June 27, 2019 / by 

 

The Politics of The Green New Deal: Part 1

The Green New Deal starts with the recognition that drastic changes to society and the economy are necessary to cope with the dangers of climate change. I see two basic assertions behind the Green New Deal. First, it says that the pain and costs of restructuring the economy will not be borne by the working class, as has been the case in every other economic disruption. Second, as a nation we cannot allow capitalists to dominate our future. There is a lot to unpack in these two issues, so this is the first of a short series.

In the course of the first part of my neoliberalism project we saw the effects of capitalism on the working class*. This aphorism from Thucydides sums up human history nicely: “the strong do what they can and the poor suffer what they must”. We saw this in the history of the English enclosures discussed by Polany; the use of state militias to break strikes in the US; and in Foucault’s discussion of the way the state forced people into becoming good little factory workers, supervised closely, but largely self-governing, self-controlled.

Republicans have hated the New Deal since forever. The Democrats started cringing over it right after WWII amid Republican fear-mongering about Communists. The Democrats gave the capitalists their first win with the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947 and their aggressive purge of every element of leftist thinking in their ranks. Liberals joined the Capitalist Celebration; they gradually embraced deregulation, and they did nothing to protect unions, the source of worker power. Democratic wonks became experts at explaining the virtues of the market and the evils of Big Government, and crafted ever more complicated solutions to the problems created by rampant capitalism.

It was with this mindset that the US confronted the biggest crisis facing the working class, globalization. Clinton and the Democrats embraced NAFTA, and so did Democratic wonks. Paul Krugman wrote an article for Foreign Affairs attacking unions for saying that NAFTA would cost US workers their jobs. Nonsense, said Krugman. The impact would be marginal, and the Fed would simply cut interest rates to keep the economy roaring; special bonus: job training programs. This mentality continued to dominate US politics and Democratic party wonks as manufacturing jobs vanished. The promised solutions didn’t work. Capitalists got rich, and the burdens were pushed off onto the working class and small towns across the country.

Here’s a recent defense of NAFTA from the Council on Foreign Affairs. It admits that NAFTA contributed to the decline of US manufacturing jobs, but ignores what happened to the fired workers. It claims that NAFTA provided benefits to the economy as a whole, without specifying who reaped those benefits. It adds this:

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says anxiety over trade deals has grown because wages haven’t kept pace with labor productivity while income inequality has risen. To some extent, he says, trade deals have hastened the pace of these changes in that they have “reinforced the globalization of the American economy.”

Translation: capitalists replaced well-paid manufacturing jobs with cheaper foreign labor, to their benefit and that of their corporations. They ignored the impact on workers, who lost their livelihoods, their insurance, and more. The impact of free trade with China is even greater, according to a recent study, and neither party lifted a finger to help.

The Green New Deal recognizes that climate change is going to create massive disruption, including staggering losses in economic output and damage to property and infrastructure. In the ordinary course of things, the costs of coping with these disruptions would be borne by the working class. After all, the entire point of capitalism is rising profits for capital, and if that imposes costs on the working class, so be it.

To meet the goals of the Green New Deal we will have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Coal mining jobs are already vanishing, and jobs in oil and gas production are next to go. The latter sector currently employs an estimated 2.1 million people directly and indirectly. Every one of those jobs lost in these and other fields will cost families their incomes, their health insurance, their physical and mental well-being, and their hope of retirement security. Their home lives will be damaged as they cope with unemployment. Marriages will be lost, children will be injured, and elderly parents will be affected in their own financial security, and the pain of seeing the injuries to their children and grandchildren.

New jobs will be created, but where? If the jobs are far away, the unemployed will have to bear the cost and emotional drain of moving. It’s especially difficult for older workers, and the strains of moving teen-agers adds another layer of difficulty. For some, moving will be a positive, an opportunity to start over. But for many others, it’s the loss of a sense of place, the connection to the people and places in which they are comfortable.

One critical roblem is the loss of a home. Home ownership has decreased from 68.6% to 63.7% since the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, but for many Americans the home represents a significant part of family wealth. See Tables accompanying the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, Tables 9.07, line 6, and 9.16 line 6 and line 89 et seq. If there is mass migration to new jobs, there will be substantial losses of wealth for many families. To the extent people are forced to move from areas with low-cost housing to high-cost housing, there will be financial difficulties.

The Green New Deal says that we need to deal with these problems directly, not through some complicated 60 point plan relying on some newly created market or capitalists, but by direct government intervention. Section 4.5 requires the government to direct :

… investments to spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies, and build wealth and community ownership, while prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline and vulnerable communities that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries;

Section 4.15 directs the government to provide

…all people of the United States with—
(i) high-quality health care;
(ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing;
(iii) economic security; and
(iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.

Taken as a whole the Green New Deal rejects the neoliberal program of protecting capital at all costs, in favor of putting people and the planet first.

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* I’m going to use the term working class in this series, because as I see it, the conflict is between the working class and the capitalists. In general, by working class I mean everyone who must sell their labor in order to eat. I’ve been in the habit of using the term “workers” but I’m tired of euphemisms. This definition covers a wide range of incomes, but it’s stupid to pretend that middle class people living paycheck to paycheck or people with much higher incomes who have little wealth have interests that are differentiable in any meaningful way. The Fed says that 40% of US households could not pay for an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling an asset. The most recent Survey of Consumer Finances (2016) says that the conditional mean value of retirement accounts for the group with income between the 50th and 90th percentiles is $157K, from which I’d estimate median net financial wealth for that group is in the range of $300K. That means they have to keep working. I’d guess that most of the people in the top 10% of wealth could mostly make it if they were forced out of work, but certainly not all of them. They may think of themselves as wealthy because they own real estate and financial assets, and they may identify with the truly wealthy more than the working class; but I see it their real interests are aligned with those of the working class, because if that group fails, their wealth will be worthless.


