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Dewey’s Aspirational View of Democracy

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In the last post we looked at John Dewey’s view of democracy based on The Public And Its Problems, which I called a functional view. He explains the minimum requirements for maintaining a democratic form of government. The text for this post is The Ethics of Democracy, published in 1888, when Dewey was 29 and a professor at the University of Michigan. It offers the uplifting vision of democracy that was missing in the prior post. [1]

This is a philosophy paper. I take it to be a statement of the ideal, grounded in the reality Dewey sees, but laying out his hopes for the future if we pursue this ideal. It’s aspirational, not descriptive.

Dewey doesn’t assert that there a foundational principle from which he can reason his way to his views. His argument responds to the ideas of other writers, using them as a way of demonstrating his own thinking. Dewey takes up the ideas of Sir Henry Maines in his book Popular Government, and Plato’s Republic. Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers took as the highest virtue is excellence, arete, in action and contemplation. I think it helps to keep this in mind as we examine this work.

Maine was a British jurist. Dewey reads his book to say that democracy is fragile, accidental, and bound to failure. Dewey quotes Maine saying democracy will end “… in producing monstrous and morbid forms of monarchy and aristocracy.” In short Maine writes a defense of rule by an aristocracy of the best people, which I assume he derives from Plato’s Republic. Maine says democracy is the rule of the many, by which he means a quantitative, numerical form of government derived from the votes of a horde of isolated atomized individuals, all acting solely in their own interest. Dewey says that for Maine, “Democracy is othing but a numerical aggregate, a conglomeration of units.”

Dewey compares society to an organism whose existence emerges from the actions of the people who make it up. Society exists only through the actions of its members, and we only know society by looking at the actions of the members. The success of the society depends on the success of the individuals and vice versa. Dewey claims that this view arises from the Republic.

Dewey thinks that our actions are mediated by our socialization (my word), so that in acting we are not isolated atoms. Instead, each of us is different way of expressing that socialization, and thus part of the group. Dewey thinks that the will of society is expressed in this way, through the combined acts of members. The will of society gains some expression through the functional definition of democracy as selecting and overseeing our officials.

The key point of the paper for me is Dewey’s explanation of the value of democracy, the ethical justification for it. [2] In the first part of the paper, Dewey compares and contrasts aristocracy and democracy, as if they were merely two possible forms of government.

Democracy, like any other polity, has been finely termed the memory of a historic past, the consciousness of a living present, the ideal of the coming future. Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.

Dewey says that aristocracy can make the same claims. But appointing the best and wisest doesn’t work. They become corrupt, or lose sight of the needs and desires of the majority. Every movement to greater democracy increases the number and diversity of the people who operate as the government and who oversee that operation.

Every forward democratic movement is followed by the broadening of the circle of the state, and by more effective oversight that every citizen may be insured the rights belonging to him. P. 21.

The aristocratic ideal is that the wisest force people into the spheres in which they can best serve the state. Dewey is appalled by the idea that the individuals in a society can be pushed around by anyone, let alone a group identifying itself as the best and wisest. He doesn’t say it, but the idea that the wisest know the needs of society is absurdly hubristic. In a democracy, people find their own way into what Dewey calls “their proper positions in the social organism.” P. 21. They take up roles in which they can best carry out the goals of society. They do this as individual persons, each with their own set of attributes.

There is an individualism in democracy which there is not in aristocracy; but it is an ethical, not a numerical individualism; it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. P. 23.

I think we would use personhood instead of personality. I think this means that the full flowering of the individual, with all the influence of society, is the driving force of democracy. It is from this personhood, this ethical individual, that other aspects of democracy emerge: including liberty, equality and fraternity. Dewey gives illustrations of the first two.

Liberty in the dominant view means the freedom to do as one chooses, without regard to any other concern. In this view, the law is meant to punish actions that society deems unacceptable.

Dewey rejects this view. Society creates law, using that term in a broad way to cover statutes and formal rules of the state, moral and cultural demands and taboos, and informal rules of behavior. The law of a society represents its will at any time. The personhood of each individual is formed under the influence of this law. Today we would say that each individual internalizes the law. Thus the exercise of liberty by an individual is controlled by the law as instantiated in that individual. [3]

In this way, liberty is self-restricted, but at the same time, the individual is free to explore the limits imposed by the law, and to seek changes. The individual is required to follow the formal laws and rules, but is free to flout the moral and cultural demands and taboos, and the informal rules, subject, of course, to social sanctions, like shunning and shaming. At bottom, in a democracy, the law is not imposed by an external force. It is shaped by individuals as one of their social roles, and internalized. It’s function is to channel the exercise of liberty.

Turning to equality, the vulgar meaning is numerical equality, equal portions of each desirable good. Dewey says that in a democracy equality has an ethical meaning. It begins with the view that each individual person is equivalent in moral worth to every other individual.

