More About “Elite Failure”

And then there’s this by Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian that also describes perfectly what I mean by elite failure:

The era of neoliberalism ended in the autumn of 2008 with the bonfire of financialisation’s illusions. The fetishisation of unfettered markets that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought to the fore in the late 1970s had been the necessary ideological cover for the unleashing of financiers to enable the capital flows essential to a new phase of globalisation in which the United States deficits provided the aggregate demand for the world’s factories (whose profits flowed back to Wall Street closing the loop nicely).

Meanwhile, billions of people in the “third” world were pulled out of poverty while hundreds of millions of western workers were slowly sidelined, pushed into more precarious jobs, and forced to financialise themselves either through their pension funds or their homes. And when the bottom fell out of this increasingly unstable feedback loop, neoliberalism’s illusions burned down and the west’s working class ended up too expensive and too indebted to be of interest to a panicking global establishment.

Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberalism had sought to persuade that privatisation of everything would produce a fair and efficient society unimpeded by vested interests or bureaucratic fiat. That narrative, of course, hid from public view what was really happening: a tremendous buildup of super-state bureaucracies, unaccountable supra-state institutions (World Trade Organisation, Nafta, the European Central Bank), behemoth corporations, and a global financial sector heading for the rocks.

After the events of 2008 something remarkable happened. For the first time in modern times the establishment no longer cared to persuade the masses that its way was socially optimal. Overwhelmed by the collapsing financial pyramids, the inexorable buildup of unsustainable debt, a eurozone in an advanced state of disintegration and a China increasingly relying on an impossible credit boom, the establishment’s functionaries set aside the aspiration to persuade or to represent. Instead, they concentrated on clamping down.

In the UK, more than a million benefit applicants faced punitive sanctions. In the Eurozone, the troika ruthlessly sought to reduce the pensions of the poorest of the poor. In the United States, both parties promised drastic cuts to social security spending. During our deflationary times none of these policies helped stabilise capitalism at a national or at a global level. So, why were they pursued?

Their purpose was to impose acquiescence to a clueless establishment that had lost its ambition to maintain its legitimacy. When the UK government forced benefit claimants to declare in writing that “my only limits are the ones I set myself”, or when the troika forced the Greek or Irish governments to write letters “requesting” predatory loans from the European Central Bank that benefited Frankfurt-based bankers at the expense of their people, the idea was to maintain power via calculated humiliation. Similarly, in America the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system.

Western elites gave up trying to govern democratically, and instead, following 2008, with the politics of austerity, governed punitively. Governed as bureaucratic despots who doubled down and were unwilling to consider that the very policies, programs, and projects they championed were the cause of so much misery, dislocation, and fear.

In this, the promises of democracy — majority rule, accountability — were shown to be shams. Lies. The elite were no longer accountable in any meaningful way, and national governments were increasingly hamstrung by predatory international institutions. Donald Trump is a continuation of this without any pretense. And that, in a world where unaccountable, undemocratic governance has become the norm (and been so for at least a decade), is at least some kind of control and some kind of change.

Varoufakis is calling for a transatlantic New Deal, a nice call, but it is likely far too late. The people who govern the West are incapable of such thought any more. Which means the governments of the West are past being able to do what Varoufakis calls for.

Yes, Trump will fail. But we were facing failure anyway. The only choice we have is how. Not if.

What I Mean by “Elite Failure”

I talk a lot about elites failure here, that a good portion of the reason we in the liberal West are seeing the rise of illiberalism is because our elites have failed — they can no longer think straight about themselves, the societies they govern, or the world.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what I meant by elite failure, however.

This bit by Walter Russel Mead from Foreign Affairs on the rise of “Jacksonianism” as evident in the election of Donald J. Trump, however, does a pretty good of describing one portion of elite failure:

Over the past quarter century, Western policymakers became infatuated with some dangerously oversimplified ideas. They believed capitalism had been tamed and would no longer generate economic, social, or political upheavals. They felt that illiberal ideologies and political emotions had been left in the historical dustbin and were believed only by “bitter” losers—people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations,” as Barack Obama famously put it in 2008. Time and the normal processes of history would solve the problem; constructing a liberal world order was simply a matter of working out the details.

Given such views, many recent developments—from the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism to the financial crisis to the recent surge of angry nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic—came as a rude surprise. It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.

While the liberal West has been relatively well-governed before — I’m thinking of the generation after the Second World War — It has not been true since the mid-1990s. In part, Western elites became enamored of their own victory and success in the Cold War. Thinking history was the struggle of ideas, as opposed to struggle of personality and passions, they were convinced history was over and all that remained was the working out of technocratic details.

