Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beyond Budgetary Fundamentalism

John Buell
Author of Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (NYU Press)

“Run away government spending” is an easy target now. Nonethless, It is not the cause of our problems. Government spending will not “crowd out” currently nonexistent private investors. It is essential in stimulating the demand on which the private sector and even our ability to sustain healthy debt to GNP ratios depend. Further cuts in domestic job creation, sure to result from Congress’s unwillingness to add new stimulus and its slow and miserly extension of unemployment benefits, will even be counterproductive. It will lead to more unemployment, more benefit spending or prisons, emergency healthcare, domestic violence, and further declines in government revenues―a true death spiral.
That message, however, hardly ever gets a hearing. CNBC anchors regularly proclaim: “only the private sector creates wealth.” I wonder what these anchors would be using for their research and communication but for massive government subsidy and R&D on computers and the internet.

Critics also claim that the Obama stimulus did not work. Using carefully sourced data the nonpartisan CBO shows that the stimulus package created jobs and saved others that would be lost. The problem here is political. As even some business economists pointed out at the time, the initial Obama package was far too small. Dean Baker points out the Federal package amounted to less than half of the trillion- dollar hole caused by the housing bubble collapse. Government stimulus was reduced even further by cuts in state government spending. Perhaps Obama could not have achieved more, but he should have chastised Congress and made clear the country would need more and soon. Obama’s inflated claim on behalf of that modest legislation is a major reason that more Federal job creation is so politically difficult.
The deficit mania has other deeper roots. A core within the business community, especially financial services, never accepted the New Deal. Social Security has always been especially offensive. It is a universal program that worked and became very popular. It constitutes the major reason poverty rates among the elderly declined dramatically. Had George W. Bush privatized Social Security, our great recession would likely have become Great Depression II.
Unable to go after the program directly, conservatives attacked Social Security through fallacious arguments that the program, which its bipartisan trustees certify as fully funded through 2044, is a fiscal time bomb. As Baker points out, the real fiscal time bombs are exploding private sector dominated health costs, the bank bailouts, and war costs of a trillion and counting. Concern about deficits has never prevented the business press or our Senators from supporting these corporate behemoths.

Paul Krugman also provocatively argues that more than immediate monetary interests drive this issue. Ideological and even identity issues are in play Krugman cites Keynes’s powerful aside on classical capitalist culture:

“The completeness of the [ the notion that government can do nothing] is something of a curiosity and a mystery. It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.”

The anti deficit mania has tangled roots both in immediate monetary interests and in the broader political culture. It has surprising support among some working class citizens, who stand to lose financially from its implementation. They are led by and in turn sustain the so- called Blue Dog Democrats. Nonetheless, its deep and tangled roots constitute no reason to treat it as inevitable. Why deficit mania cuts across class and how to construct a culture and economics that sustains full employment are among our most pressing political tasks.
The politics of private and government debt provides an occasion to contest both conventional economic theory and related moral narratives. The old story is that a profligate working class and indulgent governments spent themselves into deserved ruin. Others maintain that liberal government do gooders through the Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to make inappropriate loans to poor citizens. Yet most of the subprime mortgages were issued by banks not subject to CRA, and government support for such mortgages through Fannie Mae began only long after private banks were heavily involved. In addition, as the NY Times reports, the wealthy are now defaulting in disproportionate numbers on investment housing loans. But as Robert Reich points out, working class Americans went into deep debt because their wages didn't keep up. The median wage dropped between 2001 and 2007. Workers could keep spending at the rate necessary to keep themselves ― and the economy ― going only by borrowing, primarily against the value of their homes. The borrowing, however, ended with the bursting of the bubble. Only government can fill the void left by a consumer who is now so debt burdened as to unable to buy more than mere necessities. And in the longer run, more recessions are likely if working class incomes are not bolstered. Yet the same authorities who told consumers to borrow and spend now argue against any role for government either in job creation or redistribution.