Introduction To Discourse Analysis

In this post I discussed a paper by T. J. van Dijk, Ideology and Discourse Analysis, available here. focusing on his summary remarks on ideology. In this post I look at Discourse Analysis which is van Dijk’s specialty. Analyzing language is a common tool. Here’s an example from the New York Review of Books:

… On December 30 an editorial in London’s Sunday Times spluttered:

After more than four decades in the EU we are in danger of persuading ourselves that we have forgotten how to run the country by ourselves. A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without Brussels.

The many unanticipated problems with Brexit are diagnosed by the Sunday Times writer as a loss of confidence, perhaps accompanied by a faulty memory—something happening not just to people but to “a people.” The implication of the indefinite article, with its baggage of Romantic Nationalism, is clear. Britons, as Rule Britannia triumphantly puts it, “never, never, never shall be slaves.” The underside of nostalgia for an imperial past is a horror of finding the tables turned.

The writer, Hari Kunzru, picks apart the language to show the bias of the spluttering Sunday Times editorialists, and we who are not involved in Brexit can just as easily see Kunzru’s framework. Brexit has become an emblem of an ideological struggle between Leavers and Remainers, and the two writers come from different camps.

Two asides. First, neither writer acknowledges a fact central to the perspective of the Leave Camp: British rule over a quarter the world turned out really badly for millions of people. Kunzru’s failure to note this might indicate that he shares the perspective to some extent. Second, it’s really bizarre to think that the essential element of Brexit is self-government. Just think how efficient it is to spread the cost of rule-making across the EU instead of having to do it all yourself, from scratch. Also, given the actual results of regulation, mostly beneficial to the average citizen, it’s fair to see the Times position as preferring more money and power go to corporate interests for the benefit of the rich.

And here’s an example from the standpoint of a practitioner, Lee Atwater:

Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

These examples illustrate the points made by van Dijk. Ideologies are the beliefs, assumptions and knowledge shared by a community and used to talk and think about a set of social issues. The underlying beliefs, assumptions and knowledge are not discussed directly. Instead, the speaker operates with them as if his listeners share them so that acknowledgment is unnecessary.

Van Dijk identifies several formal aspects of analysis needed to decipher the texts. He starts with context. The language chosen by a writer for a text depends on the expected reader.

The second formal aspect is the meaning readers ascribed to the text. Readers’ understanding is influenced by their perception of the events and situations under discussion, the mental models they construct to handle data. These perceptions may also be colored by ideological bias.

Context and meaning are personal and subjective. The third formal aspect, knowledge, is not. Members of an ideological group share specific knowledge as a given. Inside the group, this knowledge is not perceived as ideological, rather as a fair picture of social or physical reality, and it’s uncontroversial.

For example, progressives know that climate change is caused by human activity, mostly the burning of fossil fuels. That knowledge is shared widely among progressives, so that failure to acknowledge it is disqualifying. That bit of knowledge reflects the tip of an iceberg of the kinds of things that progressives know, including on general acceptance of the way science is practiced today, reading they’ve done, and the acceptance of certain persons as authoritative. Progressives also do not trust the exploiters of fossil fuels to tell the truth about their product because they have actively concealed the results of their own studies for years. This forms the basis for the knowledge, rather than the underlying data but it is nevertheless knowledge of the sort van Dijk describes.

There is a vocal minority which includes a number of politicians who “know” that climate change is not caused by human activity, and is certainly not the result of burning fossil fuels. They have read different articles, they listen to other authoritative figures, including those in the pay of the fossil fuel industry, and many distrust the scientific method. This view constitutes knowledge in their community. They also know that the vast majority of scientists are liberal tools.

When these communities interact on the issue, they are not capable of working together. It’s particularly disturbing that meta-arguments, such as the precautionary principle (“… it is the responsibility of an activity-proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not (or is very unlikely to) result in significant harm”), don’t solve the dilemma. The rationales offered by one camp simply do not register with the other.

The fourth formal aspect of discourse analysis is group beliefs. Van Dijk gives as an example a belief shared by racists, white superiority. Within a group of racists this belief becomes akin to knowledge. Attitudes are similar. They are part of a belief structure, but instead of totality, as “the white race is superior to all other races”, they are partial as “almost all white people are superior to people of other races”.

Each of these can be seen in the examples. UK Leavers have a shared knowledge of “sovereignty” that is not shared by the Remainers. The Times editorialist uses that knowledge to make indirect nostalgic arguments. If the writer had been forced to describe the nature of the sovereignty he wants, he would expose the problem with his position, and have to make completely different arguments. In light of the shared understanding of a historical Britain valiantly defying Hitler and saving the world and without acknowledging England’s horrifying colonial past, he gets the benefit of an emotional argument that makes it unnecessary to deal with the hard reality of Brexit.

Atwater makes this strategy clear. His readers know the codes and follow the racist argument. Those who follow him often hide their racism from themselves by cloaking themselves in some kind of shiny armor of economic righteousness.

I do not currently intend to take up discourse analysis in detail. For my purposes, it’s enough to describe a basic structure, to note that it is a reasonably well-known idea, and to remember that close reading is necessary to expose the ideological content of a text.


A Primer On Ideology

Ideology and Discourse

Ideology and Discourse Analysis, a paper by Teun A. van Dijk, a professor at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, begins by introducing us to the theory of ideology, and then uses van Dijk’s specialty, discourse analysis, to identify the way ideology informs discourse. He identifies a number of assumptions and principles of the theory of ideology so this will serve as a primer on the subject.

1. Ideologies are belief structures, cognitive structures based on ideas. They are not the same thing as the practices and actions that evidence them.

2. Ideologies are publicly shared by members of a group of social actors. They form a common belief structure and are put into action by the group, verbally, and in social relations with people within the group though not necessarily in interactions with people outside the group. As an example, think about racism as an ideology. Among themselves, racists use certain language, share certain beliefs, and act is specific ways when racial matters are at stake. They do not always do so when interacting with anti-racists or non-racists, and they do not always do so when interacting with members of the despised group, Feminists may behave similarly: among themselves or with sympathizers, they use certain language and share certain beliefs, but among non-feminists, they may choose to act somewhat differently, and to use other language.

3. Ideologies are not just some random group of ideas: “They control and organize other socially shared beliefs.” If you know someone is a racist or a feminist you can predict other beliefs and ideas, and you can predict the kinds of language the person will use and the way they will interpret events and theories.

