The second American revolution

The first American Revolution broke the bonds of control exercised by a colonial power over the actions and aspirations of a relatively small number of people in North America in 1776 — about 2.5 million people. The second American Revolution promises to affect vastly larger numbers of Americans and their freedom, and it is not yet complete. (There were about 19 million African-Americans in the United States in 1960.)

This is the Civil Rights revolution, which has been underway since 1865 (the end of the Civil War); which took increased urgency in the 1930s through the 1950s (the period of Jim Crow laws and a coercive, violent form of white supremacy); and which came to fruition in the 1960s with collective action by thousands of ordinary people and the courageous, wise leadership of men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, it is this second American revolution that is the most important piece of his legacy.

And this is indeed a revolution. It requires a sustained and vigilant struggle against a powerful status quo; it requires gaining political power and exercising political power; and it promises to enhance the lives, dignity, and freedoms of millions of Americans.

This revolution is not complete. The assault on voting rights that we have seen in the past decade, the persistent gaps that exist in income, health, and education between white Americans and black Americans, the ever-more-blatant expressions of racist ideas at the highest level — all these unmistakeable social facts establish that the struggle for racial equality is not finished.

Dr. King’s genius was his understanding from early in his vocation that change would require courage and sacrifice, and that it would also require great political wisdom. It was Dr. King’s genius to realize that enduring social change requires changing the way that people think; it requires moral change as well as structural change. This is why Dr. King’s profoundly persuasive rhetoric was so important; he was able to express through his speeches and his teaching a set of moral values that almost all Americans could embrace. And by embracing these values they themselves changed.

The struggle in South Africa against apartheid combined both aspects of this story — anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The American civil rights movement focused on uprooting the system of racial oppression and discrimination this country had created since Reconstruction. It focused on creating the space necessary for African-American men and women, boys and girls, to engage in their own struggles for freedom and for personal growth. It insisted upon the same opportunities for black children that were enjoyed by the children of the majority population.

Will the values of racial equality and opportunity prevail? Will American democracy finally embrace and make real the values of equality, dignity, and opportunity that Dr. King expressed so eloquently? Will the second American revolution finally erase the institutions and behaviors of several centuries of oppression?

Dr. King had a fundamental optimism that was grounded in his faith: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But of course we understand that only long, sustained commitment to justice can bring about this arc of change. And the forces of reaction are particularly strong in the current epoch of political struggle. So it will require the courage and persistence of millions of Americans to these ideals if racial justice is finally to prevail.

Here is an impromptu example of King’s passionate commitment to social change through non-violence. This was recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1966, during James Meredith’s March against Fear.

Populism’s base

Steve Bannon may have lost his perch in the White House and Breitbart; but the themes of white supremacy, intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government extremism that drive radical nationalist populism survive his fall. In The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality Justin Gest attempts to explain how this movement has been able to draw support from white working class men and women — often in support of policies that are objectively harmful to them. Here is how he describes his central concern:

In this book, I suggest that these trends [towards polarization] intensify an underlying demographic phenomenon: the communities of white working class people who once occupied the political middle have decreased in size and moved to the fringes, and American and European societies are scrambling to recalibrate how they might rebuild the centrist coalitions that engender progress.

The book makes use of both ethnographic and survey research to attempt to understand the political psychology of these populations of men and women in Western Europe and the United States — low-skilled workers with limited education beyond secondary school, and with shrinking opportunities in the economies of the 2000s.

A particularly interesting feature of the book is the ethnographic attempt Gest makes to understand the mechanisms and content of this migration of political identity. Gest conducted open-ended interviews with working class men and women in East London and Youngstown, Ohio in the United States — both cities that were devastated by the loss of industrial jobs and the weakening of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. He calls these “post-traumatic cities” (7). He addresses the fact that white working class people in those cities and elsewhere now portray themselves as a disadvantaged minority.

There and elsewhere, the white working class populations I consider are consumed by a nostalgia that expresses bitter resentment toward the big companies that abandoned their city, a government that did little to stop them from leaving, and a growing share of visible minorities who are altering their neighborhoods’ complexion. (10)

The political psychology of resentment plays a large role in the populations he studies — resentment of government that fails to deliver, resentment of immigrants, resentment of affirmative action for racial minorities. The other large idea that Gest turns to is marginality — the idea that these groups have that their voices will not be heard and that the powerful agents in society do not care about their fates.

Rather, this is to say that—across the postindustrial regions of Western Europe and North America—white working class people sense that they have been demoted from the center of their country’s consciousness to its fringe. And many feel powerless in their attempts to do something about it. (15)

And resentment and marginality lead for some individuals to a political stance of resistance:

Unimpressed with Labour’s priorities, profoundly distrustful of government, and unwilling to join forces with working class immigrants, Barking and Dagenham’s working class whites are now engaged in a largely unstructured, alternative form of minority politics. They tend to be focused on local affairs, fighting for scarce public resources and wary of institutionalized discrimination against them. The difficulty has been having their claims heard, and taken seriously. (71)

The resentments and expressions of marginality in Youngstown are similar, with an added measure of mistrust of large corporations like the steel companies that abandoned the city and a recognition of the pervasive corruption that permeates the city. Here is Evelyn on the everyday realities of political corruption in Youngstown:

