If, Literature, Politics

Modernism and the Finite Territory of the Avant-Garde

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(WARNING: This post ended up taking a very meandering path to its central argument, which appears after the jump. Against the assumption that a new avant-garde is always possible, the post considers whether each artistic form, including lyric poetry and narrative fiction, might exist in a kind of finite territory of formal possibilities — so that formal experimentation ultimately reaches a point of exhaustion. Finally, the post considers whether modernity itself, and its economic and political possibilities, might exist within a finite territory whose borders are already open to view.)

I recently learned that within the hopeless market for literature professors, the situation is even more dire for aspiring professors who specialize in Modernism — my favorite period in English literature, the period stretching from writers like Conrad, James, and Yeats through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and too many others to list: Williams, cummings, Moore, Faulkner…

Apparently there are few or no openings for teachers of Modernism in the entire United States in an average year. A search of the MLA Job Information List seems to confirm this picture, although there are a few positions that include Modernism within a broader job description.

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Economics, Politics

The Tragedy of the Obama Administration

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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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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

The Intellectual Foundations of a New Progressive Era?

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This post is the fourth in a series of five considering what the shape of progressive political-economic thought might look like following the neoliberalism of the Reagan Era.

In earlier posts, I introduced the progressive view of markets as government creations, and sketched some of the intellectual history of the idea.

In this post, I would like to note a few distinctive features of this view of markets and how it relates to other economic and political positions.

First, the idea is counterintuitive. The opposition between government and markets is so deeply rooted in our public economic discourse today that it may take some explanation and illustrations to show what is meant by the claim that our markets are government creations. But the idea is no more counterintuitive than Reagan-era claims were at the time of their introduction, such as the slogan that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In addition, the idea has the virtue of being in some sense obviously true. No one can deny — and sophisticated neoliberal theorists like Hayek do not deny — that the functioning of modern economic markets depends on and is shaped by state enforcement of property, contract, corporate, criminal, and many other laws.

Second, the view of markets as government creations, and the legal rules of markets as political choices, frames economic debates in a way that favors progressives but leaves room for conservatives to participate — just as the neoliberal framing of economic debates in terms of a choice between government and the market favored conservatives but left room for progressives to participate. Conservatives in a new progressive era would be free to argue (unappealingly) that we should choose rules for our markets that favor billionaires over working families, because of the merits of wealth accumulation, for example; just as progressives in the neoliberal era have always been free to argue (unappealingly) that high taxes and big government are actually a good thing, because certain parts of the economy are better left to government management.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

Markets Are Government Creations: A Resource Guide

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[Note: This post is unlike the other posts on the blog, for the reasons described here. It offers a series of very rough notes toward a historical sketch of the idea that markets are government creations — in other words, the rejection of the neoliberal, neoclassical, or Reagan Era idea of a conceptual opposition between government and markets. More specifically, it fleshes out the claim in an earlier post that the idea of markets as government creations has been widely accepted by legal scholars, yet largely ignored by academic economists.]

“[T]he market is rational and the government is dumb.” Dick Armey[1]

“[T]he self-regulating economy does not always work as well as its proponents would like us to believe.” Joseph E. Stiglitz[2]

The idea that government plays a constitutive role in markets, including classical liberal markets, is not a new one. But it has never achieved dominance in either public or academic debates about what we would now identify as economic issues. It has never gained the status of a widely shared assumption in the way that its contrary has—the notion of a conceptual opposition between government and the market, public and private. Here, I will offer a brief history of the idea of markets as creatures of government, partly with the simple aim of bringing together in one place the disparate legal and economic contexts in which the idea has been expressed.[3]

At least in the United States, the peak influence of the idea that government constitutes markets arrived a century ago during the Progressive Era, when the “legal realist”[4] and (intellectually related) “institutionalist economics”[5] movements rose to prominence in academic and professional legal and economic thought, respectively. Both movements reacted against the orthodoxies of late-nineteenth-century thought in their respective fields. In law, this orthodoxy is sometimes referred to as “Classical Legal Thought” (CLT).[6] In economics, the orthodoxy often goes under the name “neoclassicism.”[7] A more general term encompassing both threads of intellectual history, but also extending beyond them, would be “classical liberalism.”

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Economics, Law, Politics

Markets Are Government Creations: An Introduction

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[Note: The thoughts below are a new, slightly more developed sketch of the legal institutionalist view of the economy discussed in a 2014 post, “What so few economists know, but all the good legal scholars understand.” For additional context, including my hope that legal institutionalism or “law and political economy” might play a central role in progressive political-economic thought after the Reagan Era, see the previous post, “After Neoliberalism.”]  

One of the guiding assumptions of political and economic debate in the contemporary United States has been the idea that we face a choice between government and the market. Either government can centrally plan and direct what economic actors are to do, or economic actors can be given the freedom to choose what to do. In the latter case, economic actors will enter into private transactions for their mutual benefit. To the extent that market failures do not interfere, price signals will coordinate the incentives of these private actors in such a way that their self-interested behavior will, ideally, serve the good of all—as though under the beneficent operation of an invisible hand.

