Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Smirk of American Empire

Derek S. Denman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ethics, Law and Politics at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.

During his questioning in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, newly minted special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, bristled at the mention of his record of lying to Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair and his cover-up of massacres by the Salvadoran military. Abrams’s reaction to his questioning was a familiar one of a powerful man being called to account for his actions: feigned consternation, outrage at a recounting of well-established historical record, and the treatment of substantive critique as personal attack. He first brushed off questions from Rep. Ilhan Omar about repressive policies he might support in Venezuela before settling on vague platitudes about support for democracy. As he cycled through the repertoire of obfuscation, something broke through his wall of misdirection. While a still doesn't fully do it justice, the video is clear as ever: His lips curl up, just barely, at each corner, revealing a smirk, before returning to his earlier scowl. This smirk tells an important story about the politics of empire.

In Aspirational Fascism, William Connolly includes facial expressions alongside gestures, postures, rhythms, and habits as vital elements of affective communication, working beneath the symbolic register of language. Specifically, Connolly draws attention to the affective infusions that subtend Trump’s fascist demagoguery. Trump’s facial expressions—variously smug, mocking, and grimacing—work at a visceral register, in concert with “grandiose bodily gestures … Big Lies, hysterical charges, dramatic repetitions, and totalistic assertions that only he can clean up the ‘mess,’” to activate support for individual and nationalist aggression (11).

Abrams’s smirk differs from Trump’s. Trump’s facial expressions are delivered to activate jeering crowds. He experiments with his face in front of his audience, seeking to amplify their glee for his violent fantasies directed at immigrants and protestors or his mockery of a reporter with a disability. Abrams’s smirk slipped through his rehearsed comportment of self-styled seriousness that allows him to shift between visionary promoter of democracy (when asked of his achievements) and hard-nosed realist (when faced with his crimes). It is the face of the imperial agent rather than the fascist demagogue.

What is behind this smirk? What does it signal to the neocons and Trumpists who witness it? And how do we understand the connection between this facial expression and the violent, repressive politics it embodies? We might begin to unpack the meaning of the smirk by focusing on it in relation to what Jon Schwarz of The Intercept identifies as Abrams’s “core competency,” his ability to combine “brutality and unctuousness.”

The brutality that Abrams facilitated—then later denied and concealed—is nearly unfathomable. He is perhaps best known for his denial of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, suggesting that reports of over 800 people murdered and dismembered by government forces were mere communist propaganda. From the support for the genocidal policies of Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala to the defense of the torture and execution of dissidents in Panama, it seems Abrams never found a right-wing death squad he couldn’t get behind, especially when it involved dissembling in front of Congress and the American public.

Abrams’s return to public life might be interpreted through the lens of the recent obsession with true crime and the particular fascination with serial killers. Will Menaker, a host of the “Dirtbag Left” podcast Chapo Trap House, suggests as much, when, in introducing a discussion of Abrams, he notes, "We have left out some of the more prolific mass murderers who have done all of their work ... from behind a desk." It is only appropriate for the Dirtbag Left to diagnose the political pathology that has led to the resurgence of Abrams. It takes a vocabulary of vulgarity to scratch the surface of the horror inflicted by Abrams’s policies, positions, and lies. Mere mention of the atrocities Abrams supported—the decapitations and corpses posed in dioramas of death—exceeds the language and offends the ears of those who are only able to speak within the confines of “civility.”

At one level, Abrams’s smirk is one of condescension. It suggests his defiant sense that he will never have to make amends for his crimes, the scale of which are so enormous as to be almost absolute, remaking the very fabric of life (and death) across Latin America and beyond. We’ve seen this expression before in his appearance on Charlie Rose in 1995. When the investigative journalist Allan Nairn recounted Abrams’s record of support for Guatemalan military atrocities, Abrams first engaged in his characteristic deflection, then laughed at the accusation, and, finally, as the camera lingered on him, settled into a smirk. Abrams smirks, then and today, knowing that he can hide behind the numerous government titles bestowed upon him by the Reagan, Bush, and now Trump administrations, each naming him a champion of democracy, human rights, humanitarianism, and diplomacy. The smirk tells us that he revels in the subterfuge provided by these accolades of empire.

At a deeper level, I suspect that the smirk is also one of sadistic joy. The smirk suggests that perhaps Abrams holds deep-seated delight in the suffering he has wrought. Today, refugees flee countries where he has propped up autocrats, only to be met by guns, walls, and razor wire at the US border, and still Abrams smirks. Empire takes many affective forms, and one of those is an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction that wells up in its most ruthless agents.