The more I saw, the more I realized that money can buy your way out of anything. Then you see your sheriff get indicted, your congressman dishonored, our prosecutor in prison, and a mayoral nominee with a cloud over his head. The Valley has been embroiled in political corruption for a long time, and people just look out for themselves. It makes you sick. You don’t see it firsthand, the corruption, but you know it’s there. (128)

The overriding impression gained from these interviews and Gest’s narrative is one of hopelessness. These men and women of Youngstown don’t seem to see any way out for themselves or their children. The pathway of upward mobility through post-secondary education does not come up at all in these conversations. And, as Case and Deaton argue from US mortality statistics (link), social despair is associated with life-ending behaviors such as opioids, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Gest’s book lays the ground for thinking about a post-traumatic democratic politics — a politics that is capable of drawing together the segments of American or British society who genuinely need progressive change and more egalitarian policies if they are to benefit from economic progress in the future. But given the cultural and political realities that Gest identifies among this “new minority”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that crafting such a political platform will be challenging.

China today

There are a lot of opinions about China today in the United States — authoritarian, farsighted, effective at economic progress, overly committed to Party authority, challenged by the environmental effects of rapid economic growth, burdened by a corrupt and aging party elite. Some believe China is on the path to becoming a dominant super power, while others think that the suppression of individual freedom and thought is a fatal weakness that will eventually spell serious problems for Chinese stability and progress.

Several specific impressions from a recent trip to China leave me with more nuanced versions of several of those thoughts. Here is one: whenever you drive into a parking garage in virtually any major city in China your license plate is immediately scanned and stored. This makes it very convenient for parking — you don’t need a ticket and the parking charge is automatically added to your form of payment when you leave. But it also means the state has the tools necessary to create a vast and up-to-the-moment database of the current locations of millions of citizens. This is part of a surveillance system on a truly massive scale. We know how important this kind of meta-data is in the case of phone and email records — think how much more of a reduction of privacy it creates when your vehicle is tracked from highway to parking garage to surveillance camera on the street. And why does the parking lot scanning system exist? Surely for the purpose of social monitoring and control. Patterns of movement as well as current locations can be analyzed and inferences can be drawn about one’s private life, social connections, or current plans. (Is there a concentration of vehicles around a certain address corresponding to membership in an environmental action organization? Is more intensive investigation needed to head off a possible demonstration or protest?) So this small detail — ubiquitous license plate scanners — points to a more basic feature of the vision China’s leaders have for the relation between state and individual. It is the panopticon.

Here is a related observation. Take a look at these photos of classrooms at different universities.

Notice the video surveillance system at the rear of the room in each photo. Why is it there? How does it affect the behavior and speech of students and professors? The answer is fairly obvious. The video device has a chilling effect on the content of a professor’s lecture and the comments that students make, whether or not it is currently functioning. It permits direct monitoring of the content of classroom discussion. There are a handful of large subjects that cannot be discussed in the classroom. Everyone knows what those topics are, and where the sensitivities of the political officials lie. The seven forbidden subjects include universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, historical errors of the CCP, crony capitalism, and judicial independence (link). And a recent program of disciplinary inspections of universities ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) demonstrate the seriousness of the central government’s resolve on the points (link). So the mere fact of the presence of the video device is a reminder to students and faculty that their words and thoughts can have large consequences in their future careers. And we can predict that this fact will change the way students and faculty think and express themselves. Once again — surveillance and control. This environment is bad for students and faculty; but more fundamentally, it is bad for China’s longterm ability to foster creativity and independence of mind among its future leaders.

Here is a third observation, in an entirely different key. It is the sudden appearance of the yellow bicycle in many cities in China, almost overnight. This is a bike-sharing system that uses a phone app so the user can find a bike nearby, rent it for a short trip, and leave it wherever he or she wishes. Ofo and its similar competitor Mobike are funded by some of China’s biggest and most innovative companies — Tencent, Foxconn, and Alibaba. This is very convenient for the “last mile” problem of how to get a commuter from the bus or subway stop to the final destination. This innovation too has a major surveillance aspect — as soon as I pick up a yellow bike I’m on the radar thanks to the connected GPS device on the bike. But mostly it’s an interesting example of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that is underway in China today. Is it a viable business model? That isn’t yet clear. Does it solve a persistent problem in cities with hundreds of thousands of commuters underway everyday? That too is uncertain, given the challenge of scaling such a system in a city the size of Shanghai. Does it have the potential for creating brand new problems of urban behavior? Certainly so, given the unmanageable piles of yellow bikes you now see in many locations in Chinese cities. Does it give a basis for optimism about local initiative in China as a solution to its problems? Yes, for sure. The very speed of this onslaught of the yellow bicycle gives amazing evidence of China ability to quickly try out novel systems and solutions. (The bikes have shown up in a big way in Seattle as well, along with their orange and lime cousins.)

It’s hard to miss important signs of social change in ordinary consumer behavior as well. In 24 hours in Shanghai I saw several Porsches, two Maseratis and a Bentley — more super-luxury cars than I’ve ever seen in Michigan. In a city of 40-50 million maybe that’s not exceptional, but that’s part of the point: the scale of China’s population and economy means that there is a class of super-rich, affluent, and middle class people that may be larger than many European countries. This implies a rapid upward shift in the income distribution. It also demonstrates the increasing purchasing power that China brings to the world economy.