4. Ideologies are gradually acquired, often unconsciously, and in the same way, they are only gradually changed, even with conscious effort.

According to van Dijk, ideologies serve a number of social and cognitive functions. They are the basis for the discourse and other social practices of the community of believers, and enable the group to act cohesively. And importantly, they act as the “cognitive interface” between members of the group and the social conditions in which the group lives. I understand that to mean that the group sees the facts and causation creating the facts identically.

Thus far, the discussion makes the hypotheses I laid out in this post seem reasonable. Van Dijk goes on to identify a number of gaps in the theory. Most important, he says is the question of exactly what constitutes the content and structure of an ideology. As he puts it, “If socialism, feminism and neoliberalism are ideologies, what exactly do they look like?” He puts forward, somewhat equivocally, several criteria for identifying these, including self-identification, aims, actions, norms, values, affiliations with other groups, and resources.

As to the ideas underlying an ideology, he suggests that the important point is that they are organized, not random lists. That doesn’t mean they are internally consistent quite the contrary. It isn’t obvious exactly which ideas constitute an ideology. One theory is that only the axioms matter, and that the ramifications are not crucial to the ideology. The other is that only the entire complex should be identified as the ideology. Van Dijk favors the former, and I think that’s best. There are all sorts of reasons people might disagree with some of the possible conclusions of an ideology without rejecting its foundation. Related to this point, not all followers of an ideology are fully versed in it. The degree of knowledge, attitudes, and habits of thinking can vary widely.

Then there is the question of what kind of collectivity shares an ideology. For now, it seems to me that the crucial point here is that we can identify a group based solely on a shared ideology without looking at other aspects of their lives. For example, feminists share an ideology, but that ideology is shared across many boundaries, race, class, wealth/income, work, geographic location and so on. I focus on neoliberalism as an ideology, and the group that shares that ideology crosses all those boundaries. Van Dijk describes these boundary crossing ideologies as communities of action and communities of practice.

Van Dijk says that sometimes ideologies become so widely held that “… they become part of generally accepted attitudes of an entire community.” For example, the idea that women should be politically equal to men began as part of the suffragist ideology, but now is so widely accepted that only a tiny number of people disagree. When that happens,ideas lose their status as part of an ideology and become background for everyone, not salient enough to cause disagreements.

In these terms, neoliberalism is an ideology. There are a large number of people who look at political and economic issues solely through the lens of neoliberalism, and most participants in the political and economic sphere either accept it, or use its premises as the starting point for analysis. Thus, even Democrats who deny that they are neoliberals justify a policy by saying that it’s great for the environment and it creates jobs and economic growth. Even for people with only a limited grasp of the entire ideology, the premises leak into economic discussion. I am paid what I’m worth, a worker might say, because that’s just how markets work. Or, they might vote for politicians who promise to cut taxes on the rich because taxes drain money that would otherwise be used for investments and job creation. Evidence plays no role in such decisions.

The most difficult problem is deciphering the specific ideas that define neoliberalism. Philip Mirowski says that this is by design: “… it was self-consciously constituted as an entity dedicated to the development, promulgation, and popularization of doctrines intended to mutate over time. It was a moveable feast, and not a catechism fixed at the Council of Trent.” He describes Thirteen Commandments he has deduced. We must struggle through a fog of simple-minded aphorisms like government bad, markets good. Or, anyone can succeed in capitalism if they work hard and play by the rules. Or maybe that last one is clap louder or win the lucky sperm lottery. The best we can do is judge by actions and rhetoric, in other words, by using discourse analysis, which van Dijk takes up next in this paper, and which I’ll look at next.


Attacking The Neoliberal Ideology

The organizing question of the first phase of my neoliberalism project was how neoliberalism became the dominant discourse in the US. We looked into the dogma of neoliberalism and some of its pillars, particularly neoclassical economics, especially William Stanley Jevons. We looked at history, with Veblen, Arendt, Polanyi and others. I looked at Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu, and then read a bit of current Marxism through Wood, and a more or less orthodox defender of capitalism, Scott. These readings led to my current view.

I began the project with the view that the post-WWII economic system had morphed into neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s. I now think of our current economic system as capitalism operating with few constraints and having coopted government to act on its behalf and against the interests of most Americans. The removal of restraints and the coopting of government were driven by an ideology, neoliberalism. The ideology was created by a small group, mostly economists. It explains and justifies domination by wealthy capitalists and inspires acceptance of that domination by most Americans.

Neoliberalism began to take over in the early 1970s when the post-WWII economy faltered. The rich began to pour money into pushing the theory that free markets are crucial form of freedom. One important reading on this subject is Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Driven by huge sums of money, neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than another effort by the dominant class, meaning the rich and powerful, to justify its dominant status both for itself and for the subjected class, meaning the rest of us.

As an aside, I note that economists see themselves as uniquely positioned to explain the workings of society to us drudges, barely able to lift our heads from the machinery of production and shake the noise from our brains so we can hear the fruits of their genius. In support, I offer Friedman’s take on racism from Capitalism and Freedom,3 p. 94.

… [T]here are real problems in defining and interpreting discrimination. The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, ”buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” or at least not in the same invidious sense if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other case we do not. Is there any difference in principle between the taste that leads a householder to prefer an attractive servant to an ugly one and the taste that leads another to prefer a Negro to a white or a white to a Negro, except that we sympathize and agree with the one taste and may not with the other? I do not mean to say that all tastes are equally good.

In the second part of this series, I intend to look at two issues. First, what do academic studies say about ideologies, especially their creation, and their effect on those who adopt them. Second, what can be done to attack an ideology and dislodge it.

As to the first part, I have several hypotheses.

1. Ideologies are cognitive structures shared by a large number of people. People use them to to to orient their choices, to justify their actions, to explain the outcomes of their behaviors, and to explain themselves to others. They become tools to understand society as a whole. Ideologies do not spring magically into the collective mind. They are constructed by humans, and reflect the personal interests of the constructors to a greater or lesser extent.

