Archive for April, 2011

Pity-Charity Liberalism and Non-Domination
April 13, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

Freddie DeBoer — whose blog is an absolutely indispensable critique of the left from the further left — is now blogging over at Balloon Juice. His first post over there summarizes a crucial component of that critique:

There’s a troubling form of liberalism that is increasingly found in the wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere that is so influential these days. I’ve called it, in the past, globalize/grow/give progressivism. Mike Konczal of Rortybomb has referred to it as pity charity liberalism. (I hope you all are turned on to Rortybomb; it’s essential reading.) Whatever you want to call it, this vision of the liberal project defines itself through the social safety net. Its orientation is towards expanding and protecting a redistributive social welfare system. Meanwhile, it is at best uninterested in (and often downright hostile towards) worker organization, unions, regulation, and other attempts to empower workers in relation to capital and poor people in relation to the rich. The idea is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.


Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

Freddie asks us to “forgive the Marxian cant,” but this part sounds less like Marxism to me than republicanism. As I mentioned a couple posts back, I’m currently working my way through Philip Pettit’s Republicanism, a work of political philosophy which imagines a state dedicated to maximizing freedom through non-domination. Domination, Pettit argues is not the same as interference: domination is no less than the capacity to interfere in another’s affairs on an arbitrary basis, which is to say on a basis that has nothing to do with whether the other consents or objects.

Pettit describes the policy implications of his vision as being generally left-leaning, but he would clearly agree with Freddie and Mike about pity-charity liberalism. As long as political power remains concentrated at the top, he would argue, the rich will continue to dominate the poor.

I’m not all the way through Republicanism just yet, but I’m finding a lot to like in it so far. I’d encourage Freddie and other left-wing skeptics pity-charity liberalism to go check it out.

By the way, one last thing about the book that might interest fellow lefties from an organizing/messaging perspective: Marxian cant or no, Pettit identifies his vision of liberty as non-domination very closely with the American founders. I try to stay out of arguments that involve an appeal to authority, but someone more interested in that sort of thing could make the argument that his vision of maximizing non-domination is more in tune with traditional American values than the Tea Party is.

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We Don’t Declare War Anymore, We Just Declare Quagmire
April 13, 2011

I’ve written before that our war in Libya contains many of the ingredients for quagmire. At the top of the list: the gap between our objectives and what can actually be accomplished with the resources we’ve committed thus far. The sort of limited engagement we’re attempting may minimize American risk in the short term, but in the long term it can’t secure the rebel victory unofficially sought by the United States. So that leaves us with three options: (A) withdrawal, (B) stalemate, or (C) a gradual escalation of our military commitment. The problem with gradual escalations, of course, is that they can be met with corresponding escalations on the other side. So while (B) and (C) both smell like quagmire to me, at least (B) would be significantly less bloody.

The question is why the White House, if it really believed Gaddafi had to go, would put us in this position instead of making a significant military commitment from the get-go and laying out clear, unambiguous objectives. One reason: that’s the sort of thing that makes it look like you’re at war with someone. And as Scott Horton wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday, the OLC’s whole legal rationale for the Obama administration’s actions is predicated on the notion that this isn’t a real war.

Think about the precedent we’re setting here. Obama’s DoJ, adopting the Bush administration’s legal rationales, has decided that the executive’s power to deploy the American military is virtually unchecked by any domestic power. The only caveat: the strength of that deployment is capped at a level that makes quagmire seem very, very plausible.

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Class and Humanitarian Intervention
April 12, 2011

I’ve been slacking off on the blogging lately, which is why it took me no less than six days for me to shamelessly hype my latest Salon column in this space. Turns out the topic is still relevant, though I get no pleasure from saying so.

The piece lays out the argument that part of the reason we’re embroiled in yet another hazily-defined, ill-considered military conflict is that the rich are very nearly this country’s only meaningful political constituency, and the costs of warfare are, for them, very low.

I struggle to phrase the thesis in a way that doesn’t come off sort of tortured or overparsed because you’ve got to be careful when making arguments like this. This is a structural argument, and people who aren’t intuitively sympathetic to the starting premises of such arguments — in this case, that intervention in Libya was a bad idea — tend to respond oddly to everything that follows. Myself included. We’ve got some sort of neurological block on structural arguments so that they tend to get broken down into much muddier sub-arguments about intent and whose fault everything is.

So for the record: I’m not saying rich people hate poor people, or Libyans, or poor Libyans. Nor am I saying rich people love war, or humanitarian interventions, or whatever. The point is one about shared burden. Actual shared burden, not Paul Ryan’s crypto-Randian notion of what that’s supposed to mean. When you’ve got a group of people whose interests policy makers disproportionately represent, and those people are unaffected by the consequences of a state of perpetual warfare, than policy makers have few incentives to avoid perpetual warfare. And that’s where we are now. And here, again, is the column.

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