C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite revisited

The New Left Project recently ran a series of articles revisiting C. Wright Mills’s life and writings, especially focusing on his 1956 classic The Power Elite. Included are new contributions from Steven Lukes and Stanley Aronowitz, as well as old ones by Ralph Miliband and Mills himself.

I first read The Power Elite as a first-year grad student at The New School. Back then I was inspired by Mills’s effortless and shearing analysis of American society, even while having reservations about some of the more theoretical assumptions behind his approach (for example, arguably his reliance on Weberian elite theory rather than Marxian class analysis).

With that book, Mills also made a significant contribution to the debate on power within the social sciences, in contrast with the reductive behavioralism dominant in the academy at the time. Although this was not made explicit in the book, in order for his theory of the power elite to hold, the exercise of power could not simply be understood as visible coercion. Instead, the power of the elites permeated American society in a much deeper way, manifesting itself covertly through influence, status, and ideology. In this way, Mills anticipated the arguments about the “third face of power” made by Lukes nearly twenty years later.

Even more admirable, though, was Mills’s commitment to the notion that intellectual activity was not simply a good in and for itself, but had a role to play in public life. He was one of the last great American men of letters – a public intellectual who rejected the conservative, consensus-driven politics of the early Cold War years in favor of a radicalism that could be put to use in deepening democracy. It is a shame that he did not live just a few years longer to see it come to life in the spirit of 1968.


Repealing the 17th Amendment?

Matt Bai has written an interesting little article for the NY Times about one of the lesser known goals of the Tea Party movement. Besides their vocal calls for lower taxes and less government interference, some people within the movement also want to repeal the 17th Amendment. Which one is that, again?

The 17th Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1913, allows senators to be elected directly by the people of the states, instead of being named by state legislators. Here is the full text:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

Passed in order to mitigate widespread corruption in late-19th century American politics, where senators would buy their seats from legislators, this seems like a pretty unobjectionable piece of legislature. Why are the Tea Partiers, as well as conservative figures like George Will, Alan Keyes, and Zell Miller opposed to a law that is supposed to give more influence to the average voter than to a state politician?

As Bai explains,

Senators would be more likely to fulfill their Constitutional role as the brake on runaway populism, the thinking goes, if they were not so always at the mercy of the popular will. “Direct democracy is the worst form of government possible,” says Howard Stephenson, a Republican state senator from Utah who has pushed for repeal, “because it relies on 60-second sound bites and the ability of the ad firm that can best make an impression on the voters.”

According to this line of argument, popular elections of state senators leaves too much to the control of people whose opinions are easily swayed by the media (which, as conservatives and populists love to believe, has a liberal bias.) By giving back legislators the right to pick state senators, states will in theory have more power to curb the federal government’s policies.

So far this seems like a fairly straightforward message, making the case for elite rule and against the dangers of direct democracy. This kind of thinking is quite in line with a conservative, Hamiltonian position on the relationship between republicanism and the notion of popular government. But what throws off the equation is that now, paradoxically, the populist Tea Partiers seem ready to harm themselves by pushing for this change.

The way I see it, there are two possible answers for this, and neither makes their movement look all that good. One is that the Tea Partiers’ loss of faith in the American version of democracy is so drastic that these people are willing to give up their immediate political rights for a long-term goal. This kind of logic has certainly been used before, appearing most often in fascist and right-populist mobilizations. Superficially, this tendency can be compared with Hobbes’s Leviathan, where authority is constructed through a universal abdication of individual political autonomy and its projection onto a third entity.

On the other hand, there is the less complicated answer: there is in fact nothing populist about the Tea Partiers. As shown by a recent poll, the Tea Partiers are wealthier and better educated than the average American. Of course, looking at some of the footage from their rallies, those findings fly in the face of intuition. Yet it can’t be ruled out that the Tea Party is more of an upper-middle class bourgeois reaction than a lower and lower-middle class populist uprising.

Let’s conclude these reflections on populism with a timely excerpt from Zizek (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 61):

“To put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.”

Is ‘Europe’ a Dead Political Project?