2. Ideologies have meaning only when articulated. People may share a set of structures, but it’s when they begin to use the structures to talk about, and thus to share, their a) guides to behavior, b) public justifications for their actions and c) explanations for outcomes, that the ideology can be seen to dominate the discourse.

3. The people who articulate the structure can make it work for their benefit by careful construction of the tenets of the ideology.

4. Once the tenets are established, people reason with them instead of considering the actual facts of a situation.

5. Once an ideology is articulated, it becomes possible to see the real organizing principles, the interests served, and the people responsible. The organizing principles may never be articulated by the creators. This leads to the double movement of ideologies, identified in the case of neoliberalism by Philip Mirowski’s. See, e.g., Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

I’ll be looking at literature on ideologies to see whether any of these intuitions are correct.

As to the second part, dislodging the discourse, there seem to be two opposing views. One is that you can’t replace something with nothing, so you have to have a replacement ideology before you can hope to dislodge the dominant ideology. The other pole is that first you change the facts on the ground for the better. This shows people that the old ideology produced bad results. That makes room for a new ideology that explains the good outcomes. The second view seems to be motivating the new breed of Democrats, who want change to meet problems, but aren’t interested in adopting a preplacement ideology. Of course, plenty of Democrats cling to their “We’re neoliberals, but not ugly like those Republicans” mantra. This includes most of the current leaders of the Party, who are hooked on big money from corporate interests.

I don’t like either view. I think you have to have some explanation for changes besides meeting pressing needs in order to have a coherent program. Even in the early stages of change, there should be motivating principles. Fortunately as I struggled to get started on this part of the project, I found this fascinating article in the New Yorker, a profile of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson titled The Philosopher Redefining Equalitysd. It seems to me that she teaches a number of the ideas that I have written about, including the pragmatism of John Dewey who I wrote about at FDL, and what it means to be free in a system where capitalists control much of our lives. I’ll be reading her work and commentary in dealing with the second part.

Finally, a word about current politics. I think the motivating principle of neoliberalism is that the rich should be in charge of everything, not just the economy. In current political discourse, people, including me, say that many Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, are neoliberals. It’s important to understand the reason I think this way. I don’t think Democratic politicians believe that the rich should run everything. They do, however, privilege what they call “market solutions” and tweaks to the current system over the massive change that is obviously needed. They may not be neoliberal in principle, but they are neoliberal in action. To me this is a meaningful distinction. It means that any Democrat is a better choice than any Republican, but that it’s possible to be better. I worry that if there are no articulated principles for evaluating new policies, there is a danger that neoliberal principles will be used. I see PAYGO as an example of this concern.

Now that the Democrats have taken the House and seem to have momentum going into the election cycle, these distinctions are critical. We need to have this discussion openly, and without regard to the defenders of the dominant class. After all, the dominant class is the tiniest of minorities. It has no justifiable claim to its dominance, and we need to make that obvious.

Update: I forgot to thank Eureka for a comment that crystalized my thinking about how to proceed.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion of the Conclusion

Index to all posts in this series.

My original plan for the multi-part conclusion was to show the differences between the analysis of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism and the views of Bruce Scott in Capitalism: Its Origins And Evolution As A System Of Governance. I quickly found a number of similarities in their views of capitalism and its dangers. I expected to find differences in their views of democracy, that Scott would edge away from Wood’s view that democracy is failing us, based primarily on what appears to be an early draft of Chapter 13 of his book. I was wrong. Scott also believes that democracy as practiced today is failing at the task of controlling the excesses of capitalism.

As evidence, this is from the very last paragraph of the epilogue:

This brief look at the role of the firm in a capitalist society suggests that achieving accountability for firms is a vital aspect of a successful, decentralized system of decision-making. At the same time, it suggests that achieving such accountability on a continuing basis as conditions change is anything but a simple task. As a result, market frameworks can be expected to be continually contested between the firms, the regulators, and other societal interests that are affected. We should expect that some measure of distortion is the rule rather than the exception.

That’s from page 639, so not really a brief look. Scott blames neoliberalism, though he doesn’t use that term. Instead, he argues with Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom throughout the first part of his book, so effectively that the reader cannot take Friedman’s neoliberalism seriously. In a scholarly work such as this, the following counts as invective.

A second view, and arguably a very influential one among US economists, was that capitalism is a self-regulating system based upon voluntary transactions among consenting adults. This view, which has drawn little benefit of any historical perspective, is perhaps best exemplified by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. P. 12.

In Scott’s telling, the US chose to separate the economy from the rest of society, and turned over management of the economy to the private sector, subject only to rules enacted by the political arm. That led to frequent financial crises and then to the Great Depression. Scott sees the New Deal as the government’s response to unbridled capitalism, and bases his model on the interregnum.

But then he confronts the obvious: beginning in the 1970s the political arm wrecked the regulatory framework of laws, regulations and institutions that held capitalism under light but firm control. Without controls, capitalism now threatens to democracy itself as firms have once again become strong enough to control governments at all levels, just as they were from the 1870s through 1932. In his discussion of the Great Crash of 2008, he again criticizes neoliberalism, this time Alan Greenspan. According to Scott, Greenspan’s ideology has no basis in reality or values, and it caused damage to millions of Americans.

As to the impact on democracy, Scott says:

Democracy is premised on the notion of moral equality among individuals and the freedom of self-determination; inequalities beyond some limit become incongruous. Capitalism, on the other hand, is premised upon the notion of granting individuals economic freedoms to develop their talents and resources, as well as “the primary freedom of choice in the market place.” Though individuals are subject to governance through regulated forms of competition, those who excel in that competition receive higher rewards, which they are allowed to retain and build upon to achieve still further advantage. How can two systems based upon such differing premises manage to be mutually stabilizing let alone mutually supportive? P. 96; fn omitted. The quote is from a third party.

Scott doesn’t offer a path to change, but then there’s no reason he should in a scholarly history of economics. Wood believes that nothing will change unless the working class leads the way. I took up the issue of class in the Marxist sense here, but I think the Marxist definition in terms of relations to the means of production is nearly useless today. Instead, I propose that the working class consists of those who must sell their labor to live. It includes a large number of managers and professionals who have not accumulated wealth, and those who suffer the stress of trying to live a middle class life when the things that life requires steadily increase in cost while wages and salaries remain stagnant. With that definition Wood is right: no change will come without the insistence of the workers.

