Archive for the U.S. Politics Category

Political Culture

Posted in Cultural Theory, Politics 2.0, U.S. Politics on September 14, 2010 by traxus4420

Before getting lured away by topicality in my last post, I was about to make a point about ‘pseudo’ politics.

An epigraph to start:

“A thought is sometimes beyond the thing that it binds itself to in the course of resisting it, and that is its freedom. Freedom follows on from the subject’s need to express itself. The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity impinging upon the subject. What the subject experiences as its most subjective thing, its self-expression, is mediated by objects.”

– Adorno, Negative Dialectics

And next, a hypothesis: politics in the 20th century has been organized around the development of methods for control of the mass. It hardly needs to be added that non-state actors such as international corporations are at least equally involved. Political common sense says that modern politics = mass politics.

Despite all the noise about social networking, the basic ends remain the same. It’s just that the object ‘mass’ is being obsolesced as a useful heuristic, as capital’s free access to bodies, minds, and information becomes deeper and more intimate. Everywhere we see continuing development toward a completely controllable sensory environment – the grand synthesis promised by digital, biotech, neuroscientific, and architectural innovations, a world where ‘environment’ finally stops being a sloppy metaphor and becomes both empirical thing and technocultural object, virtually equivalent to ‘society’ itself. Whether this dream is ever actually realized anywhere is beside the point — it is the general direction of capital investment, assimilating even humanity’s attempts to stave off its own self-destruction, and so other possible lines of development are a priori subordinate. Another world is improbable.

Democratic ideology, on the other hand, insists on a definition of political agency that contradicts this current. Its ideal world consists of discrete, independent entities that are self-directed and thus individually responsible for their actions, as well as the stability of their relationships with others. Institutions are made up of individual actors, and the whole self-similar structure works best when all its parts are formally in agreement, an outcome which is never assumed but must be painstakingly arrived at through processes of deliberation. As Marx argued, the brave new world of capitalist utopia relies on the individualist ethical structure provided by democratic institutions while steadily eroding their ideological foundation: ‘enlightened self-interest,’ or the link between self-determination and mutual support.

Most public debates in the U.S. are waged by advocates of these two sides: the defender of democracy vs. the prophet of the artificial paradise. I use democracy in the broadest possible sense here; despite their differences, most advocates of anarchism, libertarianism, and liberalism tend to rally around the theme of autonomy, of freedom from coercion by an oligarchical state apparatus or ‘runaway’ corporation. Ideal collectives are imagined to be local and ad hoc (“grassroots” to use the current lingo), formed around a single issue, such as the management of a co-op, or a defense of civil rights, their duration inversely proportional to size. Large scale changes to political structure is where agreement breaks down, but the range of opinion seems to be between a) regulating institutional excesses (the liberals) and b) somehow guaranteeing negative freedom, as in “life would be better if we didn’t have x corrupt institution and we could do y ourselves” (the radicals).

Indeed, the very notion of collective (like ‘community’) implies a sense of ‘naturalness,’ of intellectual and affective immediacy: a group of more or less equal individuals who can communicate with each other without the assistance of an unwieldy technical or institutional apparatus. There’s even something counterintuitive about applying it to national populations, social classes, consumer demographics, and victimized ‘minorities,’ which, despite the fact that states, think tanks, sociological studies, and Web 2.0 corporations can ‘map’ their individual members to an unprecedented degree of detail, can only be popularly conceived in terms of the consequences of their (mis)management by elites. The mass as future reward — cue sentimental fantasy of universal community — vs. the mass as imminent punishment — cue the unpredictable, threatening mob.

The mass demonstration is a primitive form of political mobilization that serves to reinforce the limits outlined above more often than it points beyond them. Yet it remains the most reliable means of popular political change, because it subverts institutional ‘decision-making’ routines with ‘spontaneous’ collective agency. It frees a population from its bureaucratic context, allowing a group that normally appears as a particularized ‘identity’ (African-Americans, anti-war activists, community members, etc.) to make a direct, ‘universal’ claim. This is why left-wing protests are not only repressed and mocked in the corporate media, but the very future of the tactic is coming under attack. One can imagine an eventual compromise in which mass demos are legitimized in the same way that voting is, once they can be cheaply dispersed without damage to life or property. Once again we would have the familiar dilemma of liberal reform: many more people would be allowed a voice in mainstream political discourse, but at the cost of their political independence and the future of an independent left.

Enter cultural politics. To pick out one consequence of postmodernism that superficially seems to bolster democratic ideology: a free-floating notion of ‘influence,’ detached from the authority to determine policy, the possession of economic assets, or common interest, is broadly accepted as the true basis of legitimate power (even liberal and conservative defenders of the Status Quo are unhappy when people say it lacks ‘popular support’). So ideologically ‘culture’ has a privileged position, if a quixotic one — the sphere of human activity where individual freedom can express itself freely, a kind of virtual democratic utopia where participants compete for the right to influence behavior in the other, more restricted (and therefore less ideal) spheres of modern society. Where their secret truths can be read, where the future of the whole can be divined. In practice, every message has to route through the culture industry, which means every message must become a commodity. The results are familiar: politicians are celebrities, politics is entertainment, every movement must be branded, etc.