That made it possible from them to ignore the damage that much of neoliberalism was doing in the West to the working classes that had done so well materially and morally up until the mid-1970s. “What alternative do you have?” asked neoliberalism as it privatized and financialized and globalized. Because the alternatives do, in fact, seem deeply discredited. Especially if history is viewed solely or primarily as a contest between competing ideologies over social organization. The working classes of the West, especially the non-immigrant working classes, were supposed simply to accept their slow-motion destruction in the name of progress and evolution.

But what the last decade or so is telling us that compelling people to endorse and vote for their own obsolescence, marginalization, and even extinction is a losing strategy politically. The “retrograde” plurality or majority will look at the promises of democratic governance — majority rule, and not rightly guided or enlightened rule — and wonder, if government is in our name, if our will is what makes government legitimate, why is it working against us, our interests, and most importantly, our dignity?

A society or community will always be governed by an elite. There is no way around that. That elite must always be cognizant of its connections, responsibilities, obligations to the people it governs. Elites must always remember people and place and appreciate their limits. The elites of the West have become disconnected, and feel little responsibility or obligation to the people they govern anymore. (More government programs are not it, since the people who design them, implement them, and administer them are almost never “served” by those programs, are never the objects of state care, and thus have no idea how degrading such attention and care really is.) The elites of the West have become enamored of a global humanity that really is an abstraction, and have forgotten the very concrete women and men they actually rule. That is what I mean by elite failure, and it is, sadly, probably an inevitable outcome of liberal democratic governance.

Because no form of government is permanent. There are just people, groping blindly, for meaning, purpose, and some way to organize themselves. Some are better than others, but all fall short of perfection — even liberal democracy — and all reflect certain central human ways of organizing ourselves, mobilizing resources, and holding each other accountable. All succeed to one extent or another, and all eventually fail.

The Problem of the Technocrats

This cartoon has been making the rounds, especially of many of my liberal and progressive friends who are both dismayed and very angry at the results of the recent U.S. presidential election:

The cartoon pokes at populism — the notion that, somehow, it makes sense for passengers to vote on who flies a plane — and in favor of technocratic elitism. You want a trained, skilled, experienced pilot to fly a plane. That improves the chances that you will actually get to where you are going and not die along the way.

It turns government into a set of specialized technical skills, best wielded by those with extensive training and education. People who have been prepared to govern.

There’s a word for this, or there used to be: Aristocracy.

This points to the limit of our technocratic thinking and our technocratic vision. Passengers on an airplane aren’t active participants in flying the plane, they do not debate where that plane is going or what route it should take to get there, what kind of amenities should be available in flight. They are mere consumers who pay for a product — “Fly me to Chicago! Can I have an extra bag of peanuts?”

Unwittingly, such thinking strips off the democratic pretense to technocratic politics. You don’t get a say in what the state does for you or to you, you merely consume what the state produces and must trust all those the state hires to do their jobs.

Again, there was a word for this kind of government, that compels trust in and obedience to those specifically born and trained for it: Aristocracy.

This has, for more than a century, been a problem with mass democratic governance. Either you believe in the process, at which point the outcomes of that process are uncertain, or you believe in right outcomes, at which point actual democratic processes are a hindrance or inconvenience because the will of the people in whose name all modern states are created and exist gets in the way. Technocratic elitism has, since the 1890s, been combined with a process designed to carefully manage democratic outcomes. In return, the “masses” were promised material comfort and economic security. After WWII, Western elites doubled down on this approach when it became all-too-clear to them that mass politics begot fascism, Naziism, and Bolshevism.

Better to turn people into passive consumers of expert government than risk their actual participation.

If we want to continue using the metaphor of the cartoon, then we also have to admit — the technocrats can’t fly this plane anymore either. Neoliberalism has delivered little but insecurity and fear, and the technocratic elite — our aristocracy, if you will — no longer know what they are doing, where they are going, or how to get there.

That too is the fate of aristocracies. Even ones built on education and experience.

Which means the ride is going to be bumpy one. Dangerous, even. That too is human. Only in a Hegelian sense — competition between grand ideas about human flourishing — did history come to and end in 1989. We are likely reverting to our very human norm in which the conflict between passions and personalities becomes what history is. The struggle to use ideology to organize communities and states to improve humanity and the human condition, while long-ached for, was likely only a temporary thing, an anomaly, an aberration, as strange as the accidental mass-wealth of the mid 20th century.

The truth is, we don’t know where we’re going, how to get there, or even what we are doing much of the time. We only think we do.

