Sunday, March 29, 2020

The reckless, anti-democratic and pathological rhetoric of President Trump

Given his public symptomatic display of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, we should not be surprised at Trump’s habitual rhetorical reliance in public speeches upon crude, hyperbolic, and often child-like adjectives and metaphors with corresponding homologous and associationist thinking: mistaking bigness for greatness; the quantitative valuation—in monetary or commodity terms—of virtually everything; obsessively tying together competition, size and success; the attraction of novelty (often mistaken for creativity); the thirst for sensationalism; an overweening sense of privilege and superiority (hence the megalomania and related plutocratic and kleptocratic dispositions) rooted in a lifelong fascination with power born of phantasies, illusions, and delusions, the harm of which is exacerbated by mendacious Manichean political propaganda within an overarching ideological framework of racist, xenophobic, and religious (i.e., right-wing evangelical Christian) nationalism. Sycophantic Republican Party politicians act in shameless collaboration with the often rabidly irrational, ill-educated, and authoritarian-minded members of that portion of the electorate that serves to protect and polish the fragile glass-like membrane that constitutes the president’s ego; together they exhibit pathological symptoms of a body politic exemplifying the dark side of the maxim “like attracts like.” As Thomas Singer writes in his contribution to the edited volume by Bandy X. Lee, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2017: 281), “There are ways in which Trump mirrors, even amplifies, our collective attention deficit disorder, our sociopathy, and our narcissism. Therefore, this is less about diagnosing a public figure than about recognizing our own pathology.”* 

Below is a sampling of the President’s language from one of the daily briefings (March 26) on the coronavirus pandemic. But first, a collection of stock adjectives and recent phrases from the President:

fantastic; terrific; great; unprecedented; never been seen before; like you’ve never seen; nothing like this; incredible; wonderful; the biggest; the largest; the best; we’re doing what’s never been done before; we inherited a mess; things will be terrific; it’s big and beautiful; it will be greater than ever before; we have the greatest healthcare system in the world; we have the greatest economy in the world; as I keep saying, it’s a hidden enemy….
  • It’s a great point of leverage; it’s a great negotiating tool”
  • “there’s tremendous spirit from people and tremendous spirit with respect to these companies”
  • “And they’re all working very hard to produce product—different—all different products. We had very little product when we came. We built it up, and we’ve — we give it away as fast as we can to the different states. We’re also, as you know, building numerous hospitals and medical centers throughout certain areas in New York.”
  • “I’m working very hard on New York.”
  • “It’s really, by far, our biggest problem. Maybe it will be; maybe it won’t be.”
  • “We’re also doing some very large testings throughout the country. [….] [T]hey’ve done a very good job on testing, but we now are doing more testing that anybody, by far.”
  • “We do more in eight days than they do in eight weeks. And we go up, on a daily basis, exponentially. So, it’s really good.”
  • “But we have a tremendous paid sick leave provision for workers at no cost at all to the employers. And that’s a big thing: no cost to the employers.”
  • “But this is certainly, in terms of dollars, by far and away the biggest ever, ever done. And that’s a tremendous thing because a lot of this money goes to jobs, jobs, jobs, and families, families, families.”
  • “Nothing like that has ever been done in our country.”
  • “It’s a doubling up. $27 billion to build up the Strategic National Stockpile with critical supplies, including masks, respirators, pharmaceuticals, and everything you can imagine—because it was very depleted, like our military was depleted. Now we have a brand-new military. Never had a military like this. We have equipment either coming or it's already come. For the most part, it's already come. But we have a lot of things that will soon be coming—planes, missiles, rockets, lots of things. But the stockpile was very depleted, like everything else.”
  • “And I don’t think it’s going to end up being such a rough patch. I think it’s going to, when we open—especially, if we can open it—the sooner, the better—it’s going to open up like a rocket ship. I think it’s going to go very good and very quickly.”
  • “But I’ll tell you, the nonprofits have been fantastic; they’ve been great. They’re great people, actually. I know a lot of them.”
  • “We have 150 countries—over 150 countries where you have this virus. And nobody would ever believe a thing like that’s possible.”
  • “Nobody could have ever seen something like this coming….”
  • “It’s been incredible, how we’ve done. Remember this: More tests than anybody, by far.”
  • “And the news, the reporters, the media always likes to bring South Korea—they called me and they told me, ‘It’s amazing. Your testing procedures are amazing.’ Plus, we have a test that’s a very high-level test, and it’s a test that’s very accurate.”
  • “It’s hard not to be happy with the job we’re doing—that, I can tell you.”
  • “So now we will hear from our great Secretary of the Treasury. He has been working rather hard, I will tell you. Steve Mnuchin is a—he’s a fantastic guy and he loves our country, and he’s been dealing with both sides—Republican and Democrat. He, sort of, lived over in that beautiful building. It’s a very beautiful building. To me, one of the most beautiful buildings, actually, in the world. And he’s gotten to know it, Steve, very well.”
* See too, Lene Auestad, ed. Nationalism and the Body Politic: Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia (London: Karnac Books, 2014).  