And here’s the fun part: they seem to agree that capitalists are the problem. Wood is a Marxist, so her view is expected. Scott is a genteel defender of capitalism, as a review of the section on the Great Crash reveals. He thinks it was caused by

… mistaken ideas and beliefs among the major actors themselves. These mistaken ideas led to repeated policy mistakes. P. 616, fn omitted.

As a side note, bland justifications like this are sprinkled throughout the text, and that’s why I see Scott as a defender of capitalism. Anyway, by “mistaken ideas” he means neoliberalism. He says bluntly that the capitalists caused the Great Crash and were not held accountable by being fired for incompetence, but he ignores the their fraud. P. 639.

Neither Wood nor Scott engages with any of the theoretical ideas I took up in my discussions of Polanyi, Arendt, Veblen, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu.

And finally, neither Scott nor Wood offers a path forward. Regulate capitalism or die, they say, but they offer nothing to those of us trying to figure out what is to be done.

As I see it, there is a general agreement running across all these writers that capitalist ideologies, first laissez-faire and now a more sophisticated neoliberalism, is a serious problem for democracy. In theoretical terms, it seems to me that neoliberalism is imposed by the capitalists on society as an act of what Bourdieu called symbolic violence. The ideology offers the dominant class (capitalists) a tool for maintaining their position while the dominated class (everyone else) accepts that dominance as right and just, because it is the outcome of the ideology they accept and follow.

This suggests a strategy for serious change. Attack neoliberalism directly and forcefully as a theoretical ideology with no factual basis, just as Scott claims. In doing so, you aren’t condemning markets or competition. You are attacking an invented theory used by the dominant class to pretend that its dominance is natural and just. A good bit of what I’ve written in these posts is directed at ways to attack neoliberalism, but I’m no Frank Luntz and do not know how to turn these ideas into practice. Still, that’s what I think we have to do.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 3

Index to all posts in this series.

In the first two parts of this conclusion, I describe the views of Ellen Meiksins Wood, based on her book, Democracy Against Capitalism, and the friendlier vision of capitalism offered by Bruce Scott. See posts 12 and 13 in the index for links. In this post I examine some of the similarities between the two views.

1. Both Scott and Wood use the principles of historical materialism, the basic idea underlying Marxist scholarship. It holds that the social structures that exist at any point are the result of an evolutionary process, and are contingent on the specific circumstances of each society and the actions of individuals and the society as a whole. Scott does not use the term historical materialism, and he certainly isn’t a Marxist, but doesn’t exactly repudiate Marx either.

Karl Marx supposed that liberal markets would be dominated by capitalists (i.e., powerful economic actors), which would lead to their domination of the political system as well. There was some truth to this at the time that he wrote, and it can certainly still happen today, but it is not a necessary outcome as he supposed. P. 62.

However, Scott does follow the general principles of historical materialism. He compares the evolution of capitalism in the US to its evolution in other societies and to the evolution of the economies of other societies. This gives him an outside vantage point which he fully uses.

2. Wood and Scott agree that the separation of political economy into politics and the economy was central to the evolution of capitalism. Wood opens with a discussion of this separation and its importance. Scott emphasizes the role of human agency in the evolution of capitalism.

This essential human role means that capitalism is a mix of sociology, administration, politics, economics, and law, and that any theory of capitalism must include not only an economic level but also a political level, what I call here the third level of political authority. P. 50.

Scott says that capitalism shifts governance of the economy to the private sector through a three-tier system: a democratically elected political authority, institution/infrastructure intermediaries, and firms, with all three levels acting and interacting. This is close to Wood’s view that the private sector controls the economy subject only to the barest intervention by the state. Scott seems to agree with Wood’s assertion that the private sector controls the lives of the productive sector with little or no democratic oversight. Scott doesn’t address this latter point except indirectly. See, e.g. pp. 128, 448, 455, and others. Wood and Scott agree that democratic control of the economy is crucial to a balanced society. Both would benefit from reading modern scholarship on this issue and its history. For those interested, a good place to start is Michel Foucault, Discipilne and Punish, the subject of this post.

3. Wood relies on Marx’ laws of motion of capitalism and other formal statements of Marxism. She goes to some lengths, as do other Marxists, to define terms. Scott echoes this. He carefully analyzes a number of definitions of capitalism and finds them wanting, before moving on to his own definition.

Scott’s definition is based on his observations of the way capitalism works. Marx also described capitalism as he saw it and Scott says Marx was right to think that capitalism would eventually become a struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat, because government had not begun to intervene at that time. See p. 29.

4. Wood insists that Marxian descriptions of the economy are the most accurate, and her book tries to apply those principles to the way things are today. Her recommendations for change and the road to change are straight out of Marx.

Scott is committed to capitalism as the best way to manage the economy. He recognizes that there are problems, but he sees deviations from his model as something to be corrected, not as the natural working of the system. For example, take cable companies. Government and the cable companies arranged the system from the outset to entrench their monopolies in a process that totally ignored public input. The government doesn’t force any real competition, as it does in France, or intervene in price-setting. Absent competition, it’s hard to call cable a capitalist market, or a market at all. That isn’t a deviation from Scott’s model, it’s the way US capitalism works. At some point the deviations from the model tell us that we should rethink the model. We could, for example, treat the model as an ideal form, and use it to change a system. Or we stare coldly at the real problems we face and come up with a new model.

Wood’s commitment to Marx leads to failure to come to grips with the changes in the organization of society and technology in the century since Marx wrote, and her apparent failure to come to grips with non-Marxist thinkers, including Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu among those I have read for this project. Scott doesn’t discuss these either, even as he says that to analyze capitalism properly we have to take politics and sociology into account. P. 50. Neither focuses on the actual problems facing our society, especially climate change.