Contemporary deficit mania has a curious, occasionally quarrelsome parentage. It includes fear of full employment, disdain for the poor and leisure, dreams of rags to riches for those who combine self-denial and luck, and a blind-- albeit selectively applied-- faith in markets.
Some wealthy have reasons to fear full employment. Even more than redistributive taxation, full employment narrowed gaps between rich and poor substantially during World War II, the late sixties, or the final years of the Clinton Administration. Full employment and steady productivity growth funded social security, private pensions, and gradual reductions in working hours, so crucial to family and to wider ranging interests.
The very success of full employment has also been its undoing. In the late sixties, Lyndon Johnson’s guns and butter economics gave us full employment. Full employment, however, also encouraged corporate pricing power, unleashed latent workplace and racial conflict, and productivity problems. Inflation rates increased and OPEC and automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs) gave the US economy an embedded inflation. This became an occasion for a full business counterattack on the Post World War II political economy. Many businesses slashed investment and highlighted inflation and social turmoil. Confused and ever more insecure in the face of job loss and fierce cultural conflict, many of the white working class retreated to older conventions of self-reliance. The new political dynamic forced Jimmy Carter to appoint a conservative banker, Paul Volcker, as Fed chair and to inaugurate a series of deregulatory reforms continued and magnified under Reagan. Interest rates and unemployment went sky high.
These problems might have been addressed―and often were in Europe-- through wage and price guidelines, labor/management negotiation of codetermination or profit sharing schemes. . Except in war and briefly during Nixon’s administration, however, such an approach has been rejected as inefficient and intrusive by politicians. Ever since the Carter years, tales of sixties turmoil and seventies stagflation have been trotted out to blunt enthusiasm for any government initiative. Just as importantly, academic economists have constructed laws like the Phillips Curve and the non accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) to suggest the impossibility of achieving unemployment as low as in the late sixties. These “laws” blunted consideration of the possibility that with different institutions, social mores, and constructive engagement of racial and ethnic animosities, policies might be crafted to foster full employment without vicious inflationary spirals.
In recent US experience, only very high levels of employment in the last years of the Clinton Administration led to even modest wage gains or inflationary pressures―probably because unions had been so beaten down and workers were so traumatized. But on a more positive note, various forms of profit sharing and joint labor management collaboration in Europe can also curtail inflation under full employment circumstances. The inefficiency of curbing inflation through chronic working class layoffs engineered by government is seldom considered.
The private debt economy’s unprecedented crash gave Obama a brief window to redress these economic and moral narratives. Once his feeble stimulus disappointed, however, it became easy to revert to familiar narratives. Pundits celebrated a return to government and personal austerity, scapegoated African Americans and immigrants, and magnified the dream of rags to riches.
Congress also seems reluctant to consider inexpensive―albeit unconventional-- ways to reduce unemployment. A German work- sharing program extended tax credits (less costly than unemployment compensation) to firms that shorten worker hours while retaining wage and salary levels. It held unemployment constant even with falling GNP,

Much polling data suggests Americans are also ambivalent about the public debt. Depending on the question, some suggest jobs are more important than the deficit. Polls and economic arguments probably won’t by themselves carry the debate.
Rather than reflexively blame economic troubles on individual moral failings, the US has also periodically demonstrated deeply democratic moral commitments. In fights for unions, jobs, voter rights, and shorter hours, the Catholic social gospel, the civil rights and labor movements, and various strands of secular liberalism have collaborated. They questioned work without end, challenged gaping inequality, and broadened democratic participation. We cannot, however, revert to the post World War II consensus. For many reasons, war today is unlikely to catalyze any progressive economic consensus. Like all such efforts, the coalitions that built the post World War II consensus also had blindspots. Efforts to build on these examples would do well to attune themselves more fully to a pluralizing world where moral and social foundations are more shifting ethnic and racial lines more fluid and where new rights claims are likely to emerge.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Fragility of Things