Suggested Reading:
  • Alford, Ryan. Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).
  • Dahl, Robert A. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2003).
  • Fontana, Benedetto, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer, eds. Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).
  • Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Goldberg, Michelle. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press, 2016).
  • Greenberg, Karen J. Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (Crown, 2016).
  • Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009).
  • Johnston, David Cay. The Making of Donald Trump (Melville House, 2016).
  • Klein, Naomi. On The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
  • Lin, Ken-Hou and Megan Tobias Neely. Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance (Oxford University Press, 2020).
  • MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains (Viking, 2017).
  • Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Anchor Books, 2017).
  • Pettigrew, Thomas F. “Social Psychological Perspectives on Trump Supporters,” Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2017): 107-116.
  • Piketty, Thomas (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.) Capital and Ideology (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).
  • Seidel, Andrew L. The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (Sterling, 2019).
  • Therborn, Göran. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity Press, 2013).
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Wills, Garry. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (Penguin Press, 2010).

Friday, March 06, 2020

Ten Essential Books on Contemporary Democratic Theory and Praxis

Mill on democracy  Gilbert 2  Urbinati Representative Democracy 

I made this list within the somewhat arbitrary constraint of ten titles, so as to render it manageable, which of course means a number of different works might have made it onto a compilation such as this if composed by someone else familiar with the requisite literature. I imagined myself teaching a two-part graduate level seminar (which has never happened nor will happen), relying on five books for each quarter or semester. The bias here is toward more theoretically informed works, but any theory deserving of the appellation is well informed by historical and sociological knowledge and chock full of philosophical and psychological presuppositions and assumptions. And the emphasis is on contemporary democratic theory and praxis. These titles should be deemed fundamental to anyone concerned about the necessary and possible meanings of the adjective “democratic” in the term “democratic socialism,” even if our authors are not directly speaking to the subject of socialism.

Incidentally, we use the phrases “democratic capitalism” and “democratic socialism” with regard to democracy qualifying respective forms of political economy, which tends to insinuate the relative importance of political economy vis-à-vis democratic organization of our individual, social, and political lives, justified in large measure by its historical and descriptive salience. But it is perhaps more accurate and thus warranted to speak of “capitalist democracy” and “socialist democracy” (the latter of course distinguishable from ‘social democracy’). Consider, for example, the fact that the adjective “capitalist” here better captures the nature and scope of the severe limitations when not contradictions, distortions, and deformations of a would-be democratic polity and civil society attributable to capitalism. Socialist democracy, on the other hand, represents the historical, moral, and political endeavor to systematically and structurally overcome those contradictions, distortions, and disfigurations in a manner in keeping with the ideals, principles, and values, as well as the institutions, methods, and processes we consider intrinsic to democratic theory (sometimes better, ‘philosophy’). In short, socialist democracy is democracy deepened and extended so as to better enable our pursuit of justice, to equalize our essential liberties or freedoms, and enhance the probabilities for the mutual dialectical realization of individuality and community (in the logic and spirit of a gender-neutral fraternité), what the late David L. Norton referred to as eudaimonistic individualism (J.S. Mill preferred the term ‘individuality’ so as to distinguish it from the typically pejorative philosophical and psychological connotations associated with the word ‘individualism’): 

“[E]udaimonism [a fortuitous conjunction, if you will, of happiness and self-fulfillment] is a variety of moral individualism, unlike some forms of individualism it does not conceive of individuals as ‘atomic,’ that is, as inherently asocial entities. [….] [It] recognizes persons as inherently social beings from the beginning of their lives to the end but contends that the appropriate form of association undergoes transformation. As dependent beings, persons in the beginning of their lives are social products, receiving not merely material necessities but their very identity from the adult community. The principle of association is the essential uniformity of associates, usually expressed in terms of basic needs. Subsequent moral development leads to self-identification and autonomous, self-directed living, but is associative as an interdependence based in a division of labor with respect to realization of values. The principle of this form of association is the complementarity of perfected differences. Accordingly, the meaning of ‘autonomy,’ if the term is to be applicable, must be consistent with interdependence. … [It thus] means, not total self-sufficiency, but determining for oneself what one’s contributions to others should be and what use to make of the values provided by the self-fulfilling lives of others. [In such cases,] [t]o follow the lead of another person in a matter he or she understands better than we is not a lapse from autonomy to heteronomy but a mark of wisdom. [….]
Goodin  Goodin reflective  Democratic reason

[T]he self here is conceived of as a task, a piece of work, namely the work of self-actualization [or what both J.S. Mill and Marx referred to as ‘self-realization’]. And self-actualization is the progressive objectivizing of subjectivity, ex-pressing it into the world. This recognition exposes as a fallacy the modern use of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ as mutually exclusive categories. Every human impulse is subjective in its origin and objective in its intentional outcome, and because its outcome is within it implicitly from its inception, there is nothing in personhood that is ‘merely subjective,’ that is, subjective in the exclusive sense. Narcissism (with which individualism is sometimes charged) is a pathology that tries to amputate from subjectivity its objective issue. It is real enough, and was a propensity of some romantic individualisms that judged experience by the occasions it affords for the refinement of the individual’s sensibilities. But the supposition that individualism is narcissistic subjectivism represents (again) a failure to recognize divergent kinds of individualism [again, Mill would say ‘individuality’]. For eudaimonistic individualism, it is the responsibility of persons to actualize objective value in the world.” And of course the assumption and attribution of such responsibility requires, in the first instance, the necessary “resources,” “primary social goods” (John Rawls), and “capabilities” or “functionings” (Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum), hence the pride of place accorded to democratic government and governance. Please see Norton’s Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (University of California Press, 1991), for an explanation of “eudaimonistic ethics,” “developmental democracy” (in reference to the individual), and the specification of the notions of “right” tradition and community (as the ‘sociality of true individuals’). The latter topic should be read alongside the discussion of various kinds of “community” in Goodin’s Reflective Democracy (2003).