But lest we float off into ’90s-style hyperreality, we should remember that Baudrillard did nothing more than describe the subjective experience of the first world petty bourgeois consumer. There never was an absolute split between culture and reality for a regime of simulation to erase (just like there wasn’t one between mind and body); that pantheon of mythical divisions is commodity culture’s chief ideological product. Like other media commodities, Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum persuades us to imagine the problem for which it is the (merely intellectual) solution. What we see instead is the disciplining of culture into one of the most progressive forces of production and accumulation, one that relies on fantasies like the simulacrum (or ‘immaterial labor’ in another discourse) to give it a false sense of consistency and inevitability. The difficult thing to come to terms with, and what makes certain empty figments of postmodernity so attractive, is that the idea of ‘culture’ we’re taught to mourn is already a fantasy. What Raymond Williams argued began as an ideologically overdetermined reaction to 19th century industrialization, today does not necessarily refer to a shared history, creed, ethnicity, national identity, sexual orientation, commodity preference, or any difference at all; it can finally be used as a sign of contentless authenticity, indicating not the right to exist, but the factual existence of something closed to theoretical questioning (though no less urgent for that): the culture of poverty, the culture of ownership, business culture, geek culture, cultural influence, the culture of success, the culture of intolerance.

These various ‘cultures’ are more like environments, bubble-like ‘spheres of influence.’ Instead of defining the conditions for kinds of agency, they assume only a single kind, addressing the individual as a consumer (not necessarily of the culture commodity in question but of ‘culture’ at large) presumed to have some vague degree of influence over cultural ‘style.’ The most obnoxious version of this is the idea that we as ‘smart shoppers’ (or ethical shoppers, most advocates try to convince you that they’re the same thing) have the power to reverse climate change. However, it’s no less realistic than the claim it’s usually set against, that we have the political power to stop climate change despite being non or semi-organized. Certainly ‘we’ in the form of the many activist, labor, community, and consumer organizations we are free to join, can take effective action against coal power plants, get people we agree with elected, and encourage whatever ‘green’ production processes CEOs think will still be profitable, but the idea of a bunch of protests and boycotts passing a climate policy adequate enough to stave off armageddon is as doomed as trying to convince Bush or Obama to leave Afghanistan ‘prematurely.’ Not only is it true that elected officials will only act in their constituency’s favor if pressured to do so, they can only be pressured to do what will allow them as a class to retain their privileges. And today, the needs of biological life and the needs of capital are rapidly, catastrophically diverging.

All impotence aside, as long as we’re obligated to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, responsibility for the collective consequences of our individual actions is a necessary consequence. This is impossible as either a citizen or a consumer. So, we go crazy. Tightening the double bind, the rhetoric that accompanies political and economic disempowerment is one of increasing empowerment, though with any hint of antagonism censored. That society’s improvement hinges on all of humanity transforming themselves into ‘responsible individuals’ is the polar opposite of liberating. Now I don’t think this ‘politically empowering’ rhetoric of ethical responsibility can be entirely dispensed with, even if it is tied to our subjection by a false individualism. But I don’t think it’s any more or less a part of the spectacle than the ‘politically disempowering’ rhetoric of the masses. They are, in the poststructuralist jargon, just conduits for different technologies of control that are currently in the process of becoming interoperable. The people of the world are mobilized according to the latter, ‘objectified’ form as well as the former ‘subjective’ one, and the conditions of appearance of the mass, not just the networked individual, have to be mastered if they (who are we) are ever to move beyond it.

Musil and Beck on Pseudo-Politics

Posted in Cultural Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on September 6, 2010 by traxus4420

“Every investiture of the ideal feels itself as a false ‘we.’ It is a ‘we’ that does not correspond to reality. ‘We Germans’ is the fiction of a commonality among manual laborers and professors, gangsters and idealists, poets and film directors, a commonality that does not exist. The true ‘we’ is: We are nothing to each other. We are capitalists, proletarians, intellectuals, Catholics…and in truth far more — and beyond all measure — caught up in our own special interests than we are concerned with each other. The German peasant stands closer to the French peasant than to the German city dweller, when it comes down to what really moves their souls. We — each nation for itself alone — understand one another very little, and fight or betray one another when we can. We can, to be sure, all be brought together under one hat when we plan to squash it on the head of another nation; then we are enraptured and have a shared mystical experience, but one may assume that the mystical in this experience resides in its being so rarely a reality for us. Once again: this is just as true for the others as it is for us Germans. But in our crises we Germans have the inestimable advantage that we can recognize the real connections more clearly than they, and we should construct our feeling for the fatherland on this truth, and not on the conceit that we are the people of Goethe and Schiller, or of Voltaire and Napoleon.

There is always and in all ages a feeling of insufficient congruence between public life and real life. But can anything at all in public events be the true expression of real life? Am I then, as an individual, that which I do, or am I a compromise between unarticulated energies in me and transforming external forms ready to be realized? In relationship to the whole, this little difference gains a thousandfold in significance. Aside from passive persistence, an unnatural alliance of interests can be held together only through a common interest in using force against others; it does not necessarily need to be the force of war. But if one says that mass hypnosis is at work in times when wars break out, this is only to be understood as an ordered system exploding because of its inadvertently neglected tensions. This explosive stimulus, with which the human being liberated himself and, flying through the air, found himself together with his own kind, was the renunciation of middle-class life, the will for disorder rather than the old order, the leap into adventure, no matter what moral names it might be given. War is the flight from peace.”