William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

We inhabit a time when things have become more fragile and urgently in need of delicate tending. At the same time, a large section of the populace is belligerently opposed to recognition of this condition. It is a time when militant pressure to engage the fragility of things must be joined to acknowledgment of the limited ability of the human estate to master the world. It is thus a paradoxical time.
What are some sources of the refusal to recognize this feature of the contemporary condition? First, some popular versions of the three monotheisms militate against it, acting as if God will take care of us no matter what we do to the rest of the world and, in the worst cases, defining those who bring such news to be enemies of God. Second, neoliberal ideology does so too, with its henchmen on the media acting as if markets can allocate prices, production, worklife, and consumption in a rational way without significant regulation. Third, the time scale and corporate dependence of the media does so, as it spins out scandals and neoliberal fantasies. Fourth, the divisions and methods of the human sciences make a contribution, so that the fragility of things too often gets lost in the gaps between them. Fifth, the sharp boundaries between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences do so, diverting our attention from numerous interactions between the human estate and non-human systems with their own powers of self organization. Fifth, intense desires by several constituencies to believe that things will take care of themselves so as long as we pray and support corporate/market hegemony over the culture folds into this mix, fueling support for churches, media talking heads, political leaders and popular writers. There are numerous voices who fight against these trends, including by way of a sample Stuart Kauffman in biology, Catherine Keller in theology and biblical studies, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Timothy Morton, Brian Massumi and Steven Shaviro in English and media studies, John Buell and Mark Blyth in political economy, and Jane Bennett in political theory. They remain voices in a larger wilderness to date, but the cumulative potential of their work should not be underestimated.
The disparate pressures listed above screen too much of public culture from fragilities that penetrate numerous aspects of life. The dangers and uncertainties are too much for many to face; the risks to future generations too abstract to be internalized; the changes that are needed in the American way of life too severe to be admitted. To change this situation would require concerted change in several of the above domains, with each adding energy to the others in a series of positive loops. As a few take off, they might spur other movements in churches, universities, investment communities, consumer groups, states, and the media to revise established private and public priorities.
What, then, are some of the fragilities created by conjunctions between unfettered capitalism and several non-human systems? One instance resides in the failure to turn to renewable energy resources that many started pressing for in the early nineteen seventies. Now late capitalism is compelled to drill oil in ever more treacherous zones, triggering destructive eco-events that careen out of control. The 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf, for instance, was triggered by the explosion of a gas bubble that surprised the engineers, overwhelmed available safety devices, and outstripped the capacity of the company to repair. The complex interfaces between oil, water, wetlands, species life, and human welfare are not readily susceptible to human control after the fact because each of these systems has some degree of autonomy and because they all interact. There are at least 3500 other wells in the Gulf tapped temporarily without being supervised closely by corporations or the state. The response this event generated was revealing: many demanded a rapid state resolution of the problem joined to an immediate return to drilling under the same old rules.
The fragility, too, resides in the perverse relation between the terms of capitalist expansion and the acceleration of climate change, with implications for world temperature increases, the decline of fertile soil, the loss of habitable zones, and a possible diversion of the Gulf stream that could trigger a new ice age in Europe. Each of these implicated systems, by the way, has its own mode of self-maintenance and fragility. The fragility resides as well in regional economic inequalities, exacerbated by regional religious differences and the differential effects of climate change on soil and habitation in vulnerable zones, finding variable expression in massive migrations, imperial pressures, terrorist movements and regional religious resentments. It finds expression, too, in the shrillness adopted by media defenders of neoliberalism, amply primed by tea bag anger. It resides in the more rapid border crossings of people, arms, drugs, ideas, music and goods that challenge the terms of territorial order upon which neoliberal state capitalism rests as it also generates bellicose drives to reinstate those borders. It resides even in the complex loops between bees, viruses, and pesticides that derange the brains of bees, leading to rapid decline in bee population and decline in the pollination of crops and fruits. It resides, too, in intensified efforts to manage and control the populace as the distributive effects of these fragilities pile up.
Such a list constitutes a mere sample of fragilities stalking the human estate. And it must be emphasized again how each of the processes listed in subordinate clauses of the above sentences constitutes a force-field of its own, with a degree of autonomy and some capacity to morph under new conditions of stress.
I have written elsewhere about how the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine supports a public culture of vigilante blindness. Today it is necessary to focus on how the human sciences--at odds with this machine in several ways--nonetheless contribute to this condition. In general, the social sciences are either too enclosed upon some aspect of human culture or, if and when they attend to human/non-human interfaces, predisposed to underplay how nonhuman systems have self-regulating powers of their own, interact with other such non-human systems, and periodically reach tipping points that recoil back on the human estate. 
