflections the motivations, career, words, and actions of both of these men.

It needs to be remembered that a political party is more than merely an organization of people and money designed to encourage people to vote a certain way, and to encourage those elected to write laws in a certain way; it is also a label, a signifier. The importance of one's political party as a signifier has waned since its high point in the late 19th century, but it still provides crucial terms upon which identities are built and socialization takes place. Never forget that that the single most accurate predictor of how someone votes is by asking them, “How did your parents vote?” Parties, as bodies of thought and as agents of action, have a profoundly shaping effect on the lives of citizens in a democracy like our own. And so, let’s consider the connection between populism and Republicanism (that is Republicanism with a capital-R, the party moniker, as distinct from classical small-r republicanism, a distinction that will become important later), beginning with John Brown.

Brown lived from 1800-1859, with only two of those years spent in Kansas, 1855-56. In his life he lived in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and elsewhere. Like many men of little education and less money in the mid 19th-century, he was constantly on the move and constantly on the make. He was also, however, a deeply committed abolitionist, with a even firmer commitment to racial justice and equality than most. (He was once was expelled from a church in Ohio for inviting an African-American family to attend with and sit in the pew beside his own.) Given his background, it was probably inevitable that he would come to the Kansas Territory, or "Bleeding Kansas", at the height of the conflict over slavery. Let's review those events somewhat, since this is where the some of the first antecedents of populism come into the picture.

The history of Kansas of concern here is the one which began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The pressure was building for Congress to open up the remaining unorganized land from the Louisiana Purchase for settlement, but southern politicians did not want to open up any new land to potential statehood that would fall under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, which forbade slavery north of the 36th parallel. This was a difficult position for Democrats like Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who wanted to maintain the support of those who wished to open up and move into the western territories, but couldn't afford to antagonize voters and powerbrokers in the South. (Douglas himself also had a personal interest in making sure the northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase territories were settled, as he hoped to financially benefit from rail lines that would have Chicago as their eastern terminus.) The solution, of course, was the gutting of the Missouri Compromise and the establishment of "popular sovereignty"--or "squatter sovereignty" as some preferred to call it--as the principle under which the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would decide if they would become slave or free states. This move, perhaps more than any other development in the 1850s, radicalized abolitionist opposition to slavery and forced moderate Democrats to choose sides, with Douglas himself becoming a general champion of the state-sovereignty approach to slavery and the South beginning its long-lasting role as crucial to Democratic electoral plans. (In 1852, the Democrats had won all but two of the northern states; in the congressional elections two years later though, they lost their dominant position in all but two, thus setting the stage for the subsequent identification of the Democrats with the South, agitation and rebellion.)

In May of 1854 there were fewer than 800 permanent white settlers living in the Kansas territory--indeed, besides those stationed at Ft. Leavenworth, those traveling the Santa Fe Trail to California, and various Methodist and Quaker missionaries, the population of Kansas was then almost wholly indigenous. But within nine months the number residents of European descent had increased by a factor of ten. Pro- and anti-slavery forces pored into Kansas, determined to put down roots and shape a state government either supportive of or opposed to slavery. For Missourians, the "Border Ruffians" and "Self-Defensives" who would cross over into Kansas, stake claims or briefly vote or harass other settlers, and then retreat back across the state line, it was a matter of protecting their "rights" as slave owners and their economic position: as mostly small farmers with few slaves, without the power of the plantation system that existed in the Deep South to back them up (and thus maintain social control), the existence of a free state next door was profoundly threatening. And they quickly, and rightly, deduced that this would not be any "ordinary" free state; the possibility of winning an electoral battle against the "Slave Power" on the ground was enormously appealing to many New England abolitionists, and the battle for Kansas became a huge fundraising and recruitment opportunity. Organizations like the New England Emigrant Aid Company helped move--and arm with rifles and other equipment--hundreds of settlers, setting the stage for numerous early conflicts that only escalated as time went by. Most early Kansas communities became quickly identified as havens for either pro- or anti-slavery settlers--Atchison being one of the former, Lawrence one of the latter--allowing for literal political lines to be drawn almost from the start.

