May 20, 2012

road not travelled by progressives

From (Notes on) Politics, Theory, and Photography, 5/19/12, comes this reminder:
Let's see now, the government funds lots of basic research that leads to massive technological advance; let's call it the Internet. And a bunch of guys make oodles of dollars exploiting the technology for commercial gain. And then those same guys turn around and spend oodles of dollars on groups that spout libertarian nonsense about how "government regulation stifles innovation and, without innovation, there is no economic growth." Bullshit.

And let’s not also forget, in addition to the public subsidies handed out to whole industries also  the massive expenditures for the building and coordinating of the interstate highway system, a la "the grid," as well as subsidies for public health, sanitation, and transportation systems. The Hoover Dam is just one example. And who can forget all those salaried uniform personnel to collect tolls and police the whole thing? I cant imagine war efforts either, like The Manhattan Project, without state involvement. Nor nuclear power. Jeff Madrick has written on these issues; his The Case For Big Government, (2009) convincingly argues that since public goods, like the aforementioned, benefit society overall more than any individual or business, public investments as well planning and regulation would simply not have been adequately undertaken by private firms. But even before I had come across Madrick's book, I had a good inkling to what libertarians were up to: despite their occasional Social-Darwinian pretensions and underneath their arguments for free-markets, sotto voce, is the concern for law and order. Turning civil society into an outdoor mall or gambling casino well-patrolled by security guards and surveillance cameras is their little ideological trade. They deny the very entity they are bed with: the state.  
And yet, as much as I surely prefer large scale "social-democracy" with strong unions and active, albeit legitimate, economic involvement by the state, (including, of course, imposing very high taxes on the rich,) to large-scale
plutonomy with gated communities and a decimated social and cultural landscape, I can’t help flinching whenever I hear progressives hope for rebuilding the big benevolent nanny-state. Large scale bureaucracies and centralized political power, whether acknowledged or not, are still inherently undemocratic both in design and orientation. The complex regulatory decision-making mechanisms devised through the administrative mega-state, like it or not, devalue democratic participation at the local level.

Historically, progressive reforms have been more successful along the institutional axes of arranging and defining the scope of the power of the state to act than along a participatory axis of facilitating the exercise of democratic power.[1] This legacy is particularly striking given the broad sweep of social and educative initiatives that Progressives sought. Indeed as it turned out, the populist rhetoric to bust Wall St. and flout its indentured political parties and actors, though appropriated from earlier protest movements in the south, and animated by ethical-religious language as well as various Constitutional arguments, helped transform localist regimes of courts and parties into a more integrated national state. Progressives certainly succeeded in winning suffrage for women as well as greater bargaining power for labor unions. More generally, intervention by state power on behalf of those disadvantaged by the market forces of advanced capitalism became to be seen as legitimate. Millions were given new opportunities. And though Progressives did not root out political corruption one of their most important their successes included higher standards and expectations about government at every level. Nonetheless their failure to attract and maintain a more direct democratic politics, (though the social movements of the 1960s and 70s are important exceptions,) seems these days only to be undoing the state whose construction Progressives began. Today, the national state not only happens to be lost to international regimes and kingpins but is also accompanied by an electorate that is en masse methodically manipulated, lied to, trivialized, and exploited. Democratic institutions exist only as a set of creaking procedures, services, and regulations, which can serve law-abiding subjects as well as actors intent on utilizing them for selfish ends. And the democratic principles which these regimes seldom pay lip-service to, to recall's Nietzsche's description, have indeed become lies that creep out from the state's mouth.  

Though Corey Robin claims
that "the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state," I suspect it would be dangerously facile to pave over the relationship between "a strong national state" and a democratic political culture. A regime which promotes the general welfare while protecting individuals and minority populations by securing the right kinds of conditions and opportunities is obviously commendable... and, as far as that brief formulation goes, is frankly ideal. A progressive political state can conceivably guarantee civil rights and workplace safety, as well as enforce the rule of law and uphold principles of fairness and equality; it can also presumably educate citizens into viewing their personal lives in terms of collective goods and the general welfare of society. In these respects, freedom is not negative, as the libertarian gang would have us believe but dependent on institutional and ethical collaborators. But I still remain skeptical whether attempts to pursue and accomplish any of these things through more policy and more state without a participatory ethic at the local level is possible - if desirable. Any effort to "regulate" radically dismantle the interlocking configurations of state and economic power requires, (as impossible as it sounds,) sustained popular political action from the bottom up - warts and all.

A passage from Tocqueville comes to mind: "democratic peoples often hate the repositories of central power but they love the power itself." These words could very well apply to libertarians - can they also apply to progressives?            

[1] Eileen L. McDonagh, “Race, Class, and Gender in the Progressive Era,” in Progressivism and the New Democracy, 1999 (edited by Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur.)