The Perils of Democracy

This … This explains exactly where we are:

But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies. Liberal progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power. It helped them to ignore the apparent wishes of the voters. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these wishes — by keeping them out of politics. Immigration and ‘Europe’ are examples. Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers and became merely one player in the system. Majoritarian democracy mutated into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.

Here’s my theory. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people.

On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short,’ as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.’ The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. The answer is to discuss the issues at their heart.

When I speak of elite failure, this capitulation to “post-democracy” is a large part of what I mean. The promise of democratic governance in the West has always lived uneasily with the human reality of elite rule. Elites want to manage relatively stable and predictable societies and want to ensure certain kinds of outcomes. They also want to move societies in certain directions, along specific lines and towards very certain ends. Actual democratic government can get in the way of this. Mass democracies were then managed things, in which elites carefully guided and arranged mass social and political activities in ways that mostly worked in concert with elite desires for the societies they governed.

And elites broadly understood their role. They were inside their societies, but they could see above them.

Three things happened to slowly undo this. First, mass politics was discredited with World War II. Or rather, mass politics was seen to cause the war (actually, both world wars), to create the governments that caused the war, so in the West at least, mass participatory politics was replaced with a consumerist politics, in which citizens would no longer be expected or mobilized on behalf of the state. Instead, they would increasingly become passive consumers of politics produced by others.

Second, a broad and widely shared material prosperity (again, in the West) made this consumption possible. It’s easy to become passive, to accept passivity, when life is easy.

Third, history intervened. The economic conditions of the post-WWII world could not hold. And they didn’t, for a zillion reasons I won’t go through here. The broadly based prosperity came to an end, and as it did, Western elites stopped being able to act as people both within and above the system they governed. They came to see themselves as solely inside that system. Perhaps the neoliberals who embraced financialization of the economy saw themselves as above the fray, but if they did, it was a cynical oversight, or an ignorant one, and one they kept to themselves.

As it became clear to Western voters that the prosperity they had come to expect was no longer working for them, they sought political answers, but action was limited because they had very purposefully been deprived of the tools of mass politics. Their outrage at the failures of liberal democracy prompted them to support for the only critique in town, neoliberalism, which further damaged the system that had worked so well to their benefit. And further impoverishes them.

Seeking blame, they have only one target — the liberal order. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Democracy focuses on popular will and promises majority rule. Well organized, confident, and thoughtful elites can direct, manage, and focus majorities and their will, and they did successfully in the United States for much of the 20th century. Note well, however, that elite guidance of the masses is an effective betrayal of the promise of democracy, no matter how well elites govern and how well they guide majority opinion. We, however, are no longer governed by such elites, and we haven’t been since sometime in the 1990s. Self-righteousness and arrogance are not confidence. In the midst of this elite failure, when majorities realize that despite what they will they are not allowed to rule, that the promises of democratic governance are hollow and empty, they will revolt. And a democratic revolt looks just like Brexit and just like Trump.

(And yes, I realize the “majority” in the case of Trump is only regional, and not national.)

This is the future. Even if we could remake the West of 1958, the economic conditions that made a broadly shared prosperity possible no longer exist. For lots of people in the West, a return to 1958 is hardly desirable anyway, given that they weren’t allowed to share in that prosperity. It may be some will learn from the coming failure of the Trump regime that his critique is not the answer, but given the past, I think that unlikely.

I suspect the failure to deliver on the promises will not cause people to rethink their desires, but instead, to double down. When Brexit fails, when Trump fails, there will be no soul searching. Only a lot more anger.

The God That Is Failing

I was reading an otherwise uninspiring interview in The Atlantic with Michael Wear, a theologically and socially conservative Christian who was also an advisor to President Obama, when I cam across this:

One of the things I found at the White House and since I left is this class of people who aren’t driving the political decisions right now, and have significant forces against them, but who are not satisfied with the political tribalism that we have right now. I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Politics, particularly ideology, has come to provide a meaning and purpose in our lives that I don’t believe it was ever intended. Ideology crowds out the human, makes us strangers, and insists we rule over others for our own protection (and their enlightenment).

It may be that as human beings, we crave meaning and purpose. I know I do, and I know I am flopping about right now (and have been for a few years) with meaninglessness and purposelessness and a deep loneliness born of an isolation from community. To an extent, the imaginary community in my head I form from this blog and meet in my ministry help, but those are highly mediated interactions (and I doubt their reality half the time), and my work as a reporter is also deeply isolating because I am a permanent spectator, and I rather like being a participant in the work of the community.

(It does not help being nearly 50, knowing that I am called to be a pastor, a shepherd of God’s people, also knowing no church will let me do that.)

Our current poverty doesn’t help either. It is hard to be connected to other people in a capitalist society structured to have us live atomized lives alone.