The little-noted, half concealed smirk of Abrams follows a higher profile instance of a smirk dripping with colonial power relations. That moment came when a Covington Catholic student sporting a MAGA hat and attending an anti-choice rally smirked in the face of a member of the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon seeing video of the incident, many of us were rightly horrified by the students, weaponized for their school’s campaign against abortion rights and donning the marker of Trumpist white nationalism. And everyone’s eyes were drawn to the smirk. The event has oddly been treated as a sort of political Rorschach test, emphasizing the diversionary claims of “contextualizing video” instead of the tomahawk chops of the student’s classmates. However, even the most agnostic interpreters note the young man’s unsettling expression: “it’s true that a smirk is a smirk.”

I wonder if, in the moment of noticing the smirk, those of us who were unequivocally troubled by it saw not only our present—a facial expression of white supremacy—but also a future where that smirk had been hardened to conceal the crimes of imperial brutality. We were witnessing not only the undeniable coloniality of the present, but also catching a glimpse into a possible future where the next Abramses-in-waiting look down in condescension at the public for which they hold only contempt and gaze in self-satisfaction at their victims. It was evident to us that the control of public space through a sense of entitlement authorized by whiteness was on the path to becoming a sense of entitlement to remake global space through the power of para-military murder. We thought maybe, just maybe, if we insisted on an acknowledgement of the power relations embodied in this scene, we might avert the hardening of this expression into the smirk of empire.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Democratic Future of the Green New Deal

Lida Maxwell
Associate Professor
Boston University

What does it mean to have a future? The monarch’s eternal body used to represent the continuity and futurity of the kingdom (over and against the mortality of both him and his subjects). In modern social contract stories, by contrast, ordinary men gain a future by moving out of a state of nature beset by uncertainty, violence, and hierarchy; mastering a state of nature that otherwise would master them. Yet nature in these stories is not a factual reality, but a metaphor for forces that feel uncontrollable or unpredictable. As Carole Pateman has argued, patriarchal mastery is necessary in social contract stories for liberal democratic futurity. So too the mastery of other races and peoples (as thinkers such as Uday Mehta, James Tully, and Adam Dahl have argued). These social contract stories, which continue to haunt our political imagination, position the future of white European bourgeois men as dependent on the subjugation of others.
This mastery-centered idea of what it means to have a future may help to explain why it has been so hard for many commentators, presidential candidates, and ordinary citizens to see the Green New Deal as a real possible future. Even people who say they support the Green New Deal feel like they can only talk about it in old terms, in terms of legislators balancing a series of trade-offs between individuals and the collective – as Cory Booker is doing right now (“I’ve endorsed the framework and the resolution, but I don’t endorse doing things that are going to hurt…a strong economy”). But this whole way of thinking is rooted in the idea that mastery by someis a condition of futurity for everyone – that the future of the collective depends on elites mastering “nature” (women, poor people, marginalized individuals, etc.) through (for Booker) technocratic policy making.
The Green New Deal is moving us toward a different conception of what it means to have a future – a democratic conception of futurity that has been prefigured in environmental politics and thinking. Here, futurity depends neither on mastery over some people, forces, and nonhuman nature; nor on separating politics from nature, the public realm from the private realm. Rather, futurity opens up through an ecological (holistic, interconnected) attention to how the attempt at mastery has left almost everyone in a situation of precarity, and the attempt not to master unpredictable forces, but instead to democratically understand, adapt, and respond to those forces so that everyone, and not just a few, might flourish.
This is the central idea in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. After detailing the ecological devastation (actual and potential) caused by insecticides and pesticides, Carson argues in her last chapter, entitled, “The Other Road”: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one "less traveled by" — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (277-278). On the one hand, Carson seems to be suggesting here that the choice is between two futures: 1) the “deceptively easy” “superhighway” that seems to be leading quickly toward greater prosperity and comfort, but actually ends in the “disaster” of destroying the earth that actually allows our lives and pleasures to exist; and 2) a future where we push back against that tendency and preserve the earth. Yet implicit in Carson’s formulation, and in the remainder of the chapter, is a deeper distinction: not just a choice between two futures, but between what a future is. The “deceptively easy” superhighway constitutes what we usually think of as a “future”: a space of inevitable progress brought about by capitalist industry and technology, and by what Carson calls the “control of nature,” or what Val Plumwood calls the “mastery of nature.” 
The other “fork of the road” is, in contrast, an open-ended path, made possible by our rejection of the attempt at mastery. In the closing pages of Silent Spring, Carson does not describe in detail what that path looks like. She notes that there is “a truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects” (278), and lauds ecologically grounded approaches to insect control, “biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong” (278). Yet she does not proscribe a particular course, a particular way of proceeding. Rather, what distinguishes this fork in the road is its democratic character. Directly after describing the fork in the road, Carson says: “The choice, after all, is ours to make,” she says. “If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” (my emphasis, 278). Looking about enables a possible future because we are no longer deferring to technocratic, corporate elites. Instead, we become agents in creating a world where everyone can flourish. Just because the “smooth superhighway” is easy does not mean we should stay on it. We may “see what other course is open to us.”
The Green New Deal resolution offers us this democratic “other course,” this “other fork in the road.” If Carson called for the public to use the knowledge she gives it to demand the regulation of insecticides and pesticides, the Green New Deal calls for the public to engage in political and governmental action that will address climate change: a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal” (4). Also like Carson, the GND’s vision of the future on behalf of which they call us to mobilize is ecologically grounded: the aim is not only to ensure jobs, “prosperity, “economic security,” but also “clean air and water,” “climate and community resiliency,” “healthy food,” “access to nature,” “a sustainable environment,” and “justice and equity.” Like Carson – and perhaps more than Carson – the GND recognizes that justice and equity are connected with a sustainable climate, that prosperity and economic security are unimaginable without healthy food and clean air and water.
Yet also like Silent Spring, the GND resolution does not use expert knowledge to offer a precise map for how to “solve” the problem of climate change, and foreclose democratic decision-making (nor does it make false claims of ease, as in Cory Booker’s statement: “we did it when I was mayor of Newark; we just retro-fitted our buildings. We drove down our carbon footprint; we drove down our city’s energy costs. We created jobs for our residents, and we dealt with the issues of climate change. We created a win, win, win, win…”). 
Rather, the GND uses knowledge to empower communities. The resolution begins with a clear depiction of the hard truth of the devastation that climate change has brought and will bring (the consequence of staying on the “smooth superhighway,” despite the many warnings of Carson and others). This knowledge, rather than inducing powerlessness, instead serves as a framework that enables communities to become agents of their own future. 
The resolution continually portrays “community-defined projects and strategies” (6, cf. 9) as an integral part of addressing climate change, and places democracy at its center: the resolution calls for ensuring “the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level” (12). Refusing the assumption of many that democracy is incapable of addressing an urgent problem like climate change, the GND shows that democracy is the only way that Americans can claim and create the future they desire.
While this future is mostly illegible in terms of contemporary political “common sense,” we should take the Green New Deal as an opportunity to show why this “common sense” actually makes no sense. Thea Riofrancos, Alyssa Battistoni, and others are already doing that in Jacobin, to great effect. The Green New Deal invites a new way of thinking and feeling the future: not as requiring the “smooth superhighway” that exists only through eradicating that which appears unsettling, uncertain, or unpredictable (including democratic claims for equality and freedom), but instead as the possibility of things being otherwise that emerges from the democratic practice of refusing deference and opening ourselves to the pleasures, difficulty, and meaning of democratically governing ourselves.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Fascblican Party: an ugly word for an ugly force