— Robert Musil, “‘Nation’ as Ideal and as Reality” (1921)

If anyone epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of what Marxists (almost always hypocritically) call ‘bourgeois consciousness,’ it’s Robert Musil. Brilliant in every conceivable sense, disrespectful of any special distinction (or lack) attributed to the humanities or the sciences, arrogant, and committed to nothing but observation. His class’s highest ideal, the intellectual synthesis of social contradiction, is well enough torn to shreds in the first volume of Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but it remained the horizon of his thought. And this impossible holding out is what is so attractive about him, for me anyway: his relentless negativity, his unwillingness to propagandize for anything or anyone, even when contributing some measure of practical support. A sympathetic stance but an intolerable one for any writer who intends for their ‘passion’ to serve worldly ends.

A political writer does battle on the field of propaganda. Perhaps all writers are political; English professors today are fond of saying that all culture is political, suggesting (as no one else but David Horowitz does) that even their own writing is potentially significant. So what is a successful propagandist today? Let’s take Glenn Beck. The apparent contradiction between his visibility and lack of political importance is suppressed by pointing to his ‘cultural influence,’ which democratic ideology implies is more important than political or economic power. Beck’s ‘we’ is the same as ours: it tries to communicate the feeling of political engagement to a mass of spectators who have been steadily dispossessed of any active role in the democratic process, but who have unprecedented access to ‘culture.’

Now Musil seems to argue that while the “special interests” we are concerned with are “beyond all measure,” if one must give an estimate, material interests are where one should start. And this is the basis for community that nationalism denies. To awkwardly import a critique of commodity culture: its atomizing effects take place not solely through creating feelings of loneliness and alienation, but through simulating community. According to Musil, this is the necessary function of all political rhetoric. He assumes the traditional liberal tie between politics and the state, but his simultaneous and sympathetic awareness of socialism creates some interesting ambiguities. That he characterizes nationalism and war as dangerous forms of escapism is not new, nor the idea that heroic ideologies such as these reject as inauthentic some version of “middle-class life”; more perplexing is his suggestion that the “leap into adventure” and the promise of conflict is necessary to motivate any large-scale collective project. Are all so-called common interests experienced by default as “unnatural,” even in the midst of conflicts that — given proper materialist analysis — could have been predicted as the “natural” product of “neglected tensions” in a social system? If this is true, then organization based on imaginary interests is indistinguishable from organization based on material ones. All politics become pseudo-politics.

The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization — not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).

Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.

The Politics 2.0 of Health Reform

Posted in Activism, Capitalism, Politics 2.0, U.S. Politics with tags , , on March 24, 2010 by traxus4420

Now that the bill has been signed, the long debate between liberals and leftists (or between pragmatism and radicalism if you prefer), has solidified into a provisional conclusion about their relationship status. Of course the dynamics haven’t changed a bit, and would have resolved in exactly the same way regardless of the outcome. Winners and losers both love a scapegoat. I limit myself here to responding to the standard liberal critique of the left, which we’ve seen escalate to a fever pitch over the last couple months — that its arguments and proposals regarding health reform were (and are) unrealistic, hysterical, and unethical, three critical grace notes that crescendo from polite warning to all-out vilification.

The fundamental point about any more ideologically than materially interested opponent of the bill (the ‘far left’ and the ‘teabaggers’) is that their antagonism irresponsibly risks the lives of millions of uninsured (the other big one is the economic argument that the bill will save money — but since they’re formally identical I’m going to focus on the more provocative of the two) for basically psychological reasons: vanity, willed ignorance, naivete, sheer irrationality.

The left’s predictable response to this vulgar psychologization of their opposition is to call it an excuse not to deal with their substantive arguments. This is for the most part true, but the exceptions are of more practical importance — Ezra Klein and Jane Hamsher’s back-and-forth was one of the few scuffles where both parties actually helped clear things up (here’s Klein’s response to her critiques from December and her recent list of the bill’s shortcomings if you haven’t read them).

All that said, the basic objections of the left to the health bill are pretty straightforward:

a) Shores up the power and profit of the health insurance industry and big pharma

b) Unsustainable in the long run as a result of a)

c) Ignores technically implementable solutions (single payer, public option, Medicare buy-in) to b) as a result of a)

d) will make it harder to actually fix the health care system because of a) through c)

e) Unethically excludes some possible beneficiaries (mostly undocumented immigrants) as a result of a) through d)

f) sells out women’s abortion rights

g) The bill is just a federalist upgrade of Mitt Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts, which is currently running down the state’s budget

h) By capitulating on every major point, the left sabotaged any chance it might have had to increase its power as an independently consequential force in politics.

The first of these is a given. Everyone whose opinion counts agrees with it. The question is not ‘is the bill a corporate giveaway’ but ‘do the ‘theoretical’ implications of this fact matter.’ The worst thing about the dysfunctional U.S. health care system — its immediate dependency on and empowerment of profit-seeking corporations with horrific track records — is built into the bill’s structure.  This is of course why regulation of that industry and its enforcement remains minimal. Touted as a legal ‘right’ to health care, it’s actually a state-supervised sale of American citizens to the health insurance industry, paid for by provisions and subsidies whose future solvency is tied as strongly as ever to the fortunes of finance capital. This is what Obama’s administration has always been about: government and industry openly and unproblematically working together to ‘manage resources,’ their preferred definition of politics. Much of what we see happening in public debate over Obama’s policies is the steady repression of older ideological positions that would pit the free market and the state against one another, in favor of a new pragmatism (read: more efficient capitalist class solidarity). And we will surely continue to see this dynamic when we come to finance reform. Altering the newly revised relationship between the state and the health industry in any substantial way would require a second overhaul far greater than the current one, which is not going to occur during Obama’s presidency.