Rawls 2  Richardson

The reader interested in exploring the depth and breadth of the relevant literature should consult the bibliographies on (i) Liberalism, (ii) Democratic Theory, and (iii) Social Security and the Welfare State, available on my Academia page.
  • Elster, Jon, ed. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice after the Deliberative Turn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
  • James, Michael Rabinder. Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
  • Landemore, Hélène. Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 ed.
  • Richardson, Henry S. Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Elster deliberative  James Deliberative

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Teaching children about animals: “inconsistency” and “confusion mixed with hypocrisy”

Jataka tales i Jataka tales ii  Jataka tales iii
Learning to be a Dutiful Carnivore 

Dogs and cats and goats and cows,
Ducks and chickens, sheep and sows
Woven into tales for tots,
Pictured on their walls and pots.
Time for dinner! Come and eat
All your lovely, juicy meat.
One day ham from Percy Porker
(In the comics he’s a corker),
Then the breast from Mrs. Cluck
Or the wing from Donald Duck.
Liver next door from Clara Cow
(No, it doesn’t hurt her now).
Yes, that leg’s from Peter Rabbit
Chew it well; make that a habit.
Eat the creatures killed for sale,
But never pull the pussy’s tail.
Eat the flesh from ‘filthy hogs’
But never be unkind to dogs.
Grow up into double-think—
Kiss the hamster; skin the mink.
Never think of slaughter, dear,
That’s why animals are here.
They only come on earth to die,
So eat your meat, and don’t ask why. 

—Jane Legge, originally published in British Vegetarian, Jan./Feb. 1969: 59.
  Shabkar_food_of_bodhisattvas_buddhist_teachings_ihd001  Animals-and-their-moral-standing-2
I came across this delightful poem of moral psychological insight in a no less profound and important essay by Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford University Press, 2004): 100.
Salt anthology  Animals and the moral community 

A bibliography on animal ethics, rights, and law.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The latest coronavirus outbreak in China: from epidemic to pandemic? (updated links)


In an earlier post based on the work of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, I made an analogical argument from China’s experience with the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) in order to highlight at least two factors relevant to the manner in which the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has handled the COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) outbreak: “the absence of adversarial politics and open journalism” in contemporary China. At least some of the shortcomings of China’s handling of this latest viral disease can be traced to the authoritarian government’s failure to establish (institutionalize) at least these two components of any healthy democratic polity: freedom of the press and political opposition (the former perhaps more pressingly relevant that the latter). Here I want to broaden the examination of this coronavirus epidemic beyond China. After observations from yours truly, there are links to some articles and posts I’ve found helpful in attempting to understand the many questions and topics broached by this latest viral disease bordering on a pandemic.

It is rather disconcerting that one cannot find substantive analysis of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that speaks from the vantage points provided by global health law (or international public health law, including international law and infectious diseases), the modern history of epidemics and pandemics, and an integrative biomedical and social determinants epidemiological model that goes beyond exclusive focus on disease (this might help explain various things, including why the disease has spread to certain countries rather than others: at one level, this has an obvious explanation, but I think there’s more to be said here; as well as why it appears, to date at least, it is more virulent in some countries rather than others) [a partial exception to this complaint is found here]. We might also attempt to explain why this new coronavirus broke out where it did and ask to what extent these same social, economic, and health conditions are more or less replicated elsewhere. There are of course other questions to be asked, but it seems there’s a dearth of needed analysis (however provisional or tentative) and comments from the relevant experts in these fields, at least in public fora (are the mass media in part responsible for this state of affairs?). Perhaps it is because they don’t want to be seen as interfering with or even contradicting public statements issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and/or domestic government health agencies like the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Be that as it may, it would seem these experts have an indispensable role to play in spreading requisite information and knowledge that can aid both citizens and government officials in deliberative discussions (and as part of planning) that are a prelude to or explain probable or possible executive, administrative, and judicial decision-making of one kind or another tied to this viral outbreak. 

More pressing, we have a Presidential administration that, at bottom, does not have genuine respect for and understanding of the various roles and functions of modern Liberal democratic government and administration (hence the routine campaign rhetoric demonizing those who ‘work in Washington’), including the various regulatory agencies and bureaucracies. In effect, this has led to fundamental and alarming failure—a clusterf*ck if you will—to grasp what it means to have the requisite competence and expertise in place within the respective domains of the federal bureaucracy and these agencies. (In fact, this administration has been hollowing out these agencies—including those relevant to the public health crisis—in favor of private, high finance, and corporate power.) This is glaringly and painfully obvious in the manner in which the President and his administration has handled the coronavirus outbreak: the lack of basic knowledge and understanding among official spokesperson (including those testifying to Congress), the inability to deal with unreasonable fears and rumors and properly inform the public of basic facts and statistics (involving as well how to interpret those), the failure to timely or properly coordinate agencies and officials with the national government and, in turn, with state governments and international bodies as well (such as WHO in the first instance) and, closely related to the foregoing, their conspicuous ineptitude when it comes to availing itself of the powers of public speech or democratic rhetoric. Proper appreciation of both democratic deliberative governance and government administrative power as two distinct yet necessarily linked political phenomena is absolutely essential in dealing with a public health crisis of this kind. To date, Trump and his administration has demonstrated utter incompetence in handling public health matters arising from the coronavirus outbreak. Trump’s naming Vice President Mike Pence to lead the country’s response to the coronavirus does not inspire confidence, indeed, I think it’s symptomatic of the regnant incompetence: “Pence once called global warming a ‘myth,’ downplayed the health risks of smoking, and as governor of Indiana, led his state into an HIV crisis by cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and initially opposing needle exchange programs. The vice president also has no medical experience.”
*          *          *
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that the coronavirus outbreak could cause ‘severe disruption’ to the lives of ordinary Americans, and urged families and communities to start making preparations. The extent of the spread of the virus in the US is uncertain, as the CDC stopped the distribution of coronavirus testing kits after they were found to be flawed. Working testing kits are now available in only a handful of states, and it is not clear when new kits will be ready. Donald Trump told journalists in India on Tuesday that coronavirus is ‘very well under control in our country’ and ‘is going to go away.’ However, the head of immunization at the CDC, Nancy Messonnier, said that disruption to everyday life may be severe as the virus spreads among local communities. ‘As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,’ Messonnier said in a telephone press briefing. ‘Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more exactly when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness.’ 