Of course, everyone recognizes that in reality market failures are always present to a greater or lesser degree. All sides in the discussion accept this. There will be information asymmetries, positive and negative externalities, and other market imperfections. As a result, there will be a role for government in the economy. In fact, it often seems in contemporary political debate that the government’s primary role is to correct market failures by intervening in the market, whether through the direct provision of public goods and services, or through regulations.

The rhetoric of “government versus the free market” reflected in the paragraphs above has become so familiar that it may simply seem natural. How else could one speak of economic policy choices? What is the conceptual or rhetorical alternative, assuming that we are not going to lapse into discussion of the kind of radical economic experiment that so often resulted in humanitarian catastrophe in the twentieth century?

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the conceptual opposition between government and the market has been the central organizing principle of political debate regarding the economy in the United States, and to a greater or lesser degree around the world, for roughly the past four decades—the period identified with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, although its origins precede them, and labelled by critics on the left as “neoliberalism.” The distinction is so central to our politics that the defining disagreement between the Left and the Right during this era has often been seen as the disagreement over the degree to which markets are imperfect and would benefit from government intervention. Partisans on the Left present themselves as seeking a greater role for government in restraining the excesses of the market, as well as attempting to protect various realms of life from market forces; partisans on the Right present themselves as seeking smaller government and more market-based solutions. All seem to agree that the fundamental choice is between government and markets.

Yet one of the puzzling features of the distinction between government and markets, given its ubiquity in public discussions, is that the distinction itself arguably does not make sense. Economic markets in the modern sense are not something that exist apart from government. To the contrary, they are government creations. There are many obvious senses in which this is the case. But the more fundamental point is often neglected.

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Economics, Law, Politics

After Trump: A Progressive Manifesto

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Whether we think of the last four decades in U.S. politics as the Reagan Era or, with an eye to global political-economic trends, as the era of neoliberalism,[1] it is worth considering that the political regime with which we are all familiar may be coming to an end, with the current president as its final unraveling.

A little over a year since the election of Donald Trump, what we have seen is consistent with the theory that his presidency may be a “disjunctive” one. The term comes from the political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s structuralist theory of presidential politics, which suggests that certain presidents — such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter — find themselves in an “impossible leadership situation” as “a president affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day” (39).

Assuming our democracy survives the next three years — which remains unclear so long as an unwell racist demagogue possesses executive power, supported by a blindly obedient mass following — what might come after the Reagan Era? The continuing global spread of illiberalism, perhaps aided by the rise of a more competent American strongman, is one possibility. But what is the progressive alternative?

What would American progressives like to see replace the collapsing ideology of neoliberalism?

This question has been a driving preoccupation of this blog since I started writing it in 2014. I still find it useful to frame the challenge for progressives in terms of the question I asked in my second post: If a progressive today were to write a book like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, what would it say? In order to lay the intellectual foundations for a new progressive era, progressives should be able to offer what Friedman’s book offered to the Reagan regime: a simple, rhetorically compelling, easily summarized general vision of politics and the economy — alongside a sample of bold policy proposals that embody the general vision and can serve as a focus of practical political action.

It now seems to me that the intellectual foundations for a new progressive era are finally coming into view. In recent years, a growing chorus of progressive voices — from Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Dani Rodrik, and Geoffrey Hodgson, to the legal scholars at the recently launched Law and Political Economy blog — have begun to coalesce around a simple, compelling idea about government and markets. At the risk of oversimplification, the basic thought is something like this:

The economic choice we face today is not, as the last forty years of our politics has suggested, between government and the market. In fact, as a closer look makes clear, markets are created by governments. The rules of our economic markets are established by our government through its laws.

Our markets are government creations, and the rules of our markets are political decisions. It is in our power as a democracy to fix the rules when they are broken.

For the last forty years, we have lived in the illusion that “the free market” means a set of market rules favoring the wealthy and powerful few at the expense of the freedom of the many. But nothing in the nature of markets requires the neoliberal economic policies our government has so often chosen.

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Economics, Politics

Paul Starr on a New Progressive Era

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Paul Starr, the Bancroft and Pulitzer prize-winner historian, has a new article at The American Prospect that addresses some of this blog’s earlier questions about what a new progressive era might look like. The article is titled “How Gilded Ages End.”

I’d recommend reading the entire thing. For my interests, the key passages come toward the end, when Starr concludes that a new progressive era, like the progressive advances of the twentieth century, should center around “three critical domains for curbing oligarchic dominance.” These are: “taxation, the rules of the market, and the rules of politics.”

In a nutshell, reforming the rules of politics makes it possible to reform the rules of the market (which determine wealth before taxes and transfers) and the rules of taxes and transfers (which determine how much wealth everyone ends up with). In turn, reforming the rules of the market and of taxation will help reduce wealth inequality, which will lead to less inequality in political power, which will make reforms of the rules of politics more likely.

Where one starts may depend on political contingencies. But no matter where one starts, the “three domains for curbing oligarchic dominance” should reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle.

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