So I appreciate why politics, why ideology, takes up so much space. It connects us when nothing else does, creates shared purposed when nothing else can, gives life meaning when nothing else does. But Wear is right, this focus on politics, on the ability for human beings to save ourselves through political actions, does a “deep spiritual harm.” It fills us with false meaning and false hope and creates false connections. It substitutes an ideal humanity for a real one.

I have no answers. But I think part of the problem is our focus on greatness here. On world saving. I spend a lot of time covering local government, and it is the unglamorous part of government. It paves roads, pumps water, treats sewage. We miss the local because we no longer realize we all, mostly, live small lives together. Yes, the market has atomized us, turned us into consumers who aim for self-contained lives in which we share nothing. We no longer have the ability to think in terms of the small collective, the place in which we live, which has a town council and a school board and a noxious weed district.

This smallness is terribly unideological. In the recent election, a former NFL star and Tea Party type running for Congress called Barack Obama “a tyrant” in a public forum. No one countered him, but no one echoed his sentiment either. It was out of place, and did not belong, to the things that more or less matter even here as issues even in our degraded elections.

The people and the places that can hold on to that small collective will manage to weather the coming awfulness. It won’t always be pretty, and there will be hierarchies of human value — some people will always matter more than others. But survival won’t be found in attaching one’s self to a great cause and riding it to triumph. It will be found in the small things, and the small places, where it is possible to break through to each other and be human.

The Future Means Misery and Struggle

This’ll cheer you up.

There is no sign that 2017 will be much different from 2016.

Under Israeli occupation for decades, Gaza will still be the biggest open prison on Earth.

In the United States, the killing of black people at the hands of the police will proceed unabated and hundreds of thousands more will join those already housed in the prison-industrial complex that came on the heels of plantation slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Europe will continue its slow descent into liberal authoritarianism or what cultural theorist Stuart Hall called authoritarian populism. Despite complex agreements reached at international forums, the ecological destruction of the Earth will continue and the war on terror will increasingly morph into a war of extermination between various forms of nihilism.

Inequalities will keep growing worldwide. But far from fuelling a renewed cycle of class struggles, social conflicts will increasingly take the form of racism, ultra nationalism, sexism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other deadly passions.

The denigration of virtues such as care, compassion and kindness will go hand in hand with the belief, especially among the poor, that winning is all that matters and who wins — by whatever means necessary — is ultimately right.

(Methinks that, based on recent comments, longtime reader wellandnobucket has likely met a kindred spirit in South African columnist Achille Mbembe.)

But I think Mbembe is right — the future that lies in front of us is bleak and brutal, largely because finance capital now rules the world and it doesn’t how to do that gently or well. Finance also doesn’t know how to reflect on its own power, its own limits, and its own cruelties.

And the political trends of deliberate nihilism (reflected in the election of Donald J. Trump), which have emerged because elites across the world have failed spectacularly to govern or lead or even understand who they are anymore, will only accelerate this brutal immiseration, the desperate insecurity felt by so many, which will in turn bring about more desire for safety and security, which the nihilists will campaign on even more ferociously.

The spiral downward will be ugly. Unpleasant. Inhuman.

I was thinking on the short drive home from work the other day about so many of Trump’s cabinet picks, and about a piece I recently read in The London Review of Book about the demise of municipal government in the United Kingdom (particularly England). The author of the piece talked about how central outsourcing and privatization have become to the provision of government services.

Local government will soon be brought into line with its national counterpart: both limited in their essential functions, outsourcing the greater part of their responsibilities to the private sector. Private companies are now partly or fully responsible for the parole service, schools, roads, prisons, GP surgeries and walk-in centres, hospital services, the Royal Mail, tax credits, care homes, welfare assessments, refugee and detention centres, deportations, the provision of court interpreters, government pay rolls, broadband roll-out, IT programmes and government security. Most of these outsourced services are handled by four firms: Atos, Serco, Capita and G4S, who between them receive around £4 billion a year from taxpayers.

Once upon a time, firms aimed to market products broadly to a mass customer base of those earning wages (that would be expected to rise). But wages haven’t risen demonstrably in decades for most people. In the 1990s, “wealth” was created in the housing and asset markets, where it appears inflation was channeled, but people with stagnant wages cannot borrow forever, not even on increasingly equity, and eventually banks got themselves sideways with their cleverness.

In this environment, it makes sense that capital — I speak here in Marxists terms of the abstraction that is business — would seek captive clients, given that wages have not kept pace for most people. So, why not contract with governments to “provide services”?

As the piece notes, however, this has come at a price — citizen is now a meaningless term. These firms are not accountable because their customers aren’t the people they serve, they are the handful of bureaucrats and elected officials who sign the contracts. And they remain pleased with the provision.