Wherever you have a man, there you have personality, and there is no trace by which one personality may be distinguished from another so as to be set above or below. It means that in every individual there lives an infinite and universal possibility; … . P. 25.

This is the beauty of democracy: every person has the opportunity to become all that they can be, and those possibilities are unlimited. [4]

Discussion

This is a strikingly contemporary vision of democracy. Dewey lays out a set of values associated with democracy that resonate with my own. I wonder how many Republican legislators would support Dewey’s understanding of democracy.
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[1]The views in this paper did not change throughout his life.

At the core of his political thinking are the beliefs that science and democracy are mutually supportive and interdependent enterprises, that they are egalitarian, progressive and rest on habits of open social communication, and that powerful interpretations of liberal individualism and democracy have become ossified and self-defeating.

[2] See pages 19-24. I’m skipping a large part of this paper, There is a lot of it that is obscure. Some of the reasoning feels dated to me. I’m not familiar with the writings of some of the people he quotes. None of that detracts from my admiration for his overall conclusions.

[3] See page 23. I think I have summarized it correctly, but the language is obscure. Comments are welcome.

[4] This conception comports with the views of Elizabeth Anderson, which I discuss in this series. Anderson identifies as a follower of Dewey and a Pragmatist.

Failing At Democracy

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One of the reasons I read old books is that they help me understand the chaotic events of our current times. In The Public And Its Problems, John Dewey lays out a theory of the democratic state, and as we shall see, we are doing badly at it.

Recall that the public is a group of people who have common interests that need to be addressed, usually arising from the actions of other people. The public empowers certain of its members with the task of representing and protecting those interests. We call the aggregate of those people the state. [1]

The origins of the state.

This description implicitly separates “the state” from specific forms of government. Any reasonably large group of people has some form of government, and the bigger the group the more complex the government. In order for there to be a state, there must be a public.

It may be said that not until recently have publics been conscious that they were publics, so that it is absurd to speak of their organizing themselves to protect and secure their interests. Hence states are a recent development. Chapter 3, The Democratic State, p. 116.

One way to think about this is that the modern self-aware public evolved from prior traditional societies. The serfs in a feudal society generally do not see themselves as participants in government, but as fulfilling pre-ordained social roles.

What is a Democratic State?

Dewey likes this definition:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s not a soaring aspiration. It’s a functional description of what has to be done. The democratic state needs two things: 1) a system for the public to select its officials; and 2) a system for regulating the conduct of officials.

Selection of officials.

In the US, we elect a small group of officials, and they in turn select others for subsidiary roles. The public, all of us, are responsible for selecting officials who will represent our interests in conflicts with individuals or groups of people, as corporations and militias. The public may fail at its task by selecting people who use their position to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the public or otherwise. Dewey says the crucial step is the selection of the right people. [2]

Regulating the Conduct of Officials.

The US Constitution provides two methods for regulating officials. These are impeachment, in the case of the executive and judicial branches, and expulsion, for the legislative branch. These are supplemented by rules that allow for sanctions short of removal, such as censure, and formal means for investigation through committees. There are statutes and formal regulations that constrain conduct of other officials, and many informal rules, now called norms. These laws and rules provide for sanctions.

The evolution of political democracy.

Political democratic states in Western Europe and North America evolved from older forms of government as the result of many small non-political developments. Dewey emphatically denies that these changes were driven by some overarching cause, such as an innate desire for democracy, or by dramatic changes in philosophical theories.

But theories of the nature of the individual and his rights, of freedom and authority, progress and order, liberty and law, of the common good and a general will, of democracy itself, did not produce the movement. They reflected it in thought; after they emerged, they entered into subsequent strivings and had practical effect. P. 123.

As an example, the ideas of John Locke were one of the theoretical sources for the Founding Fathers. His ideas are grounded in the rising economics of mercantilism, the attenuation of religious hegemony, and rising scientific understanding. He seems to be arguing against earlier thinkers grounded in earlier social, cultural, and intellectual structures. [3] Democracy was not the driving force of any of these changes. It emerged as a solution to the societal problems these non-political changes created.

Dewey doesn’t try to explain the entire evolution. He points to just two factors. First, the changes that led to democracy were driven by a fear of government and a desire to keep it to a minimum. This seems like a plausible reaction to an all-powerful monarchy, as existed in England and France, for example. Earlier governments were tied into other institutions, like the Church, and these too were feared or loathed. These institutions came to be seen as oppressive, not to groups of people but to individuals. There was already a growing tendency to think of the individual as the atomic unit. [4[ For Dewey, individualism was the result. [5]

The second important factor is the rise of science and technology. Over time it created changes in the nature of productive work and increased the range of consumer goods. People of all classes wanted more. The old rules became obstacles, and people began to question these rules and the system that produced them.