Such tendencies are loosely connected to another disposition, itself connected to the desire to construct several self-enclosed sciences. Inattention in the first respect often leads to a tendency to underplay the contribution that the quality of role performances in every aspect of cultural, economic and political life makes to both the tonalities of public culture and sensitivity to human/nonhuman interfaces. Paul Krugman, for instance, is one of the few journalists who takes on neoliberal capitalism on a regular basis, and he folds ecological awareness into his economic analysis. Much to admire there. But in a recent piece on the economics of ecology in the New York Times Sunday Magazine he underplays the powers of self-maintenance and self-adjustment in non-human systems and fails to come to terms with the contribution that the quality of ethos makes to every aspect of economic life.
The contemporary fragility of things can now be stated in stark terms: As neoliberal capitalism expands, as it assumes hegemony over more aspects of life, as it fosters visible inequality between regions, and as it supports rapid growth in the world’s population, particularly in areas that are ecologically challenged, its intersections with a large number of self-regulating, non-human systems become more strained and precarious. As those force-fields recoil back on it, the fragility of things becomes accentuated and more visible to those with eyes to see. 
The answer is not to turn to a classical model of socialist productivism, nor to the themes of deep ecology with its assumption that nature tends towards a stable equilibrium. The first continues the growth imperative by new means; the second underplays the extent to which a variety of interacting fields contain independent powers to morph in this way or that. Fred Pearce, in With Speed and Violence, provides a powerful review of both slow and rapid periods of climate change over the last 100,000 years, with several instances triggered by a volatile intersection with other, non-human force fields. Only during the last 200 years has the human estate had such profound effects on these other systems. The Pearce study thus cuts between those who say that climate change is only “natural” and those who say it is determined by humans. It is both, today at least, which makes the contemporary fragility of things more severe than it would otherwise be.
If socialist productivism and deep ecology are both deficient and neoliberal capitalism is the worst of all, what is the answer? I do not have a perfect recipe, only possible directions to pursue. Today we must amplify cultural recognition of the limited power of the human estate in its close interactions with a world composed of innumerable force-fields with volatilities and pluripotentialities of their own. Such recognition must then be folded into production priorities, consumer choices, market regulations, investment decisions, church activities, generational relations, university education, high school courses, media reporting, state policies, and international organizations. That such a shift in operational priorities could make a real difference is supported by the fact that contemporary American capitalism would be quite different today if economic and cultural institutions were not so infused with the hubris and existential resentment that propels the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. It will take a strange combination of political militance and ecological sensitivity to move in the needed direction. And success in this respect will only provide a start...
Let’s return, then, to the positive role for the human sciences in this larger scenario. Today to participate wisely in the human sciences we must also select some non-human systems to study in relation to the human estate. That in turn means reform of the professionalization and coarse methods that govern too much work in these sciences. The task is to cultivate new sensitivities to human/nonhuman imbrications in ways that draw the humanities and the human sciences closer together. For much work in the humanities focuses on how to enlarge human sensitivity in a culture that otherwise often works against it. As we come to appreciate the differential powers of self-regulation and potentialities to morph in a variety of non-human systems, we will acquire the existential modesty, political courage and ecological sensitivity to cope wisely with the fragility of things. That is one needed interface, then. But the new fragility of things also means that the human sciences must become more attuned to complexity theory as it unfolds in several natural sciences, incorporating some aspects of it into our own portfolios. The most profound versions of complexity theory discern what might be called degrees of cultural complexity ranging beyond the human estate. These sciences in the domains of biology, ecology, neuroscience, geology and climatology both speak to cultural theory and need infusions from it. A close exploration of the potential intersections between the human and non-human sciences must await a future post. But the larger point is that contemporary fragility of things means that the human sciences must alter their traditional sense of what it means to be “between” the humanities and the natural sciences. That word must now shift from its sense as the declaration of a boundary to its other sense of pointing to a space of movement and crossing that links different processes.
To attend to the fragility of things today is to fold literary and artistic sensibilities into the human sciences as you also attend to complexity theory in the natural sciences. Such crossings will improve the quality of the human sciences, as they help us to focus on a defining characteristic of the contemporary condition. It will not be easy to negotiate such a plurality of interfaces, given the professional grooves into which each science has settled and administrative pressures within universities to make the human sciences conform to the demands of neoliberal capitalism. But the effort is worth it: a degree of success could spur broader recognition of the fragility of things and new efforts to address this condition. For, as the list at the outset of this piece suggests, resistance to acknowledgment of the fragility of things comes from several, intercoded sources.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Don't Get Mad, Get Political: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Corporate Incorrigibility