The next three are more debatable. Though the bill will probably be tweaked and improved upon in a ‘progressive’ ‘direction,’ the ‘real reform’ the left keeps bringing up — health care divorced from the corporate-dominated ‘free’ market — is far less likely. Given the current power asymmetry between Obama’s centrism and the progressive movement, a ‘public option’ or ‘single payer’ system will probably only be instated if it doesn’t accomplish what the left wants it to.

The fourth (e) is secondary overall and easily refuted when stated on its own (the new bill will cover more people than before, obviously better than the status quo), so I’m going to skip it.

The wrongness of f) is obscene enough that I’m not going to get into it either.

I’m also going to skip (g), basically agreeing (though details matter, etc. etc.), and noting in passing that it’s a handy retort to anyone who would still lazily/opportunistically equate the far right with the far left, forcing a definition of what ‘progressive’ actually means in practice.

The last point, (h), gets at the core of the left’s internal division. Without any pressing votes, everyone seems to agree on strategy. Now is the time for everyone to wax rhetorical about how ‘this isn’t the end of reform,’ ‘the fight goes on,’ ‘there’s still work to be done,’ etc. But when used as an argument in favor of capitulation, ‘we can fix it later’ obscures the riskiness of the liberals’ own position and projects it entirely onto their ‘obstructionist’ opposition. No one in the progressive movement has any power to write checks for what they will be able to accomplish in the future. Only at the very end of the process, when only one or two votes separated defeat and long-term impotence from victory, when we really were ‘all on the same team,’ did capitulation become necessity, even courage.

The spectacle of Dennis Kucinich’s 11th-hour turnaround is instructive, not for the triumph of ideas it was sold as by the MSM and his supposed progressive allies like Kos and others, but for how it highlighted where decisive political pressure comes from:

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: The pressure doesn’t really come so much from the outside. I mean, I had people who are for this and against it with equal intensity. What the pressure comes from, being told that you might be singularly responsible for the passage or failure of an initiative and having to live with the implications of that.

And, Amy, I’ll tell you that one of the things that surprised me the most is that even though they said everything’s on the line and even though they said it could come down to one vote and pointed at me and said, “That could be your vote,” they still wouldn’t budge on it. So then, I’m—and I mean, I tested and probed and talked to everybody, all the way down the chain of leadership, to see if there’s any way, and frankly, it’s mystifying, except to say that they’re keeping a for-profit system intact. There’s no air in here to try to find a way to get to a not-for-profit system.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out again and again throughout this legislative process, pragmatic defenses of the bill’s passage against its critics typically ignore the issue of power (Greenwald also distinguishes a kind of unthinking allegiance to the bill from rational argument in its favor — but in the midst of battle I don’t think they can be kept apart for very long). Health reform was and is a collective project in the same way any capitalism 2.0 institution is a collective project — workers are involved, with an unprecedented degree of intimacy, in labor toward ends they didn’t choose and which are usually counter to their explicit wishes. With every effort they become more dependent on their ‘employers,’ who pay them by, in essence, taking care of them.

Most of what this requires in today’s politics is fostering a sense of involvement, better affective than effective. Party politicians recognize a practical need for reform, and attempt to create consensus among the population of actual and potential activists by encouraging us to feel as if ‘we’ are engaged in a ‘progressive moment.’ So the Obama adminstration’s pragmatic response to crisis: redistribute, recenter, and re-legitimize ruling class power, is depicted as ‘progressive’ (not just ‘preferable’) in relation to the no longer appropriate ideologies and power relationships it seeks to displace. Since the progressive left does all the work of organizing and disciplining itself, all political elites like Obama have to do is repeatedly affirm the collective nature of the endeavor while maintaining its divided, hierarchical structure, and ensuring that a self-conscious activist left remains marginalized. Ignoring or undermining all the left’s demands enforces obedience; for its ideas to be recognized in the political landscape at all it is obligated to negate its own short and long-term goals in actual practice, sublimating them (in utopian, fantastic form) into the ‘movement.’

In this precarious situation, the left gets an opportunity to fight for a more than just symbolic existence in exchange for spending most of its time working for the Democratic establishment. It’s a devil’s bargain, and one that requires constant vigilance in order to work out in the left’s favor. Right now that means accepting that even though health reform was certainly ‘progressive’ for the Democratic party, and will probably be ‘progressive’ in terms of minimal improvements to the efficiency, oversight, and overall cost of the health care system (which should lead to further improvements in the short-to-medium term), it was a defeat of progressivism as a political movement. It’s really not possible to argue otherwise — we won nothing we wanted, only things we didn’t know we were willing to settle for.

This is the heavily compromised position from which ethical arguments by liberals against left critics are made. Critique (h) infuriates liberal pragmatists because it suggests to them that the left is willing to sacrifice human lives for its own power. The fact that power is necessary to any political project is affirmed in theory but ignored in practice, conveniently reduced to a private ‘unhealthy obsession.’ The liberal imperative to “pass the damn bill” became more true as the struggle progressed, reinforced almost without a hitch by the progressive movement’s own actions, even though this contentless pragmatism first appeared on the other side, what the left early on called Obama’s political cynicism. This is the “party discipline” currently being praised, stemming not from any ideological center but from the situation as presented to us, the perpetually crisis-ridden status quo. In the final months, one could conceivably make the case that rejecting the bill really did put you on the same team as the Republicans. Thankfully that useful if counter-intuitive argument had already been well worn in, since almost every stage was (wrongly) considered the battle’s ‘final months.’

