Category Archives: Political Theory

Beyond Leftist Resentment

I have been a leftist at least since college about 12 years ago.  I still remember when, after much thinking, I decided that I was an anarchist.  To this day, I still think capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system that should be replaced with something better.  However, I have had some thoughts lately that seem to go against everything I have stood for as a leftist, yet I can’t help but thinking there is some truth to it.  The past year I have read a lot of existentialist philosophy and psychology, especially Nietzsche and Rollo May.  While May has influenced my thought a great deal, the main influence for what I will address here has been Nietzsche.

Nietzsche saw a difference between what he called “master morality” and “slave morality” in his The Geneology of Morals.  He claims that the traditional powerful classes differentiated between “good” and “bad,” with “good” being associated with their own mastery and accomplishments and “bad” as that which was associated with the weaker social classes.  Nietzsche goes on to claim that the weaker classes developed resentment against the powerful, jealous of the weak classes’ inability to have what the masters did.  Thus, the weak labelled everything the masters were as “evil” and wealth, power, and  prestige were seen as vices.  This dichotomy of good vs. evil he labels as “slave morality,” which he sees as the basis for Christianity.  He sees a similar dynamic with socialists and democrats of his day, with the agitators for equality being a form of jealous resentment.   As a historical analysis, I think Nietzsche is extraordinarily simplistic, especially since it fails to address the anxieties and fears that drive the “masters” to cling to power.

Nonetheless, I have been wondering if many on the left are not really as morally righteous as they claim, but are actually coming from a selfish sense of resentment when they express anger at the moral evils of capitalism (or racism/sexism/pick any “ism”).  This is not something I can prove and it is honestly mostly speculative, but I think there is some truth to it given how angry people on the left can be.  To be sure, there is much to be angry about and much social injustice that makes me angry, which a glance at my blog posts here will demonstrate.

However, I am more concerned about activists who are so consistently angry that it seems to be the basis for their identity.  For emphasis, I will repeat that there is much to be angry about, but there is a difference between being angry about specific things and having anger as the basis for your worldview.  I speak as someone who absolutely used to be in the latter category and in many ways is still struggling to be angry at the right things, as opposed to generally resentful.  From my own self-introspection I think my anger was based in a sense of alienation and feeling that I didn’t belong in a world where accumulating wealth was the top priority.  I’ve come to realize I face three choices: (1) I can leave my leftist beliefs behind and accept the values of mainstream capitalist society, (2) I can become angry at mainstream society for not sharing my values, or (3) I can be angry at the cruelty that is part of capitalist society and yet affirm my own ability to exist in it without feeling alienated or letting anger be the basis for my worldview.  Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Himself, discusses how rebellion is important but is the adolescent stage on the way to full maturity.  In full maturity, one goes beyond just saying “No” to what one does not like but says “Yes” to one’s own values and creativity.  I honestly feel that much of the left is still in the adolescent stage.

For an extreme example, take ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism).  They are angry about the right things, but all they are is angry.  Their webpage lists off all the things they hate: violence against women, opposition to war, FBI domestic surveillance, right-to-work laws, among other things.  Their site has a number of images of their protests.  Another example (admittedly more extreme) is the International Socialist Organization, which I worked with in college in anti-death penalty activism.  Even back then I could see that these people were at most allies of convenience since their whole identity is based on anger at capitalism.  If there were some kind of revolution I wouldn’t trust ISO members to lead it since they are angry and dogmatic, which is an extremely unhealthy combination.

Even a site like ZNet, which to be fair often has posts about positive vision, usually contains post after post about how this or that oppressor is hurting this or that oppressed person.  I find myself having more respect for the work of one of ZNet’s founders Michael Albert, along with Robin Hahnel, for their focus on developing an alternative vision of a future economy, Participatory Economics.  They clearly have no love for capitalism and are part of activists circles, yet they are informed by a positive vision.  Or even someone like Hugo Chavez is a good example.  As angry as he is at the US government,  he has tried to advance (rightly or wrongly) what he sees as a better society for Venezuela.