In the absence of a vaccine or medicines, other methods would be needed to contain the spread of the disease, including possible school closures, and telecommuting where possible instead of travelling to workplaces. ‘I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming, and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now,’ Messonier said. ‘I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that – while I didn’t think they were at risk – right now, we as a family, need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.’ 

The CDC acknowledged that the test kits it began distributing to state authorities earlier this month have been found to be faulty. The agency said in a statement that ‘performance issues were identified related to a problem in the manufacturing of one of the reagents which led to laboratories not being able to verify the test performance.’”
*    *    *
[Bruce] Aylward [a World Health Organization expert] said that across China, about 80% of cases are mild, about 14% are severe, and about 6% become critically ill. The case fatality rate — the percentage of known infected people who die — is between 2% and 4% in Hubei province, and 0.7% in other parts of China, he said. The lower rate outside of Hubei is likely due to the draconian social distancing measures China has put in place to try to slow spread of the virus. Other parts of China have not had the huge explosion of cases seen in Hubei, Aylward said. 

A case fatality rate of between 2% to 4% rivals and even exceeds that of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which is estimated to have killed upwards of 50 million people. A case fatality rate of between 2% to 4% rivals and even exceeds that of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which is estimated to have killed upwards of 50 million people. Even a case fatality rate of 0.7% — which means 7 out of every 1,000 infected people would die — is sobering. It is seven times the fatality rate for seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year globally.”
Essential Reading:
  • Anand, Sudhir, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen, eds. Public Health, Ethics, and Equity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Fidler, David P. International Law and Public Health: Materials on and Analysis of Global Health Jurisprudence. Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2000.
  • Fidler, David P. International Law and Infectious Diseases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Fidler, David P. SARS, Governance and the Globalization of Disease. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Gostin, Lawrence O. Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Gostin, Lawrence O. Global Health Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Gostin, Lawrence O., ed. Public Health Law and Ethics: A Reader. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Preston, Richard. Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come. New York: Random House, 2019.
  • Quammen, David. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012.
  • Venkatapuram, Sridhar. Health Justice: An Argument from the Capabilities Approach. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.
  • Wallace, Rob. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
  • Watts, Sheldon. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Image: Feature China/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

William Godwin (1756–1836), 2: The harmful effects of opulence on political and legal institutions

Godwin 5
“The opinions of individuals, and of consequence their desires, for desire is nothing but opinion maturing for action, will always be in a great degree regulated by the opinions of the community [J.S. Mill would soon write about the pernicious effects of this ‘regulation’ of individual opinion]. But the manners prevailing in many countries are accurately calculated to impress a conviction that integrity, virtue, understanding and industry are nothing, and that opulence is everything. Does a man whose exterior denotes indigence expect to be well received in society, and especially by those who would be understood to dictate to the rest? Does he find or imagine himself in want of their assistance and favour? He is presently taught that no merit can atone for a mean appearance. The lesson that is read to him is, ‘Go home; enrich yourself by whatever means; obtain those superfluities which are alone regarded as estimable; and you may then be secure of an amicable reception.’ Accordingly poverty in such countries is viewed as the greatest of demerits. It is escaped from with an eagerness that the most indelible disgrace. While one man chooses the path of undistinguishing accumulation, another plunges into expenses which are to impose him upon the world as more opulent than he is. He hastens to the reality of that penury the appearance of which he dreads; and, together with his property, sacrifices the integrity, veracity and character which he might have consoled him in his adversity. [….] 

Whatever tends to decrease the injuries attendant upon poverty decreases at the same time the inordinate desire and the enormous accumulation of wealth. Wealth is not pursued for its own sake, and seldom for the sensual gratifications it can purchase, but for the same reasons that ordinarily prompt men to the acquisition of learning, eloquence and skill, for the love of distinction and the fear of contempt. How few would prize the possession of riches if they were condemned to enjoy their equipage, their palaces and their entertainments in solitude, with no eye to wonder at their magnificence, and no sordid observer ready to convert that wonder into an adulation of the owner? If admiration were not generally deemed the exclusive property of the rich, and contempt the constant lacquey [‘archaic spelling’ of lackey] of poverty, the love of gain would cease to be an [sic] universal passion [capitalism has proved to be uniquely and extraordinarily adept at exploiting these intra- and inter-personal psychological dynamics and the subsequent ‘universal passion’ sketched by Godwin here]. Let us consider in what respects political institution is rendered subservient to this passion.