A final observation is familiar but important — China’s success in rapidly creating an extensive network of bullet trains. It is now possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing in 4.5 hours — compared to twelve hours just ten years ago. This is roughly the distance between New York and Chicago. This too has been an impressively rapid development, and it has the potential for changing the social and urban networks of China. This contrasts painfully with the inability of the United States to effectively address its infrastructure problems, let alone creating new transportation options. The Chinese state’s consistency and perseverence on an infrastructure plan have paid off with major benefits to the economy and society.

These snippets seem to point to some very important facts about China today. One is the confidence and stability created by several decades of sustained, real economic growth and infrastructure improvement. The lives of vast numbers of Chinese people are substantially better off, in almost all sectors. Second, the weight of surveillance and control has visibly and disturbingly increased in the past ten years. The central government and party are very serious about maintaining ideological control, and they have increasingly effective tools for doing so. Moreover, this level of control seems to be largely accepted by young people and university leaders alike. And third, China is demonstrating its ability to compete at a global level in the areas of business innovation and scientific and technological research. University research centers are increasingly able to deliver on the promise of offering world-class research progress on a wide range of scientific and technological problems.

So in some ways the assumptions made in the United States about China’s current realities seem to be a bit off. The speed and quality of China’s economic growth is greater than most American commentators believe, and this record of success seems to have created a deeper reservoir of legitimacy and acceptance by the Chinese citizenry than is often believed. Second, the power and security of the central state seems greater than often imagined, and the determination of China’s leaders to maintain power and ideological control seems more likely to succeed than many American commentators believe. President Xi and his political apparatus show every indication of an ability to carry out their agenda of continuing economic growth and strict ideological control.

So the current really looks something like this: an authoritarian state apparatus that succeeds in managing economic strategies and individual behavior surprisingly effectively. An authoritarian party state with continuing economic progress seems to be in the cards for China’s future for at least the next few decades.

There is a better and more inspiring vision of the future for China. It is a future in which citizens and leaders alike have confidence in the capability of everyone to contribute to China’s progress. It is a future in which discussion, criticism, and alternative ideas are expressed freely. It is a future where no one has the power to unilaterally decide China’s future, no matter how well intentioned. It is a world in which the Chinese people decide their own priorities and plans, and one in which progress and harmony continue.

This is a pluralist and democratic vision of China’s future. And most fundamentally, it is a vision that is hard for the CCP to embrace, because it seems inconsistent with single party rule. So it is hard to see how this future can emerge from the current configuration of power, authority, and ideology.

(Andrew Nathan’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books provides useful insights into these topics; link. Nathan sheds more doubt on the “soothing scenario” — the idea that China will soon evolve towards a more open-minded form of democratic society because of its involvement in the liberal framework of global trading relations. China is not “evolving” towards a more democratic form of socialism; and it is not showing signs of collapse under its own economic inadequacies either.)

Intergenerational social mobility

A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility” (link). Here is a statement of their approach:

We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.

Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents’ income group and the child’s income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.

The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)

These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well — for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.

Worker-owned enterprises as a social solution

image: Mondragon headquarters, Arrasate-Mondragon, Spain

Consider some of the most intractable problems we face in contemporary society: rising inequalities between rich and poor, rapid degradation of the environment, loss of control of their lives by the majority of citizens. It might be observed that these problems are the result of a classic conundrum that Marx identified 150 years ago: the separation of society into owners of the means of production and owners of labor power that capitalism depends upon has a logic that leads to bad outcomes. Marx referred to these bad outcomes as “immiseration”. The label isn’t completely accurate because it implies that workers are materially worse off from decade to decade. But what it gets right is the fact of “relative immiseration” — the fact that in almost all dimensions of quality of life the bottom 50% of the population in contemporary capitalism lags further and further from the quality of life enjoyed by the top 10%. And this kind of immiseration is getting worse. 

A particularly urgent contemporary version of these problems is the increasing pace of automation of various fields, leading to dramatic reduction for the demand for labor. Intelligent machines replace human workers. 
The central insight of Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism is couched in terms of property and power. There is a logic to private ownership of the means of production that predictably leads to certain kinds of outcomes, dynamics that Marx outlined in Capital in fine detail: impersonalization of work relations, squeezing of wages and benefits, replacement of labor with machines, and — Marx’s ultimate accusation — the creation of periodic crises. Marx anticipated crises of over-production and under-consumption; financial crises; and, if we layer in subsequent thinkers like Lenin, crises of war and imperialism.

At various times in the past century or two social reformers have looked to cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises as a solution for the problems of immiseration created by capitalism. Workers create value through their labor; they understand the technical processes of production; and it makes sense for them to share in the profits created through ownership of the enterprise. (A contemporary example is the Mondragon group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.) The reasoning is that if workers own a share of the means of production, and if they organize the labor process through some kind of democratic organization, then we might predict that workers’ lives would be better, there would be less inequality, and people would have more control over the major institutions affecting their lives — including the workplace. Stephen Marglin’s 1974 article “What do bosses do?” lays out the logic of private versus worker ownership of enterprises (link). Marglin’s The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community explores the topic of worker ownership and management from the point of view of reinvigorating the bonds of community in contemporary society.