Etienne Balibar believes so. In a new article for the Guardian, he addresses the recent financial slump spreading from the Greek economy and what it could mean for the political project of the European Union. With European policymakers more attuned to the neoliberal policies of the IMF than their own people, the European left moribund, and a renewed threat of right-wing populism on the rise, Balibar argues that it is now time to begin thinking past a unified political framework that creates greater economic inequalities.

But the breaking of the EU would inevitably abandon its peoples to the hazards of globalisation to an even greater degree. Conversely, a new foundation of Europe does not guarantee any success, but at least it gives her a chance of gaining some geopolitical leverage. With one condition, however: that all the challenges involved in the idea of an original form of post-national federation are seriously and courageously met. These involve setting up a common public authority, which is neither a state nor a simple “governance” of politicians and experts; securing genuine equality among the nations, thus fighting against reactionary nationalisms; and above all reviving democracy in the European space, thus resisting the current processes of “de-democratisation” or “statism without a State”, produced by neoliberalism.

Something obvious should have been long acknowledged: there will be no progress towards federalism in Europe (the one that is now advocated by some, and rightly so) if democracy itself does not progress beyond the existing forms, allowing an increased influence for the people(s) in the supranational institutions. Does this mean that, in order to reverse the course of recent history, to shake the lethargy of a decaying political construction, we need something like a European populism, a simultaneous movement or a peaceful insurrection of popular masses who will be voicing their anger as victims of the crisis against its authors and beneficiaries, and calling for a control “from below” over the secret bargainings and deals made by markets, banks, and states? Yes indeed. I agree that it can lead to other catastrophes. But the risk is greater if nationalism prevails in whichever form.

I agree with Balibar about the discrepancy between politics and economics in the European Union today. Political unification has been far more successful in the project than the economic aspect, and the imposition of a single currency on drastically different national economies is now creating financial problems that many had overlooked as a possibility. I also sympathize with his call for a new view on what a post-national federation would look like, including creating a much greater democratic space than currently exists among the nations.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that the populist insurrection he foresees can avoid taking on specifically national characters, as opposed to a unified European one.  While the EU has created a highly integrated form of bureaucratic political unification, most would agree that it also has not been successful in generating a new pan-European form of allegiance among people. In other words, nationalist sympathies still abound and, as we think back to Polanyi’s description of the global economy’s cycle of boom and bust, financial crisis tends to lead to conservative protectionism and nationalist populism. We have already seen recent signs of that in Hungary with the electoral successes of the Fidesz and Jobbik parties, the lack of any substantial leftist opposition to Sarkozy in France and Berlusconi in Italy, the continued dominance of the socially-conservative Christian Democrats in Germany, and the heightened fear of Muslim immigration in numerous countries, with the most prominent example being the Swiss ban on the construction of mosques.

All these signs indicate that nationalism has already prevailed in the last few years. The task for all progressives and leftists in Europe today should be to think of a new political and economic alternative that can both halt the conservative drift back to statism and at the same time stand in principled opposition to neoliberal economic integration and the federalism of the EU that has become its political form.

Thoughts on Obama’s State of the Union

President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight went better than I expected, although that still did not salvage what has become for me a continuing cynicism about his administration. The speech (text here) was a prime example of  his considerable ability as a public speaker (for comparison, just check out Governor McDonnell’s wooden rebuttal.) Yet it also continued the same tone of bipartisanship and the pleas to put ‘politics’ aside that have largely fallen on deaf ears in the past year and a half. The result was a speech high on rhetoric and spirit, moderate on concrete future promises, and low on any ‘change we can believe in.’ (A brief fact check of some assertions can be found here.)

While he heavily front-loaded his speech with all the socially progressive measures that the administration was ready to implement–including tax credits for child care, more transparency on the part of lobbyists, and a cap on student loan payments–he saved the big news about the three year government spending freeze until almost the end. Does this freeze signal yet another reach out to Republicans? If so, it is likely to be a largely symbolic gesture, since the $250 billion that it would save over the next 10 years pales in comparison to the $9 trillion in additional deficits the government will accumulate in that time (Source: NY Times.) It is more likely that the decision for the spending freeze has more to do with the growing backlash about Treasury Secretary Geithner and the rescue of AIG. So at the moment, it (thankfully) does not seem that Obama is ready to trade in the lesser evil of Keynes for the greater evil of Hayek.