First then, legislation is in almost every country grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor. [….] Thus in England the land-tax at this moment produces half a million less than it did a century ago, while the taxes on consumption have experienced an addition of thirteen million per annum during the same period. This is an attempt … to throw the burthen from the rich upon the poor, and as such is an example of the spirit of legislation. Upon the same principle robbery and other offences, which the wealthier part of the community have no temptation to commit, are treated as capital crimes, and attended with the most rigorous, often the most inhuman punishments. The rich are encouraged to associate for the execution of the most partial and oppressive positive laws; monopolies and patents are lavishly dispensed to such as are able to purchase them; while the most vigilant policy is employed to prevent combinations of the poor to fix the price of labour, and they are deprived of the benefit of that prudence and judgement which would select the scene of their industry. 

Secondly, the administration of law is not less iniquitous than the spirit in which it is framed. [….] In England the criminal law is administered with greater impartiality [than in France] so far as regards the trial itself; but the number of capital offences, and of consequence the frequency of pardons, open a wide door to favour and abuse. In causes relating to property the practice of law is arrived at such a pitch as to render its nominal impartiality utterly nugatory. The length of our chancery suits, the multiplied appeals from court to court, the enormous fees of counsel, attorneys, secretaries, clerks, the drawing of briefs, bills, replications and rejoinders, and what has sometimes been called the ‘glorious uncertainty’ of the law, render it frequently more advisable to resign a property than to contest it, and more particularly exclude the impoverished claimant from the faintest hope of redress.

Thirdly, the inequality of conditions usually maintained by political institution is calculated greatly to enhance the imagined excellence of wealth. [….] [I]t cannot be pretended that even among ourselves the inequality is not strained so as to give birth to very unfortunate consequences. If, in the enormous degree in which it prevails in some parts of the world, it wholly debilitate and emasculate the human race, we shall feel some reason to believe that, even in the [comparatively] milder state in which we are accustomed to behold it, it is still pregnant with the most mischievous effects.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

William Godwin (1756–1836), 1: On obscene wealth and the evils of poverty

Godwin 6                                                            
While I am not in concord with all of William Godwin’s arguments in his classic book on what is christened “philosophical anarchism,” his ruminations are often quite provocative and worthy of sustained consideration. I happen to believe Marxists or socialists generally, such as yours truly, can benefit from an open-minded consideration of anarchist thought and praxis, that is, an examination not viewed solely through the political polemics and ideological lens of an earlier era. I hope to occasionally share, as below, snippets from his famous work, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (first published in 1793,* with two later editions). 

“A perpetual struggle with the evils of poverty [Godwin is likely speaking of ‘absolute’ poverty, but much of what follows might hold for ‘relative’ poverty as well], if frequently ineffectual, must necessarily render many of the sufferers desperate. A painful feeling of their oppressed situation will itself deprive them of the power of surmounting it. The superiority of the rich, being thus unmercifully exercised, must inevitably expose them to reprisals; and the poor man will be induced to regard the state of society as a state of war, an unjust combination, not for protecting every man in his rights and securing to him the means of existence, but for engrossing all its advantages to a few favoured individuals, and reserving for the portion of the rest want, dependence and misery.

A second source of those destructive passions by which the peace of society is interrupted is to be found in the luxury, the pageantry and magnificence with which enormous wealth is usually accompanied. Human beings are capable of encountering with cheerfulness considerable hardships when those hardships are impartially shared with the rest of the society, and they are not insulted with the spectacle of indolence and ease in others, no way deserving of greater advantages than themselves. But it is a bitter aggravation of their own calamity to have the privileges of others forced on their observation, and, while they are perpetually and vainly endeavoring to secure for themselves and their families the poorest conveniences, to find others reveling in the fruits of their labours. This aggravation is assiduously administered to them under most of the political establishments at present in existence. There is a numerous class of individuals, who, though rich, have neither brilliant talents nor sublime virtues; and, however highly they may prize their education, their affability, their superior polish and the elegance of their manner, have a secret consciousness that they possess nothing by which then can so securely assert their pre-eminence and keep their inferiors at a distance as the splendor of their equipage, the magnificence of the retinue and the sumptuousness of their entertainments. The poor man is struck with this exhibition; he feels his own miseries; he knows how unwearied are his effort to obtain a slender pittance of this prodigal waste; and he mistakes opulence for felicity. He cannot persuade himself that an embroidered garment may frequently cover an aching art. 

A third disadvantage that is apt to connect poverty with discontent consists in the insolence and usurpation of the rich. If the poor man would in other respect compose himself in philosophic indifference, and, conscious that he possesses every thing[sic] that is truly honourable to man as fully as his rich neighbour, would look upon the rest as beneath his envy [like the Hellenistic Stoic?], his neighbor will not permit him to do so. He seems as if he could never be satisfied with his possession unless can make the spectacle of them grating to others [for an updated examination of this at once economic and psychological phenomenon, see the last two chapters and conclusion of Nicholas Xenos’ Scarcity and Modernity (Routledge, 1989)]; and that honest self-esteem, by which the inferior might otherwise attain to tranquility, is rendered the instrument of galling him with oppression and injustice. In many countries justice is avowedly made a subject of solicitation, and the man of the highest rank and most splendid connections almost infallibly carries his cause against the unprotected and friendless. In countries where this shameless practice is not established, justice is frequently a matter of expensive purchase, and the man with the longest purse is proverbially victorious. A consciousness of these facts must be expected to render the rich little cautious of offence in his dealings with the poor, and to inspire him with a temper overbearing, dictatorial and tyrannical. Nor does this indirect oppression satisfy his despotism. The rich are in all such countries directly or indirectly the legislators of the state; and of consequence are perpetually reducing oppression into a system, and depriving the poor of that little commonage of nature which might otherwise still have remained to them.” 

