5.11.17

THE ILLOGIC OF COLLECTIVE ACTION.

In my continuing quest to understand the ways the punditocracy come to terms with the surprise election of Donald Trump, I devote Book Review No. 26 to Mark Lilla's The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  (I got it on the cheap as the local book store, which opened not so long ago, is going out of business.) Mr Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia, has advanced parts of his thesis previously, with some push-back from the people supposedly on his side.  And the identitarian faction that argues with, then mostly votes for, Democrats, continues to advocate for more of the same.



It also recommends investing party resources to engage communities of color, and running on more progressive policies such as “single-payer Medicare for all, free public college tuition, economic security, infrastructure and green jobs initiatives, and tackling the climate crisis.”

In their policies and their campaigns, Democrats need to directly address the “disproportionately high rates of poverty” and “ongoing vulnerability to a racist criminal justice system” in communities of color. The party must also end it’s chronic “neglect of rural voters, a process that must include aligning the party with the interests of farming families and others who live in the countryside rather than with Big Agriculture and monopolies.”

The question looming over all this is—how and why would the Democratic Party contradict the corporate and wealth interests that undergird its financial support? Why would the party suddenly abandon its big money funders and the “New Democrat” neoliberal agenda the party has been following for decades?
Mr Lilla contends, page 95, "Identity is Reaganism for lefties."  More precisely, he looks at the epoch since the Depression and War as divided into two parts: the Roosevelt Dispensation of collective action against great difficulties, followed by a Reagan Dispensation of individual action leading to great flourishing.  And he sees the identitarians' rainbow as pure Reagan Dispensation: "a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors."  (Page 9.)  More interestingly, he begins his main argument with a passage from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  It begins at page 32 of my paperback edition.  After describing how individuals subject themselves to short-term pain for long-term gain (a diet, a dental checkup, deferring gratification) he wonders if that applies alike to collective action.
Why not, similarly, hold that some persons have to bear some costs that benefit other persons more, for the sake of the overall social good?  But there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good.  There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives.  Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others.  Nothing more.  What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others.  Talk of an overall social good covers this up.  (Intentionally?)  To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has.  He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him  -- least of all a state or government that claims his allegiance (as other individuals do not) and that therefore scrupulously must be neutral between its citizens.
I highlighted the parts of the passage that Professor Lilla uses in Once and Future.  Note that he left out "What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others."  As a species, we were foragers before we worked out specialization and trade, and perhaps having the younger and more energetic members of the tribe deal with foragers from another tribe by killing them and risking being killed, while the older members of the tribe, with some memory of what worked and what didn't work in previous encounters with pillaging foragers, directing the fighting, conferred evolutionary advantage on tribes so governed.  That also describes the state of affairs at the beginning of the Roosevelt Dispensation.  At the same time the United States had its Civilian Conservation Corps, the Reichsarbeitsdienst was doing close-order drill with construction tools at the Reichsparteitag: a few years later, these were the younger and more energetic members engaged in desperate struggle, under the direction of the older members applying their hard-won expertise.  Under the Roosevelt Dispensation, we could modify a Kurt Schlichter formulation, describing the Greatest Generation as people who kill other people that want to take away their rights to say what they want, to worship as they want, to carry a rifle to protect those other rights.  Put another way: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear.

Freedom from want?  That's a consequence of that latter discovery of specialization and trade.  It's in that discovery that "What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others" (sometimes rendered as "sacrificing for the greater good" becomes contested moral territory.)

That began with religion.  "Sacrifice for the greater good" once entailed a human sacrifice, or perhaps involved an animal.  I suspect that one selling point of Christianity is that in crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, a believer has God taking a human form with the intent of being sacrificed, then departing for heaven with the message, believe and be saved, even though that's still contested half a millennium after the 95 theses.  Thus, no more human sacrifices, and in the Agnus Dei, those references to the Lamb of God bring us to a world in which "making a burnt offering" is a way of not saying "Crap!  I left the burgers on the grill too long."  Now to encourage Islamic clergy to point out that sacrificing yourself with the expectation of eternal salvation, particularly if you send some infidels to hell at the same time, is a misreading of scripture, and shouting Allah-u-akbar while doing so is a sacrilege.

It continues with commerce.  "Why not, similarly, hold that slaves have to bear some costs that benefit other persons more, for the sake of the overall social good?"  I think that was settled in the United States in 1865, despite the counsel of classical Greek sages to the contrary.  Or as Alfred Marshall asked, on page 41 of the eighth edition of Principles of Economics, "Ought we to rest content with the existing forms of division of labour?  Is it necessary that large numbers of the people should be exclusively occupied with work that has no elevating character?"  No, and no.  To answer no, though, is to rule out any argument that perhaps the ills suffered are on balance for the better.  Thus, releasing entrepreneurs to break out of employment relationships, or to compete for workers with better compensation and better working conditions -- that is, to err on the side of individual initiative and limit the scope of the state, which is to say, the obligations of citizenship Professor Lilla would like to emphasize.  The very "tedious, incremental work" of governing that he celebrates is in itself a formula for limiting the scope of governance, and thus a recommendation that the trappings of the Roosevelt Dispensation, whether they be the brains trust or the alphabet agencies or all the classic-inspired cubicle farms along Constitution Avenue ought be scaled back.  And we question any calls for sacrifice: consider, for example, the personal costs borne by volunteer troops in what appear to be endless wars of nation building.
Today, more than 300 million Americans lay claim to rights, liberties, and security that not a single one of them is obligated to protect and defend. Apparently, only 1 percent of the population feels that obligation. That 1 percent is bleeding and dying for the other 99 percent.

Further, that 1 percent does not come primarily or even secondarily from the families of the Ivy Leagues, of Wall Street, of corporate leadership, from the Congress, or from affluent America; it comes from less well-to-do areas: West Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere. For example, the Army now gets more soldiers from the state of Alabama, population 4.8 million, than it gets from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles combined, aggregate metropolitan population more than 25 million. Similarly, 40 percent of the Army comes from seven states of the Old South.
In that reality, you might find more reason for Donald Trump pluralities in battleground states, than in all the same-sex wedding cakes, knee-taking athletes, and virtue-signalling entertainers.  (After sixteen years of nation-building wars, call me skeptical about the risks we face of foragers in Asia Minor eating our seed corn and stealing our sheep.)

For that matter, in Professor Lilla's reservations about the identitarian movements making up the Democratic coalition, we see in their calls for redress calls for something being done to some people for the sake of others.  Page 129.
Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity.  There is no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.  But there is also no denying that the movement's decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society, and its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence (most spectacularly in a public confrontation with Hillary Clinton, of all people), played into the hands of the Republican right.
Put another way, those demands for confession compel some people to bear costs that benefit others more, which is to say, identity politics is a call for some people to make sacrifices in the service of some nebulous general good.  That's not how Reaganism -- at least the libertarian part -- works.

Perhaps, though, it is all moot.  The Roosevelt Dispensation and the Reagan Dispensation are the Crisis, High, Awakening, and Unraveling of the Great Power Saeculum, and the signs of a new saecular order taking form are everywhere.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

2 comments:

who-knew said...

There is no such thing as social justice, there is only justice for individuals. The current push to somehow codify social justice will be the downfall of the country.

Stephen Karlson said...

Alternatively, there is no justice that is not social, in the sense that a system of justice is an emergent phenomenon shaped by social interaction. Thus, codifying part of the system as "social" and in opposition to other parts will ultimately fail of its own internal illogic.