Jake Greear
Johns Hopkins University

After more than three months the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill appears to have finally stopped flowing, but not before the gusher became one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. This protracted disaster has left an ocean of dispersed oil in the Gulf of Mexico and a haze of outrage, fear, suspicion, helplessness, and uncertainty hanging in the North American air. People naturally want someone to blame, and media figures have been happy to oblige, alternately heaping scorn on Mr. Hayward, BP, President Obama, “the administration,” and occasionally Haliburton. No doubt there is enough blame to go around, but I am afraid that by concentrating on specific figures or specific instances of incompetence and negligence we are missing the point. 
The spill shows that we have a problem, but the solution is not more competent, less selfish, or less neglectful people at the helms of corporations and governments. We do not need a more truly repentant Tony Hayward or a more righteously angry president. What we need is to institute more vigilant and robust democratic control over extractive industries. 
Debates like the one ignited by this spill tend to polarize into two positions. Some lash out at the big, greedy corporations, which they see as composed of callous white collar criminals. Others see corporations as groups of regular people just like you and me who are just trying to earn a living doing the heroic work that brings us the goods. It seems to me that both positions make the mistake of anthropomorphizing corporations―attributing guilt, redemption, patriotism, compassion, or betrayal to them. But corporations are not people, nor are they even the simple sum of the people composing them. They are organizations that powerfully mobilize certain human desires―the desire for wealth, the desire for cheap goods, or the desire to apply one's abilities as part of a team to solve interesting problems―while they demobilize other desires and motivations―such as love of place, the desire to pass on a way of life to the next generation, pride in one's work as a participation in the world, or the desire to work toward the public good as a member of a larger community. 
Many activists would be surprised to find out that some of the people running these corporations are fairly nice and thoughtful people. But even if the people working for corporations are decent human beings, the logic that mobilizes corporate commercial activity will always be ethically narrow, economically short-sighted, and ecologically blind. To expect a corporation to act as a good neighbor or a good citizen is as nonsensical as it is to admonish one for “greed” or ecological exploitation.
Extractive industries like coal and oil production provide only the most obvious illustrations of this point. Even putting aside the dangers of fossil fuel consumption at the planetary scale, oil and coal companies particularly have an inherent tendency to ecological violence. This very visible crisis has been a good reminder of this fact. Looking for a “bad” company to boycott or a “bad” CEO to run out on a rail feels good, but it is self-defeating. Tony Hayward's ouster accomplishes less than nothing. After all, what would a “good” CEO look like? A good CEO would pursue the shareholders interests selflessly, competently, boldly, and energetically, and try to build a strong company and provide a good product to the customer. A good CEO will take chances, seek forgiveness over permission, and find inventive ways to bend the rules. In other words, a good CEO is often the worst thing that could happen to the communities that have the misfortune of living near coal or oil reserves. 
The executives at BP who chose to drill under a mile of ocean knowing a mistake could devastate an entire region are nothing if not true to form. Of course other oil companies are no different. If allowed, none will hesitate to treat whole regions and the lives they support as expendable. BP certainly must be held fully accountable for this particular catastrophe. And it is important to hit them where it hurts―i.e. in the pocketbook. But we should save our anger for our own political failings. As relatively un-oppressed citizens living amid the activities of an advanced industrial economy it is our duty to protect ourselves, the places we call home, and the ecosystems that sustain us from the inherent excesses of corporate activity, and on the whole we are not doing it. The lesson of the Deepwater Horizon spill is that we have to pull our heads out of the trough long enough to take note of the increasingly outlandish and dangerous “private” economic activities going on around us. We must abandon the assumption that some technician, expert, or bureaucrat somewhere has things under control. Unless a day comes when we can get by without the jobs, goods, and wealth corporations create, we cannot shirk our political responsibility to keep them in check.
Unfortunately there are many nation-states that lack the political institutional stability and efficacy to enforce such oversight. Communities are falling victim to ecological violence for this very reason all around the world. However, in spite of the imperfections of the United States as a democracy, in this country we really have no such excuse. Here we suffer primarily from a cynical pseudo-patriotic discourse spuriously linking corporate entitlement to individual liberty. To corporations this shameful myth is a giant “KICK ME” sign on America's back. 
The legislation currently being pursued at the U.S. Congressional level is a small start. But the unpopular truth is that the enforcement of reasonable constraints on offshore oil drilling will mean that certain oil reserves will be simply off-limits because it is impossible or impractical to get at them safely. It has become painfully clear that those under a mile of ocean should be among the off-limits reserves. Rand Paul's recent statement is exactly right as far as it goes: “accidents happen.” Whatever series of violations may have led up to the spill, the spill itself was an accident, and it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of further accidents. 
My own experience in the construction industry leaves me deeply skeptical of the idea that our make-or-break regulations should deal in the minutia of, for example how the o-rings on blowout preventers are serviced. If regulation works at that level of high-tech specialization it seems to me inevitable that a “cozy” relationship will develop between the overseers and the overseen since no-one who has not worked intensively with such technology in situ has the expertise to adequately oversee it. Thus we end up having to trust the industries to regulate themselves―an experiment that has failed several times over. We do need standards for the machines and technologies involved, but the more important component of democratic oversight has to be common-sense rules, which educated citizens can understand and debate, that prevent the stakes of an error from getting too high. If a slip-up at work (whether by a worker, a machine, or even an inspector) means a whole region's way of life and means of living can be destroyed, the stakes are simply too high. Your work must immediately stop. If this is what a deep water drilling accident looks like―if what has transpired over the last three months is even a possible scenario―then deep-water drilling is simply not OK. 
It is true that if this disaster is confronted in a politically responsible way a few jobs stand to be lost, and already those who are out of work due to the temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling are crying foul. But if we must choose between a few jobs extracting the finite reserves of oil from under the Gulf and the many jobs harvesting the Gulf's renewable stocks of fish, then we must choose in favor of the latter. The jobs of the past, in this case, are the jobs of the future. 
Of course oil extraction in the Gulf is not going to stop altogether even if deep-water drilling is halted. And at this point it appears an apathetic public and a cowed leadership will simply tell the millions on the Gulf to take their hush money and wait on the next spill. BP congratulates itself for reportedly setting aside 20 billion U.S. dollars for paying out “legitimate claims.” What this means is that BP has offered to retroactively pay a price of its own choosing for something it long ago claimed: the prerogative to despoil a whole ecosystem. But do people not have the right NOT to put that prerogative up for sale in the first place? There are a lot of people on the Gulf Coast who are now fighting to defend this heretofore taken-for-granted right to basic ecological security. Here's hoping they somehow succeed. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Response to Chambers: Whose Life, Liberty, and Happiness?