* See Pelican Books, 1976 and Penguin Classics, 1985. The Introduction by Isaac Kramnick is quite helpful. See too Mark Philp’s Godwins Political Justice (Cornell University Press, 1986) and his entry on Godwin for the SEP. 

Please note: I have not forgotten about the second installment on socialism, it is forthcoming anon. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Toward recognition and appreciation of laudatory incarnations of communism

Roots of participatory democracy  Ruth First and Joe Slovo  Democracy at work

The following snippet is from Nelson Mandela’s speech (three hours long!) in the defendant’s dock at the Rivonia Trial on 20 April 1964: 

After reminding those present at the trial that “there has often been close cooperation between the ANC [African National Congress] and the Communist party [SACP],” Mandela points out that “African Communists could, and did, become members of the ANC, and some served on the national, provincial and local committees.” This should surprise no one, after all, “for many decades Communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as equals; who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. [….] In the international field, Communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other councils of the world the Communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the Communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the white world.”
[As for whether or not Mandela himself was ever a member of the South African Communist Party/SACP (formerly the Communist Party of South Africa/CPSA), I believe he was, at least for a time. On this hotly debated question, see the brief article by Tom Lodge at openDemocracy.]

Maloka 1  Maloka 2African communist 6

The history of the twentieth-century taught us, there is Communism, and there is communism (or ‘socialism,’ without entering here into the possible distinctions): the former exemplified by the Party-State Communism of the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), which became systematically and ruthlessly brutal under Stalin, eventually more or less extending its power over Eastern and parts of Central Europe (e.g., Albania, Poland, Eastern Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria); the People’s Republic of China (where it became known as Maoism); and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). I’m not interested in rehearsing these countries’ specific failures and accomplishments with respect to meeting basic needs, industrialization, quality of life, human rights, democracy, and so forth, or their putative proximity to or distance from this or that kind of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, what have you (i.e., their fidelity to or deviation from orthodoxy). In addition, there has been quite a few communist guerrilla movements, organizations, political parties (some of them coming into power at the local level or with party representation in ruling governments or coalitions), and individuals, some even with democratic and/or Liberal sensibilities or moments, as it were, especially those that have chosen to participate in democratically elected government or wider national liberation and freedom struggles.

Comrades against apartheid  Kasrils  Bram Fischer 2

In short, let’s just say there are some expressions or incarnations of communism that we might find both politically and morally endurable if not laudatory, forms we can both live and die with in self-respect and dignity (as avowed communists or sympathetic or solidaristic observers). These forms are “humanistic” and humane. You may prefer to view them as exceptions to the rule and I think that is correct, but they are no less notable and hopeful exceptions for all that. Owing in part to the limitations of my own research and knowledge, I want to mention just two such incarnations (thus there are others, including throughout U.S. history) for now: the history of communism in the Indian state of Kerala and the South African struggle against apartheid. I hope at some point in the not too distant future to introduce these provocative examples, beginning with the former case first. For now, I leave you with the titles pictured above and below.

Forman Lionel   Memory against forgetting  Turok 

As we are in the middle of Black History Month, I’d like to end by noting the many contributions of African Americans and Blacks generally to morally ennobling, courageous, and laudatory forms of socialism and communism as evidenced in the following compilations:

Monday, February 17, 2020

Is the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) of any relevance to the COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) epidemic?

Tombstone  Hunger and Public Action
New and resurgent infectious disease beginning with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, followed by SARS, avian flu, foot and mouth disease, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and others, have brought to the forefront how the increasing interconnectedness of societies also makes them more vulnerable to biological threats to life. For a multitude of man-made reasons, the rate at which new and resurgent infectious diseases affects human populations has been steadily increasing over the past three [now four] decades. Indeed, such vulnerability to biological threats through interconnectedness was thoroughly apparent in the spread of the bubonic plague that started in China before entering Europe in the fourteenth century. [….] If nothing else, the rapid spread across national borders of infectious diseases through human interaction evidences the shared vulnerabilities arising from being human beings, and the necessity to coordinate a response across the human community to mitigate the vulnerability. — Sridhar Venkatapuram, Health Justice: An Argument from the Capabilities Approach (Polity Press, 2011): 228-29.

First, please read the extract below from an article in the Los Angeles Times. I have a few comments after the piece by way of a possible or provisional answer to our question. That is followed with an op-ed piece also in the Times by Orville Schell, again with comments. Finally, an article in The Guardian provides yet further evidence for the analogical argument I derived (or simply borrowed) from the work of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen. 

“Political officials were fired and infection cases skyrocketed in China on Thursday, reminding a nation stuck at home and scientists watching worldwide just how little is known about the coronavirus outbreak that has infected at least 60,000 and killed more than 1,300 people. Previous numbers had been reassuring, with daily confirmations of new infections dropping from several thousand to around 1,000. Officials in Beijing, increasingly worried about the economic toll of the outbreak, urged people to go back to work. State media ran editorials about resuming international flights to China.