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism(2017) and Facing the Planetary(2017)

Note a few recent events:
--Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly excoriate the Mueller investigation as a witch hunt and then Trump installs a Hack as acting Attorney General with the intent to short circuit that very investigation by dubious legal means.

--Trump talked about a rigged election during the 2016 campaign at the same time his campaign conspired secretly with Russia to shape the American election.

--Trump insists there is rampant fraud in Florida, etc. without issuing any evidence, as he supports policies in many states to suppress the minority voting.

--Mitch McConnell first refuses to bring legislation to the floor to protect Mueller on the grounds there is no need to do so and then, after the Hack is appointed, still quietly refuses to bring it to the floor.

--Trump repeatedly tells Big Lies to incite his base—all the way from the birther charge in 2012 to the charge of the threat to American sovereignty posed by the “Caravan”—and hardly any neoliberal Republicans feel called upon to correct him or point to how dangerous such Lies are to democracy.

--Lindsay Graham interrupts an orderly hearing on Judge Kavanaugh by charging Democrats with mob rule. A notable irony: Kavanaugh himself had participated in a mob to forcibly block the recount and intimidate the counters in Florida in 2000 and the Republican leadership refused to release a lot of official data on his record during the Bush years.

--Trump, Grassley and others pick up the charge of mob rule, meaning to them any dissident social movement—however official, legal or nonviolent--that objects or challenges the rule they intend to impose.

--Trump attacks American allies relentlessly while cozying up repeatedly to Putin, the guy with whom he conspired to shape the 2016 election.

--Trump and Sessions initiate a ruthless border policy to separate children from their parents in the interests of stopping the flow of migrants and asylum applicants on the southern border.

--Sessions reverses a series of agreements with American cities to stop the killing of young, unarmed Blacks by members of police departments in those cities.

--Trump tells his followers that he loves the word “nationalism”, because it means America First, knowing full well that to its active proponents its means white nationalism. He also barely criticizes Nazi and other vigilante groups, while issuing numerous winks, nods, strategic silences, and rhetorical flourishes to encourage them.