Gone is any sense of solidarity — communal, social, national. And the trend to further privatize will only keep this going. It will continue as long as governments can rig markets at the top and can purchase enough security for those in charge.

This isn’t feudalism — with ownership comes some sense of obligation, and everyone remains nominally free, and on their own, here. Those who manage this society have long lost that sense of obligation to fellow citizens — that’s why we’re thigh-deep in this muddy pool of nihilism right now. At some point, we may get there, after millions have suffered and many have died, when the survival of many will demand some kind of slavery with a set of brutal but somewhat mutual obligations.

But the relatively kind, social democratic world of the mid-20th century, one which saw ordinary human beings (at least in the West) acquire wealth and stability such people had never been able to acquire in history, is gone.

We will probably never see anything like it again.

The Worse Angels of Our Nature

Susan McWilliams over at The Nation has penned one of the best pieces on Donald J. Trump and Trumpism that I have seen in quite some time. Possibly ever.

McWilliams said that Hunter S. Thompson, in his essay (and later book) on The Hell’s Angels, saw the kind of culture among disaffected white people that would become the wave Trump rode into the White House.

For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.

[Thompson’s book] Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.

These are people who are unwilling to play nice because there’s no point for them to do so. They’ve already lost, and they know it.

Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.

In other words, the Angels felt like “strangers in their own land,” as Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it in her recent book on red-state America. …

The Angels decided not to be polite losers, however. Believing everything — politics, society, the economy — was rigged against them, they fought back with an intense nihilism, a nihilism that deliberately sets out to provoke the genteel and educated through, among other things, coarse, offensive, and racist speech.

Therein lies the ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal. You might not beat him, but you can make him pay attention to you. You can haunt him, make him worry that you’re going to steal into his daughter’s bedroom in the darkest night and have your way with her—and that she might actually like it.

Thompson would want us to see this: These are men and women who know that, by all intellectual and economic standards, they cannot win the game. So whether it be out of self-protection or an overcompensation for their own profound sense of shame, they lash out at politicians, judges, scientists, teachers, Wall Street, universities, the media, legislatures—even at elections. They are not interested in contemplating serious reforms to the system; they are either too pessimistic or too disappointed to believe that is possible. So the best they can do is adopt a position of total irreverence: to show they hate the players and the game.

Understood in those terms, the idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.

There’s a lot of insight here, about why such folks might hate government and still think very highly of the police and the armed forces (because both institutions legitimize and draw their legitimacy from the use of brute force, and the Angels both appreciate and respect brute force), and how there’s no reasonable or polite or even civilized way of dealing with such politics. Now that it has been unleashed electorally (Nixon, who also rode such sentiments to the White House, faced a Democrat majority Congress that could check and eventually vote to impeach him; Trump will face no such impediment to his power, at least not for the first two years), it will be intriguing to see how progressives will cope with and adjust to this. My guess is: badly and incompetently. The Left will have to learn a street-fighting fearlessness I don’t see in those busy policing language. The seeds of that fearlessness are there, but the American Left spends too much of its time appealing to power rather than fighting it.

(The time has come to study Act Up! and Queer Nation.)

Anyway, read the piece. It’s worth it.

To be honest, I sympathize an awful lot with the resentment that Thompson describes here. I did a lot of work, got a lot of education, and have failed spectacularly within polite society and respectable institutions. I have a whole raft of useless education, skills and talents no one is willing to pay for. In  the end, that’s my fault, but honestly, I’m not all bad or disreputable, despite what some religious leaders have concluded. (Jen and I lived next to a biker gang in San Francisco; that chapter didn’t make it into my book.) But it’s bad enough for me, I am disreputable enough and almost completely useless even with my Georgetown education, my master of divinity, and my solid middle-class upbringing, to see the class problems at work in bourgeois and elite America. Really, on many days I too wouldn’t mind bringing the whole the thing crashing down upon itself.

I remember when the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, or some similar agency, was test flying a giant, white, antenna-and-camera-covered blimp over Washington, D.C., testing out the device’s intelligence gathering capabilities. I was taking a mid-morning break from The Oil Daily, had gone down to the Starbucks in the lobby, gotten some coffee, and was standing at the corner of 14th St. and New York, watching this spy blimp drift over the city.

Everyone knew what it was. We’d all been warned it was being tested.

I don’t recall if anyone else gave it the finger, but I did.

The Dangerous World to Come

I was talking to a co-worker today about Donald J. Trump, billionaire president-elect (he owns a mansion and a yacht) and she said something very interesting that I hadn’t considered.