The old conception of Natural Law as the source of morality merged with the new idea that laissez-faire economics was a natural law in a synthesis that opposed artificial political laws. This led to the conclusion that government interference in property was bad, if not a moral evil, and the role of government should be little more than to protect property rights and personal integrity.

This is an overly simplified history, even more simplified by me, but it gives an idea of the genesis democracy as Dewey defines it. It leads to the conclusion that government officials are likely to be bad, so we should have short terms and serious control.

Problems arising from large organizations.

In earlier times, people’s primary relationships were face-to-face, family, friends, co-workers, church members, local people. The government was hardly relevant in day-to-day life. Its primary impact was taxes, the occasional war, and a few laws. By the time Dewey is writing, the primary relationships were impersonal, the individual was facing large corporate organizations in many aspects of life, including productive work. The state acted directly acted on individuals, touching their lives in many ways.

Group, or conjoint, action through business entities rivals the government in impact on individuals. Businesses “reach out to grasp the agencies of government;” not out of evil intent necessarily, but because they are the best organized groups of people. Even so, the power of these organizations has been controlled and directed by the state to some extent, and more is possible.

Discussion.

The second impeachment of Trump shows us that as a nation we have done badly at democracy. We elected unfit officials, people who are stupid, venal, conspiracy-ridden, power-maddened or a combination. Unfit legislators have for decades let the executive branch do monstrous things and refused to hold any of them accountable. The unfit people who staff our courts at all levels, but especially the unconstrained ideologues of SCOTUS have stymied legislative power, and have limited accountability of government and business elites with their pronouncements. Prosecutors are at fault as well, because they refuse even to investigate powerful private entities and their executives.

We fail democracy if we do not carry out our responsibility to regulate the conduct of our officials, and continue to select unfit people as our officials.

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[1] I discuss these matter in detail in earlier posts, especially … and ….

[2] Dewey discusses different ways in which leaders were selected in earlier times, which I skip. It’s worth noting that we still elect people who met those irrelevant criteria: military and religious leaders, children of officials, charismatic people, and old white men. Pp. 117-9.

[3] I agree with Dewey about this, but it’s very far afield.

[4] Think of Descartes, sunk in self-contemplation. We also see it in Locke.

[5] Individualism lies at the heart of social contract theory and neoliberalism. Dewey rejects social contract theory.

We’re So Not Through Here

This is emptywheel, where we have frequently posted work contrary to conventional wisdom, or dissented from political leadership with indifference to party.

Each contributor here has their own voice though we’re sometimes confused for each other.

Today is one of those days when you will see a wide gap between emptywheel contributors.

Specifically, I do not personally subscribe at all to Quinn Norton’s belief that the Union is done.

I have written before, however, on numerous occasions, that the United States has not lived up to its ideals.

The concept of this union was flawed from the beginning, having launched as it did with a concession to slaveowners. That original sin dogs this nation to this day; slavery still exists in the form of a carceral state which is heavily weighted against minorities.

The concept of this union was also predicated upon the occupation of lands belonging to pre-existing nations. I’m a product of one of those occupied nations, whose people were nearly wiped out by disease and greed white American occupiers brought to their land.

But I am also an example of what happens when disparate people come together under a singular proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”

I am the product of people from Nordic and middle European countries, the product of trips around the Pacific and East Asia. All my forebears came here because they perceived a freedom to pursue lives and opportunity they did not have in their home nation-states.

They found an appeal in this premise worth risking their persons as well as their fortune, meager as it was: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

My forebears stayed in spite of being erased in a number of ways — like the records of my French-Canadian family members’ existence in Michigan being repeatedly obscured or deleted by majority English- and German-speaking occupants, or my Asian family losing its true name when recorded by customs, and then stranded by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or my Hawaiian family losing the right to its own land because whites deposed its monarchy and seized the islands, in addition to spreading deadly disease.

In spite of being marginalized then and now, my forebears and family made a comfortable life and felt it was their honor, privilege, and duty to contribute to these United States. Among my family members is a Medal of Honor winner — a second generation American who served in the Navy until he retired. My father and brother both served in the armed forces as well.

This isn’t an easy country. If you don’t speak English and especially if you’re not white, it can really demand a steep price. Try taking the citizenship test.

Witness the harassment Ilhan Omar has faced for her race, ethnic heritage, and religion, in spite of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, yet she continues to serve her constituents as their representatives in our democratic republic system of government.

It’s because of the price many Americans have faced to become and remain Americans that I’m put out at Norton’s “the Union is done” essay.

I don’t think she truly has a clue what it’s taken for a sizable percentage of this country to hold this union together, such as it is. She may have faced misogyny but really, in which countries does misogyny not exist?

She can play with sentiment and co-opt others’ pain in her argument that the Union is done, but she hasn’t faced the existential threat one’s skin can pose in a land founded by slaveowners and their sympathizers.