But on Thursday the case numbers shot up. Chinese health authorities reported 15,152 new cases of COVID-19 — the World Health Organization’s new name for the viral disease — overnight. Hubei province, the epidemic’s epicenter, accounted for most of the increase: The number of infections went up by 14,840, more than nine times the 1,638 new cases reported there a day earlier.

Then came the purge. Beijing announced that both the Communist Party chiefs of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province were fired and replaced with officials known for ‘stability maintenance’ and closely allied with party chairman and President Xi Jinping. The sackings followed earlier dismissals including the Hubei health commission’s party chief and its director. The under-reporting of the breadth of the epidemic, believed to have originated at a seafood market in Wuhan, has been blamed on officials who suppressed information on the outbreak to save face among their superiors.”

Epidemics and History  Big Farms
*          *          *
There have been numerous reports of unreliable information coming from China about the number of people possibly infected by COVID-19 (heretofore and commonly known as the ‘coronavirus’) as well as the precise number killed by the virus. The article evidences concerns on the part of the national government about the manner in which regional and local Communist Party officials in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province have handled this viral outbreak (this hardly means those officials bear complete responsibility for any mistakes in this regard). It helps to keep in mind that China remains an authoritarian country and a one-Party “Communist” State (in many respects, it is capitalist and only nominally socialist, let alone communist). Still, it is not the China of the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)* or the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-1976). The “Great Chinese Famine” took place during the former period (1958-1961), resulting in estimated deaths ranging from 16.5 million to 29.5 million (with a few later estimates considerably higher than this). As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in Hunger and Public Action (Oxford University Press, 1989), “While the failure the Great Leap Forward came to be widely recognized after the initial euphoria, the existence of the famine oddly escaped open scrutiny and even public recognition, until very recently [that is, until the 1980s, with several important works on this particular famine published after 2000].” I don’t want to focus on the probable causes of the famine, although it is “clear that there was an enormous collapse of agricultural output and income.” As Drèze and Sen explain, the famine was linked with “policy failures—first in the debacle of the Great Leap Forward, then in the delay of rectifying the harm done, and along with that in accentuating distributional inequalities through enhanced procurement and uneven sharing.” 

I want instead to highlight what Drèze and Sen have to say by way of the comparative historical experience of post-independence India in dealing with famines (incipient and actual). First, they point out that “China did not lack a delivery and redistribution mechanism to deal with food shortages as the famine threatened in 1958 and later. Despite the size of the decline of food output and the loss of entitlement of large sections of the population, China could have done a much better job of protecting the vulnerable by sharing the shortage in a bearable way.” But here is the most salient difference with the famine experiences of post-independence India:

“What was lacking when the famine threatened China was a political system of adversarial journalism and opposition. The Chinese famine raged on for three years without it being even admitted in public that such a thing was occurring, and without there being an adequate policy response to the threat. Not only was the world ignorant of the terrible state of affairs in China, even the population itself did not know about the extent of the national calamity and the extensive nature of the problems being faced in different parts of the country. 

Indeed, the lack of adversarial journalism and politics hit even the government, reinforcing ignorance of local conditions because of politically motivated exaggeration of the crop sized during the Great Leap Forward and the fear of local leaders about communicating their own problems. The pretense that everything was going all right in Chinese agriculture and rural economy to a great extent fooled the national leaders themselves. [….] Aside from the government’s informational inadequacy, which made its own assessment of the situation disastrously wrong, the absence of an adversarial system of politics and journalism also that that there was little pressure of the government from any opposition group and from informed public opinion to take adequate anti-famine measures rapidly.” In short, what occurred in China happened in spite of post-revolutionary China’s “outstanding record of entitlement promotion and enhancement of living conditions.” Thus Drèze and Sen conclude that “the precise feature of absence of adversarial politics and open journalism … contributed to the occurrence, magnitude, and duration of the Chinese famines of 1958-61….”

Again, the China of today is in many important respects different from the China of the period during the Great Famine (e.g., information circulates faster and far wider than in the earlier period). And of course famines and deadly viruses are two rather different socio-economic and public health phenomena. But I want to suggest one analogy remains pertinent based on the above discussion: “the absence of adversarial politics and open journalism” in contemporary China. I suspect at least some of the possible shortcomings (if that is in fact what we have here) of China’s handling of this latest viral disease can be attributed to both of these characteristic features of a healthy democratic polity: freedom of the press and political opposition (the former perhaps more pressingly relevant that the latter). 

*The Great Leap Forward (Second Five Year Plan) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962. Chairman Mao Zedong launched the campaign to reconstruct the country from an agrarian economy into a communist society through the formation of people’s communes. Mao decreed increased effort to multiply grain yields and industry should be brought to the countryside. Local officials were fearful of Anti-Rightist Campaigns and competed to fulfill or over-fulfill quotas based on Mao’s exaggerated claims. They collected ‘surpluses’ that in fact did not exist, leaving farmers to starve. Higher officials did not dare to report the economic disaster caused by these policies, and national officials blamed bad weather for the decline in food output and took little or no action. The Great Leap resulted in tens of millions of deaths. A lower-end estimate is 18 million and upper estimates find that some 45 million people died. About the same number of births were lost or postponed, making the Great Chinese Famine the largest in human history.
Fidler 2  Gostin
*          *          * 
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Xi Jinping rules China by intimidation and police coercion,” Orville Schell discusses the authoritarian regime’s handling of the 2019-nCoV outbreak, invoking the relevance of the “so-called ‘mandate of heaven’” [tian ming 天命]:  

“In this Confucian scheme of things, heaven was said to choose rulers of good moral standing, whose virtuous statecraft and proper ritual observations kept heaven and earth in balance and society in a state of peaceful harmony. The cosmic favor bestowed on these chosen leaders by heaven was evident for all to see in such things as a stable social order and a contented populace. However, if a ruler violated these Confucian proscriptions, throwing heaven and earth out of balance, heaven might signal its displeasure with earthquakes, floods, meteors, droughts, famines and epidemics.”