It must be noted, however, that as the decade progressed the lure of land was at least as important as the struggle over slavery; fully a third of Kansas's white residents by 1860 had come from the Midwest, not New England or Missouri (or points further south). This is not to say that they had no interest in the partisan battles over slavery, only that their interest in it was not a direct moral or economic one. This was the decade when the Republican party emerged as a national alternative to the Whigs, and the Republican slogan of "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men" must be understood for what it truly was. The Republican opposition to the expansion of slavery was not grounded in a deeply abolitionist sentiment, though many Republican leaders did hate slavery; mostly, their opposition was grounded in the belief that slavery was a corrupting social system, which placed too much power in the hands of non-working slave owners and plantation masters, thus undermining the freedom of the white wage-earner or proprietor--an independent man with dignity and a family to support (such patriotic and patriarchal rhetoric was important)--to expand his property, advance economically, and control his own destiny politically. For early Kansas politicians like James Lane, opposition to slavery had nothing to do with sympathy for slaves and African-Americans; on the contrary, part of the reason why Lane opposed slavery in Kansas was because he wanted to keep Kansas entirely white. Such racial animosity clearly did not typify the Republican party as a whole, of course, but it captures a major part of the thinking of early Kansas settlers. The problem was not, for the most part, the degradations and discrimination suffered by people of African descent in a society which tolerated slavery; rather, it was the inequality and indecency embodied by a system which denied the fruits of liberty to ordinary independent freeholders (who theoretically could have been of any race, but who in the rhetoric and thought of most of America's voters were clearly white). Hence the original slogan of the Republican party--the profoundly "republican" (in the classical sense), but also profoundly American (in the Jeffersonian sense, though Jefferson himself owned slaves), "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men".

These were the ideas in the air when John Brown arrived in Kansas, in 1855. In a letter, one of Brown's sons, who had come to Kansas to be part of the free-state forces, complained that his fellow anti-slavery settlers were sorely lacking in any kind of military organization, and this inspired Brown himself to relocate--leaving behind his wife, a new baby, and a host of debts and lawsuits--in the fall of that year. Within weeks, the Browns were in the thick of the conflict. In December of 1855, John Brown joined others in turning Lawrence into an armed camp, in preparation for an expected attack upon the free-state legislators living in the town by a group of intoxicated Missourians gathered along the banks of the Wakarusa River--the so-called "Wakarusa War." In this case, Marx's dictum was reversed, as the farce preceded the tragedy: while in December the territorial governor has been able to broker a deal to get the aimless yet angry mob to disperse, six months later Lawrence truly was attacked--by an organized force with artillery, no less--and the residents and legislators living there fled for their lives.

John Brown was infuriated that he had been too late to fight in the "Siege of Lawrence," and dismissed Republican free-state leaders like Charles Robinson as a "perfect old woman" who was "more talk than cider." Brown's cider, by contrast, was fiery and pure. On May 24, 1856, Brown led four of his sons and three other men on a mission to the nearby pro-slavery settlement of Pottawatomie, where they dragged five men--none of whom owned slaves or had participated in the attack on Lawrence--from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. In later years, Brown would be coy about whether or not he had directly killed any man that night; in an early formulation of terrorist language which has become unfortunately familiar to us all, Brown rather insisted that he had done God's work that night, and that the deaths of those men--however it happened--did not displease him, the servant of the Almighty, in the least.