Lawrence Lessig recently called Republicans the “sock-puppets” of industry lobbyists: “a campaign waged against these sock-puppets will be a useless campaign waged against ½ of America.” This is more obviously the case now, but was still the case then. I would only amend to this that they were equal opportunity sock puppets — Obama  used them and liberal pundits used them to quash opposition from the left and to try to win support from moderate Republicans (which we thought didn’t exist but now see were just in the closet). Rationalized as a compromise victory, the spectacular ‘defeat’ of teabaggers was political theatre that benefitted everyone except progressives.

Again, improvements will probably be made, but they will be decided on by political elites primarily subject to pressure by inadequacies in the bill they just passed (which may manifest through public opinion polls and phone calls), not because a progressive movement has become more influential. Betting on the horse race, strategic planning for the movement, and argument about the content of the present bill have a tendency to blur together in progressive discourse, which obscures things further. The location of progressive agency is uncertain, so when someone conceivably identifiable as ‘you’ appears to be winning, it’s best not to think too much about it.

People like to feel good about what they’re doing, and probably have to in order to do it at all for very long (making me skeptical about my own future as one of the petition-signing, check-writing, senator-phoning activists I’ve just described). I don’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s celebration. There is reason to cheer for the fact that substantial reforms of any kind actually made it through our ‘historically’ dysfunctional Congress. I even see some short-term value in publicly claiming victory for the cheap political capital. The resurgence of Obama leader-worship and his rhetorical talent for converting collective action into nationalism is obnoxious, though I guess I have to get used to that as a permanent feature of this presidency. But can we just interrogate for a moment the slogan on everyone’s lips: ‘keep fighting!’ For what? For who? Or more to the point, how? If ‘real reform’ is going to happen anytime soon, the outcome of the health reform movement needs to be understood as the failure of progressive strategy, not a validation.

Nothing to See Here

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Crisis theory, U.S. Politics on January 29, 2010 by traxus4420

I know the Citizens’ United ruling wasn’t a major change from earlier campaign funding regulation. I know the spending freeze will not be nearly as sweeping as it sounds and is probably just ‘politics.’ I know Bernanke’s reappointment was unsurprising despite everything. I know most of the international aid does get permission to land at Port-au-Prince, and that the U.S. military is ‘providing invaluable assistance’ in addition to securitizing it in the U.S. national interest (which is itself, of course, not unprecedented). I know the selection of Bush and Clinton as point men for this operation is not that weird if you think about it. I know both that the Goldstone report isn’t saying anything that wasn’t obvious to everyone and that Israel and the U.S. could never find it acceptable.

I even know that Barack Obama ran as a centrist.

So really, media, you can stop talking nonstop about how unsurprising, how ordinary, how banal the steady erosion of democracy is. I know.

What is Centrism?

Posted in Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , on January 19, 2010 by traxus4420

‘Centrism’ is rather confusing as a political position. Vague and relative as they are, terms like ‘leftist,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ denote a set of core principles that can be upheld or challenged. I, at least, have always been confused by what it’s supposed to mean. After devoting a bit of thought to the question, I’ve decided I was right the first time: centrism is fundamentally incoherent. It’s also much worse.

One often hears that in U.S. politics, smart politicians aim for the center. Clinton ran as a centrist, so did both Bushes, so did Obama. Pretty soon someone will call the U.S.’s dominant role in Haitian relief efforts ‘centrist.’ Being a centrist means you can call yourself non-ideological and pragmatic, which in our anemic intellectual climate is understood to mean ‘correct,’ or as close to that vapid ideal as humanly possible.

Centrism is without content because unlike conservative or liberal, its basis is completely relative to ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conceived as imaginary ‘ideological’ positions that the centrist grants himself the authority to name. Centrism has a history (how could it not), but it keeps its distance. It is always cheerfully presentist.

None of which prevents some centrists from calling themselves radical, which is also ‘in’ these days. Third Way politics constitute ‘radical’ centrism’s most visibly branded forms. But the pragmatic centrist can always call himself ‘radical,’ since he predicates himself on being undetermined, unimpressed, a step ahead, free.


On one level, centrism should be taken at its word: it is neither right nor left, because these equal and opposite poles are its inventions. It has no formal dogma, because dogma is also its invention. Centrism is about just what it says it is: finding the center, or figuring out where the power is in any given situation and sticking to it. Since power is what relates otherwise disparate situations, centrism has a broadly ‘progressive’ teleology (in the sense of expansion) and a broadly conservative strategy (in the sense of conservation of power). The closest term of comparison is ‘opportunism.’


At the risk of rubbing salt in an open wound, we can take Obama’s trajectory as a high-profile, exhaustively documented example of how centrism works in practice. Obama’s marketing and general demeanor on the campaign trail skewed progressive because that’s where the power was after eight years of Bush on the Internet. He cut the cord once elected because in becoming president power had shifted from the grassroots to the Oval Office, Wall Street, and the Pentagon. He (correctly so far) calculated that nothing he could do once in office would drive away his party’s avant garde because in a two-party system they have nowhere else to go, while everything had to be acceptable to the most bought and paid for members of his party first, who are willing to leave at the drop of a gavel. Barring an inverted Reagan-style comeback, Obama looks like he will be remembered as the president who took most seriously his role as the chief PR man for big capital in its hour of need. What else does he have the time or space to achieve beyond constant crisis management?