The logic is pretty clear. When an enterprise is owned by private individuals, their interest is in organizing the enterprise in such a way as to maximize private profits. This means choosing products that will find a large market at a favorable price, organizing the process efficiently, and reducing costs in inputs and labor. Further, the private owner has full authority to organize the labor process in ways that disempower workers. (Think Fordism versus the Volvo team-based production system.) This implies a downward pressure on wages and a preference for labor-saving technology, and it implies a more authoritarian workplace. So capitalist management implies stagnant wages, stagnant demand for labor, rising inequalities, and disagreeable conditions of work. 

When workers own the enterprise the incentives work differently. Workers have an interest in efficiency because their incomes are determined by the overall efficiency of the enterprise. Further, they have a wealth of practical and technical knowledge about production that promises to enhance effectiveness of the production process. Workers will deploy their resources and knowledge intelligently to bring products to the market. And they will organize the labor process in such a way that conforms to the ideal of humanly satisfying work.

The effect of worker-owned enterprises on economic inequalities is complicated. Within the firm the situation is fairly clear: the range of inequalities of income within the firm will depend on a democratic process, and this process will put a brake on excessive salary and wage differentials. And all members of the enterprise are owners; so wealth inequalities are reduced as well. In a mixed economy of private and worker-owned firms, however, the inequalities that exist will depend on both sectors; and the dynamics leading to extensive inequalities in today’s world would be found in the mixed economy as well. Moreover, some high-income sectors like finance seem ill suited to being organized as worker-owned enterprises. So it is unclear whether the creation of a meaningful sector of worker-owned enterprises would have a measurable effect on overall wage and wealth inequalities.

There are several ways in which cooperatives might fail as an instrument for progressive reform. First, it might be the case that cooperative management is inherently less efficient, effective, or innovative than capitalism management; so the returns to workers would potentially be lower in an inefficient cooperative than a highly efficient capitalist enterprise. Marglin’s arguments in “What do bosses do?” gives reasons to doubt this concern as a general feature of cooperatives; he argues that private management does not generally beat worker management at efficiency and innovation. Second, it might be that cooperatives are feasible at a small and medium scale of enterprise, but not feasible for large enterprises like a steel company or IBM. Greater size might magnify the difficulties of coordination and decision-making that are evident in even medium-size worker-owned enterprises. Third, it might be argued that cooperatives themselves are labor-expelling: cooperative members may have an economic incentive to refrain from adding workers to the process in order to keep their own income and wealth shares higher. It would only make economic sense to add a worker when the marginal product of the next worker is greater than the average product; whereas a private owner will add workers at a lower wage when the marginal product is greater than the marginal product. So an economy in which there is a high proportion of worker-owned cooperatives may produce a high rate of unemployment among non-cooperative members. Finally, worker-owned enterprises will need access to capital; but this means that an uncontrollable portion of the surplus will flow out of the enterprise to the financial sector — itself a major cause of current rising inequalities. Profits will be jointly owned; but interest and finance costs will flow out of the enterprise to privately owned financial institutions.

And what about automation? Would worker-owned cooperatives invest in substantial labor-replacing automation? Here there are several different scenarios to consider. The key economic fact is that automation reduces per-unit cost. This implies that in a situation of fixed market demand, automation of an enterprise implies reduction of the wage or reduction of the size of the workforce. There appear to be only a few ways out of this box. If it is possible to expand the market for the product at a lower unit price, then it is possible for an equal number of workers to be employed at an equal or higher individual return. If it is not possible to expand the market sufficiently, then the enterprise must either lower the wage or reduce the workforce. Since the enterprise is democratically organized, neither choice is palatable, and per-worker returns will fall. On this scenario, either the work force shrinks or the per-worker return falls.

Worker management has implications for automation in a different way as well. Private owners will select forms of automation based solely on their overall effect on private profits; whereas worker-owned firms will select a form of automation taking the value of a satisfying workplace into account. So we can expect that the pathway of technical change and automation would be different in worker-owned firms than in privately owned firms.

In short, the economic and institutional realities of worker-owned enterprises are not entirely clear. But the concept is promising enough, and there are enough successful real-world examples, to encourage progressive thinkers to reconsider this form of economic organization.

(Here are several earlier posts on issues of institutional design that confront worker-owned enterprises (link, link). Noam Chomsky talks about the value of worker-owned cooperatives within capitalism here; link. And here is an interesting article by Henry Hansmann on the economics of worker-owned firms in the Yale Law Journal; link.)


Erik Olin Wright on real utopias

Erik Olin Wright is one of the genuinely important contributors to a progressive sociology in the United States. He was one of the first wave of social scientists and philosophers who created the movement of analytical Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s, and for more than thirty years he has organized much of his own thinking and the collaborations of a number of other scholars around the idea of a “real utopia.” Essentially the idea is to make use of good social science research and theory to help to formulate visions of the future of society that incorporate an emancipatory vision of human community while imagining institutions and social arrangements that are feasible and attainable. Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias provides a manifesto and extensive development of the ideas (link).

The general perspective that Wright has taken in the Real Utopias project is egalitarian and emancipatory. The project has focused on a number of key topics: universal basic income, market socialism, deliberative democracy, alternatives to capitalism, and gender equality, to name just a few. (Earlier posts on UnderstandingSociety have highlighted some of the goals of the real utopias project (link, link). Erik’s webpage provides more details.)

Erik agreed to have a conversation with me about the rationale and central convictions that underlie the real utopias project, and the discussion is a valuable contribution to some of the hardest problems of social and political life that we now face — rising inequalities of wellbeing and opportunity and the emergence of a politics of intolerance, division, and hate.

