Labor and Progressives in the Progressive Era
March 10, 2012

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is generally one of the more thoughtful political theory blogs out there, so this post was a disappointment. Basically, in the course of accusing Corey Robin of badly mischaracterizing libertarian views, author Jessica Flanigan herself badly mischaracterizes the historical relationship between unions and the progressive movement. She writes:

But I also suspect that there’s a deeper, more fundamental anxiety about libertarians that goes beyond politics. Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.

Let’s table any questions about the relative merits of school vouchers and social security for now, since it’s not in my wheelhouse and argument-by-links is generally an indication that we’re supposed to take pronouncements like “vouchers are awesome” and “social security is regressive” as premises. I’m willing to do that for the sake of this particular argument. But there’s a very curious omission here: after going on about the “historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots” of progressivism, Flanigan goes on to talk about only the latter root-category. It’s almost as if she had to get in a casual swipe at the labor movement before moving on to what she really wanted to talk about.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that progressive opposition to vouchers is all about unions, specifically the teachers’ union. But A) no, and B) you can’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone with any interest in organized labor if you choose to treat the labor movement as just another interest group whose primary goal is to lobby the government for goodies. Being “pro-union” means a hell of a lot more than just endorsing legislation that some unionized workers might like.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with the above passage (at least from a labor perspective) is its blithe reference to progressivism’s “historical pro-union roots.” Yes, the interests of early 20th century progressives and organized labor did often align, but there were also serious philosophical clashes between the two parties. In particular, the progressives had a technocratic rationalist streak that led to some rather authoritarian views on the proper role of labor in society. Some of the era’s most prominent progressives even endorsed Frederick Taylor’s systematic assault on workers’ control over their own labor. From David Montgomery’s classic Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles:

Thus Taylor roundly denied even “the high class mechanic” could “ever thoroughly understand the science of doing his work,” and pasted the contemptuous label of “soldiering” over all craft rules, formal and informal alike. Progressive intellectuals seconded his arguments. Louis Brandeis hailed scientific management for “reliev[ing] labor of responsibilities not its own.” And John R. Commons considered it “immoral to hold up to this miscellaneous labor, as a class, the hope that it can ever manage industry.”

“Historical pro-union roots,” indeed.

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America’s Got Issues
January 3, 2012

With respect to Elias, these are the sort of pronouncements you get from a political coalition that has no meaningful analysis of power:

I say this with a nagging sensation in the back of my mind that by co-signing this I am in some way revealing myself to be intellectually or morally lacking; but I feel deeply ambivalent about devoting my political energies to battling-back American empire. And it’s for entirely fatalist reasons. It seems sadly inevitable to me, at least for the foreseeable future and until the United Nations or some other form of global governance becomes supreme, that the world will be run by at least one Great Power.

That’s not to say I’d not rather it was otherwise; but rather it is to say that I feel my passion, time, and capacity is finite. I wouldn’t for anything wish that those who have devoted themselves to challenging, exposing, and attacking the American imperium stop. I just can’t honestly say that this goal moves me as much as does the cause of economic and social justice. Just as I often find the ideologies of leftist anarcho-syndicalism deeply appealing — but determine that, pipe dreams being what they are, I’d rather work for a more accountable Big Government — I hope for a more transparent and accountable neo-empire.

I’m not discounting the idea that an accountable empire is no less a fantasy than rolling back empire entirely. I’m merely sharing my gut feelings, and an explanation as to why I find Ron Paul’s appeal utterly minuscule when compared to his defects.

As colossal and entrenched as American empire may be, making it “accountable” is far more of a pipe dream than rolling it back. There is simply no way to address the root issues Elias wants ameliorated without eventually confronting the militarized structures that perpetuate existing conditions.

If you believe otherwise, ask yourself who profits from America’s wars, and who is asked to fight them. Ask yourself what impact the justifications for military expansion have on domestic law enforcement, and who suffers the most from the results. Ask yourself why laws ostensibly designed to aid in the war on terror are being used to fight the war on drugs. Ask yourself again who pays the price.

As long as the progresssive movement continues its myopic obsession with dividing its concerns into hermetically sealed categories like “civil liberties issues” and “economic issues,” it won’t have the conceptual equipment to deal with structural ills. A political coalition needs an analysis; what progressives have now is a policy wishlist that adds up to exactly the sum of its parts. Maybe figuring out how those desired policies interrelate should be a bigger priority than bickering over the rankings.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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