Brown stayed in Kansas only a little while longer; he was a wanted man, a guerrilla fighter, whose reputation--for violence and visionary leadership--increased with every week and month and year he was able to elude capture and outfight those sent after him. He and his loyal troops participated in what some historians consider to be the first organized military encounter of the Civil War in June of 1856. He fled the territory after troops were sent to destroy the free-state settlement of Osawatomie where he had been hiding, returned a couple of times after freeing slaves in Missouri and leading them through Kansas on their way north, but by 1859 was gone for good. His path took him, as everyone knows, to Harper's Ferry and death by hanging. But in Kansas, his legacy remained. Most importantly, the way he was celebrated and condemned throughout the nation for his implacable hatred of slavery and commitment to racial justice and the overthrowing of "Slave Power" was seared into the self-understanding of Kansans. As the years went by and the Civil War was fought, the battle between the north and south seemed in Kansas almost a continuation of the vicious, personal, neighbor-against-neighbor conflict that its residents had seen and had contributed to throughout the 1850s. (Which in many cases it actually was; the fighting between Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War years was particularly localized and bloody.) With the success of the free-state forces in Kansas, and then the success of the Union forces across the country, Kansans had reason to believe that they been more deeply committed to the struggle over slavery than any other state, and that belief had real political consequences.

For one thing, it made the Republican party absolutely dominant in the state. So many Union veterans settled in Kansas that it came for a time to be known as the "Soldier State," and these veterans almost to a man voted as they had shot--that is, they voted for the party of Lincoln, and against the traitorous Democrats. Waving the "bloody shirt," accusing the Democratic party of being in sympathy to slavery and treason, was commonplace throughout America in the 1870s and 1880s, but nowhere more than in Kansas. In the first fifty years of Kansas's statehood, there was only one Democratic governor, and that aberration was corrected after a single term in office. Moreover, the memory of the Bleeding Kansas era, and the impact of John Brown's revolutionary commitments, had made Kansas Republicans somewhat radical; in their proposed state constitutions in 1858 and 1859, they not only outlawed slavery (which made it into the final version), but also advanced a measure to protect the rights and votes of blacks and women (which did not, but not for lack of trying). Following the war, Kansas Republicans moved even more rapidly than those Radical Republicans in Congress did in their fervor to punish the South and fulfill what they took to be President Lincoln's dream; the state of Kansas held a referendum of providing African-Americans with the vote in 1867, before the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was even ratified.

But not only did Kansas Republicans' radicalism move more quickly than the national version did, it lasted longer. The energy and influence of the Radical Republicans in Washington DC was soon spent; by the late 1870s Reconstruction in the South came to an end, and the white power structure of the former Confederacy immediately began to re-assert itself, overwhelmingly through the Democratic party. With the "Solid South" completely lost to them, the Republican party needed to shore up its own majorities, and it increasingly found these in the rising corporate, trading, and banking interests of the cities of northeastern and upper midwestern states. In time the national Republican party, and state Republican party establishments throughout the country, shed much of the aspirational hopes of Lincoln, to say nothing of the crusading demands of Brown; the Republican party as the party of entrepreneurs and businessmen and the upper-class was born. Obviously, there were various Republicans throughout the country who were unhappy with this retreat from the original, more radical Republican ideology; hence the Mugwumps, who spurned the Republican party of the 1880s and embraced Grover Cleveland, a Democrat for president. Kansas Republicans were even more divided, as the apparent corruption and increasing complacency of what was once an intense and even revolutionary movement in American politics seemed a rebuke to all that they had identified themselves as over the previous 30 years. There were numerous split-off groups amongst the Kansas Republicans, with variously titled Liberal Republicans or Independent Republicans or Silver Republicans contesting items in the party's official platform throughout the 1870s and 1880s. And it was at this time that the seeds of populism, nestled in some of the radicalism of the post-Brown political culture of Republican Kansas, began to grow.

Kansans, following the Civil War were, economically at least, an often frustrated lot. Many of those who came to the state for ideological or opportunistic reasons actually had little knowledge of farming, and what they knew was often totally inappropriate for the very distinct soil and weather conditions which they discovered on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. As they spread out, they had the Plains to themselves--by 1870, the west-bound railroads had reached Denver, and the masses of people heading further west for mining opportunities exterminated the bison herds. The last battle between Native Americans and white settlers occurred in 1878, after which any significant Indian population was pushed onto reservations in Oklahoma. And the glory years of the cattle drives were also actually quite short: they began in 1867, with Texas Longhorns being driven north along the Chisholm Trail and elsewhere to Abilene, Dodge City, and Wichita, but by the early 1880s changing economic conditions were bringing those drives to an end. What was left was farming, and Kansans spread throughout the state to try their hand at it.