--Hannity and Limbaugh attend a Trump election rally while serving as a newscasters at Fox and radio, as Jim Acosta, a CNN newscaster trying to get Trump to answer a question at an official news conference, has his White House credentials lifted.
These instances and many others reflect consolidation of the Fascblican Party in the United States. The Fascblican Party is a creative, ruthless formation forged out of the old Republican Party, several agents of neoliberalism and white evangelicalism, extremist donors, the right wing media, and the Alt-Right. Its most renowned leaders include Trump, Bannon, Hannity, McConnell, King, Nunes, Miller, Mercer, Limbaugh, Adelson, Ingraham, Grassley and Kavanaugh. They mix together functions such as governing, judging and reporting, highlighted by the recent presence of Hannity and Limbaugh at Trump election rallies, the bold lies by McConnell about the effects of a tax cut for the rich on the deficit, and the successful effort by the Kavanaugh gang to force a recount to stop in Florida during the Bush/Gore election shortly after an attempt to impeach a Democratic President. They support or cover up Trump’s conspiracy with Russia to turn elections; they perfect the Big Lie Scenario in which you accuse the other of what you are doing and then repeat the charge endlessly; they deploy extreme gerrymandering; they regularly join minority voter suppression to evidence free falsehoods about voter fraud; they support deficit reduction and austerity until a big tax break for the rich is available (and then lie about its effects); they adopt extreme tactics with asylum seekers, including separation of parents and children; they constantly demonize Blacks, gays, transgender people, refugee seekers, Latinos and many others, while accusing others of prejudice whenever they are called on it--the regular repetitions of false equivalence; they repeat endless charges of Fake News against the non-Fox and Breitbart media to undermine the public credibility of a free press; they often support a perverse theocratic variant of Christianity that insists the country is not intact until it becomes a Christian nation; they adopt dangerous tactics to break down the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and the courts until they become reliable arms of the movement; they advance thinly deniable support of vigilante tactics (as revealed recently by Trump’s failure to even contact the numerous Democratic targets of a right wing bomb attempt); they assert endlessly equivalence between their ruthless tactics and anything the Left does to oppose them; and they do much more. The consolidating Party also has numerous allies in other countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, Italy, and elsewhere. It is becoming an international movement, designed to break up and displace the old alliances.
Some American participants in this movement are cowed by the Party, but many are active proponents of it. The latter know that they cannot govern without the Media-Trump repetition of Big Lies and voter suppression of minorities and the poor, so they deploy those tactics with growing belligerence and self-confidence.
We must today be militant, public, willing to engage in repetition, honest in our vigilance, and nonviolent as we identify and expose the tactics of the Fascblican Party. It is also time for us to become better wordsmiths: Introduce more short phrases, repeat them, and explain what we are doing. Hence my introduction of an ugly phrase-- “Fascblican Party”--to delineate an ugly phenomenon. You may even stutter as you repeat it.
    The Fascblican Party has scattered the flutter of feathers in the old Republican Party. In fact, the neoliberal and fascist wing of the party have been drifting together for years, even before Trump accelerated the drive. They have pressed others to dissemble, as Susan Collins has done for them so recently. A few old Republicans are now exposing this new Party, as Steve Schmidt has been doing. They are to be admired, even as we dissent from their positive vision. 
     Enthusiastic Fascblicans are ruthless, dishonest and dangerous. They are already trying to intimidate the Democratic House even before it convenes. Today, I am interested in hearing views about how to proceed in the aftermath of an election in which a significant majority voted for Democrats, even though these numbers are not proportionately represented in the House victory and Senate defeat. 

Here are a few things, perhaps, to fold into the conversation:

First, we must publicize the dilemma of electoral politics while we nonetheless include elections as one of the institutions in which to participate. The dilemma is that when you do participate a host of factors—including gerrymandering, the biases of the Electoral College, the initiating power of corporations outside of government, Citizens United, and so on—limit the effectiveness of electoral politics alone, while refusal to participate in elections threatens to give the Fascblicans long term control of the three branches of government.
Second, while capitalism, in its numerous forms, is a powerful set of forces to contend with, we must overcome temptations to withdraw from the world and action unless and until it faces a revolutionary overthrow. The immediate dangers are too great for that luxury. And yet, the reforms and demands we do advance must show promise of overcoming the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism over the next decade. Open up new lines of flight.
    Third, we must participate in interfolded local, regional, state and cross-regional movements to put pressure on elected officials, corporations, churches, banks, universities and localities at the same time. For democracy both includes and exceeds elections: it also requires social movements to move and shape elected officials. The Fasblican party has indeed recognized and transfigured this duality into a series of ruthless and lying campaigns, as it escalates the initiating powers of banks and corporations outside the state through massive state deregulation and subsidies. The Left is now beginning to move with real integrity on both of these fronts.
     Fourth, we must dramatize the effects of climate change on a whole series of regions and constituencies, including wild fires, droughts, acidification, and extreme storms. As we do so we must show how technologies already exist to move to noncarbon sources of energy and to reshape the established infrastructure of consumption. Recent studies that show how significant carbon emission reduction can succeed in dramatically reducing CO2 emissions through new farm practices and reforestation are very pertinent here. 
Fifth, while the effort to draw more suburban women into an enlarged Democratic Party is both critical and precarious, and while attracting and running minorities for office is absolutely essential, it is also necessary to win back a larger section of the white working class now often dispersed in small towns, small enterprises, and rural areas. They have provided one pivot of the Trump base. Such a constituency recovery can be launched by positive policies that speak to health care, income distribution, cost of living, strong labor unions, authoritarian working conditions, rural soil management policies, enhanced job security, and so forth. A group of activists both within and on the edges of the Democratic Party recognize this, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and William Barber leaders among them. One way to put it is that you might possibly win a Presidential election without cracking this constituency—though that very strategy by Clinton failed—but you cannot govern without cracking into rural and small town areas that have played important roles in shaping the obstructionist strategies of the Fascblican Party for a couple of decades. Another way to say it is that justice requires including the precarity of the white working class as one minority in the positive coalition to be mobilized.
Sixth, while it is essential to intensify micropolitical strategies in localities, universities, corporations, and unions it is also important to draw creative sustenance from a host of young, charismatic leaders who can inspire people in several walks of life to support anti-Fascblican, pro-pluralist, and egalitarian practices. Democratic organization and democratic charisma re-enforce one another.
Seventh, we must expose the tactics and long term strategy of the Fascblican Party at every step, even as we learn from them more about how affective communication proceeds. For there can be no pluralist, egalitarian culture until the oppositional movements combine positive affective contagion, charismatic leadership, refined ideological formulations, and egalitarian policy initiatives into a larger assemblage. It is time to learn the lesson: There is never a vacuum on the visceral register of cultural life.
Eighth, we must often hold the feet of the dominant wing in the Democratic Party to the fire, as they are too ready to seek to win the next election with minimum boldness and readiness to rebuild.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Neoliberalism and Fascism: the stealth connection

William E. Connolly
Author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (2017) and Aspirational Fascism (2017).

Neoliberalism is not fascism. But the fact that many famous neoliberals have been moved to support fascism to protect a regime from social democracy or socialism does give one pause. Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, among others, took such a turn under duress. They also had highly expansive views of what counted as a “socialist” threat. Neoliberalism is a set of practices that favors entrepreneurs and corporations, supports--often below the radar--massive state subsidies for the corporate estate, presses for radical deregulation of private markets, treats labor as an abstract factor of production, celebrates the authority of courts governed by a neoliberal jurisprudence, hates collective social movements on the left, protects imperial drives, strives to render democracy minimal, and moves to dismantle or weaken unions, social security, public schools and universal voting if and when the opportunities arise. Fascism is a form of capitalism that dismantles democracy, pushes intense nationalism, pursues racism, deploys big lies systematically, attacks vulnerable minorities to energize its base, corrupts courts, drives to make the media its mouthpiece, places police and intelligence agencies under its wing, colludes with foreign dictatorships, welcomes vigilante groups beneath a veneer of deniability, and jacks up the intensity of cultural ruthlessness.