Thanks, Erik, for spending an afternoon with me thinking and talking about these important challenges. Progressives need new ideas and new imagination about what a future world can look like, and the real utopias project is succeeding in doing exactly that.

(I chose to illustrate this post with the cover of A. V. Chayanov’s Theory of Peasant Economy because Chayanov too was a “real utopian,” seeking to identify a feasible road to rural emancipation that was neither capitalist nor a version of centralized authoritarian communism. Chayanov was arrested and executed by the Stalinist Soviet secret police in 1937.)

Here is a link to the interview on YouTube (link).


The Guardian drops the ball …

The Guardian posted a short documentary video on the city where I live, Dearborn, Michigan (link). The video is, frankly, a careless, sensationalized, and false approach to the social realities of Muslims in southeast Michigan. It gives the impression that Dearborn is riven with conflict between insular Muslim people and anti-Muslim militia types and xenophobes who fear Islam. And without evidence it suggests the presence of extremist cells in the city. There is a persistent underlying theme of menace in the film, as if violence is about to break out at any time across communities. These themes of division, conflict, and menace are underlined in the blurb about the video published by the Guardian as context for the film. These are canards, and they do great injustice to the people and organizations of Dearborn and the rest of southeast Michigan. The message of the video lines up more exactly with the hate-mongers on the far right who persist in talking about Sharia law and “Dearbornistan”.

The video also inflames the sense of conflict by showing white militia members and a young Muslim woman using firearms. There are far too many guns in our society. But there is no suggestion whatsoever that Muslim people are arming themselves in significant numbers; this is just not part of the discourse, and it is a reckless act of editorial discretion to give this impression. One person choosing to own a firearm does not constitute evidence for a broader tendency. (There is of course no doubt at all about the number of firearms in the hands of white supremacist organizations.)

The video also gives a prominence to the Michigan Militia that is almost entirely undeserved. MMCW has almost no presence in Wayne County, according to its website (link). Inflammatory talk radio with its xenophobic and anti-Muslim themes is of course a key tool in the politics of division and hate that we have experienced in the past several decades; but this has no special relevance to Dearborn. It is entirely unclear why these snippets from shock radio should have been included in this documentary about a particular place.

These impressions of severe conflict, fear, and hatred are entirely false to the city in which I have lived for over seventeen years. Relations between majority residents and Muslim and Arab-American residents are in general very good. Incidents of hate-based harassment or violence are very rare. And as a person who shops, dines, and socializes in the city and enjoys the city’s parks and cultural attractions, I know first-hand that virtually everywhere are to be found individuals and groups representing all the diversity of our city. There are friendly and mutually respectful relations on display in all these public places. This is a source of pride for most people who live in Dearborn. One sign of this engagement in diversity is the response last spring to a call to action in the Ford Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to discuss and protest President Trump’s executive orders against Muslim travelers. At least half of the people present, out of a crowd of over a thousand, were non-Muslim residents who attended to demonstrate their solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.

One of the great strengths of our city and our region is the existence of mature, longstanding community-based organizations that have worked for decades at building bridges across the multiple communities of our city — organizations like ACCESS, the American Chaldean Council, New Detroit, the JCRC, La Sed, the Arab American Civil Rights League, and dozens of other community-based organizations. It is regrettable that the filmmakers did not take it upon themselves to interview and profile leaders and members of organizations like these, whose optimism and dedication to inclusion and social harmony are profound and effective. Community leaders such as the Mayor of Dearborn, the leadership of ACCESS, and leaders of the JCRC have shown themselves to be committed to the values of mutual respect and civility which are the foundation of a viable democracy. And Dearborn is thriving in the context of those values.

By the way — there is no such place as the “University of Dearborn.” The University in question is the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and is very proud of its diverse student body and its deep culture of inclusion — including a sizable proportion of Muslim and Arab American students. And members of the university community have learned the importance of nuance. Not all Arab Americans are Muslim; not all Muslims derive from the Middle East; and there is great diversity of political and cultural opinion across Muslim America. This is a small matter, perhaps, but it gives a sharp indication of the carelessness with which the filmmakers approached their work.

Proliferation of hate and intolerance

Paul Brass provides a wealth of ethnographic and historical evidence on the causes of Hindu-Muslim violence in India in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. His analysis here centers on the city of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, and he believes that his findings have broad relevance in many parts of India. His key conclusion is worth quoting:

It is a principal argument of this book that the whole political order in post-Independence north India and many, if not most of its leading as well as local actors — more markedly so since the death of Nehru — have become implicated in the persistence of Hindu-Muslim riots. These riots have had concrete benefits for particular political organizations as well as larger political uses. Hindu-Muslim opposition, tensions, and violence have provided the principal justification and the primary source of strength for the political existence of some local political organizations in many cities and towns in north India linked to a family of militant Hindu nationalist organizations whose core is an organization founded in 1925, known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Included in this family, generally called the Sangh Parivar, are an array of organizations devoted to different tasks: mass mobilization, political organization, recruitment of students, women, and workers, and paramilitary training. The leading political organization in this family, originally called the Jan Singh, is now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently (2001) the predominant party in India’s governing coalition. All the organizations in the RSS family of militant Hindu organizations adhere to a broader ideology of Hindutva, of Hindu nationalism that theoretically exists independently of Hindu-Muslim antagonisms, but in practice has thrived only when that opposition is explicitly or implicitly present. (6-7)

Brass provides extensive evidence, that is, for the idea that a key cause and stimulant to ethnic and religious conflict derives from the political entrepreneurs and organizations who have a political interest in furthering conflict among groups.