She has the unacknowledged privilege of associating with people who’d rather see people like my family dead, and yet she thinks she can declare “the Union is done.”

Take a hard look at what the Black Americans of this country have been doing since voting began last month as a commitment to form a more perfect Union. Ask them if the Union is done.

Take a hard look at what Native Americans have had to do — forced to change their lifestyle, assigning addresses to places which to them are simply Home — in order to vote, otherwise invalidated and erased if they don’t. Ask them, too, if the Union is done.

And take note of the naturalized immigrants who are worried they and their kin will be harassed by ICE and potentially incarcerated or deported while trying to vote simply because they aren’t white and have come to this country too recently. Ask them if the Union to which they emigrated, many as refugees, is done.

My Chinese family members weren’t permitted to emigrate here or own land until 1943, when it suddenly became convenient to have China side with the U.S. against Japan. I tell you this Union is not done, from the house I own under a hyphenated Chinese name.

I’ve pointed to the words of former escaped slave Frederick Douglass before, with regard to the shortcomings of this nation:

… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. …

The work is slow, so often grinding. It is like farming on a’a and pahoehoe lava, which my family knows well. The biases which are foundational to the problems this country faces are older than this country. We are kidding ourselves if they won’t take at least a half-life to fully end, during which time the demographics of this country will force change. Look at what has transpired, the push and pull in the dozen-plus years this site has tackled the nature of security in an open society.

But this union is by no means done and over. It’s there in the lines we have seen in the streets for weeks, snaking out the doors of polling places across this country. It’s in the cars lined up in a drive-through campaign rally, queued hopefully, trustingly in a drive-through foodbank.

It was there in the streets after George Floyd was murdered.

From goose quill pen’s first ink on parchment 244 years ago, this union has always been aspirational, a nation in a state of becoming, a people who must occasionally check themselves and listen to their better angels.

From the speech before a battlefield of nearly 50,000 American dead 157 years ago, we re-consecrated ourselves,

that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The union is not over. The dream still lives, its work goes on; we will not yield.

It’s simply time once again to rededicate ourselves to forming a more perfect union.

We can begin this day of all days by exercising and protecting our right to vote.

What Comes After America

Whatever happens today, the Union is done.

It has been for a long time, maybe even from the start. But we have reached the point where the longer it goes on, the more harm it will inexorably do. It’s time, past time, to admit it didn’t work, it never worked, and that the Constitution and its institutions have ossified. There is no reforming the United States of America, there is no more perfect union to chase after. That turned out to be a lie — a lie woven into the legal fabric of this nation-state from the start. The United States of America, as defined by its constitution, can only get worse because of how irreparably broken both that document and the system it created are. This isn’t a Trump or GOP thing. They are symptoms, but they are only symptoms. As angry as you may be at Trump, voting him out, driving him from the country, jailing him, whatever, none of that will fix the great flaw that created his presidency. It does no more than shoe a fly away from an open wound and call it fixed.

The flaw is our Constitution. As there is no politically possible path to rewriting the it, the Constitution can only fall further into entropy and catastrophe.

The longer this goes on, the worse the end will be. This is why it’s the duty of people who are in and of, or love, America the culture, Americans the people, the land it spans and the diversity it holds, to imagine what comes next and the easiest way to get there. We’ve been running what was essentially the broken beta of the first representative democracy for almost 250 years, and it was built to not be upgradable. It doesn’t work right, it never did, and it is awful. It was a compromise of rich and frightened men whose imaginations (understandably) didn’t reach far beyond the 18th century.

The nightmares we live with, and their disconnect from the values we hold now are impossible to count. I was researching children in ICE detention living in cages, and their families being held in unsafe conditions and coerced into forced labor — back in the Obama days. The exploitation of forms of unfree labor continues to this day, as does the rise of oligarchy and political corruption.

Police have killed almost 900 people this year, despite a mismanaged pandemic presumably making it somewhat harder. The Flint water crisis is six years old this year, and still going. One person has been found guilty and sentenced to probation. I could go on, but you know this song: opioid crisis, inequality, lobbying, campaign finance, the two party system, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and of course, the damn virus. And still, all these problems are just symptoms of a deeper disease, a broken political basis for our society. Our laws have lead to an irreparable failure of the American system when it comes to the basic task of keeping the people who constitute it alive and functional and with some kind of path to a sustainable, if not improving, existence. Medical care, housing, and education are all contingent. These are the most fundamental parts of having this thing called government and ours failed these tasks aggressively, despite the brilliance and determination of even its most oppressed people pushing forward our culture to greater things.

It’s impossible to change any of this at a fundamental level, because it is impossible to re-write or even amend the superstructure of our laws and our government. Even if the GOP lost everything, and the Democrats suddenly became a party of reform (which they won’t), nothing could meet the global problems we face because the judiciary will destroy efforts to reform and remake ourselves at every turn. But even before we get to the problem of the judiciary, the two party system is disconnected from the world as it is now: facing the end of the Holocene and with that, a planet that is gentle to humans. What was the most democratic system of the 18th century is a travesty of permitted corruption, unrepresentative elites, and openly bought-and-paid-for influence. It’s over, it’s done, it’s time to let it go before it kills us all.