These words may be hard for people to relate to and I find myself having trouble expressing them as articulately as I would like.  Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that much of leftist anger says as much about the angry person as it does about the injustice he or she is angry at.  I have chosen for myself that I am not going to make opposition to capitalism or other forms of injustice the center of my identity.  Do I do enough to help those suffering from social injustice?  Surely not, as this blog is presently my only current attempt to promote dialogue and educate people as much as I can about the workings of power.  But I find myself caring more for people who suffer than when I was consistently resentful.

 

 

Political Power Comes from Organization

I’ve come to realize I have a certain assumption of how I think political systems work that underlies a lot of my opinions so I thought I’d lay it out.  It’s really very simple, but I think it explains a lot.  It can be summed up in one sentence:

Power over social decision-making requires organization.

“Organization” is to be interpreted very broadly here.  It could be a business, a political party, a union, or any other organization.  There are many advantages to organization.  An organization can collect information and distribute it to its members, rather than each individual having to do his own research, collect information from its members to advocate on their behalf (what political science calls issue articulation) and channel money and resources to influence the political process.

If we assume the above paragraph to be true, then applying it reveals some interesting insights.  Who is organized in the US?  Clearly, major corporations have the largest organizations and resources available to them.  While tiny in comparison to the business sector, labor unions organize about 10% of the labor force.  There is a vast array of non-profit organizations advocating many causes, which have some impact, but they have far fewer resources than the business community.  So it should come as no surprise if government policy disproportionately serves the interests of the wealthy.  It can also be seen if we look at the background of three of Obama’s cabinet posts:

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: son of VP of Public Relations of Ford Motor Company, began career at Kissinger Associates

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton: Yale Law School and on the board of directors of TCBY (1985-1992), Wal-Mart (1986-1992), and Lafarge (1990-1992)

Attorney General Eric Holder: In addition to Justice Department positions, he was an attorney with Covington and Burling, an international law firm that represents major corporations.

This is not to suggest any conspiracy, but to point out that a) corporations are organized and b) their interests and those of the government tend to align. What about someone like Bernie Sanders, the progressive Senator from Vermont?  Isn’t he proof that politicians don’t have to be supported by big business?  Sanders actually proves the point quite well, since the vast majority of his top campaign donors are labor unions.  That is why he is able to be the most leftist Senator. UMASS Boston Professor Thomas Ferguson has actually done some great work on what he calls the “investment theory of party competition,” outlining how political parties align to those who are organized (mostly business), while the wishes of the electorate play a secondary role.   He in fact shows that one reason the New Deal was successful was due to an alignment of labor union and capital-intensive industry.  An excellent documentary about his ideas is below.

 

 

Thoughts on Externalities

I’ve been looking back at material I read a long time ago by Robin Hahnel, economics professor emeritus at American University, and it got me thinking about the problem of externalities in market systems.  As basic economics tells us, an externality is an effect of a purchase on a third party in addition to the buyer and seller.  Thus, when someone buys gas for their car the gas company tries to get a maximum price and a buyer a minimum price, but air pollution does not factor into the price determination.  It is basically supply and demand.  There can be positive externalities too.  An increase in electric cars reduces the amount of pollution.  As Hahnel pointed out in his excellent book, The ABC’s of Political Economy (the link will take you to the full book in pdf format), a fundamental problem with markets is that they underprice goods with negative externalities and overprice goods with positive externalities.

The examples just given demonstrate this.  When you buy gas, you may pay $3.50-4.00 per gallon, but there are additional costs.  For example, an analysis of several studies on the externalized costs of gasoline by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute makes the observation that inpatient admissions among Medicare recipients to hospitals is 19% higher in high pollution areas.  That’s partially tax money covering the costs of gasoline.  Meanwhile, the benefits of an electric or hybrid car are not included in its price.  This means that society bears the costs of gasoline usage and forgoes the benefits of electric cars.

If we are to have less pollution, the government needs to tax gas at a higher rate and subsidize electric cars so they can be sold at a lower price.  I am using this as an example to illustrate the point, but the reality is that externalities are an inherent part of any economy and in a market economy the only way to address them is government intervention.  Think of all the added costs of negative externalities in the form of environmental damage from a whole host of products.  Or the poor nutritional value of fast food, which is very cheap to buy.  We also have less incentive for renewable energy.