Centrism as a political norm has in fact changed the face of politics, openly acknowledging what politics has been in reality since the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ and the fateful decision to stake the world’s future on the price of the dollar, that is, public relations as population management. Rousseau’s ideal state, with government as the strictly bureaucratic servant of the general will, has come to pass, with the modification that the general will is now produced by a corporate entertainment media complex. Or at least it is only taken seriously when in this form. Every excuse the centrist makes, every concession to ‘hard realities’, every condescending shake of the head to the criticisms and demands of ‘ideologues,’ should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction. If conservatism is the failure of democracy, centrism is its abnegation. And those still willing to identify as ‘left’ can’t be sure if they’re Zhuangzi or the butterfly.

Last note on Health Care

Posted in U.S. Politics with tags on December 30, 2009 by traxus4420

…before moving on to something less spirit-destroying.

Though either of the two health bill options to be reconciled had to ensure the long-term necessity of the health insurance industry in order to exist, the House bill is slightly more populist than the Senate bill, mainly in the contentious area of cost controls (though not in abortion). Therefore, the Senate bill’s provisions are more likely to pass. And like magic, a sizable chunk of its defenders have moved on to specifically praise the Senate bill.

One thing the two sides are crossing swords over is the excise tax (or loophole fix, if you buy one of the accounts making its rounds), which is designed to control costs by taxing insurance plans that exceed $23,000 for families and $8,500 for individuals. This is supposed to incentivize cheaper premiums and more efficient care: the elimination of extra tests, unnecessary return visits, etc. The House provision, on the other hand, will make hundreds of billions more than the Senate version’s highest estimate by taxing the rich. That this is a bit too direct for some people is perhaps understandable. But as Bob Herbert explains in the NYT (with more analysis here), inflation’s a bitch, and the first thing to drop as the ‘Cadillac tax’ applies to more and more people will be the quality of health care, not just its cost. And employers, who hold the purse strings, will pocket the extra cash.

The idea that money saved in insurance premiums is money earned in wages has been most influentially promoted by Jonathan Gruber (big upped by Ezra Klein). Gruber is the White House’s answer to the infamous industry-sponsored critique of the SFC bill published in October. According to him, the Senate excise tax is

a policy that provides the necessary financing to pay for subsidies to low-income families; induces employers to buy more cost-effective health insurance, lowering U.S. health-care spending; offsets a bias in our tax system that favors more expensive insurance; and raises wages by $223 billion over 10 years. To put a twist on an old saying: The Senate assessment on high-cost insurance plans doesn’t walk like a tax or talk like a tax — because it is not a tax. It is an innovative way of financing the health reform we so desperately need.

Like any excise tax — the one on tobacco, say, or carbon emissions — this one is not ‘just’ a tax. It is a prod to encourage ethical behavior. The problem with this is one of perspective: from an aerial view, one man’s cosmetic surgery is another man’s melanoma treatment. The ‘bias’ toward overspending on insurance is at the same time an incentive for employers not to make medical decisions for their employees. This proposed solution is the mirror image of the problem it sets out to solve — and a funhouse mirror, at that.  According to an independent study from the National Opinion Research Center (via Timothy Noah of Slate), less than 4% of expensive health plans include the sort of care that would justify the use of the label ‘Cadillac.’ There are, surprise, more janitors who rely on employer-based health insurance than hedge fund traders.Labor unions are a more conspicuous target than the high income.

And while it may be true that more money spent by employers on insurance is less spent on income, the reverse does not follow. This theory of a one-to-one relation between income and employer health insurance spending is (as Gruber acknowledges) a leftover from the heyday of managed care in the 1990s, when U.S. workers simultaneously (and unevenly) enjoyed a brief reprieve from the 30+ year stagnation of real wages. The smartest men in the room back then announced the former to be the cause of the latter, right in the middle of the popular ‘backlash‘ against HMOs. Here’s something from the single-payer advocates PHNP:

Between 1991 and 1996, annual inflation in health insurance premiums dropped precipitously, from 10.9 percent to 0.5 percent, before soaring back to the more usual annual rise of 5 to 10 percent. A large part of this drop was due to a historic 50-percent drop in the underlying (or economy-wide) inflation rate that began in 1991. But the reduction in health insurance premium inflation exceeded the reduction in underlying inflation. What caused this reduction?

The insurance industry and their allies claimed, precisely as Klein and Cutler do now, that the widespread use of managed care tools should get the credit. But those who made this claim could not cite any research showing that managed care in general, or any one of its tools in particular, saved money; they could only point to the rapid takeover of our health care system by managed care during the 1980s, and then the sudden decline in premium inflation beginning in 1991. What the research did show was that insurance companies that adopted managed care tactics tended to cut medical expenditures and drive up administrative costs, for a net effect of approximately no change in total costs.

So if managed care wasn’t the cause of the early 1990s inflation lull, what was? In a paper published in Health Affairs in 2000, I reviewed the evidence indicating managed care saved no money, and then listed four factors having nothing to do with managed care that explained the lull (“On the ‘efficiency’ of managed care plans,” Health Affairs 2000;19(4):139-148):

All four of these factors, as well as the decline in the underlying inflation rate, ceased to have a downward effect on premium inflation at about the same time – about 1996. Accordingly, premium inflation began to rise in 1997, just as the “HMO backlash” materialized. Just as some less-than-astute observers thought managed care should get the credit for the decline in insurance inflation rates that began in 1991, so some observers thought the “HMO backlash” should get the blame for the return of higher premium inflation rates in 1997. Those observers were wrong on both counts.