One of the most interesting and confrontational moments of the speech, which has already been widely picked up by the cable news networks, was Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate funding for political candidates. With the Supreme Court’s justices looking on directly in the front row, he spoke of the considerable dangers that national and foreign corporate interests posed for politics, and urged Congress to pass new laws mitigating this decision. While one analyst on FOX news claimed that this amounted to directly trying to influence a branch of government, this confrontational approach was one of the highlights of the speech. Even though it turned out he was blatantly incorrect about the idea of foreign corporations influencing elections, it was a good move in terms of placing more accountability on the Court–the least democratic branch of government, and one whose history of recent decisions has been less than inspiring.   

Also interesting to note: the speech was permeated with a strong but subtle nationalistic undertone about America’s greatness. Of course, this has been a staple of almost every Presidential address and therefore is no surprise. On the other hand, coming out of the mouth of a supposedly ‘cosmopolitan’ President, these remarks appeared somewhat curious. A couple of times, Obama asserted that second place was not enough for the U.S., comparing the nation’s complacency with the strides made by India, Germany, and especially China. One cannot help but think that such an attempt to tap into the national spirit is precisely because of the partisan tone that Congressional discourse has taken under his presidency. As the fissures of debate increase in statist politics, so do the appeals to the abstract unity of the nation as a means of keeping things together. 

But if Obama claims that it’s no wonder there’s so much cynicism and disappointment out there, I suspect that some of it has to do with the continuing grandiose statements on his part. For example, tonight he claimed that corporations still can be counted as those institutions that reflect values such as pride in labor, giving back to one’s country, and helping one’s neighbor. Granted, this was a remark he didn’t dwell on and made in passing. But in the midst of the worst financial crisis since 1929, caused by the worst excesses of capitalism, how anyone can be expected to take it with a straight face is beyond me. 

 A final remark on the ‘populist’ note that Obama is now trying to strike. Although populist rhetoric in national politics is almost as old as the U.S. itself, in the last year we have seen it become contested territory with the rise of the teabaggers and the coming of the radical/fringe right into the public eye. This led to something of a scramble among Republicans to appropriate the movement into the party as a way of exerting more pressure on the Democrats. (On a side note, the appropriation of mass-movement and quasi-insurrectionary tactics by the right, and the practical surrender of these means by the left since the 1980s, is one of the most curious developments in American politics.) Are we now seeing the Democrats attempt to regain this territory? If so, it would be a mistake for the party to rely too much on the executive branch to connect with the people and attain progressive reform. Doing so runs the risk of becoming complacent on the more important level of grassroots activism. And as history has shown us, socially-oriented top-down reform is rarely a substitute for progressivism or democracy.

Historical reconciliation? Communists face ban in Czech Rep.

A group of Czech senators is looking to ban the Communist Party. Officially called the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, it last received 13% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2006, placing it third among all parties. Czech law states that a party can be legally banned only by initiative from the government or the president, and so the senators are pinning their hopes on Prime Minister Jan Fischer. For their own part, the Communists deny a connection to the pre-1989 years of the party, but remain unrepentant:

Vojtech Filip, the Communist Party’s leader, was adamant in an interview that the party did not support undemocratic regime change. But he fell short of condemning the Marxist principle of revolution and called Marx “the greatest thinker of the millennium.

This story raises a few very interesting questions. First, it is obvious that the legacy of Communism in Eastern Europe has not been overcome and historical reconciliation has not been accomplished a generation later. For the elderly, communist rule has become a nostalgic ideal.

Second, it raises one of the crucial questions of democratic politics: Where can the borders of legitimacy and legality be drawn with regard to ‘undemocratic’ movements? Although communist parties in many post-socialist nations have become absorbed into the parliamentary system, they continue to invoke fear and distrust in people due to their association with Marxism and Leninism. As the argument goes, the Party should be suspended “until they give up the title of ‘communist’ and denounce Marx and Lenin, who regarded violence as a legitimate means of gaining power.