Let’s think about the mechanics of the spread of attitudes of intolerance, distrust, and hate throughout a population. What kinds of factors and interactions lead individuals to increase the intensity of their negative beliefs and attitudes towards other groups? What drives the spread of hate and intolerance through a population? (Donatella della Porta, Manuela Caiani and Claudius Wagemann’s Mobilizing on the Extreme Right: Germany, Italy, and the United States is a valuable recent effort at formulating a political sociology of right-wing extremism in Italy, Germany, and the United States. Here is an earlier post that also considers this topic; link.)

Here are several mechanisms that recur in many instances of extremist mobilization.

Exposure to inciting media. Since the Rwandan genocide the role of radio, television, and now the internet has been recognized in the proliferation and intensification of hate. The use of fake news, incendiary language, and unfounded conspiracy theories seems to have accelerated the formation of constituencies for the beliefs and attitudes of hate. Breitbart News is a powerful example of a media channel specifically organized around conveying suspicion, mistrust, disrespect, and alienation among groups. (“Propaganda and conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan genocide” is a finegrained study of Rwandan villages that attempts to estimate the impact of a radio station on violent participation by villagers; link.)

Incidents. People who have studied the occurrence of ethnic violence in India have emphasized the role played by various incidents, real or fictitious, that have elevated emotions and antagonisms in one community or another. An assault or a rape, a house or shop being burned, even an auto accident can lead to a cascade of heightened emotions and blame within a community, communicated by news media and word of mouth. These sorts of incidents play an important role in many of the conflicts Brass describes.

Organizations and leaders. Organizations like white supremacist clubs and their leaders make deliberate attempts to persuade outsiders to join their beliefs. Leaders make concerted and intelligent attempts to craft messages that will appeal to potential followers, deliberately cultivating the themes of hate and racism that they advocate. Young people are recruited at the street level into groups and clubs that convey hateful symbols and rhetoric. Political entrepreneurs take advantage of the persuasive power of mobilization efforts based on divisiveness and intolerance. In Brass’s account of Hindu-Muslim conflict, that role is played by RSS, BJP, and many local organizations motivated by this ideology.

Music, comics, and video games. Anti-hate organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented the role played by racist and anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim themes in popular music and other forms of entertainment (link). These creations help to create a sense of shared identity among members as they enjoy the music or immerse themselves in the comics and games. Blee and Creasap emphasize the importance of the use of popular culture forms in mobilization strategies of the extreme right in “Conservative and right-wing movements”; link.

The presence of a small number of “hot connectors”. It appears to be the case that attitudes of intolerance are infectious to some degree. So the presence of a few outspoken bigots in a small community may spread their attitudes to others, and the density of local social networks appears to be an important factor in the spread of hateful attitudes. The broader the social network of these individuals, the more potent the infective effects of their behavior are likely to be. (Here is a recent post on social-network effects on mobilization; link.)

There is a substantial degree of orchestration in most of these mechanisms — deliberate efforts by organizations and political entrepreneurs to incite and channel the emotions of fear, hostility, and hate among their followers and potential followers. Strategies of recruitment for extremist and hate-based parties deliberately cultivate the mindset of hate among young people and disaffected older people (link). And the motivations seem to be a mix of ideological commitment to a worldview of hate and more prosaic self-interest — power, income, resources, publicity, and influence. 

But the hard questions remaining are these: how does intolerance become mainstream? Is this a “tipping point” phenomenon? And what mechanisms and forces exist to act as counter-pressures against these mechanisms, and promulgate attitudes of mutual respect and tolerance as affirmative social values?

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Here is a nice graphic from Arcand and Chakraborty, “What Explains Ethnic Violence? Evidence from Hindu-Muslim Riots in India”; link. Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh show the largest concentration of riots over the period 1960-1995. There appears to be no correlation by time in the occurrence of riots in the three states.

And here is a 1996 report on the incidence of religious violence in India by Human Rights Watch; link

Democracy and the politics of intolerance

A democracy allows government to reflect the will of the people. Or does it? Here I would like to understand a bit better the dynamics through which radical right populism has come to have influence, even dominance, in a number of western democracies — even when the percentage of citizens with radical right populist attitudes generally falls below the range of 35% of the electorate.

There are well known bugs in the ways that real democracies work, leading to discrepancies between policy outcomes and public preferences. In the United States, for example, we find:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional districts that favor Republican incumbents
  • Over-representation of rural voters in the composition of the Senate (Utah has as many senators as California)
  • Organized efforts to suppress voting by poor and minority voters
  • The vast influence of corporate and private money in shaping elections and public attitudes
  • An electoral-college system that easily permits the candidate winning fewer votes to nonetheless win the Presidency

So it is evident that the system of electoral democracy institutionalized in the United States is far from a neutral, formal system conveying citizen preferences onto outcomes in a fair and equal way. The rules as well as the choices are objects of contention.

But to understand the ascendancy of the far right in US politics we need to go beyond these defects. We need to understand the processes through which citizens acquire their political attitudes — thereby explaining their likelihood of mobilization for one party or candidate or another. And we need to understand the mechanisms through which elected representatives are pushed to the extreme positions that are favored by only a minority of their own supporters.