They spread out so much partly because the railroad companies wanted them to--and as agricultural markets shifted with America became more and more urbanized and industrialized following the Civil War, their livelihoods became even more dependent upon the railroads which had encouraged them to settle far across these open spaces which they had advertised as a kind of new Eden. The federal government gave enormous land grants to railroads, seeing them as the engine to the prosperity of the nation; by 1871, the railroads controlled 170 million acres of land across America, equivalent to size of the state of Texas. Towns competed between each other fiercely, passing huge and burdensome bond issues to provide infrastructure and incentives to the railroad companies. As a result, many Kansas towns, particularly in the central and western portions of the state, were heavily in debt, a conditioned worsened by the fact that many who had originally come to Kansas through the 1850s, 60s, and 70s with the intention of farming, found there was more profit to be had in land speculation. Land was bought for the purpose of taking out mortgages on it, then either trading it away or fleeing with the cash (half of all the registered citizens of Kansas in the western part of the state simply left from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s). As a result, by 1890 over 60% of all the land in Kansas had a bank lien on it, whereas the figure for the US as a whole at that time was not even 30%. The debt load was staggering, and when bad times came with a prolonged drought which began in 1887, thousands were desperate.

The railroads, to be sure, were often to blame--the rates they charged to move grain or machinery west of Kansas City were often twice what they charged to move similar loads similar distances east of Kansas City. Working closely with the bankers which sustained the fragile, expanded economy of central and western Kansas, there was strong feeling of exploitation in the air. They felt exploited by the railroad combinations, by the banks with their political influence (the aim of the banks following the Civil War had been to keep the money supply low; the federal government had been slowly taking out of circulation the paper money or “greenbacks” which had helped finance the war, thereby tightening up the value of the available currency and raising interest rates, and had refused the calls by the Greenback party and others to either loosen up the money supply or expand it by way of "bi-metalism" (that is, the coining of silver as well as gold)), and by the superior conditions enjoyed by the Republican establishment in eastern Kansas at Lawrence and Topeka (of the eleven elected governors of Kansas between 1862 and 1893, all were residents of the eastern third of the state, eight of them from east of Lawrence); it was this feeling of exploitation which strengthened the grievances of dissident Republican groups against the national party, and gave a window of opportunity to the populists.

Remembering what I said before about parties being organized bodies of ideas, but also as something more, let's make certain it's understood that when I speak of "populism", I'm talking about the historic political movement, not the general (and usually just rhetorical) "anti-elite" attitude which often is given the populism label. Late 19th-century American populism, as an organized expression of resistance against those political and financial forces that were concentrating economic power in the cities and corporations of the post-Civil War world, emerged from a broad mix of entities--the Southern Farmers Alliance, the Grange movement, the Agricultural Wheel, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Knights of Labor, and more. All of them were associations of citizens concerned with negotiating with or fighting back against the tremendous (and, if you lacked the right combination of education, location, resources, and luck, often highly negative) consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

The most notable consequence of this mixing and coalescing of entities was the formation of the People’s Party in 1891. They held their first national convention in Omaha in 1892, and let me read to you an except from their platform:

Assembled on the anniversary of the birthday of the nation, and filled with the spirit of the grand general and chief who established our independence, we seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of “the plain people,” with which class it originated. We assert our purposes to be identical with the purposes of the National Constitution; to form a more perfect union and establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

We declare that this Republic can only endure as a free government while built upon the love of the whole people for each other and for the nation; that it cannot be pinned together by bayonets; that the Civil War is over, and that every passion and resentment which grew out of it must die with it, and that we must be in fact, as we are in name, one united brotherhood of free men.