I do not mean to question the historical experience of Communist repression. Yet it should be asked whether a genuinely democratic politics can revolve around a fear of disruption caused by a particular group? I am not convinced this is the case, particularly if the party in question does not pose a genuinely existential threat to the system in place. In effect, the Communists have become anathema based on their historical legacy, not on any danger in the present.

It is also this policy that can hinder further efforts at reconciliation with the past of Communist rule. Reconciliation is accomplished on the social level, in the experience of cohabiting in a political space and by means of it, sharing a single future with one another. When this task is transferred to courts and state policies, what results is a deferral of responsibility and the suppression of conflicts and moments of political contestation that may actually be beneficial for society.

Waning democracy

The fall of communism did not lead to greater democracy, as many predicted. While the liberalization of the world economy brought new wealth to a number of countries, particularly in Asia, this growth often came as part and parcel of a new form of authoritarianism. This form of government, exemplified in Singapore, rests on a form of implicit agreement between the rich and the middle classes to abdicate politics to the professional administrators, in exchange for which they receive an almost unbounded mandate to accumulate wealth. As George Scialabba writes: 

The key to this development is the emergence of a cautious, disenchanted middle class. Political theorists in the West have generally assumed that democratic freedoms grow in tandem with a middle class strong enough to hold the state to account and diverse enough to require political competition, which in turn requires freedom of speech. But democracy has been getting a bad name among its purported bearers, taking the rap for political chaos and economic stagnation.

Similar forms of government now exist in diverse places such as Russia, China, India, and Italy. All this points to a tension between liberalism in the economy and democracy in politics–a tension that has been papered over in the West since the 1980s.

Velvet Revolutions: the New Zeitgeist

Timothy Garton Ash has a very thought-provoking essay in The New York Review of Books on the meaning of the Velvet Revolutions that took place in Central Europe in 1989. Ash’s main question is whether, judging by the last twenty years, these events have become the new model for revolution, in contrast to the ones of 1789 (France), 1917 (Russia), and 1949 (China). As he describes, whereas “The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror,” the “1989 ideal type, by contrast, is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—”people power”—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this idea of ‘negotiated revolutions’ is permeated

with Hannah Arendt’s thought. The distinction between power and violence that she drew in many of her works is likely one of the reasons why Arendtian approaches to 1989 have been so popular among political theorists, philosophers, and sociologists since the 1990s. As Ash admits, however, a decidedly nonviolent and negotiated approach to political transformation can often result in the re-imposition of past inequalities in different guises (for example, the privatization of state property in the former communist bloc and the return of communist politicians to national prominence.)

While Velvet Revolution is an admirable ideal that must be strived for, it also runs the risk of covering over the existing social fissures that led to the revolutionary moment itself. Instead, it can favor an imagined ‘national’ or ‘post-political’ consensus. This escape from the realities of political contestation in the form of ‘historical reconciliation’ can not only have a deadening effect on the political process itself, but also serve to cover up the social inequalities emerging after the transfer of power. (Chantal Mouffe’s argument against the Third Way politics of Tony Blair in her book The Democratic Paradox is a relevant analogy here.) This does not mean that violence must be a necessary feature of revolution; a regress into revolutionary terror must be avoided in every case. But it also means that the social coalitions necessary for a Velvet Revolution are not enough, because they can often conceal within themselves structures of power that will become perpetuated in a new, post-revolutionary order.

A final aside: in reflecting on the geographic and cultural likelihood of Velvet Revolution, Ash remarks that they have so far occurred only in Western and Christian societies. He asks: “But can one yet point to a plainly successful velvet revolution in an overwhelmingly Muslim country? (Mali? Maldives?) Or in a preponderantly Buddhist or Confucian one?” This reliance on culturally/religious criteria for judging is counterproductive for understanding the very modern roots of revolution. The fact that a Velvet Revolution has not yet succeeded in Muslim and Buddhist societies is not because of a religious or cultural aversion that isn’t present in the Christian West. Implying that this is so, as Ash does, is to work with an outdated understanding of how a single modernity has been experienced by all these peoples that has ideologically transformed modern religion into a form of political discourse. Even though Ash sees that modern authoritarian regimes are adopting similar tactics for guiding the political processes, all despite their geographic and cultural differences, he somehow still thinks that religion and culture can prevent a successful Velvet Revolution. The key here, clearly, is not religious but sociological: as a largely ‘secular’ political phenomenon (despite the religious language with which it may be justified in some societies), revolution has become universalized in the modern world. It is this crucial point made by Arendt in On Revolution that Ash has glossed over.