First, what are the mechanisms that lead to the formation of political attitudes and beliefs in individual citizens? That is, of course, a huge question. People have religious values, civic values, family values, personal aspirations, bits of historical knowledge, and so on, all of which come into play in a wide range of settings through personal development. And all of these value tags may serve as a basis for mobilization by candidates and parties. That is the rationale for “dog-whistle” politics — to craft messages that resonate with small groups of voters without being noticed by larger groups with different values. So let’s narrow it a bit: what mechanisms exist through which activist organizations and leaders can promote specific hateful beliefs and attitudes within a population with a range of existing attitudes, beliefs, and values? In particular, how can radical-right populist organizations and parties increase the appeal of their programs of intolerance to voters who are not otherwise pre-disposed to the extremes of populism?

Here the potency of appeals to division, intolerance, and hate is of particular relevance. Populism has almost always depended on a simplistic division between “us” and “them”. The rhetoric and themes of nationalism and racism represent powerful tools in the arsenal of populist mobilization, preying upon suspicion, resentment, and mistrust of “others” in order to gain adherents to a party that promises to take advantages away from those others. The right-wing media play an enormous role in promulgating these messages of division and intolerance in many countries. The conspiracy theories and false narratives conveyed by right-wing media and commentators are powerfully persuasive in setting the terms of political consciousness for millions of people. Fox News set the agenda for a large piece of the American electorate. And the experience of having been left out of a fair share of economic advantages leaves some segments of the population particularly vulnerable to these kinds of appeals. Finally, the under-currents of racism and prejudice are of continuing importance in the political and social identities of many citizens — again leaving them vulnerable to appeals that cater to these prejudices. This is how Breitbart News works. (An earlier post treated this factor; link.)

Let’s next consider the institutional mechanisms through which activist advocacy can be turned into disproportionate effects in legislation. Suppose Representative Smith has been elected on the Republican ticket in a close contest over his Democrat opponent with 51% of the vote. And suppose his constituency includes 15% extreme right voters, 20% moderate right voters, and 16% conservative-leaning independents. Why does Smith go on to support the agenda of the far right, who are after all only less than a third of his own supporters in his district? This results from a mechanism that political scientists seem to understand; it involves the dynamics of the primary system. The extreme right is highly activated, while the center is significantly less so. A candidate who moves to the center is in danger of losing his seat in the next primary to a far-right candidate who can depend upon the support of his or her activist base to defeat Smith. So the 15% of extreme-right voters determine the behavior of the representative. (McAdam and Kloos consider these dynamics in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America; link.)

Gerrymandering plays an important role in these dynamics as well. Smith doesn’t have to moderate his policy choices out of concern that he will lose the general election to a more moderate Democrat, because the Republican legislature in his state has ensured that this is a safe seat for the candidate chosen by the party.

So here we are — in a nation governed by an extreme-right party in control of both House and Senate, with a President espousing xenophobic and anti-immigrant intentions and a budget that severely cuts back on the social safety net, and dozens of state governments dominated by the same forces. And yet the President is profoundly unpopular, confidence in Congress is at an abysmal low point, and the majority of Americans favor a more progressive set of policies on women’s health, health policy, immigration, and international security than the governing party is proposing. How did democratic processes bring us to this paradoxical point?

In 1991 political scientist Sam Popkin published a short book called The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. The title captures Popkin’s central hypothesis: that voters make choices on the basis of rational assessment of available evidence. What he adds to this old theory of democratic behavior is the proviso that often the principle of reasoning in question is what he calls “low-information rationality”. Unlike traditional rational-choice theories of political behavior, Popkin proposes to make use of empirical results from cognitive psychology — insights into how real people make practical decisions of importance. It is striking how much the environment of political behavior has changed since Popkin’s reflections in the 1980s and 1990s. “Most Americans watch some network television news and scan newspapers several times every week” (25). In a 2015 New Yorker piece on the populism of Donald Trump Evan Osnos quotes Popkin again — but this time in a way that emphasizes emotions rather than evidence-based rationality (link). The passage is worth quoting:

“The more complicated the problem, the simpler the demands become,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, told me. “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

Trump has succeeded in unleashing an old gene in American politics—the crude tribalism that Richard Hofstadter named “the paranoid style”—and, over the summer, it replicated like a runaway mutation. Whenever Americans have confronted the reshuffling of status and influence—the Great Migration, the end of Jim Crow, the end of a white majority—we succumb to the anti-democratic politics of absolutism, of a “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” in which, Hofstadter wrote, “the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.” Trump was born to the part. “I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win,” he wrote, in “The Art of the Deal.” “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us. (link)

The gist is pretty clear: populism is not primarily about rational consideration of costs and benefits, but rather the political emotions of mistrust, intolerance, and fear.

New understandings of populism


It is apparent, on this first round of the presidential elections in France, that we urgently need to understand better the dynamics and causes of radical populism in democratic polities. What is populism? Why does it have such virulence in the current moment as a political movement? What roles do racism, xenophobia, resentment, and economic fear play in the readiness of ordinary citizens in Europe and America to support radical populist candidates and platforms?