The successes of America, and there have been many, came not because of our form of governance but despite it. The culture – for good and ill – isn’t the constitution or the legal regime or the nation-state as recognized by other nation-states. It’s the people. It’s what we choose, believe, and imagine. Right now we choose to be constrained by a document that has manifestly failed us.

And yes, there have been efforts at positive movement using our constitutional framework, like the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. But they have been undermined and destroyed almost at birth by the perniciousness of the very flaws amendments were meant to fix. And thusly, because of the 14th, we live in a world were Exxon holds the rights meant for black folk who still struggle to vote.

After spending much of my adult life feeling alone in my views, it has surprised me how many people have said to me over the last years, and especially this year, that there’s no redeeming this union, that it’s not worth preserving. But this is not an ending thought that drops into a void.

The end of the Union isn’t a hopeless position, but the only hopeful one we have. The alternative isn’t chaos and dystopia, just as the alternative to monarchy in the 17th and 18th century wasn’t chaos and dystopia. It was us.

Right now is when we start imagining and working on the most peaceful and productive transition to a post-USian world we can manage. That may seem impossible, but that’s also what we thought about the Soviet Union in 1987. It’s what we thought about the end of European hegemony at the end of the colonial ages. It’s what we thought right before parliamentary reform swept Europe after 1848. Right now we’re settling for Churchill‘s worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…, in this world of sin and woe. Why does humanity think it needs to stop there? We invented everything we have now politically, technologically, culturally, and in ways of coordinating and governing.

Why on earth are so many people convinced that we don’t have anything more to invent?

The founders imagined a new thing, but they chickened out and didn’t do it. They half-assed it, retreated from their own notions. When they were done with the thing, it was born almost a ghost and tied down to the old hierarchies. The framers of the constitution were afraid of their own notions of self-determination and equality. They pulled back and tried to not make it too democratic a nation for three million people, and now it fails more than three hundred million. In fact, it fails more than seven billion.

In 2020, this structure has been constraining the political imagination for centuries, stunting our growth, and stunting the world.

My allegiance is not to America, and it hasn’t been for many years. My allegiance is to my family — my family of all the strange living things, unique in a seemingly endless void of rock and chemistry filling the universe, but not life, not as far as we know. I do love America — the land, the people, the crazy, loud, funny and emotional culture. I will always love America, but like all real love, it will be complicated. I don’t have to love its flaws, its racism, its cowardly cruelty, or its legal institutions in order to love its soul.

My allegiance isn’t to a bastard compromise of frightened men in 1776, or 1648, or even 1555. It’s to the world now, in 2020. Those men are long dead, and they do not get to describe the limits of political imagination in the 21st century. But right now, we are trapped in the infinitesimal space these old men described for us, surrounded on all sides by the high cliffs of doubt and familiarity. We need to succeed where they failed — humanity is counting on it.

I know it’s unthinkable that any of this could change, just as it was unthinkable that Rome could fall, that Carthage would be wiped from the map, that the Russian Empire could cease to be, that the Dynasties of China would come to an end, that the Toltecs would collapse, that the eternal Pharaohs of Egypt would pass from the world, and any more of the dozens of political systems that have come and gone. We are still here, waiting on something worthy of our brilliance and creativity.

One of our greatest poets, a man treated like shit for the color of his skin, wrote

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

If you want to call that thing Hughes sang for America, sure, why not. But don’t mistake it for the quicksand of desires we inhabit now. Don’t mistake it for this most failed of hoped-for states. Don’t even mistake it for a Westphalian state.

It all stops the day we decide it stops. None of these documents, forms, systems, or laws have any existence beyond our imaginations, and they never did. It is 2020, and we face a pandemic (with undoubtedly more to come), the end of our own Holocene, environmental destruction, and the task of meeting the needs of eight billion people in this world. It’s time to abandon the best systems men could think of in the late 1700s and figure out one that works now. We could even lead the world in figuring out what comes after the Westphalian nation-state, hopefully before that legal and cultural construct kills us all.

This too shall pass. How it passes, whether it’s the end of the world, or the birth of a better one, is up to our imaginations, which we need to put to work in a hurry.

And so, on this most strange of days, I put the question to you – What comes after America?

A Primer On Pragmatism: Applications

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

This introduction to pragmatism was motivated in part by the fact that the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson identifies herself as in the pragmatist tradition, but there are other reasons. Our political environment is toxic. It’s hard to maintain our sense of self, of our values, our hopes, and our sense of security. Philosophy offers us reminders of the existence of our values, and the role they play in holding us together as individuals and in our relations with others. It takes us away from the noise and the turmoil and puts us in a quiet atmosphere where we can nurse our wholeness. It can provide us with armor against the forces that are ripping at us.