She suggested that all of this “luv” Trump has been showing for Vladimir Putin isn’t real. Or rather, it isn’t what it seems to be. There’s no bromance going on here.

Rather, what we are seeing is something akin to the admiration Hitler and Stalin allegedly had for each other, and the cooperation Nazi Germany (and before then, the Weimar Republic) and the Soviet Union engaged in, especially when it came to military cooperation (such as tank training) forbidden to Germany under the Versailles Treaty and the sale of German military and chemical technology to the USSR in exchange for Soviet food and raw materials, especially after the Molotov-Ribbentro Pact of August 1939.

The sides were ostensibly friendly to each other, and once the Germans invaded Poland, the two nations carved up Eastern Europe. It is my understanding that even as German tanks crossed the Soviet frontier in June, 1941, Stalin was still sending food and resource shipments to the Germans, and had been convinced that he, and not Hitler, was going to be the one to abrogate the pact.

So, it may be that the Trump-Putin “bromance” is more akin to this David Low cartoon from late September or early October 1939 than a real effort by two of the five major “Congress Powers” to run the world along the lines envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the UN Charter.

davidlowrendezvous

This makes sense, given that the best way to understand Trump is to take him seriously without taking him literally. (A mistake the educated chattering classes of the elite, including myself, constantly made.) However, this also means that Trump’s intentions toward Russia are fraught with a great deal more danger than advertised, since far from avoiding confrontation, he’s steeling himself for the moment he thinks he can provoke something and have the absolute advantage.

This also makes sense if I’m right about my analysis of Trump as a gangster, then right now, he and Putin are sizing each other up, and Trump’s words are not so much sincere admiration but coded language that tells Putin, “I know who you are and how you act, and I can play your game too.” (In fact, I’m beginning to think we underestimate Trump’s native intelligence at our peril. He’ll be undone at some point, but Obama’s cool, calm, educated cleverness was as well.) It’s a signal that Trump will be dealing with Putin on Putin’s terms.

If the American foreign policy establishment was in the process of rather stupidly wandering into war with Russia with extremely foolish talk of supporting Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Syria, and maintaining the foolish expansion of NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, well, Trump may well be sneaking and creeping under the cover of darkness toward that same place.

It is no comfort to point out to anyone who might be listening that while you can win a limited with Russia (Crimea, Tsushima), total war is another matter entirely. I once pointed out to a Greek TV crew in New York in the week following 9/11 that no one has successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Similarly, it’s been a long time, since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth installed a czar of its own in the midst of the Time of Troubles, that someone has conquered Russia.

Napoleon and Hitler sent in magnificent armies to conquer the place, and what came home were ragged remnants that cost both their empires.

And as I was happy to tell anyone who thought a no-fly zone over Syria was easily manageable, Russia is still armed with H-Bombs and the means to lob them over the North Pole. Hundreds of missiles of our own sitting in glaring in North Dakota are no guarantee our army won’t be reduced to rags and our country to ruin by war with Russia.

I’m still not sure it will get that far. Even with all this, I do trust Trump to deal with Russia more than I trusted Clinton and the existing foreign policy establishment, if only because the foreign policy elites — especially those Clinton would likely have surrounded herself with — have grown entirely too sure of themselves and their self-righteouness. Russia is the only nation that can possess anything remotely resembling parity with the United States, if only on the H-Bomb front. It is best not to provoke or confront Moscow needlessly.

A good gangster has a fairly realistic approach to armed conflict (a lot more realistic than a neoconservative or a liberal/humanitarian interventionist). He may look for the first opening to bring out the knives, but the same gangster also knows when a conflict will cost more than it will gain, and when to cut a deal that carves up territory and keeps the peace.

Because, in the end, a good gangster is a good businessman. And in a world where force rules, maintains order and stability, all-out war is bad for business.

And the H-Bomb is definitely bad for business.

Learning to Parse Trump’s Tweets

Oh goodie. We’re going to have to spend the next four years (at least, maybe) trying to read between the characters of a presidential tweet to figure out what Donald J. Trump, billionaire-president, means or is trying to say.

It’ll be a little like Kremlinology, and trying to figure out who is in and who is out by seeing which Communist Party figures are in and which ones are out by where they stand stand in relation to the General Secretary in the May Day Parade reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb.

(Yeah, I’m old.)

So, Trump said this:

And, apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something similar, noting a need for his country to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”

This has some people I know wondering whether or not we’re going to be going back to the days of “duck and cover” drills when we all worried about “The Bomb” (please note: I’ve never stopped worrying, since it’s never gone away, which is why I take relations with Russia so very seriously) and wondered if Ronald Reagan was going to press the button or not.