The topic has been the subject of research by very talented investigators over the past twenty years. Several recent books are especially relevant in the current moment. Particularly relevant are Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction; Jan-Werner Muller’s What Is Populism?; and a recent collection by Social Europe edited by Henning Meyer, Understanding the Populist Revolt. Taken together, the three sources provide an excellent basis for thinking further about the nature of radical populism.

Mudde and Kaltwasser argue that populism differs from other political umbrella terms (socialism, fascism) in one important respect: it is less specific in identifying a well defined ideological program. It is, in their words, “an essentially contested concept”. Here are a few of their central ideas:

A more recent approach considers populism, first and foremost, as a political strategy employed by a specific type of leader who seeks to govern based on direct and unmediated support from their followers. It is particularly popular among students of Latin American and non-Western societies. The approach emphasizes that populism implies the emergence of a strong and charismatic figure, who concentrates power and maintains a direct connection with the masses. (kl 677-680)

Beyond the lack of scholarly agreement on the defining attributes of populism, agreement is general that all forms of populism include some kind of appeal to “the people” and a denunciation of “the elite.” Accordingly, it is not overly contentious to state that populism always involves a critique of the establishment and an adulation of the common people. More concretely, we define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. (kl 700-705)

This means that populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related to other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. Seen in this light, populism must be understood as a kind of mental map through which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality. It is not so much a coherent ideological tradition as a set of ideas that, in the real world, appears in combination with quite different, and sometimes contradictory, ideologies. (kl 713-717)

A common thread of populist rhetoric is that the movement is “anti-elitist” and that it speaks on behalf of “the people”. Elites, according to populist leaders, have dominated policy and captured the benefits of society; “the people” have been left behind by elites who care nothing for their wellbeing. These tropes make perfect interpretive sense of Trumpism — the campaign’s attack on the media, scientists, politicians, and universities, its virulent personal attacks against Hillary Clinton, and its efforts to divide “the real Americans” from others — immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and urban dwellers. And this is the most important point: by claiming to speak uniquely for “the people”, there is an implicit openness to authoritarianism in populist politics.

So what is “not-Populism”? What is a political ideology and movement that falls outside the populist rubric? They identify pluralism as the main rival:

Pluralism is the direct opposite of the dualist perspective of both populism and elitism, instead holding that society is divided into a broad variety of partly overlapping social groups with different ideas and interests. Within pluralism diversity is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Pluralists believe that a society should have many centers of power and that politics, through compromise and consensus, should reflect the interests and values of as many different groups as possible. Thus, the main idea is that power is supposed to be distributed throughout society in order to avoid specific groups— be they men; ethnic communities; economic, intellectual, military or political cadres, etc.— acquiring the capacity to impose their will upon the others. (kl 733-738)

Mudde and Kaltwasser pay close attention to what seems like the most important current problem: mobilization around populist political agendas.

By mobilization we mean the engagement of a wide range of individuals to raise awareness of a particular problem, leading them to act collectively to support their cause. Overall, three types of populist mobilization can be identified: personalist leadership, social movement, and political party. (kl 1246-1248)

They highlight three kinds of mechanisms of mobilization: social movements, charismatic leaders, and local grassroots organizations. (See an earlier post on work by McAdam and Kloos on racialized social movements in the United States; link.)

What factors lead to success in populist mobilization?

For any political actor to be successful, there has to be a demand for her message. Most populist actors combine populism with one or more so-called host ideologies, such as some form of nationalism or socialism. Although populism is often noted as a reason for their success, many electoral studies instead focus exclusively on the accompanying features, such as xenophobia in western Europe or socioeconomic support for disadvantaged groups in Latin America. This is in part a consequence of the lack of available data at the mass level. Empirical studies of populist attitudes are still in their infancy, but they do show that populist attitudes are quite widespread among populations in countries with relevant populist parties (e.g., Netherlands) and social movements (e.g., the United States) as well as in countries with no relevant populist actors (e.g., Chile). (Kindle Locations 2063-2069)

This passage highlights some of the kinds of messages that populists have deployed to support mobilization — xenophobia and its cousins, and “nation first!” appeals for economic improvement for “the people”. Mudde and Kaltwasser highlight the use of mistrust as a political theme — “elites” are abusing “the people’s” interests and needs, the elites cannot be trusted.  Appeals by populist leaders to fear, mistrust, and resentment of others have proven widespread and durable in numerous countries, including the recent presidential campaign in the United States.

A crucially important question before us is why racist and xenophobic attitudes appear to be becoming more common and more readily mobilized, in Europe and in the United States. Why is the rhetoric of division and hate so powerful in today’s politics? Mudde and Kaltwasser do not shed much light on this question; indeed, they barely confront the topic. The terms “hate” and “race” do not appear in the book at all. They address the topic of xenophobia more generally (largely in the context of immigration issues). But they do not consider the more basic question: why is hate such a powerful political theme in the politics of extremist populism?

The other two books mentioned above provide more insight into this question, and I will return to them in a subsequent post.

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There is today a little bit of good news for everyone concerned about the ascendancy of extremist populist politics in modern democracies. It appears that political novice and moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron has slightly bested far-right populist Marine Le Pen in today’s French election results (23.7% vs. 21.8%, with 96% of polls reported). So the final round will involve a run-off election between the two leading candidates, and almost all commentators agree that the advantage in the second round will go to Macron. So the anxiety felt by many around the world that France would follow Great Britain (Brexit) and the United States (Trump) with an unexpected victory for the extreme right populist position is now much abated.

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