Terrell Carver
University of Bristol, UK

In “Faisal Shazhad and The Right (not) to Have Rights” Sam Chambers has done an excellent job of deconstructing the current discourse about citizenship and rights, in particular so-called Miranda rights, and the outrageous proposals to revoke these in cases of suspected terrorism by revocation of US citizenship. His conclusion, that this presupposes a “right not to have rights” (an inversion of Hannah Arendt’s “right to have rights”), follows nicely from the presuppositions of the discourses involved. While it is politically important to speak to people in terms that are familiar, and ones that they (think they) understand, there is also room here – so I venture to say – for critique, looking back to first principles.
This is exactly what I aim to do, not least because current discourse seems to me to be fundamentally off-track. I am not sure where and when it went awry, but I think that it was sometime within living memory, and it surprises me that – given what I thought was the strength of the American legal system (and certainly the overwhelming number of resident lawyers) – this has happened. If anyone can shed any light on this for me (and I should say here I am an American citizen myself), I would be very grateful. Or indeed, if anyone would like to dispute the logic outlined below, or its relationship to liberal democratic or specifically American jurisprudence, I would also be very interested to hear.

I am not at all sure that a “right to have rights” is a good place to start, or that anyone besides Arendt would really choose to start there, given that it is a bit of a riddle (doubtless she had her reasons). I would start – in the present context – with the American Declaration of Independence of July 4th, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ...
The passage above, and many other passages in this document, look back almost verbatim to John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government of 1689, in particular the Second Treatise, which was notably re-published in Boston in 1773. In a very Lockean way the opening of the Declaration balances reason and revelation, so whether you take these rights to be divine gift, or simply self-evident to reason as attributes of what-it-is-to-be-human, you’re there. We just have these rights. My first point is therefore that it is an error in terms of the history of liberal democracy to see these rights as granted by anyone (human anyway) and in particular by government, or even by a constitutional bill of rights.
Indeed the whole point of the Second Treatise is to argue that government (or in particular, governors) have no right to govern unless and until individuals choose to assign that right (on certain conditions) to others, and indeed – as Locke argues, and as the Declaration of Independence makes clear – individuals (as ‘the people’) can get those rights back, if and when the government rebels against them. The doctrine is crystal clear, at least in outline and at the outset: rights are not granted by government, nor by constitutions; constitutions and similar documents simply recognize and acknowledge that the rights are there already, and indeed the whole point of governments is to respect and secure those rights, not to “grant” them.