The mid-1990s lull was caused primarily by the short-term reactions of the industry to the near-simultaneous occurrence of four events: (1) a downturn in the three-years-up, three years-down health insurance pricing cycle; (2) the delayed effect of the 1990–1991 recession; (3) the endorsement of managed competition models of health reform by the White House and numerous state and federal politicians; and (4) the merger fever triggered by these political endorsements. The latter three phenomena deepened and lengthened what otherwise would have been a shallower and shorter downturn in the usual insurance-pricing cycle. (Page 144)

Just like the excise tax, the cost-containment measures of yesteryear were attempts to change practices by tweaking market mechanisms. Their agents are therefore owners: of capital, skilled labor, and resources — employers, insurers, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. The blindness of these policies isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. If the ‘Cadillac tax’ didn’t indiscriminately target (majority) necessary and (minority) luxury spending, if it were accurate and not primed to expand along with inflation, it wouldn’t raise very much money, or affect market behavior.

Something about this debate is reminiscent of right-wing reactions to the overhead brought on by malpractice suits. The same inflated claims of ‘luxury spending’ (suing for babies born ugly and the like) are used as a way to justify abandoning expensive protections, which were themselves mere band-aids for a failing system of understaffed hospitals and escalating costs. Just as needed treatment makes up a far greater percentage of health insurance costs than ‘Cadillac’ services, an oft-quoted Bureau of Justice statistic from 2001 states that 90% of medical malpractice trials were fought over claims of death or permanent injury (here’s Klein with other fun facts).

As defenders love to finger-waggingly insist, not everyone comes out of reform a winner. These legislative battles are not waged over what policy will ‘work’ the best, though they may look that way from the top. They determine who is going to suffer for the collective failure to fix a broken system. And it’s not between degrees of responsibility that the decision is made — the most responsible decide for everyone else, and legislation tends to keep it that way  — but between degrees of consumer ‘privilege,’ a criteria somewhat more open to interpretation.

Notes on Copenhagen, etc.

Posted in current events, Environmentalism, Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on December 26, 2009 by traxus4420

The cards on the table are these:

– An unprecedented number of world leaders met in Copenhagen to work out an international response to climate change. The West especially needed a deal, because a) it’s generally accepted among their populations that climate change is an existential threat and b) certain ‘developing’ nations are coming of age pollution-wise, making it in the West’s political and economic interest to set the terms of the deal.

– As a consequence of his campaign strategy and the historically obstructionist role of the U.S. in prior attempts at such treaties, Obama became the symbolic representative for the interests of the West at Copenhagen and the lightning rod for the first wave of criticism from the green Left. Concretely Obama needed a deal because without one it would be much more difficult to push even the most modest ‘green agenda’ through the circus of late imperial decadence that is Congress.

– But hold on, Obama only avoided being the unambiguous weak link of the Copenhagen debacle because of the ‘obstructionist’ role played by the U.S.’s chief emerging competitor, China (think of Obama and Wen Jiabao’s conference as an informal passing of the torch ceremony), the West’s agreed-upon villain. As the world’s top two carbon emitters, the U.S. and China were the least willing to make definite commitments (the U.S. came to the talks pledged to reduce emissions to 4% below 1990 levels, compared to a 20% commitment from the EU; China notoriously vetoed not only a proposed 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 but the even bigger commitments proposed for developed countries as well). But the country with vastly greater domestic limitations — China, where millions of households are still without access to electricity — has officially replaced the U.S. in the eyes of the ‘responsible left’ in propaganda pieces like this one, just as the good intentions of Obama replaced the bad intentions of Bush.

– The entirely speculative, ‘meaningful’ deal that was finally arrived was negotiated by a ‘coalition of the willing’ out of sight of most of the conference participants, while being widely praised for legitimizing the idea that poor countries should have to submit to emission limits just like the developed and upper-level developing countries (i.e. China, India, Brazil). Here’s a list by Johann Hari of the democratic proposals that this virtual deal has concretely succeeded in ruling out. These debates have seen the ‘responsible left’ take truly horrific attitudes toward the objections of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Sudan, and Venezuela to the proposed treaty that have even filtered down to progressives like David Roberts of Grist:

It was only by forging a non-UN side agreement that Obama and other national leaders averted disaster. The UNFCCC “took note” of the accord, but since Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba wouldn’t sign on, it couldn’t formally adopt it.

That’s right—a clutch of hostile Latin American kleptocracies practically derailed the entire process. This can’t help but raise serious questions about whether the UN is the proper venue to hash out emission reductions. Does it really make sense to give 192 nations veto power when the vast bulk of emissions come from under 20 of them?

It may be regrettable from an ‘idealistic’ standpoint, but the only way to get results is to ditch democracy, says Joe Romm of Climate Progress (who nevertheless allows facts to keep him from completely endorsing the anti-China rhetoric):

Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it.  But I doubt it.

I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome:  High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.

Let me therefore end with the conclusion of an analysis by the Harvard economist Robert Stavins:

We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.