Our country finds itself confronted by conditions for which there is no precedent in the history of the world; our annual agricultural productions amount to billions of dollars in value, which must, within a few weeks or months, be exchanged for billions of dollars' worth of commodities consumed in their production; the existing currency supply is wholly inadequate to make this exchange; the results are falling prices, the formation of combines and rings, the impoverishment of the producing class. We pledge ourselves that if given power we will labor to correct these evils by wise and reasonable legislation, in accordance with the terms of our platform.

We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

This platform--which went on to call for the national government to manage the railroads, for the outlawing of land speculation by corporations and foreigners (excess land should be held in reserve for "actual settlers only"), and for the institution of a progressive income tax--is notable for several reasons. Note the fervent, almost apocalyptic–but intensely patriotic–rhetoric which characterized their declaration; the "plain people" of the nation needed to redeem the government from those forces which had corrupted it, drawing it away from classical Jeffersonian and republican ideas of independent men, capable of exercising real economic sovereignty and democracy. In its reference to "free men" and its explicit invocation of the Civil war, the document's aims--and indeed, the ideals of the People's Party as a whole--are revealed as, as I suggested at the beginning of this lecture, deeply entwined with that of the original Republican party.

It was perhaps because of that entwining that Populist party (it went by that name, as well as the People's Party) enjoyed greater success in Kansas than in any other state of the union. Through the 1890s, two Populist governors, 13 Populist senators and representatives, and dozens of Populist state legislators were elected. The election of 1890 in particular was considered a “Waterloo” defeat for the long-dominant Republican party in Kansas–it lost the state house and senate, it lost five congressmen, and most of all lost John James Ingalls, a senator of 18 years standing, and one of the most influential members of Congress.

It's not as though the Republican establishment in Kansas was content to allow all these changes to sweep over them. Their strategy was two-fold: first, to adopt certain elements of the People's Party platform, at least those that wouldn't challenge too thoroughly the business-oriented mainstream of the party; and second, to articulate that mainstream as the "responsible" counter to the what they characterized as the wild-eyed borderline socialism of the Populists. In this, the Republicans strongest voice was William Allen White.

White (1868-1944), an author and newspaper publisher who made his home in Emporia, did more than perhaps any other single person to wisely articulate a "conservative" idea of a “Main Street” in American thought: it was a place of ordinary citizens and local businesses, thriving in their hypothetical (and always thoroughly traditional) small towns, where the American capitalist system was allowed to responsibly work its prosperity-granting magic. And in this, White--and the turn-of-the-century Republican party in general--was prescient about the long-term chances of the People's Party. After all, by the beginning of the 1900s, the transformation of the U.S. from an mostly self-sufficient and localized, agrarian and rural society to a mostly specialized and national, industrial and urban society--the work of 50 years of relentless industrial expansion (and many would add, especially considering the treatment of immigrants and Native Americans during this same period, industrial exploitation as well)--was nearly completion. The old call for "free soil, free labor, and free men" could have been a source of resistance to the emergence of an interconnected and corporatized capitalist state, and a demand for real economic democracy (which is how many of the Populists either consciously or unconsciously made use of it), but instead it was adapted--as Lincoln himself had done some clever adapting of what America supposedly stood for in his Gettysburg Address--into a call for conserving small-town virtues and ways of life in the midst of a world where economic sovereignty and political power was being rapidly, and perhaps inevitably, concentrated in the hands of educated and cosmopolitan elites. White himself, like most other members of the early 20th-century Republican bourgeoisie, and particularly those in Kansas, was no automatic friend of the Eastern elites that had most profited from the shenanigans of the railroads and banks over the decades; in fact, as the years went by White happily endorsed much of the People's Party platform once it was moderated, modernized, and made "progressive" by Republicans like Robert LaFollette--to say nothing of Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (While White himself never officially supported FDR, he supported many New Deal policies, and one should remember that in the election of 1936, Republican candidate Alf Landon couldn't even win here in his home state of Kansas on his way to being crushed by Roosevelt.) So perhaps the Populist message to the heartland of America, when confronted by the rival message send by Republicans of White's era, was simply too little, too late: despite their attempt to broadly articulate an alternative conceptualization of America, it was, paradoxically, too thoroughly a product of a rural, Kansas-type world that by the 1890s was already disappearing.