With that in mind, I’ll close with a brief discussion of democracy and Modern Money Theory. Both begin with the key idea of pragmatism, that all our ideas, no matter how old, were formed for human reasons, and to meet human needs. All of them, no matter how old, are subject to rethinking in light of new conditions.

Democracy

Pragmatism is particularly well-suited to democracy. The most striking justification for democracy is found in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I’m not so sure these truths are self-evident. Prior to that time, the dominant view was that some people are born to lead, and others are only fit to follow. As Peirce and James point out, philosophical systems then were grounded in the idea that there is a universal truth outside human experience, but one that the best of us can comprehend somehow. Those lucky people can construct a social system that accords with the will of the universe, or the Almighty. Many of them argued for centuries that the King ruled with the blessing of the Almighty, and everyone else was inferior, fit only to follow.

At the time Jefferson wrote, the French and the English were directly contesting the divine right of kings, and there was discontent with the idea of hereditary authority. But the US was the first country to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s formulation as a founding idea. It’s a revolutionary statement, and one we are still trying to reify, not just in our government but in our social lives, our work, and other institutions.

The Declaration was a break with what seemed like a firts principle. And that is fundamentally a pragmatist act: rejecting a first principle because it isn’t working to create the kind of lives people wanted. Jefferson’s formulation wasn’t totally original. It derives from prior thinkers, but instead of laying out a rule, it articulates a value, a value that should guide our efforts to create a decent society. The system of government created by the Constitution was supposed to be one that would enable the creation of a new kind of society, one informed not by rules thought to be eternal, but by values that are thought to be best for human beings.

There have always been people insisting that there are eternal rules, and that deviation from those rules would bring disaster. They settle all doubt by tenacity, as Peirce would say.

Pragmatists say that we have to justify our choices on the basis of what works. But the first step is to decide what our priorities are. We do that by defining our values and our goals, and then by working out the best way to reach them. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness my not be the best goals for today, but they’re a start. Our task is to decide what that means in today’s society. Anderson says we don’t want to be humiliated or dominated. That’s a good way of talking about what liberty and the pursuit of happiness might mean today. We won’t the answers by looking outside our human experience.

Modern Money Theory

Much of neoclassical economics is grounded in normative concepts. One of these is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, discussed in §2.1 of this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The economist and mathemetician William Stanley Jevons used this normative concept to create the economic idea of marginal utility, one of the foundations of neoclassical economics. See pp 9-10 here.

Utilitarianism is a normative idea. This is from the Stanford link:

… [Bentham] promulgated the principle of utility as the standard of right action on the part of governments and individuals. Actions are approved when they are such as to promote happiness, or pleasure, and disapproved of when they have a tendency to cause unhappiness, or pain. Combine this criterion of rightness with a view that we should be actively trying to promote overall happiness, and one has a serious incompatibility with psychological egoism. Cites omitted.

Jevons explicitly sets out to mathematize Bentham’s utilitarianism. Marginal utility is therefore grounded in a normative idea. It incorporates a specific value, but the value is hidden and ignored when it comes to putting marginal utility into practice. It is only loosely, if at all, based on practical experience of human behavior. Nevertheless, it is the foundation of large parts of neoclassical economics and of its modern version, neoliberalism.

Pragmatism rejects the idea of starting from normative theories. I don’t know how to deal with marginal utility from a pragmatic point of view, so I turn to another fundamental idea of economics, the creation of money. As best I can tell, mainstream economists say that banks create money. There’s a story about bank multipliers you can google. Governments get money by taxation or borrowing. In this story, the private sector is responsible for money creation subject only to some loose guidance from the Federal Reserve Board. This protects us by making sure Congress can’t ruin the financial sector with profligate spending and borrowing which would automatically happen, and which would be an inflationary disaster.

Modern Money Theory starts with a question: how is money created? It looks at the things that are done as a result of which there is money. Governments create money by spending it. They reduce the amount of money by taxation. They may or may not issue bonds. MMT is based on observable facts. The description of the creation of money leads to other testable ideas and to a completely different concept of the role of government in money creation and society.

Money creation is a governmental action, and thus is subject to politics. Congress decides how much money is created, and how the new money is used. The old story tries to deny this reality with cloudy abstractions and claims that it’s all the working of some invisible hand. Pragmatists don’t believe in invisible hands. They say that politics is the arena in which we decide about how to use the power to create money.

MMT isn’t just for progressives. Deficit hawks and small government supporters get to argue their opinions, and to assert their values. This is a quote from Modern Money Theory by Randy Wray:

However, I also believe that most of the tenets of MMT can be adopted by anyone. It does not bother me if some simply want to use the descriptive part of MMT without agreeing with the policy prescriptions. The description provides a framework for policymaking. But there is room for disagreement over what government should do. Once we understand that affordability is not an issue for a sovereign currency-issuing government, then questions about what government should do become paramount. And we can disagree on those. (Emphasis in original.)

