Economics, Politics

The Tragedy of the Obama Administration

Free Photo: Damaged Buildings After a Storm

By 2014, it was already more than clear that the political rhetoric and neoliberal economic policy ideas of the Reagan Era were largely exhausted. But it was also clear that Obama’s presidency, despite his personal virtues and relatively progressive policy successes, was best understood as a continuation of Reagan’s political regime rather than a transformational movement beyond it. As I suggested at the time, many of Obama’s policies resembled those of a moderate Republican from the 1990s.

The tragedy of Obama’s presidency, in retrospect, was that he had prepared himself for a project of racial and cultural reconciliation that turned out to be politically impossible, while he had failed to work out in advance a set of bold, progressive, anti-oligarchic economic ideas that might actually have been, to some degree, politically feasible in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Whether the Reagan regime might have been brought to the beginning of an end in 2009, or whether right-wing media hostility, partisan tribalism, legislative gridlock, and the inevitable difficulties of economic recovery would have discredited a bolder economic program and simply resulted in Obama not being reelected, will never be known. What is clear is that the financial crisis of 2008, like any serious crisis, created political possibilities for departing from the status quo — and the Obama administration made few serious attempts to exploit those possibilities. Perversely, the political exploitation of the crisis belonged almost entirely to the Right, and especially to the Tea Party.

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Politics, Religion

The Arlington Road Election (One Year Later)

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In September 2016, a pseudonymous writer attempted to offer an intellectual justification for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He titled his article “The Flight 93 Election,” and argued that the consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency were guaranteed to be so dire, it was reasonable for America to take its chances with Trump. Just as it made sense for the passengers of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to risk their lives charging the cockpit rather than face certain death by doing nothing, the author suggested that it made sense for America to gamble on Trump rather than face certain annihilation by electing Hillary Clinton.

The author of the piece, Michael Anton, is now a national security staffer in the Trump administration. I won’t bother engaging here with the substance of the article, including its fascistic sympathies, anti-Islamic bigotry and failure to take seriously the risks to America and the world of electing a mentally and emotionally unwell, demonstrably incompetent, unapologetically corrupt, serial sexually abusing, racist and nativist demagogue with a loyalty to Vladimir Putin and no respect for the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law.

My purpose here is, instead, to suggest an alternative metaphor for the 2016 presidential election, and for the decision of most conservative Republicans, with a few brave and principled exceptions, ultimately to support Trump.

One year after November 8, 2016, it is clearer than ever that the Trump-Clinton contest was not the Flight 93 Election. It was the Arlington Road Election.

In the 1999 film Arlington Road, Jeff Bridges plays a widower and college professor who suspects that his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are secretly plotting an act of terrorism against the United States. Bridges’ wife died in the line of duty while working for the FBI, and he brings his concerns about his neighbors to the Bureau. But the FBI dismisses him as paranoid. Meanwhile, Bridges continues to accumulate evidence of his neighbors’ sinister plot to attack the federal government.

In the movie’s climactic sequence — SPOILER ALERT! — Bridges follows a delivery van that he believes contains his neighbors’ bomb. The van enters the basement of FBI headquarters. In an attempt to prevent what he believes to be an imminent attack, Bridges forces his vehicle past a security checkpoint and alerts the authorities. Too late, he discovers that the delivery van is empty. He returns to his own vehicle and finds that the terrorists have placed the bomb in his trunk. It detonates.

It was only because of his desperate attempt to prevent the attack that the attack took place.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

Free Photo: Pulling an Airship From a Hangar

There is a recurring form of argument on the academic Left that I believe deserves more critical scrutiny. I will call the form of argument “critique,” although I obviously mean something more specific than the ordinary meaning of the term. The peculiar structure of this “critique” is arguably a defining feature of the contemporary academic Left, yet it is rarely acknowledged as a specific gesture — as something that the academic Left characteristically does, and is virtually alone in doing.

When I say “critique,” what I have in mind is the following simple structure of argument, which can be, and has been, executed with countless variations:

  • Step One: Begin by identifying something — especially a powerful institution or idea — that the mainstream liberal political culture assumes to be largely a good thing, such as human rights, the language of rights in general, the rule of law, foreign aid, peacekeeping, or free speech.
  • Step Two: Identify something — especially some pathology involving inequalities of power — that the mainstream liberal political culture views as a bad thing, such as global poverty, war, sex trafficking, or gender discrimination. Often, from the perspective of the mainstream liberal political culture, the problem here will be endemic, and susceptible to no easy solution, although the mainstream liberal political culture views itself as committed to finding better solutions.
  • Step Three — and here is the conjuring trick, where the leftist scholar really has a chance to display intellectual virtuosity: Reveal that the institution or idea from Step One is in fact responsible for the perpetuation of the evil in Step Two. What the liberal thinker assumed to be a good thing — is in fact complicit in what he agrees is a bad thing! For example, it is revealed that the liberal “rule of law” is only a smokescreen for the imposition of exploitative neoliberal economic policies on less powerful countries and communities. Or one discovers that liberal “human rights law,” far from opposing cruelty and promoting the equality of all people, perpetuates racist, colonial-imperialist, extractive-capitalist, patriarchal, and ableist assumptions and power-structures — and moreover, through its emphasis on rational autonomy, attempts to deprive the cognitively impaired of human dignity!

There is no Step Four. The academic Left is defiantly unconcerned with proposing less-worse alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the aim is critique, and critique alone.

This is, in other words, a profoundly unpragmatic mode of argument — as the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty recognized already in his late-1990s criticisms of the spectatorial academic Left. It does not live in a world of better and worse practical alternatives. It is not interested in what reforms might be possible, or how to get from where we are to some better state of affairs. It denounces the status quo in the righteously indignant tone of someone who knows of a better alternative and is outraged that this alternative continues not to be realized — but without specifying what that alternative might be, or indeed showing any interest in the question of alternatives.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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