The US Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, and subsequent relevant amendments, do not “grant” fundamental rights. That is why the rights are fundamental. As it says in the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Bill of Rights thus recognizes and reiterates what is the case, namely that individuals already have rights – or rather it does so when it is not actively taking (presumed) rights away – from the government.
This reverse logic is also supremely Lockean: the Second Treatise is a tract not for setting out a “social contract” as such, but for attacking – root and branch, tooth and nail –the conflation of government with absolute and arbitrary power, and the arrogation of any notion of right(s) to this foul view. The “social contract” passages in Locke are not first principles; they are a dramatization of the equality that Locke states at the outset as holding amongst all individuals, namely that no adult person has any right to govern another, rather the opposite: all have an equal right to govern themselves within God’s/moral law. Thus all have an equal right to punish offenders against it. This neatly conflates government with personal security, and makes it moral and rational to cede our individual sovereignty to another as governor, within strictly understood limits, namely the promotion of “the Peace, Safety, and publick good of the people” (and licensing no attacks on personal security without “due process” justifications).
Note then that the First Amendment takes a string of (supposed) rights away from Congress to do with religion, speech, the press and assembly. The Second warns Congress not to “infringe” the (pre-existing) right to keep and bear arms, and the Fourth, again, removes any (supposed) right that Congress might (wrongly) presume it had to quarter soldiers in private houses. The Fourth does not “grant” a right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure; it commands government not to violate it, on pain of inconsistency with its purposes. Amendments five through eight then spell out the rights that individuals already “enjoy” to a fair trial, knowledge of any charge against them, assistance of counsel, impartial jury, access to witnesses, and remaining silent, precisely so that governments don’t get funny ideas to the contrary (and, in contradiction to the Constitution, claim these as government rights). The Constitution is the way it is so that governments will have been (re)told what these rights are such that in extremis “the people” can complain about any violations and ultimately regain them from tyrants.
Far from “granting” rights to US citizens, the US Constitution – and also the historical process through which the terms of Locke’s tract became constitutional in many places throughout the world – works hard to remove (supposed) rights from governors who have lost the plot. It allows, to be sure, for public safety, military action and various emergency circumstances where a governmental power of “prerogative” can operate in cases of clear and present danger – but this is very fenced around, not simply by the terms of the discourse (which reiterate the self-evidence of rights) but by the purpose of the whole exercise, which is to secure for “the people” “the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I [Locke] call by the general Name, Property”. Or as it says in the Declaration of Independence: “... among these [unalienable Rights] are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Note that I have said nothing here about citizenship, and that the US Constitution says hardly anything about it (except for the famous clause about the Presidency and “natural born citizen,” and a few other matters), until the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which was introduced to deal with the civil status of former slaves. The Constitution’s view of humanity was and is interesting: “persons,” “free persons,” “all other persons,” “Indians not taxed,” and “sex” (i.e. women). Here I come to my second quarrel with the tenor of contemporary discourse, where the distinction between US citizens and “non-citizens” is deployed to create a sharp and evidently convenient point of discrimination. This distinction supposedly applies to the fundamental rights which the founding documents attribute to “the people” (wholly and severally), but mistakenly presumes that they apply to US citizens only. And it apparently follows that those who are said to be outside this “grant,” because they are non-citizens, are therefore .... [I break off here as I am reluctant to finish the sentence detailing in exactly what sort of inhuman hell non-citizens are supposed to exist]. After Guantanamo Bay, Abhu Ghraib, reported US gulags and “renditions,” not to mention drone attacks on all and sundry who have been “targeted,” maybe even “death lists,” the mind boggles as to how to complete that sentence.
Here is where we really get into the (twisted) logic of current discourse, where the argument runs from conclusion to premise: because only American citizens have rights, it follows that these have been (specially) granted to them, so it follows that others who are non-citizens can’t have those rights (in America, or anywhere that the American government feels it’s empowered in), so it follows that to revoke those rights from an American citizen requires the revocation of American citizenship, which, because it’s a grant – like all rights – is the government’s to revoke, so rightlessness is the only way to deal with terrorist (on some definitions) suspects.
It is certainly true that within American jurisdiction US citizens have some rights – of abode, for instance – that some non-citizens do not enjoy. Some non-citizens are of course legally resident aliens, though subject to deportation, which US citizens are not. Other non-citizens are not legally resident, and are also subject to deportation, but on rather less elaborated grounds, but still within due process of law. Locke’s discussion distinguishes between those who are “perfect members” of political society (through which rights are assigned to, and recoverable from, governments) and those who are not (para.119). Those who are not, are nonetheless subject to the will of the legitimate government where they happen to be. But it also the case that – though not part of “the people,” they are far from rightless. As human individuals they are subject to the same moral requirements as “perfect members” and enjoy the same rights to personal security, which is, of necessity, going to include the right not to be subject to absolute and arbitrary power. To be in that position would make them slaves, in the sense that their lives, persons and property (and happiness) would be at the mercy of another.
Locke’s notion of equality thus applies both ways: no one, prior to government, has any more right to command another than anyone else, because all have an equal right to govern and defend themselves; and no one has any less right to life, liberty and (even) property than anyone else (given Locke’s view that the state of nature prior to government includes property rights vested in an individual’s own labour). It would be a total travesty to imagine that the institution of government in Lockean terms resulted in the protection of life, liberty and property for “perfect members” only and the precise opposite for those who – passing through or otherwise – were not of that status. The Lockean government is not legitimated to be a government limited by “the people” to act in their individual and collective interests and at the same time to be an absolute and arbitrary tyrannical power over and against others who are “Men” (but not of “the people”) who are within its jurisdiction. In Locke’s scheme of things, of course, “perfect members” was unlikely to include women, servants or the poor, but on the other hand he is quite clear that Englishmen in France or vice versa (paras 9, 73), while subject to foreign laws (because they are in a foreign jurisdiction), are not by definition rightless and liable to be treated badly to the point of slavery (and instant or delayed death).
How would American citizens feel, on entering Canada, if they were held to have no rights, and to be subject to incarceration and interrogation indefinitely and merely on suspicion? How would American citizens feel if the government of Mexico declined to protect them from robbery and assault on grounds that they had no rights, and certainly no right to bring accusations in Mexican courts? Given that American drug dealers (and consumers, most of whom are presumably US citizens) are clearly posing a threat to the civil peace and personal security of many Mexican citizens and residents, perhaps the government there is contemplating drone attacks on targeted persons to “take them out”? How would Americans, citizens, resident aliens and illegal aliens alike, feel about that?