The fact that MMT is value-neutral, that it can be used by people of every political persuasion is a powerful point in its favor. I don’t think we can say the same thing about neoliberalism.

Conclusion

There is much more to be said about pragmatism. It is a powerful tool we can use to cut through old ideas and useless distinctions. But perhaps its most important contribution is that it is an open-ended theory. It makes room for the endless possibilities of human beings. I think that is a powerful value.

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: More Democracy

Posts in this series.

The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination of Capital

Part 1 on Labor

The Politics of the Green New Deal: Part 2 on Capital

The Politics of The Green New Deal: The Opposition Of The Rich

The Green New Deal: OMG It’s Socialism!

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: We Can’t Pay For That

The Green New Deal restructures democracy in ways that benefit the working class at the expense of the donor class. The donor class gets its way most of the time, Here’s a recent discussion from Eric Levitz at tNew York Magazine. Levitz takes the Gilens and Page study farther, showing policies that are popular with majorities or large pluralities are not even considered by politicians. One example:

Take government drugs (…please): DFP and YouGov asked voters, “Would you support or oppose having the government produce generic versions of life-saving drugs, even if it required revoking patents held by pharmaceutical companies?”

Respondents approved of that idea by a margin of 51 to 21 percent. The proposal enjoyed the approval of a majority of Trump voters, and actually garnered more support in (stereotypically conservative) rural zip codes than in urban ones.

One of the drugs that meet this test is insulin; here’s a good description of the problem. In December 2018 Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky offered the Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act, which would put the government in the business of manufacturing generics to reduce prices. And here’s a predictable response, it’s evil socialism. Bills like this are not part of the discussion.

History tells us that capitalists will dominate the nation’s response to climate change, as they have in every economic disruption. The Green New Deal works against that outcome. Section 3 says

a Green New Deal must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses;

At present, the first three groups are rarely heard in legislative and policy circles, and civil society groups and academics are barely heard and pretty much ignored. This section alone will expand democracy. These unheard groups are nearly powerless, and other provisions of the Green New Deal are intended to strengthen these groups and increase their voice in the process of coping with efforts to salvage something from climate change. For example, Section 4.3 requires the government to

Provid[e] resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization;

Section 4.6 requires

ensuring the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level;

Labor unions have played a strong role in protecting the interests of workers. Section 4.9 calls for strengthening labor unions and making it easier for workers to organize. Section 4.11 requires that trade agreements protect the interests of workers. Section 4.10 calls for

strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors;

There is a connection between deeper involvement in strictly political matters and stronger unions. People start by participating in political decision-making, and learn that they can have actual control over public expenditures and policies. Then they apply that to their participation in union activities, and soon learn that they can have a say in the conditions that affect them for the largest part of their working day. They can change the conditions of work including safety, their schedules, and eventually they realize they don’t have to wear diapers to deal with lack of bathroom breaks, or suffer other abusive practices. Equally important for success in fighting climate change, working people often understand their jobs better than management. They can work smarter if they have enough power to make it happen. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned practicing Bankruptcy law is that no business ever failed because of its workers.

It works the other way, too. Participation in unions leads to more involvement in politics, and a clearer understanding of the issues. Unions have played a large role in Democratic politics, but the politicians have not done anything to protect unions and their interests. Stronger unions won’t accept their disregard.

Our lives seem different under this administration. The constant ratatat of garbage news from Trump’s brain and his erratic behavior swamp our news and our entertainment. At a personal level, the nonsense has dominated every dinner party I have hosted or attended since he got elected, leaving us struggling to change the subject or plunging us into a miasma of anger and despair. It took an out-of-town guest with a background in medieval history to break that chain, and remind me that politics has infected my life and that of my friends and family. The current level of democracy leaves us impotent. We can’t stop the damage, we can’t slow it down, and we can’t fix the real problems. We are powerless.

This in turn reinforced my reasons for thinking that the Green New Deal is vitally important. If it happens we open new channels for participation in the decisions that affect our day-to-day lives. Right now, Democratic politicians and their consultants and their rich donors tell us to work on their political campaigns, but not to upset them with primaries, not to establish purity tests, and most important not to demand radical change. Change is coming, they tell us, but just a little at a time and only if the Republicans won’t shout too loud.

My very first blog post at FireDogLake raised the question: what should Obama do for us? We supported him without making specific measurable demands. That’s not what the donor class did. But the Green New Deal is a demand from below. It’s a demand not just for climate action, but aspecific kind of action. It’s a demand for full participation by all of us in the decisions that affect our lives. It’s a statement that we aren’t going to allow the rich and their supporters to make the decisions and leave us to clean up the mess and eat the losses.