And whether we will be going back to the time when U.S. factories churned out an H-Bomb or two a day. Make America great again!

First, let me recommend that everyone calm down a bit. The weapons producing infrastructures of both the United States and Russia have taken quite a hit in the last 25 years — Hanford, where the U.S. produced the bulk of its plutonium 239 (the kaboomable kind needed for both plain old A-Bombs and city-busting H-Bombs), has long been closed and turned into an EPA superfund site and a national grassland. While the Obama administration has wanted (and budgeted) to get the United States back into plutonium production, that is still some time away, and what supplies exist on hand are scavenged from old weapons and reclaimed from spent reactor fuel rods.

The same is true of tritium, the fuel needed to make proper fusion bombs. There is enough to keep the slow upgrade program going on the current arsenal of U.S. nuclear weapons, but not enough tritium to produce any new thermonuclear bombs.

Russia is in a similar situation regarding its nuclear weapons complex. Neither superpower (sic) is in a position to mass produce nuclear weapons. It’s not 1982 again.

While Putin’s words are measured and the reasonable talk of a national leader (more like something Obama would say and do), Trump’s require some interpreting. Because it’s not entirely clear what he is saying.

There’s a charitable reading of “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” the reading that has Trump eventually seeking disarmament along the lines of the infamous “Walk in the Woods” or the near-elimination of ballistic missiles at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The charitable reading has “until the world comes to its senses” meaning until nation states and their leaders decide that nuclear weapons aren’t needed anymore, no one will want them, and everyone will beat their nuclear swords into plowshares. (Though, hopefully, not like this.)

In this, Trump is a Reagan figure, using his bluster for more as a way of negotiating for less. And yes, this is a real strategy and is actually worked. A lot better than, say, the Nuclear Freeze. It is also suggests that Trump believes in eventual total nuclear disarmament or something like it.

Yes, this is the charitable reading. It may be true, for all we know.

But there is a darker reading of “until the world comes to its senses.” Trump believes in force, in the willingness to make threats and keep them. His understanding of statecraft is that it isn’t much difference than being a street thug, or a mob boss. If someone is causing a problem, or attacking you, or generally being disorderly and unpleasant, it’s because they aren’t properly afraid of you. Fear is a necessary component of rule, and the willingness to follow through is essential.

In this, Trump echoes a lot of conservatives who believe that a failure to be strong, make threats, and follow through on those threats has given us the uncertain world we live in today where Daesh rules a diminishing portion of the desert between Syria and Iraq and angry Muslim immigrants drive trucks into crowds. The world coming to its senses is an acknowledgment of American power and supremacy — made flesh in the W88 and its brethren, the ultimate and most serious threat we could make.

War, for these folks, is a form of communication. (It was for these folks too.) It communicates toughness and resolve. Building more nuclear weapons is a sign of resolution, a way to tell the world, “we mean business … don’t mess with us.”

A world that has come to its senses will behave itself, will understand how tough and resolute we are, won’t attack us, and its angry young men wont blow themselves up.

I think Trump’s wrong. George W. Bush was more than willing to make threats and follow through, and it got us … just about nothing. Except the mess along the Euphrates we live with today. Obama made his fair share of war, most of it has resulted in chaos and disaster, too.

I wrote this piece more than a decade ago about comments Paul Harvey made during the height of the war in Iraqi. “With all this power at our disposal, with all our missiles and planes, why are people still resisting us? Why aren’t we winning? Why haven’t we already won?” Harvey asked, plaintively, angrily, despairingly, and quite honestly. It is very much the question, I think, hardened into almost incoherent rage, that animates many Americans now.

After more than a decade of war, after bombs and assassinations and invasions and trillions of dollars, why haven’t we won yet?

Because some people, some groups, cannot be deterred. They are willing to fight, to kill and die, for truth, for family, for home, for honor, because of our power, and not in spite of it. War is not a form of communication in which one expresses one’s seriousness, resolve, and willingness to inflict pain, suffering, and death. The North Vietnamese should have taught us THAT. The only response, IF you believe the cause is just and the war is right, is to kill your enemy until they run out of resolve.

And even then, there is no victory for us to win. Or we would have won it already.

Trump may understand this. He’s not a learned man, but I will grant him some serious smarts. He’s running rings around us, won the presidency, and I suspect gets a lot more than he lets on. (It is, after all, a good business strategy to play dumb, especially when your opponents think themselves too clever by half.) He’ll have successes in imposing his will upon the world.

But reality has a way of resisting the human will. So do other human beings.

The Failure of Managerial Politics

I’d long thought this was true, that in the years immediately following the Second World War, a fairly fierce opposition to any kind of mass politics took hold among elites in the West, constraining how citizens of Western democratic states were able to act and even think of the societies they inhabited.