But none of this, perhaps, was obvious in the crucial election of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan stood as the nominee of both the Populists and Democrats (and, in Kansas, of the Silver Republicans as well). Bryan won Kansas in that election, but lost the country and the presidency; in fact, the results in 1896 imitated those of the election of 2000, in the spread of colors across the country, only the parties are reversed: McKinley, the Republican, won the west coast, the northeast, and the upper midwest, while Bryan won everything else. White made it pretty clear where his sympathies lay in an essay he wrote afterwards:

"The fight came squarely. Mr. Bryan arrayed class against class. He appealed to the misery of the poor; he spotlighted the luxurious appointments of the rich. He attempted to draw to his side all of those on the debit side of the ledger....McKinley and the Republicans fought out their fight on the principle of individual responsibility for tindividual failure and success...the GOP’s position was that of laissez faire or hands off....they stood for vested rights. They said, in effect, you cannot cut off the rich man’s wealth without curtailing the poor man’s income.

In time White would come to regret some of these harsh words...but he was ultimately a man of the 20th-century, a man of America's towns and cities that accommodated themselves to railroads and banks and corporations, that accepted that belief that "the plain people", even if they are citizens, nonetheless had no fundamental right to control their own economic destiny and ensure their own economic sovereignty through the agency of the government--not in the face of the legitimate opportunities for expansion, development, and growth. The Republican party, as a party of economic opportunity, was born. The Democratic party, by contrast, accepted far more of the fervor of the People's Party, and became a party of economic security, through the Great Depression up and the War on Poverty and beyond.

But what of the Populists themselves? Economic security in the hands of the Progressives and the Democrats became primarily a matter of wages and welfare and insurance: that is, protections against the ravages of the marketplace. But as for actually taking control of that marketplace itself--real local, communitarian, participatory, personal control? That Populist idea (which was, as we have seen, also an early and radical Republican idea, as well as a Jeffersonian one) is mostly gone: nationally, of course, but more certainly here in Kansas.

Except...perhaps not. Perhaps through the vicissitudes of both John Brown and William White, something of that Populist spirit still lurks in our political culture, though primarily in a social or moral sense. One doesn't have to look any further than to the innumerable analyses of "Red America" out there, or considerations of the rise of the "Christian Right" and so forth (all so well--if I think fundamentally inaccurately--realized by Thomas Frank in his bestselling screed What's the Matter with Kansas?), to realize that Kansas's almost unique mix of radical moralism and conservative populism is still present, lurking somewhere beneath the surface. Of course, the political surface itself has almost wholly changed; the issues which characterized the search for economic sovereignty a century or more ago have been, in Kansas at least, almost definitively buried by the transforming effects of World War II and modern farming technology. Yet there is still John Brown's mural in the State Capitol building in Topeka, staring down at legislators. With such a legacy and history, could Kansas Populism ever cease its sometimes antagonistic, sometimes parasitic dance with the Republican party? I truly wonder.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Language in Kids Movies (Warning: Parental Discretion is Advised for this Post)

This is something that I've wondered about several times over the past few years, as our daughters have grown old enough that Melissa and I have enjoyed sharing with them some of the great PG-rated entertainments of our youth: not just the usual geek stuff (the original Star Wars only, please!) but E.T., Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Raiders of the Lost Ark (I refuse to acknowledge the title change), and most recently The Goonies. (Next up: WarGames!). And I've noticed something, which I don't remember noticing when I watched them in my adolescence and teen-age years 25-30 years ago (and perhaps that's the point): the kids in these movies curse a lot.