The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination Of Capital

The Green New Deal is an overarching statement of political goals for the Democratic Party, something the party has not had for decades. It lays out a vision of a future inspired by the best the party has to offer, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which he laid out in January 1941 as the US stared at the unfolding crisis in Europe. In this post I called for just such a statement, and this is everything I could have hoped for. It is a combination of Roosevelt’s unfinished goals and the massive work done by liberals to expand the reach of the Constitution to previously disfavored groups. It offers hope and possibility as we confront the crisis of environmental disaster.

It also offers a stunning contrast to the closed and frightened Republican/MAGA plutocratic vision for this nation. Their hounds immediately attacked the messenger, the message and anyone who might want to consider the message with their usual childish insults and trollish memes, their version of political discussion. A few conservatives recognize the seriousness of the problem of climate change, but have nothing to offer, as reported by Emily Atkin in The New Republic.

Here is the text of H.R. 109. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes and read it. The summaries I’ve seen are insufficient to convey the brilliance of the document.

The Green New Deal acknowledges that meeting the challenge of impending climate disaster will be enormously disruptive. It’s most important virtue is that it doesn’t assume that the entire burden of the disruption will be borne by working people. Instead, it insures that workers are protected from disruption, not with some phony job training program, but with real protection. Equally important, it insures that capital will not be able to grab vast profits or control adaptation for their cash benefit.

Capitalism has brought staggering social and environmental changes in this country. Frequently, the technology that has produced those changes was the product of government research and development. Capitalists imposed all the costs of those social and environmental changes on working people and the poor while sucking up all the benefits for themselves. You don’t see the rich living next door to petroleum processing plants or airports or gravel pits or trash dumps. You don’t see their kids suffering from asthma caused by factory pollution or heavy truck traffic or worse. You don’t see them unable to pay medical bills or take their kids for needed medical attention. That’s for the little people.

The Green New Deal says that’s over. When the price of natural gas dropped, capitalists stopped using coal, and coal miners lost their jobs, their insurance, their homes and their futures. Under the Green New Deal, when natural gas is phased out every displaced worker will have a job and health care, because the Green New Deal offers a job guarantee and insists on universal access to health care. Communities, especially marginalized people, will participate in decisions about location of new manufacturing facilities and other issues affecting them, and that participation will enable all of us to protect ourselves from the costs capitalists impose on us today.

The Green New Deal recognizes that a substantial research and development program will be needed to create new technology to meet its goals. That’s going to be funded by the government. But this time there is no free ride for the capitalists. Section 4.1 requires the government to provide and leverage

… in a way that ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization ….

The entire document is designed to rebalance power in deciding the future of the nation. It is explicitly small-d democratic. It explicitly favors the interests of the vast majority. It explicitly slashes the power of the rich to dictate what, if any, response will be made to the threat of climate change.

This rebalancing is a serious challenge not just to capital and the rich, it is a serious challenge to both parties. Democrats claim to be the party of the people. The Green New Deal forces them to prove it. The Republicans represent the interests of the rich against the interests of working people. The Green New Deal makes this contradiction concrete. Both parties claim to want the best for the future of the country. The Green New Deal forces them to come up with positive programs or to do nothing in the face of mounting inequality, a zero-sum political economy, and impending environmental catastrophe.

There’s an even more direct assault on the dominance of capital in the Green New Deal. It calls for decarbonization of the economy. That directly threatens the wealth and power of a number of rich people, for example, the Koch family, whose fortunes are grounded on petroleum. The value of their fortunes will fall as oil becomes a mere feedstock for chemical processing. So will the fortunes of others, Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, and African kleptocrats. The finances of a number of regimes of varying degrees of hostility to the US, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, the oil emirates, Iran, Iraq, and maybe ISIS. Their power will drop as the value of their natural resources falls. These are ruthless people with no interest in planetary survival. They will fight to the death to prevent the loss of power and wealth.

Meanwhile the media focuses on the horse-race and the cost. Can the Green New Deal pass? How could we ever pay for it? Every single article I’ve read makes a point of saying it’s politically impossible and almost all whine about the money. No one thinks the Senate with its piratical crew of Republican science deniers and Trumpists will ever pass it. And costs are not an issue until we agree to move it forward, and when it becomes real, brilliant economists like Stephanie Kelton will lead the way.

Right now every Democratic politicians opposed to the idea has to explain why their tweaks to neoliberal capitalism will accomplish something without crushing their voters. Republicans will continue to deny until the evidence overwhelms even their astonishing capacity for self-delusion. The rest of us have a planning document, something we can turn into legislation, something we can actually do that will make a difference. We’ll be working on it while the brain-dead bitch about the impertinence of the youngs, and politicians pour perfume on their campaign treasuries to hide the stench of raw petroleum.

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 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: 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.