The BBC reported yesterday that Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown have called for ‘global market changes,’ primarily by proposing to tax banks that give out large bonuses to chairpeople. As it states: “Various proposals to reform the sector “deserve examination”, they said, but a one-off tax on high bonuses paid to bankers “should be considered a priority”. This is just another example of politicians drawing attention from the central issue that no one wants to touch: the state of the European economy in the neoliberal age. Instead of focusing on this elephant in the room, politicians seem to think that the current economic crisis was the result of individual greed and not a systematic by-product of neoliberalism itself. (Obama milked this explanation for all it was worth during his campaign last year.)

As Alex Callinicos summarizes in his book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (which was released in 2003, but still very relevant today), “The process of competitive accumulation is responsible for capitalism’s chronic tendency towards crises of over-investment and profitability: financial speculation feeds this tendency but is not its primary cause” (p. 65). Callinicos maintains a strong Marxist framework in his analysis (while also drawing upon Polanyi), arguing that the nation state is still a significant actor in the global economy. As a result, revolutionary movements must take advantage of their decentralization but still strive to wrest control of the state. 

Tying in with this is Chantal Mouffe’s argument in The Democratic Paradox, in which she puts forth an agonistic conception of politics in contrast to the neo-Kantian theories of deliberative democracy made by Rawls and Habermas. Reading the book, I found myself agreeing completely with her critiques of both the deliberative democratic approach and the Third Way proposed by Giddens. However, Mouffe’s alternative was less clear. At times drawing upon anti-liberal thinkers like Schmitt and, in a different way, Derrida, she at other times insists on the importance of the left-right spectrum and of a liberal-democratic form of political order.

Ultimately it seems that she is a proponent of a robust and politically active democratic form of citizenship. However, the agonistic model she puts forth (and distinguishes from a purely Schmittian antagonism) is not forward enough on what concrete instances of political participation it would entail. While she is at pains to distinguish herself from Schmitt, she affirms that force and violence “can never be eliminated and cannot be adequately apprehended through the sole language of ethics of morality” (p. 130). While she rightly views power as constitutive of social relations, it is unclear as to how this constant possibility of violence is to be reconciled with her emphasis on a stable, liberal-democratic framework for agonistic politics.

Social democracy and the State

What is living and what is dead in social democracy? asks Tony Judt in what will probably be his last piece for the New York Review of Books. Sadly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease last year, Judt delivered this lecture at NYU back in October. In it he lamented the increased privatization of public industries and services. Judt argues that the ideals carried by social democracy in the early 20th century are impossible to revitalize today, but that we should still focus on the state as the bulwark for mitigating the damages of privatization. Furthermore, according to him we must redefine the economistic terms on which we think about society and its needs.

There is something hollow in Judt’s analysis. Perhaps the most prominent critique against social democracy is precisely that its reliance on the state is an anachronism. Instead of learning to “think the state once again,” as Judt suggests, we should begin to think how we can provide alternatives to the state while still providing public goods to all. Interestingly, Judt identifies the state with the public realm, arguing that it is needed because it, and not society, is what binds citizens together. In the past I would have been more convinced by this rationale than I am now. The public services that the state provides–transportation, health care, and so forth–are clearly not the same as the public we speak of when talking about citizenship and the political realm. To equate public services with the political public is to play a game of reductionism that ultimately does lead to still calling upon the regulative and administrative functions of the state.

Judt does make one interesting, although tangential, point: “It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.” Where does this leave the left today? Is it supposed to accept this trade off and actively propagate a form of conservatism by defending the state, as Judt thinks? To me this seems to go directly against his own skepticism about social democracy in the 21st century. Instead, without any idea of universal teleology to back it, the goal of the left should be to innovate new ways of thinking about both socialism and democracy, and so fill a much needed conceptual void.