This concept (and its derivative incarnate conceptions) is not an easy one to understand: see, for example, the essays in Christopher Lupke, The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (University of Hawai̒i Press, 2005). And when paired with tian (see the ‘study guide’ for Confucianism for a short entry on tian), the possible meanings can vary (whatever the extent of ‘family resemblance’) by textual and contextual source, philosopher, philosophical “school,” ideology, colloquial use, and so forth. I mention this largely because I don’t think Schell gets things quite right here, especially with regard as to how Confucius himself understood tian ming, although we can agree this idea plays a pervasive part in Chinese culture and discourse, the terms “ming” and “tianming” dating back, as Lupke reminds us, to pre-Qing China. Leaving that quibble aside, Schell spells out the possible role the idea of a “heavenly mandate” is playing (and may yet play) in the outbreak and epidemic spread in China of the most recent coronavirus, 2019-nCoV: 

“The idea of mysterious forces in heaven determining who rules China is antithetical, of course, to much of what the Communist Party has sought to instill in the Chinese people over the 70 years it has been in power. Still, Confucian thinking and forms of deeply rooted superstition continue to hold widespread sway across the country, including in leadership circles where a Confucian revival is in fashion.

Disease outbreaks are especially tricky within the mandate of heaven construct. Epidemics are, of course, a normal part of life everywhere in the world. But in the case of a disease perceived as spreading because a ruler (and the officials who serve him) failed to sound an early warning for self-serving reasons, it is not difficult for ordinary people to conclude that their leaders have angered heaven by abandoning virtuous rule. It’s not yet clear whether the Chinese people will start to see President Xi Jinping through this lens in the current outbreak, but as the virus spreads from the central Chinese city of Wuhan out around China and the world, he is certainly being besieged by criticism, especially on social media. 

Xi’s neo-Maoist toolbox is stocked largely with Leninist instruments of control. But viral outbreaks operate according to their own rules, in their own autonomous universes, and the 2019-nCoV epidemic is beyond the influence of the usual party methods: political censure, intimidation by surveillance, police coercion or even imprisonment. The 2019-nCoV outbreak is confronting the autocratic Xi with a foe as imperious, unyielding, unrepentant and uncontrollable as his own regime. Despite an unprecedented government response to the epidemic and the virtual lockdown of millions of Chinese citizens, this invisible adversary continues to proliferate. In so doing, it has stripped Xi of his aura of invincibility in ways that no political dissident, opposition party or revolutionary movement ever could. And his tardiness in sounding the alarm against it, and then his inability to contain it, at least to date, has led to a growing public outcry and an upwelling of skepticism about his form of techno-authoritarianism.

Whatever happens next, Xi’s latter-day mandate of heaven has been called into question, just as the Nationalist rule was called into question during the late 1940s. Back then, Mao Tse-tung was helped to power when Chiang Kai-shek was perceived as having lost his mandate after becoming mired in corruption, self-interest, tyranny and famine. Then, in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake and the death of Premier Zhou Enlai were viewed by many as heralding the end of Mao’s own revolutionary dynasty. And now with social media savaging the Party’s handling of the present crisis, another wave of error and blame has taken hold in China to challenge the once seemingly invincible Xi.”

And now the concluding paragraph, which I severed from the above because it resonates with what I wrote in response to the question, “Is the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) of any relevance to the COVID-19 epidemic?” 

“The current upwelling of negative sentiment must be taken seriously, even though it is not year clear what it will signify. Xi has managed to gain unilateral command of the Party and state structures by rigidly controlling the flow of information. However, in the present crisis the absence of free-flowing information has helped allow this epidemic to spread and become such a menace. And Xi’s failure to contain it will affect how his people view both him and his latter-day heavenly mandate to rule, long after the threat of this spreading disease has been brought under control and the economy begins to recover.” [emphasis added]

I repeat, the China of today is in many important respects different from the China of the Great Famine (e.g., owing in part to social media, ‘information’ circulates faster and far wider than in the earlier period). And again, famines and deadly viruses are two rather different socio-economic and public health phenomena. Yet one analogy remains distressingly pertinent: “the absence of adversarial politics and open journalism” in contemporary China.
*          *          *
Alas, this article from The Guardian reiterates and provides further confirmation of the analogical argument (after Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen): 

“Even now, when the virus has made 70,000 people sick and taken more than 1,700 lives, the government is still trying to hide information. Thousands of posts were deleted from the online group asking for help, including Lin’s. I was told by editors of Chinese media outlets that I couldn’t write about anything that reflected negatively on the government. It is not new for figures in government to put their political interests ahead of public health. But given the rapid spread of the virus and the gravity of the situation in China, I thought the government could put aside the censorship and propaganda for a while. I was wrong.” [emphasis added]