Thanks to this piece in Jacobin outlining the problems with comparing modern American to Weimar Germany, there’s actual evidence — as opposed to merely a sense — that this is what happened.

Karl Loewenstein and Hans Speier, militant democracy’s first and most influential theorists, best embody the transformation from liberal antifascism to elitist technocracy. At the beginning of their careers — Loewenstein as a liberal political theorist, Speier as a social-democratic sociologist — they were two of the Weimar Republic’s few good guys, powerfully defending democracy’s legitimacy against its authoritarian critics.

Not surprisingly, their agenda did not sit well with the Nazis, and Loewenstein and Speier fled Germany in 1933. From their exile in the United States, they resumed their pro-democratic campaign, but now with a crucial twist. Fascism’s triumph, they wrote, showed that democratic states had to transform into new, “militant” regimes, ready and willing to use whatever means necessary — including those used by fascists — to defeat their opponents.

Three insights founded Loewenstein and Speier’s project. First, they insisted that all free nations needed to recognize that they faced the same threat. Fascists were trying to take over not only in Berlin and Rome, but also in Amsterdam, Washington, and Rio. If successful, they would form a “Fascist International,” Loewenstein warned, “transcend[ing] national borders.”

Second, and more substantially, the two maintained that democracy’s weakness lay in the freedoms it granted its enemies. Democratic states, they noted, gave rights like free speech to every member of society, regardless of political affiliation. This naïve moralism, however, allowed antidemocratic activists to infiltrate political institutions, exploiting freedom in order to undo it.

Like some of today’s theorists, they grounded this argument in Weimar Germany. Hitler and his violent supporters, they explained, used democratic rights to undermine the republic long before coming to power. Loewenstein believed that “the mechanism of democracy” represented “the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.”

Finally, and most importantly, fascism’s success demonstrated that the people could not be trusted to protect democracy. In moments of crisis, the masses succumbed to “emotionalism” and gave up their rights in favor of vague promises of future national and/or racial glory. The people’s embrace of demagogues’ blatantly unrealistic — if not outright idiotic — visions proved that ordinary folks had no real politics, just fantasies.

What Loewenstein and Speier set in motion was the capture of the state by a “small group of cool-minded technocrats” who exercise authority as responsible and rightly-guided experts. Only as experts would they be able to guide, cajole, coerce, and outright compel public opinion away from totalitarian and and worse kinds of authoritarian practices.

In this, elite power would also become highly dependent on surveillance, law enforcement, and the other tools of the emerging national security state. In crafting a state so thoroughly guided by elites to the point that there can be no such thing as mass politics, or even coherently ideological politics, the authors of the Jacobin piece noted :

The bitter irony, of course, is that the institutions that emerged from this kind of theory exacerbated, rather than mitigated, the threats they were supposed to quash. While xenophobia and racism remain critical to understanding populism’s appeal, the sense that people have no control over their own government and that too much power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable elites also fuels popular outrage.

It is true that the managerialism so carefully crafted in the wake of V-E and V-J Days has collapsed, in large part because those who manage can no longer think coherently about the world they live in. Effective elite rule requires the elites to think from outside the system even while they inhabit it, to understand they craft the world and not just inhabit it. But that becomes a hard condition to maintain or cultivate.

An analogy works here. Richard Nixon ran two thoroughly cynical residential campaigns in 1968 and again in 1972, pandering to the kinds of voters who found George Wallace interesting. But Nixon never forgot that he ran for president to govern, and could easily separate the rhetoric of campaigning from the reality of governing.

By the 1990s, however, Republicans had been campaigning as Nixon had for so long it became how they thought, and they could no longer see above or beyond themselves to grasp the reality of who they were and what they were running for.

Western elites are now trapped in their world views, unable to rise above them and think clearly about themselves and the world. Hillary Clinton was a clear example of that complete and utter failure. The problem of populism is the West is the problem of elite collapse, combined with the demise of mass politics or properly ideological politics that now make it impossible for much of anyone to think clearly, must less conceive of politics as being able to make the world a better place.

Since I’m not a fan of progressive notions of moral evolution (no proponent of some whig version of history am I!), the question really is this: is this a temporary thing, a necessary period of chaos and instability that allows human beings to reorder themselves, to figure out meaning and purpose in political acts, or … were the 19th and 20th centuries historical complete aberrations with their mass politics and their mass ideologies, and what is to come will look more like what came in the ages before the French toppled their monarch and decided to reorder the world? I vote for the second, but we will likely never really know.

Nor will our children. Nor will theirs.