So the two are different. Are there, however, enough affinities between them to help explain how the former—both in its leadership and its base of support--can migrate rapidly toward the latter during periods of stress? Stress that it often enough creates by its own hubristic market practices? Bearing in mind those noble neoliberals who today call out and hold out against Trumpism—they are on welcome public display on the Nicole Wallace show on MSNBC--recent experience in the United States suggests that many other neoliberals, in a situation of public stress, too easily slide toward the latter. A whole bunch of neoliberal Republicans in the American Congress, after all, now support or tolerate policies and belligerent practices they did not before the era of Trump. Many do not merely do so because they are cowed by the danger of threats to them in Republican primaries—they could, for instance, quit politics, or join the Democratic Party to stop aspirational fascism, or staunchly support the principles they embrace in those very Republican primaries and elections.
 The recent book, Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, allows us to discern more closely how such slides and gallops can occur. It is focused on the life of a Nobel Prize winning neoliberal--who often called himself a libertarian--loved by the Mt Pelerin Society by the name of James Buchanan. I used to teach critically his book The Calculus of Consent in the 1980s. But MacLean's book, through a close review of an archive not studied before, reveals how the public neoliberal pronouncements by Buchanan between the 1970s and 2000s were soon matched by a set of covert plans and financial funding designed to bring neoliberalism to power by “stealth” strategies. Buchanan had come to see, as had others, that the neoliberal agenda was not apt to be enacted by democratic means. So he adopted a two track model.
 That two track model is revealing. So is the fact that this refugee from Tennessee—a former slave state and one that then imprisoned Blacks systematically to replace lost slave labor--seldom mentioned the specific conditions of Blacks or women as he articulated his abstract defense of liberty. So, too, is MacLean’s review of the ruthlessness and narcissism that marked the private and public persona of Buchanan, a review that invites attention to character affinities between him and Trump. Neither Buchanan, Trump, nor Charles Koch--the latter another key figure in the Buchanan story--thought highly of compromise. They play a hard ball game.
 The story starts, really, in Pinochet’s Chile, where Buchanan helped that repressive regime impose economic reforms backed by constitutional changes that would make it next to impossible to reverse them. They were called them constitutional “locks and bolts”. Buchanan never publicized the extensive role he played with Pinochet in Chile. Nor did he ever express public regret over its fascism, replete with prohibitions of free speech, practices of torture, and decrees making it illegal to organize dissident social movements.
 Another key epiphany occurred in the 1980s in the States. Reagan’s massive tax cuts, which were promised to spur rapid growth to pay for them, instead created deficits three times larger than those Jimmy Carter had bequeathed. A public reaction set in as the regime proposed to make radical cuts in Social Security and Medicare to make up the shortfall. But those plans failed. After that failure Buchanan concluded, consonant with advice by Milton Friedman, that such entrenched programs could only be weakened and dismantled through disinformation campaigns. Democracy had to be squeezed. Why? The majority of “takers” will never accept open plans to curtail their benefits to reduce taxes on a minority of “producers”. The takers, let's call them for starters workers, the poor and the elderly, don’t even believe in “liberty”--meaning above all the freedom of entrepreneurs to roam freely in the market. So, you must pretend you are trying to save the very system you seek to unravel. Talk incessantly about its “crisis”. Divide its supporters into older, retired members, who will retain benefits, and younger ones who will have them cut. Celebrate the virtues of private retirement accounts. Propose to have the wealthy be removed from the system, doing all these thing until general support for the social security system weakens and you are free to enact the next steps—steps not to be publicized in advance. Once you finally eliminate the system, people’s general confidence in the state will wane more. And new initiatives can be taken—again in a stealth manner—with respect to Medicare, pollution regulations, climate change, unemployment insurance, and democratic accountability.
 Buchanan, to make a long story short, first increasingly bought into disinformation campaigns and later joined the main financier of his Center at George Mason University, Charles Koch, to support a series of voter suppression programs, neoliberal court appointees, anti-labor laws, and intensely funded political campaigns to shift the priorities of the state. The guiding idea was not only to change the rulers but to change the rules which govern districting, court jurisprudence, voter access and the like. Liberty is for producers, not takers, as Milt Romney also said later when he thought he was speaking only to a closeted room full of producers.
Buchanan's abstract concern for market liberties, and the slanted liberties of association and speech they carried with them, never brought him to speak of the subjugated conditions of Blacks, women and other minorities in this society. The reason seems clear: their living grievances threaten abstract claims about a market system of impersonal rational coordination. The danger, to him, is mass democracy, which enlarges the power of “the state”. When Buchanan worried about the state he didn't seem to mean Pinochet. He meant democratic processes through which the state is moved to support a collection of minorities who have been closed out of equality, participation, and representation. Buchanan, as did his hero Hayek, loved to think in abstractions, the kind of abstractions that cover up specific modes of suffering, grievance and care under shiny terms. As MacLean also notes, Buchanan came to see that neoliberal (and libertarian) propaganda must aim at men more than women, because, on average, the latter are less predisposed to such messages.
 The Koch/Buchanan alliance, consolidated through an Institute at George Mason University, soon became a Center to fund movements and generic models of reform on the Right as it informed American movers and shakers how to create constitutional “locks and bolts” in states and the federal government to secure desired reforms from dissident majorities once they were pushed through and their real effects became apparent. A stealth campaign, followed by opposition to "mob rule". Wisconsin, for instance, became a key laboratory under the regime of Scott Walker, both enacting draconian policies and pursuing constitutional changes to secure them from future majorities. To discern the severity of the stealth activities, consider how one of Buchanan’s lieutenants, Charles Rowley, eventually turned against them. He became upset when a new Chair of the economics department summarily fired all untenured economists to replace them with a single breed of libertarians. As summarized by MacLean, two things above all dismayed Rowley, who retained his neoliberal outlook but opposed the stealth practices. “First the sheer scale of the riches the wealthy individuals brought to bear turned out to have subtle, even seductive power. And second, under the influence of one wealthy individual in particular the movement was turning to an equally troubling form of coercion: achieving its ends essentially through trickery, through deceiving people about its real intentions to go to a place which, on their own given complete information, they would not go.” (p. 208) It’s like saying "repeal and replace Obamacare", while planning only to make the first move. And then turn the same trick again in several other domains. Eventually Buchanan himself grew wary of Koch, in a setting where two narcissistic, authoritarian men struggled to control the same Center. The money man won out. In Rowley’s own words Koch, the billionaire donor, “had no scruples concerning the manipulation of scholarship.”
Neoliberalism, its critics know so well, periodically spawns the economic crises its hubristic devotees promise will not happen. It also works to foster voter suppression, unlimited dark campaign contributions, extreme gerrymandered districts, take away worker benefits, appoint judges at state and national levels governed by neoliberal jurisprudence, treat voter suppression tactics to be needed to eliminate phantom voter fraud, oppose affirmative action, to weaken labor unions, and attack universal health care.
 How many neoliberal Republicans called out Donald Trump, for instance, when he launched his presidential campaign by pretending insistently for six long years (with absolutely no evidence) that the first African American President held office illegally. Obama was guilty until proven innocent, according to that Donald Trump. How many stepped to the plate to acknowledge galloping climate change in the face of those who have called it a hoax against all the available evidence? What about the appointment of a judge who lied about his previous record, had trouble with his drinking and temper, and probably tried to rape a young girl when they were in high school? What about Trump's constant suggestions that minorities are guilty until found innocent, punctuated by assertions that men applying for high government positions and accused of harassment must be treated as innocent unless a court of law finds them guilty. Quiet whispers from neoliberals of regret and suspicion against Trumpism on these issues, by the way, do not cut the mustard. Neoliberal stealth tactics and neofascist Big Lies have moved too close together for comfort.
 One thing that emerged out of the long term two track campaigns of neoliberalism is a powerful wealth/income concentration machine joined to a series of precarious and suffering minorities, including so many urban Blacks and poor whites. With labor unions, too, caught in a squeeze. Donald Trump, could then play on the prejudices and insecurities created; he thus found himself in a position to incite large segments of the white labor and lower middle classes to return to the old days, while retaining the support of a huge segment of the wealthy, donor class. The disinformation campaigns of the old neoliberal vanguard can too easily slide into the Big Lie campaigns Trump pursues in the service of White Triumphalism, intense nationalism, misogyny, the reduction of critical social movements to mob rule, and militant anti-immigration campaigns. The long time con man and money launderer has not, then, merely cowed a neoliberal elite that had pointed in a different direction. He has pulled its stealth campaigns into channels that most find more palatable than other social visions in circulation.
 The memories of Hayek and Friedman in this respect return to haunt us. It need not surprise us, given MacLean’s archival history, that the latest Trump Supreme Court appointee supports neoliberal policies in the domains of corporate deregulation, medical care, restrictive voter laws, limits on civil rights, gerrymandering and like while also trumpeting notions of a sovereign president so dear to the dark heart of Donald Trump---the aspirational fascist who conspired with Russia to win an electoral college majority in 2016. We must light a candle for those noble neoliberals who resist the slide we are witnessing before our very eyes, as we also keep both eyes open with respect to the wider crossing between neoliberalism and neofascism.
  The old, all so familiar, Hayek story of how socialism and social democracy are always on the “road to serfdom” is a fairy tale that has not in fact occurred. The transition, however, from neoliberalism to virulent fascist movements has occurred before and could do so again. The current fascist electoral campaign rallies by Donald Trump are designed to up the ante of charges against liberals and the Left by several decibel levels so that people will temporarily forget all the horrible things he has done and will do if Republicans keep both houses. They include halting or weakening the Mueller investigation, eliminating transgender rights, consolidating Trump control over intelligence agencies and the courts, reversing the remaining shreds of ObamaCare, upscaling attacks on universal voting, weakening the media, creating horrendous immigration laws, encouraging vigilante drives, and many other things yet. Drive someone to a voting precinct on election day and give them a copy of the MacLean book a week before you do.
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Monday, October 22, 2018