5. Both Wood and Scott reject neoliberal doctrine without exactly acknowledging it. Wood thinks that neoliberalism is just the name of the ideology developed to support the form of capitalism Marx predicted. See this article, which I took up in post 6 in the linked index. Scott is equally dismissive. See, e.g. p. 62; here’s a brief taste:

Followers of Friedman tend to not only overlook but also actively reject this role of government in the capitalist system. According to them, informed, voluntary, and bilateral transactions are the essence of a self-regulating capitalist system and therefore that system can and must be free from governmental coercion. But in reality, coercion is to be found in most capitalist markets; large firms coerce those that are smaller, a patent holder enjoys market power, an employer typically authorizes only one employee to make a job offer to a prospective employee, and employees may or may not organize to bargain in a similar format.

As I have said repeatedly in this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to reject neoliberal capitalism. All it takes is a clear head and a willingness to stare at reality.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 2

Index to all posts in this series.

The Marxist views of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism give a bleak picture of capitalism which I contrasted with the view offered by Bruce Scott, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School. Scott’s paper, The Political Economy of Capitalism is apparently a draft of a chapter of a book he wrote titled Capitalism: Its Origins and Evolution as a System of Governance. The book is available here.

The paper gives a picture of capitalism as an organic system that evolves as it encounters new things, rather than as a physical system, one subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Scott calls capitalism a form of indirect governance of the economy. Here’s an extended quote from the paper that gives a fair picture.

Capitalism, as I define the term, is an indirect system of governance based on a complex and continually evolving political bargain in which private actors are empowered by a political authority to own and control the use of property for private gain subject to a set of laws and regulations. Workers are free to work for wages, capital is free to earn a return, and both labor and capital are free to enter and exit from various lines of business. Capitalism relies upon the pricing mechanism to balance supply and demand in markets; it relies on the profit motive to allocate opportunities and resources among competing suppliers; and it relies upon a political authority (government) to establish the rules and regulations so that they include all appropriate societal costs and benefits. Government and its agents are held accountable to provide physical security for persons and property as well as the laws and regulations. Capitalist development is built from investment in new technologies that permit increased productivity, where a variety of initiatives are selected through a Darwinian process that favors productive uses of those resources, and from the periodic modernization of the legal and regulatory framework as indicated by changing market conditions and societal priorities. Capitalist development requires that government play two roles, one administrative, in providing and maintaining the institutions that underpin capitalism, and the other entrepreneurial, in mobilizing power to modernize these institutions as needed.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out the wide variances between his conceptualization of capitalism and real live capitalism. I will only point out the most obvious problem: the externalities of pollution are not corrected by any regulation or law, efforts to do so have been struck down by the courts, and the coming disaster cannot and will not be fixed by capitalism.

In the book, Scott says that he was dissatisfied with existing histories of capitalism because they were observational rather than explanatory. What he found lacking was human agency. This book is his attempt to incorporate human agency into the history of the evolution of capitalism.

When human agency is taken into account, the story of US industrial development in the 19th century becomes one of competition between those who wanted to empower firms to grow and become more productive and inevitably more powerful politically as well as economically, and those who wished to establish a regulatory framework to protect the public from the abuse of private power by those same firms, for instance, through regulation of railroad rates and/or by restricting the rights of firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions. P. xxi.

Scott claims that our current system features two systems of government, one for the economy and one for all other matters. The economy is managed by private interests, under rules and laws created by the central authority and by intermediary institutions. He calls this indirect governance of the economy. The other part of society is governed directly by the central authority. He identifies a three tier system of governance for the economy, using a sports analogy. In Olympic sports, there are the athletes and the games at one level, the governing bodies of the sports at another, and the top tier is occupied by the Olympics organization. By analogy, there are business firms at the first level of the economy, then institutional foundations, such as regulatory authorities, and then the elected officials at the third level.

In sports, as indeed in capitalism, political authorities play two distinct roles: one administrative, in maintaining the existing system of playing fields and enforcing the existing rules, and the second entrepreneurial, in mobilizing power to win the needed votes in the legislature in order to admit new teams, change the locations or timing of competition, change the rules and regulations, and/or change the distribution of revenues. Book, p. 50.

It’s possible to see the US system of capitalism as Scott describes it, at least in abstract theoretical terms. I don’t think he has solved the human agency question correctly. At least in the parts I’ve read so far, Scptt doesn’t discuss power relations in capitalism. For Wood, power relations are central to capitalism. She identifies those relations as the social relations between producers and capitalists: domination, exploitation and appropriation. Compare that with the description in the quote from Scott’s paper above: workers are free to work for wages (or not), capitalists are free to invest seeking a return (or not). What happens to workers who don’t work for wages? What happens to capitalists who don’t invest? The different outcomes are obvious: the workers starve, and the capitalists lives off their money.

Scott also understates the problems created by the power of the capitalists inside the organizational structure he describes. He is clear that capitalists have the ability to lobby, buy politicians and regulators and courts, and to rig the system in their favor. He recognizes that some of the gains of capitalists are the result of the “deliberate distortion of [market] frameworks for private advantage” but calls them by the bloodless term “externalities”. From the paper:

While small imperfections can be overlooked as acceptable aspects of an imperfect process, large, deliberate distortions for private gain are likely to add to the income inequalities in the society, creating and/or sustaining a vicious circle in which the markets serve as a way for the rich to exploit the poor. On the other hand, if a poor majority were to take political power in a country or region it could use that political power to shape institutions to disadvantage the rich, including to take their property.

Fear of letting the poor have a significant role in government has motivated the dominant classes throughout history, with few concrete examples of the horrible possiblity of losses by the rich.

And I’ll say again, capitalism isn’t going to fix the coming planetary disaster. In fact it’s going to make it worse by insisting on pumping more carbon dioxide and other chemicals into our environment. The continued profitability of huge swathes of the economy depends on it. As long as the economy is governed solely by the profit motive, there can be no solution.

Update.

Commenter Anon raises an interesting question: can the bloodless quality of Bruce Scott’s account of capitalism be attributed to Scott’s life work in the Harvard Business School. There is a partial answer in the Preface, which may be the single most useful preface I have ever read. He describes the evolution of his ideas, complete with the names of individuals, including his research associates, who helped him formulate them, and books and experiences that were important.