The fact that externality problems are inherent in markets makes in daunting to think of the government intervening to fix every imbalance.  But markets cannot address externalities from within.  Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert have developed a method of accounting for externalities in their vision of Participatory Economics, but that is in the context of a future society with far different economic institutions.  I personally think their long-term vision is on the right track, but what is the best approach to externalities in the short run?  I would love to hear suggestions.

 

Benefit Corporations Offer A Better Business Model

Someone sent me a good 2011 article from The Nation about “benefit corporations.”  These are a new type of corporation established by law in 10 states in which the company is established to fulfill a public mission.  The key gain from this is that corporations expand from just stockholders put to stakeholders as well and can be held to account for its social impact by independent third party monitors.  This is unlike a normal American corporation in which the sole legal duty is to maximize profits for shareholders.

Even though I am not a big fan of the profit motive and corporate structures, benefit corporations provide an excellent improvement and a basis for future improvements.  Benefit corporations would go hand-in-hand with the movement of worker-owned cooperatives.  If workers owned firms that fulfilled a public good, it would be a great advance in human solidarity.  In the long-term, as such institutions became consolidated I think people would feel more empowered and open to further changes, such as developing cooperative planning models rather than competing.

Empowering Work for All

Since it’s Labor Day, I wanted to put out an idea that I have had for a long time, but honestly haven’t thought about in a while.  Why do we think it is ok to have an economy where finding a job often means doing menial work that is not under your own control?  Forget the low pay.  What if work could be something that helped you fulfill yourself?  Such fulfillment can come from something simple like mastering a craft, such as carpentry, bricklaying etc.

But the reality is that a huge portion of the jobs are offered by corporations that place the bottom line above all else (as they are required by law to do) and treat their employees more or less like replaceable parts.  Of course you can do a good job, become a manager and acquire more empowering work that way.  But why does empowering work have to be a scarce resource?

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have done excellent work on an idea called Participatory Economics, which includes the idea of a “balanced job complex.”  Think of each job as a list of tasks.  Under our present system, some people have jobs where the list of tasks is empowering (decision-making, creating, collaborating) and other jobs have lists of tasks that are disempowering (restocking shelves, sweeping, taking the trash out).  If you gave every task a rating based on empowerment, the average rating for some jobs would be much higher than others.  The idea of a balanced job complex is that everybody has roughly the same average rating.  So if I worked at a bookstore, sometimes I would be stocking shelves, but other times I could be leading a book discussion or deciding which books to order.  Or if I worked at a restaurant, sometimes I would be wiping grime from the floor and other times I would be trying out new recipes.

To me the case for balanced job complexes is such common sense that I have not heard an objection to it, on both pragmatic and moral grounds, that I don’t think can be overcome.

Heresy: Voting Is Overrated

Jonathan Bernstein has a recent post answering readers’ questions about the dilemma of voting for third parties when we know that they usually cannot have much influence. I am all for voting, but too often we treat it as a holy grail, when it really just the bare minimum for a democracy. This is why I’m glad Bernstein mentions other forms of citizen activity, such as attending political party campaigns and taking part in interest group activity, such as working with groups like the ACLU. Interest groups are the real key to democracy. If you cannot get your voice heard (and being a drop in the bucket of voting tallies does not count as being heard), then your interests will not be addressed. Labor unions can be crucial on this point. One example: In the 2010 Congressional elections, the US voter participation rate (as a percentage of registered voters) was 41.59%. Meanwhile we have parliamentary election participation rates in Sweden at 84.63%, Belgium 89.22%, and the UK 65.77%. In 2010, the percentage of workers belonging to a union was 11.9% (US), 68.4% (Sweden), 52% (Belgium), and 26.5 (UK). Obviously, there are other factors as well, but union membership is clearly part of the picture. Unions mobilize voters and also have a greater say in the political process, usually giving union members a party they tend to align with.