Democratizing the Court—and the Entire Body Politic

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and teaches at Acadia Senior College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell treats the exercise of the democratic right peacefully to assemble as mob rule. This exercise in democratic liberty that McConnell abhors has been necessitated because our democracy is seriously flawed—thanks in part to the anti-democratic coups McConnell’s party and its allies have orchestrated. 

The Supreme Court, though still the most respected of our institutions, is a major force adding to systematic injustice. How the Court has become so influential  and so dangerous is a topic deserving much more attention than it receives.—especially if we hope to mitigate the damage.

One perhaps fortuitous outcome of the Kavanaugh confirmation may be the recognition that the Supreme Court is inherently political. The Court has inordinate power now, but we have chosen to give/allow that power. Potentially the view five justices hold regarding “interstate commerce” or “due process” could determine the fate of vital regulation for a generation to come. No serious democracy can surrender so essential a policy matter to five lifetime appointees to a tiny body largely shrouded in mystery.

Democrats themselves played a high price for so much reliance on the courts to achieve their goals. This was especially the case regarding abortion. Initially enacted in a few states, activists pushed successfully for a Supreme Court ruling to extend reproductive rights to all states. Nonetheless as Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig pointed out: “Disempowered by their that the law had settled the issue without remainder, they failed to engage the concerns of moderate citizens who harbored doubts about the morality of abortion leaving them and their doubts to be mobilized by those who had no doubts about the practice’s immorality…”  Honig goes on to add: "…the always imperfect closure of political space tends to engender remainders and that, if those remainders are not engaged they may return to haunt and destabilize the very closures that deny their existence” (Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p. 15). I would only add that in a political culture that professes its faith in democracy remainders denied their day in the political arena are likely to become more intense and dogmatic and able to attract some support based on their exclusion alone.