For those interested, this is worth reading, and I have a better understanding of the question Anon raises. In short, I think Scott has a framework grounded in standard economics and standard political science. He works at moving away from it, as is evident in his flat rejection of neoliberalism (he doesn’t use that term), as well as by his clear affinity for a form of capitalism. Thus, he finds himself in the gap between the structured views of capitalism we see in Wood, and the materials he found useless or dead wrong. He wants to construct a different view, but he tries to salvage as much as possible of the views he’s always held.

I’ll add a discussion of the similarities between Scott and Wood in the next part of this extended conclusion.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1

Index to posts in this series.

I didn’t see a precise definition of capitalism in Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, though it’s obvious Wood is talking about capitalism in the UK and the US. Here’s a definition I found in a 2006 paper by Bruce R. Scott, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School. The paper is titled The Political Economy of Capitalism.
Scott offers this definition of capitalism taken from the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics:

Political, social, and economic system in which property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled for the most part by private persons. Capitalism contrasts with an earlier economic system, feudalism, in that it is characterized by the purchase of labor for money wages as opposed to the direct labor obtained through custom, duty or command in feudalism…. Under capitalism, the price mechanism is used as a signaling system which allocates resources between uses. The extent to which the price mechanism is used, the degree of competitiveness in markets, and the level of government intervention distinguish exact forms of capitalism. P. 2-3, fn. omitted.

He comes up with a slightly different definition, and I’ll come back to this paper in another post. I doubt this definition would be acceptable to Wood, because it hides the reality of capitalism. For example, it says that in feudalism, one class “obtains” labor from another, which is probably not how peasants experienced it. She would at least state that almost all social systems enforce some form of expropriation by a dominant class, and discuss the mechanisms of that domination and expropriation in capitalism. She would want to discuss the logic that operates in capitalism, which I take to be something like this.

a. The goal of individual capitalists is to increase the amount of capital under their control.
b. The point of capitalism as a system is to produce returns to capital. Those returns come from producing goods and services for sale at a profit.
c. Capitalists only produce goods and services for sale. Capitalists produce nothing that cannot be sold for a profit.
d. Any means that can be used to increase the returns to capital will be supported by capitalists. These include cheating on taxes, use of tax havens, pollution, screwing workers, supporting tax cuts and tax advantages for capital (lower capital gains rates, ending Estate Taxes, lower marginal rates, special depreciation rules, outright exemptions for certain types of income, extortion of state and municipal governments for tax benefits), fighting unions, bribing legislators, regulators and executive branch officials, the list is endless and as far as I know has never been assembled in one place.

These four points aren’t laws, in the sense of the laws of physics. They are simple observations of the actual behavior of the capitalist class. They paint a bleak picture of capitalism, utterly unlike the way capitalism is portrayed in the media, by the government, by politicians, by educators and even by religious leaders. Wood argues, essentially, that any benefits it confers were forced by workers or governments, and are under constant assault. Violations of laws by capitalists are never punished as the serious crimes they are. Which executive of BP, Transocean or Halliburton went to jail for blowing up a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and poisoning the waters? No one is accountable for the damage done by capitalists behind the corporate shield, whether to the environment or to the people they employ.

I’ve gotten in the habit of referring to our current system of capitalism as neoliberalism, but for Wood, the capitalism we see today is just the logical growth of capitalism as Marx predicted, following the logic described above. When Marx wrote, capitalism had a solid foothold in England, but it had yet to reach its full extension. In both England and the US there were many artisans and free farmers who owned their own means of production, and were free from the imperatives of the marketplace. They had the ability to feed and shelter their families with little or no recourse to a market economy. They were for the most part free to sell or retain their production for their own use. Outside of Europe and the US, pre-capitalist economies were the dominant form.

That is no longer the case. It is very difficult for any not-rich person to provide for themselves and their families without selling their labor to capitalists. That is just as true of software engineers as it is of doctors and plumbers. No one, even the rich, can provide the necessities of life without using markets.

Wood argues that we have nearly reached the situation Marx predicted: a society of two classes, capitalists and producers. The capitalists provide some level of sustenance to those they hire, and the rest are dependent on the state or they are on the street. Or they die. The difference between the value produced by workers and their pay is sucked up by the capitalists. Although Wood doesn’t mention it, the financial sector eats up some of the sustenance received by the workers. All of us are forced to participate in a system dominated by the rich.

This system is supported by neoliberalism, an ideology dreamed up by economists and other academics. There is no point of contact with democracy. In fact, there is good reason to think that neoliberalism would work better in an autocracy or an aristocracy, and some conservatives, such as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, think the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) should be repealed as a step in that direction.

The main goal of neoliberalism is to provide a theoretical basis for denying governments the power to interfere with the business activities of capitalists, an utterly anti-democratic goal. Most people spend a huge part of their time working and commuting to work, and thinking and worrying about work. Corporations now make decisions that have massive impacts on individual lives, and on society, with little or no input from government or non-rich individuals or society, and regardless of whether they serve any purpose that outweighs the damage. It’s absurd to say that the bulk of our lives should be controlled by the decisions of the rich and powerful with no democratic control. But it’s just fine under neoliberal theory. To be very specific, holders of private capital have created the current planetary environment, which is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life. A theory that supports their efforts to do so is suicidal.

As I say, it’s a bleak picture. In the next part I look at a somewhat less somber picture.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Index To Posts

This list will be updated with links to the conclusory post or posts on Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, and all posts are updated to include a link to this post. As a reminder, I read this book on a Kindle, and it didn’t give page numbers. All citations are to the Kindle location, as best I could tell.

This book turned out to be very difficult going. Part of it was my own unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of Marxist thought, where even the definitions are hard to understand concretely. Part of it is that most of the previous books engage with a history I’m vaguely familiar with, while the primary issues of Marxist thought relate to the transformation of feudalism into capitalism, and from monarchy to liberalism. Wood adds detailed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman history that I didn’t knowabout. Understanding these transformation required a lot of background reading. Another difficulty is that I’m not familiar with any of the work Wood cites. Unlike most writers, Wood only engages with Marxists, with the exception of Karl Polanyi, whose work she mentions briefly.