In contemporary terms I doubt that many people in the US seriously imagine that their “green card” nanny or illegal gardener have no rights to due process, fair trial, personal security, immunity from torture etc. etc., even if they have no right to vote, or could be deported (through one procedure or another). And indeed in practice, and in the history of American jurisprudence, this is exactly the case. Or at least it has been until recently.
I am not sure that the reactions (governmental and public) to 9/11 are entirely responsible for this weird construction of rights enjoyed by citizens exclusively, and rights enjoyed by everybody generally – which liberal democracies are there to promote and protect within their jurisdictions in both cases. Perhaps the most pertinent place to go to see where things went wrong (other than back to 1619 with the arrival of slaves in Virginia) is the internment of “the Japanese” in the western US in 1942, US citizens (62%, according to estimates) and non-citizens alike (over 100,000 total), merely on grounds of suspicion. Liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness were summarily taken off the menu for them, and many died, one way or another, in the harsh conditions and shame-filled hopelessness. The US government has since said “sorry” in 1988, but I feel that the lessons were not learnt.
Rights are not “granted” by governments only to be revoked, whether citizenship is revoked or not (which the courts have rightly made increasingly more difficult for governments to do). Governments have acquired the limited rights they have because rights that are held by individuals – everyone, everywhere – have been ceded by them (or at least constitutional documents say so) to create governments on condition that the rights and all their bearers are not abused, and that no governments should ever exercise absolute and arbitrary powers, and even worse, pretend that they have some “right” to do so. “A (Governmental) Right to Revoke (Fundamental) Rights” is precisely the opposite of what liberal democracy is supposed to be about.