Not especially harsh cursing, to be sure; no f-bombs. (I can remember that there were two "fucks" in Adventures in Babysitting, and that was, like, a big deal.) But it appears to me now, watching them as grown man with adolescent and teen-age daughters, to have been pretty much a given in the minds of the scriptwriters, directors, and the actors themselves at the time, to have these 10- to 15-year-old characters to shout "Shit!" or "Asshole!" or "Goddammit!" every five or ten minutes or so. It's not enough for me to ban these films; it's not as though my daughter in high school and my other daughter about to start middle school don't hear that kind of language or worse on a daily basis; they do. (And we always watch these movies after the bedtime of the two younger girls as well.) But it does make me genuinely curious. I think about the films marketed as family-friendly or kid-appropriate adventures or comedies today, and I don't hear anything like that kind of language. Not that there isn't plenty of harsh language out there, of course; we live in the post-Tarantino, post-Scorsese world, which have made the "adult" dramas and comedies of even as recent an era as the 1970s seem purposefully tame by comparison (Slap Shot being a notable exception). But it seems to have moved out of kids and family films.

Am I wrong about this? I'm going completely off my own idiosyncratic viewing, and have no data to back me up. But if I'm right, I wonder if there might be a systemic explanation. Perhaps it's because we live in the post-Little Mermaid, post-Toy Story era, in which a certain style of innocently fantastic story-telling has become the dominant approach of most films that wants to attract both kids and their parents as an audience? Perhaps it's the rise of comic book and fantasy movie franchises, in which loud and violent set pieces provide whatever pretension of "realism" that were presumably once being supplied by having little Corey Feldman call some authority figure a "son of a bitch"? I don't know. Any thoughts, parents out there? Am I totally off base here?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Waking Up, Smelling the Constitutional Coffee

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Dahlia Lithwick and Ezra Klein are a couple of my favorite pundits in the whole blogosphere. Lithwick is snarky, and Klein is wonky, but they're both smart, opinionated, insightful, and informed. They're also both pretty standard members of the progressive, bourgeois liberal class, which means that, in their own different ways, they're pretty committed to making things work the way their own senses of enlightened rationality tell them they should. Which is why they've just written two of the most forehead-slapping posts I've ever seen from them: it appears that it's very frustrating for them to have to look at the forest rather than the trees.

The forest under consideration here is nothing less than the U.S. Constitution itself. Specifically, it's Article 3 they're looking at, the part of the Constitution which gave us the Supreme Court; that, and at Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 Supreme Court case that established the principle of judicial review, the principle which allowed the justices on the Court the power to overturn duly legislated acts of law by judging said acts to be unconstitutional...and which, over time, has made the Court what it is today: a dominant, ofttimes domineering, and decidedly undemocratic player in our continuous national debates over what powers the different levels of government should have, and what freedoms individual citizens enjoy, and how to balance the two. The issue is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, and the claim that one of its key features--the mandate that individuals obtain health insurance through their employers, buy it on the open market, or obtain it through subsidized exchanges--violates the limits placed upon the powers of the federal government. For Lithwick and Klein, as well as for most judicial scholars, it's a no-brainer: of course it doesn't! All the individual trees--Congress's power to regulate commerce power, the necessary and proper clause, the taxing power, all of them--appear to line up so as to make the case obvious: the Affordable Care Act is a legitimate democratic decision, which makes use of legitimate government authority, to achieve a legitimate (not to mention moral) public end.

Ah, but then there's that pesky forest--a forest which is filled with people who, rightly or wrongly, have apparently decided that this particular expansion of federal power (and it is an expansion, no doubt about that), especially coming at this particular political moment, is a bridge too far. The time has come to draw a line in the sand--and if five judges on the Supreme Court choose to so draw, even if the precedents clearly point otherwise, who is to dispute them? Under our present system, apparently nobody. That is what opponents of the ACA are counting on, and which makes Lithwick and Klein--and other good members of the liberal establish--experience some genuine existential angst.