But mostly it was difficult because it is a criticism of capitalism from outside capitalism. All of the other books I’ve discussed take capitalism as a given, and do not even offer much of a definition. At most, they criticize it from inside the bounds of capitalism. This orientation makes it very difficult for those of us raised to believe that the only option to capitalism was pure evil.

I mention these difficulties because I think this perspective is worth the difficulties of learning a new set of ideas. Even if some of the book is jargon, the value is there, and it’s worth wading through.

I did not write about Chapters 5, 8, or 9. Chapter 5 focuses on Wood’s view of Weber. The latter two chapters concern the social issues on which the left was focused during the late ’80s and early 90s. Wood argues that these issues are important, but that they were diverting leftists from the economic issues that have always been at the center of left theory. Maybe progressives are relearning the political reality that food and shelter are at the forefront of the lives of almost everyone. I generally agree with that view and have written about it repeatedly.

In my introduction, I mentioned a post by Eric Levitz, a writer at New York Magazine. I hope people will take the time to read this excellent discussion of relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the article by Jedidiah Purdy linked in it. As I have said throughout this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to see the problems capitalism creates, and I think these two pieces illustrate that nicely.

1. Introduction To New Series.

2. Competing Stories About Wages.

3. The Separation Of Politics And Economics.

4. Capital In A Fiat Money World.

5. Base, Superstructure and More Definitions.

6. Neoliberalism.

7. Class.

8. Notes On Class.

9. Markets.

10. Democracy.

11. Liberalism.

Conclusion, Part 1 on Capitalism

12. Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1.

13 Democracy Against CApitalism: Conclusion Part 2.


Democracy Against Capitalism: Liberalism

In Chapter 7 of Democracy against Capitalism Ellen Meiksins Wood sets out an historical analysis of the politics of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, starting with England. In Wood’s telling, two of the major steps along the way were Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Both events temporarily settled the relations between the nobility and centralizing state in the person of the monarch. Neither event had anything to do with the establishment of democracy in the sense of rule by the people. The settlements assume the continued servility of the masses, and continued domination by the aristocracy. The power of the nobility was based on their economic domination through non-economic means, military, juridical, and ideological, and on control over the power of the nascent state.

As feudalism morphed into capitalism, domination was split between two forces, the centralizing state and increasing economic power, mostly held by the aristocracy and by the rising merchant class. The latter were threatened by growing centralized power, and reacted to it by working to increase the power of the Parliament which they controlled. Capitalism helped make this possible because the economically dominant class was able to extract surplus from the productive sector through economic power, only somewhat aided by the power of the state.

Liberalism became the dominant ideology among the dominant economic class. This use of the term “liberal” has a specific meaning: it refers to a set of values including limited government, constitutionalism, individual rights and civil liberties. Kindle Loc. 4499. The pre-condition for this kind of liberalism is the existence of a centralized state, one that has to be limited by these ideological constructs. Kindle Loc. 4502.

The dominant classes were willing to extend civil protections from the central state to the multitudes. What they were not willing to do was to allow any intrusion on their rights of property. That led to a search for legal and constitutional protections of their property rights. Capitalism provided the economic framework for this project. Citizenship relates to the State, and a growing right to select representatives to govern. Citizenship is irrelevant to the economy, where the economically dominant class controls everything. Legal and ideological structures protect that division.

Wood looks at US history, and sees a somewhat similar process. In the US, a limited form of democracy existed in the States at the time the Constitution was written, and the Founding Fathers could not displace it. Still, the same solution emerged. The Constitution protects property interests. Theoretically, all citizens share in that protection of property, but the emphasis is on political freedoms, the liberal freedoms of individual rights and civil liberties, and limited government. The principle limit on government was to prevent it from imposing restrictions on the free use of property. The dominant class, first merchants, then industrialists, and then financiers, controls the economy.

The idea was that all citizens would be represented by their elected officials. Wood says that the representatives are removed from the people at large, both spatially in the sense that the central government was isolated; and in the sense that the representatives are few in number compared to the number of citizens.

In ‘representative democracy’ rule by the people remained the principal criterion of democracy, even if rule was filtered through representation tinged with oligarchy, and the peoplel was evacuated of its social content. Kindle Loc. 4436; ital. in orig.

The term “social content” means the natural social context in which people live, relations of home, work, church, community. This idea of representation is natural according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 35, quoted by Wood

The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by people of each class, is altogether visionary…. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades…. they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by merchants than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless…. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community. Kindle Loc. 4240.

These words could have come from Plato, substituting a different elite for merchants, or from any other elitist theorist. This obviously is not rule by the people, as in the original meaning of democracy. As I type this, we can see our elitists in action, busily confirming a known liar and a sexual creep to join four other conservative hacks on SCOTUS, where they will decide just how much majority rule we are allowed.

The political sphere is the home of limited government, the home of civil liberties, the home of individual rights. That sphere is separate from the economic sphere, which is put into the hands of the oligarchs, the rich, and their minions. The economic sphere is the area that provides us with the means to live, mostly by selling our labor. The idea is that the political sphere is not supposed to interfere with the economic sphere, insuring that every part of our productive lives are at the disposal of the rich, including our ability to provide our families and ourselves with food and shelter.

Wood sees liberalism as “democracy tinged with oligarchy”. As I explain in this 2013 post at Naked Capitalism, we live in an oligarchy inside a democracy. This and similar posts at FDL are based on Oligarchy in the United States? by Benjamin Page and Jeffrey Winters and on Winters’ book Oligarchy. They argue that Oligarchs share three interests:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

Oligarchs differ on what we call social issues (the carceral state, abortion, gay rights, guns and so on), which in Wood’s telling are the domain of the political sphere. Consequently some legislation on those issues is possible. Their views on economic issues are almost identical. A threat to one rich person is a threat to all. Therefore they unite on economic issues and generally prevail when legislation or regulation threatens any of them. Or when they really want a SCOTUS nominee to be confirmed.

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