Abortion along with other social issues helped politicize a whole generation of formerly apolitical fundamentalists, and reliance on the courts has left pro- choice liberals the necessity of playing catch-up ever since. In any case abortion rights won through the courts still cannot assure provision of the whole infrastructure of services and abortion alternatives needed if women were to have the resources and options to make a truly free choice. Republicans have been masters at chipping away those necessary prerequisites.  Their performance reminds me of Andrew Jackson’s s line in a Native American land case: "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

In pursuit of all their political goals Republicans have generally been more aware of the crucial role played by the states and other power centers in our federal system. They always pursued a multi- front strategy, relying on the courts as backstop for their corporate agenda but also systematically targeting state government, media, university boards, and federal legislative agendas. 

Yale Law professor Sam Moyn argues: “According high stakes decision making to judges is most definitely not inevitable. The contingent situation of the United States where conservative and liberal elites jockey above all for the power of constitutional fiat the better to encode their policy views in fundamental law — saving themselves the trouble of popular approval and entrenching them against it — is not working well for progressives. Our response to Kavanaugh is therefore to abandon all hope that the empowerment of the higher judiciary serves good outcomes, or even provides a bulwark against terrible ones.

The neoliberal courts will be especially useful in sanctifying incursions by Republican ground troops. It is a mob if your ideological, partisan political opponents are protesting, however peacefully. It is “there are some good people on both sides” if your partisans and ideological supporters are roughing up your political opponents. I don’t remember any condemnation of the rough stuff Republican ground troops employed to block the 2000 Florida recount. George W Bush was the beneficiary of a coup staged by five Supreme Court justices and a group of paid thugs.

Pundits today talk of gridlock, and some see this gridlock as providing an opening for or demand of those two independent, largely opaque bodies, the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court, that they enact a constructive, “moderate” agenda. I see both as instruments of a neoliberal consensus shared by most centrist Democrats and business- friendly Republicans. This consensus is the source of desperation and anxiety of many poor and working class citizens. This consensus includes insurance industry sponsored health care, military expansion, corporate controlled labor markets, financial deregulation, further corporate consolidation, Social Security and Medicare privatization, and bank bailouts., fossil fuel subsidies, further tax favoritism of the rich, and deregulation and decriminalization of environmental and workplace abuses. All these are to be backed by a heavily militarized police.

These priorities are not shared by a majority of Americans. The priorities are being advanced by corporate lobbies and with the collaboration of a court system that has been packed with socially conservative neoliberals.  The fight over Kavanaugh is over, but absent progressive narratives and agendas more working class citizens will add fuel to the authoritarian demagogue’s dangerous coalition. It is time to learn from Republicans.  Winning the next election—at all levels – is crucial.  If Democrats win in 2018 and 2020, progressives within the Democratic Party should not hesitate to advocate packing the court. As with FDR in 1937 Left Democrats should argue: they are merely making up for prior Republican manipulation. And they could follow FDR’s assertion that “there is no basis for the claim made by some members of the Court that something in the Constitution has compelled them regretfully to thwart the will of the people.” It was necessary, he argued, to change the Court “to save the Constitution from the Court”–save it as a document of democratic self-rule (I am quoting Jedediah Purdy, who is quoting FDR).

The suggestion will doubtless be rejected by the party’s still dominant neoliberals. Its advocates will be reminded that the Court pack scheme represented a major setback for FDR. In fact the historical record is ambiguous. Following defeat of the Court reform proposal no subsequent New Deal legislation was declared unconstitutional. Merely planting the idea might remind citizens just how political that body is.  

The problem with the court is not that it is political. Its politics are antithetical to democracy. This rigidly reactionary bias, however, does not mean the Democratic left should pay no attention to the Court. Given the central, almost iconic place of the Court in popular consciousness, neglect of the Court would be as much of a mistake as exclusive reliance on it. Duke Law professor Jedediah Purdy argues: "the way to address politicization…is not de-politicization but counter-politicization, which I think is the lesson of history. I’ve argued for a jurisprudence that picks up new politically led awareness of the absolute importance of ballot access, the centrality of economic power to law and social order, and the urgency of addressing structural racialized inequality, the carceral state, and the special vulnerability of non-citizens."

Such a jurisprudence is more likely to assume prominence as part of a broad political movement operating in many venues and employing a range of nonviolent strategies and tactics. The Court can inflict its damage only if the many of us who will be injured by its actions fail to collaborate and organize against its destructive pursuits.
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