This is an extreme example, but the resurgence of ideological pragmatism among the left, especially in the U.S., in the wake of unrelenting defeat, leads to a sort of theoretical agnosticism about politics combined with a blithe acceptance of the structurally weak position it (especially in the U.S.) currently holds. In practice this amounts to agnosticism over the real existence of ideological structures like neoliberalism, which no one could stop talking about when Bush was in charge, combined with prostrate submission to a priori limits on the potential of the progressive movement to change anything. As left economist Peter Dorman puts it in a critique of Waxman-Markey (the guiding framework for U.S. negotiations at Copenhagen):

Mainstream environmental groups are not blind to these problems, but they see them as second-order. Above all, they are soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.

The failure to go beyond the literal reading of the individual elements of reform bills to grasp their structural role is nowhere more apparent than in the health care debate. Anyone who objects to the Senate bill is an ‘obstructionist’ or ‘hostage taker’ out for self-interested political gain (or sociopathy, or excess of enthusiasm) over the ‘greater good’ moral objective that we all must accept. Progressives, both the weaker of the two opponents and the one liberal Democrats would like to secretly agree with, are expected to cave to the obstructionism of the centrists despite their efforts in getting public support for reform. But not before putting on an ineffectual performance of outrage that makes their opponents feel better about the inevitable.

[The ideological divide within the Democratic party is more succinctly analyzed here.]

Obama: “This notion I know among some on the left that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be … I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.”

Set aside for the moment the lies about the policies he campaigned on. First a bad faith moral imperative is employed: blame for the historical failure of the U.S., the the most powerful etc. country in the world, to put together anything more than a catastrophically shitty health care system is shifted away from the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the power of health insurance lobbyists, and the failure and/or unwillingness of politicians to overcome these obstacles, to any individual on the left who threatens the passage of the textbook Third Way, neoliberal, government-corporate merger that is the Senate bill, and the one Obama apparently wanted from the start. As many have said, the early telegraphing of the Democratic majority and the White House’s unwillingness to reject any deal that can win cloture, and the consequent vilification of progressives who are so willing, kneecapped the left’s power to negotiate. Objections that seem reasonable are the intended casualties of this backlash. Finally the value of the health bill is put in terms of ‘significance’: it’s a big (“sweeping”) reform, and that’s what really matters. After all.

Of course, either the slightly more elitist Senate bill or the slightly more populist House bill would be “a historic first step,” “a foundation that can be improved on in the future” (as defenders like to say). Something that will help real people, etc. But what have we been watching if not the design of the new health bill’s architecture to make the much-publicized progressive improvements — single payer and compromise #1, the public option — all but impossible? Simply because the bill will contain contradictory elements does not mean it has no structuring logic. As the cost of regulation, any currently possible bill ensures that the grip of private health insurers on American lives will be more intransigent and more comprehensive. But these are precisely the sorts of concerns dismissed as ‘symbolic’ by enlightened commenters.

The ‘bill-killers’ chief political argument is/was that necessity combined with progressive pressure will push democrats to renegotiate even if the current bill is abandoned. This best-case scenario would be plausible if the progressive movement were as powerful as a major corporation. For many reasons, it is not. One of those reasons is how unusually stratified American society is as a whole, and how precarious, conformist, and alienated from the rest of the culture we tend to be, especially when educated. But the increasing implausibility of the bill’s defeat from the left (despite 11th-hour statements to the contrary) is only a convincing reason to stop fighting it if one’s subjective approach to politics is the consumerist model presumed by most news media: the independent, neutral observer, who wants “to see both sides of every issue” but is instead forced to decide between Two Bad Extremes. One who (unlike the others) is free to imagine ideal solutions to problems, but whose moral triumph is found in putting away childish things and learning to accept ‘reality.’ But working to improve the bill and threatening its passage aren’t mutually exclusive; defending it and improving it are.

In their ‘realist’ guise, apologists for bank bailouts, compromised health reform, Copenhagen, and the escalation in Afghanistan defer criticism of these policies and their authors to all those previously ignored ‘structural factors,’ now emptied of agency and presented as if laws of nature to be challenged only by the naive (liberal homilies about the sad realities of politics are the ‘soft’ side of this tactic). This brand of cynicism, which reduces all thought and perception to whatever shit is being shoved in your face right now, is worn as a sign of acumen, as it is indeed the gateway to professional status.

By the very gesture of having enabled thought (by excluding ’emotion’ and ‘partisanship’) that the intellectual class, the captured consumer/producers of news events and political decisions, encourages itself to react in place of thinking. From the laptop to the newspaper to the movie theater (and back to the laptop):

But if the term ‘progressive’ is to be taken seriously, a different political reality has to be embraced. All the feel-good talk about ‘getting somewhere’ or ‘good starts’ is so much living in the past. Everyone who calls the shots now knows, or has to pretend they know, that environmental catastrophe and financial crisis are real, and that health reform is necessary. We can be pleased or terrified about that. But from a practical standpoint the most important immediate goal is to move the center left. I always feel uncomfortable writing ‘calls to action’ like this, mostly because I always think that not only is it obvious what should be done, it is being done. And that is pushing back hard in whatever way we can against the future our political elites are building for us, so that, as much as possible, we can build it for ourselves. We can’t make decrees or issue five year plans, or make the kinds of promises campaigning politicians make. In the world we live in, where we are just extras whose consent is either manufactured or assumed, fighting back means refusing to take on ourselves the dreary weight of their responsibilities and the illusion of power that comes with them. Demanding at the same time that they live up to their professed responsibilities and killing their bills when they don’t may be irresponsible in this heavily leveraged political environment — a losing battle — but that’s asymmetric politics. Devoting our energies to help the political class make decisions as if we didn’t exist isn’t even a partial victory, it’s just martyrdom.