Lithwick, in considering the kind of explicitly partisan arguments--that is, explicitly invoking a particular set of party-organized and party-articulated constitutional arguments--that are being brought forward in this dispute, arguments which have so far been rejected by majorities of three federal courts and embraced by majorities on two (with the results have tracked perfectly with whether the judges in question were Democratic or Republican appointees), shakes her head. She confesses herself to be a "lifelong believer in judicial review," but that what she sees as the "absurdity" of the arguments being made, it makes her wonder if it isn't time to stop "believing in the integrity and infallibility of the judicial branch" and take seriously the case against a political system that places such enormous power--and thus creates such hysterical stakes--on the decisions of nine unelected political appointees. Klein may not be struggling with quite as much a crisis of faith, but still admits that everyone has apparently "substantially underestimat[ed] the partisanship of the judiciary on a big, polarizing issue like this one," and is fearful for our constitutional system itself, as "it’s bad for the judiciary...[to look] less and less insulated from politics."

The Supreme Court, insulated from politics? How can anyone actually write lines like that with a straight face? Hasn't there been more than enough research on this topic already? The U.S. Supreme Court, just like every other federal or state court, is a political institution. That's not to argue that upholding the ideal of the law as a neutral adjudicator in the midst of a politically divided and pluralistic nation has no relevance to maintain a stable body politic; it surely does. But the fissures which have emerged over the Affordable Care Act are reflecting something much larger than the breakdown of the sort of consensus which folks like Lithwick and Klein, and many millions of others, have apparently long assumed to be natural; it's the democratic tension of creating a polity premised upon self-government, and then extending and contorting and corrupting that polity to such a degree, over such a long period of time, that the more egregiously undemocratic elements of it can't help but become focal points of crisis. Not a total, immediate crisis, to be sure; the cynics and doubters of democracy will observe that most people, most of the time, would just rather not have to think about what is involved in governing themselves, in caring for their own community, and paying the costs of such, and the fact that the obviously skewed nature of Supreme Court decisions over the years haven't much affected the overall legitimacy of the Court in the eyes of most Americans might be taken as evidence of that fact. But the additional fact that, in the wake of the passage of the ACA, we have seen moves of the sort which the dominant figures in our political class would have considered utterly scandalous only a few years ago--with nearly a quarter of the states in the union talking seriously about reviving nullification, a constitutional idea of state sovereignty that had its last hey-day during the struggle over the desegregation of public schools--suggests that the forest may be on the move, and contented defenders of the individual trees within our national forest need to wake up to that fact.

My position is that, with every additional bit of timber which is thrown on the constitutional fire, I see more and more wisdom in writers as different as Bill Kauffmann and Peter Levine--two thinkers who, despite their likely huge disagreements, both recognize that the problem isn't with the trees in the forest, but the size and shape of the forest itself. We all need to continually re-educate ourselves in what it means to take responsibility for our lives, our families, our neighborhoods, our public spaces--but we also need to find or build contexts where conceiving of that responsibility is even a possibility. It just may not be possible in a continent-wide nation, where authority is centralized and participation is made overwhelmingly dependent upon access to elite expertise, restricted venues of access, and most of all money. Perhaps there are "progressive" (though I would call them populist or communitarian) routes to empowerment, or perhaps secessionist solutions are the only ones still on the table. Or perhaps there is still some tinkering that can be down around the edges of our constitutional system, to make it slightly more governable. (Matt Yglesias is right that part of the reason why the Supreme Court has been able to make itself into such a dominant entity is because our legislative branch, particularly the Senate, is marvelously dysfunctional.) Those kind of meliorist solutions have an appeal to me, as an academic--and therefore, as much as I try to get myself and my students out into the real world right next door to us, and as much as I try to expose them and myself to radical alternatives, pretty much a member of the bourgeois liberal political class right alongside Lithwick and Klein as well. And so, for better or worse, I'll probably keep supporting those solutions, and keep reading those authors; after all, they are good writers, and they do have good ideas, sometimes. But overall, I confess I have less and less confidence in the way we've "constituted" this particular American forest every day.