Preliminary First Draft, June 27, 2017
A note to readers: This is an extremely rough version of a possible first chapter for a book on the present political crisis. This chapter is an attempt to sketch some of the significance of the loss and recovery of visionary politics in the lifetime that many of us share, and in which the rest of us overlap. Much is left out, including things of first importance; in particular, it does not engage Trump or right-wing populism generally. These and other urgent topics are left for future chapters, which will, if written, be more argumentative and less interpretive. All errors are mine, and I look forward to giving them up when prompted.
SOMETHING OR BARBARISM:
A POLITICAL EDUCATION, 1989 - 2017-->
I. All the Neoliberal Youth: Coming of Age in the Long 1990s
II. The Long Emergency
III. Barack Obama: The Halfway Revival
IV. Slow Crises: Technocracy & Redemptive Constitutionalism
V. Irruptions: Occupy
VI. Irruptions: Piketty and the New History of Inequality
VII. The Sanders Campaign and the Return of “Socialism”
VIII. The Wages of Taking Democracy Seriously
IX. Something or Barbarism: Elements of a Deeper Democracy
Donald Trump’s calls to build a wall at the Southern border of the United States didn’t begin in 2016, when he snatched the presidency from Hillary Clinton’s expectant hands. His revival of white identity politics - white nationalism, if you prefer - didn’t begin in 2011, when he made himself the mouthpiece of the grotesque “birther” theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and constitutionally disqualified to be President. To understand his inward, backward-looking, conspiracy-minded version of America, you have to go back a moment when it seemed - to many people, anyway - that the future was the very opposite: nothing but transparency and openness, to the world and to the future, in a time when it seemed that the suffering of history had ended and living could begin.
Bernie Sanders’s calls for all-American “democratic socialism” came astonishingly close to winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but they didn’t begin then. They didn’t begin, either, in 2013, when economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century confirmed that wealth and income were flowing to the very richest, or in 2011, when Occupy Wall Street raised the long-exiled banner of class warfare on behalf of “the 99%.” In a 2011 Pew poll, more Americans between 18 and 29 said they had a positive view of socialism than of capitalism; but the movement that gathered around the Sanders campaign has its roots when some of those young people were not yet born, and almost none had any awareness of politics, when it seemed - to many people, anyway - that anything called “socialism” had been interred forever, and the future was markets and more markets, to the ends of the earth and of time.
When the Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989, Trump had published The Art of the Deal two years earlier and was busily recasting his real-estate enterprise into narcissistic branding strategy, a business model of pure self-promotion. He first appeared on the cover of Time - a hard-to-imagine big deal in that pre-Internet world - earlier in 1989. Sanders, recently the two-term mayor of Burlington, a progressive enclave within the larger progressive enclave of Vermont, was preparing his first run as an Independent Congressman, which he won in 1990. Hillary Clinton lived in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, where her husband was serving his fifth term in the office, and she sat on the boards of the Children’s Defense Fund and Wal-Mart. In Cambridge, twenty-eight-year-old Barack Obama was considering a run for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review. He became the first Black president to preside in Harvard’s Gannett House nineteen years before he entered the White House with the same distinction.
The fall of the Wall ushered in the short epoch in which they all made the careers they will be remembered by, the time that congratulated itself only half-ironically on being the End of History: the Long 1990s. It was a time when elites and would-be elites congratulated themselves on being post-ideological, and tacked toward becoming post-political altogether. The market economy, whose enthusiasts announced that it has bested all its rivals in a grand historical tournament, rapidly became a market society, in which everything from government to intimate relationships was marked by a new “common sense” of incentives, opportunity costs, return on investment, and brand-building. A certain kind of world came to seem natural and inevitable - at least to many people, most of all the gatekeepers of respectable opinion, elite education, and policy-making. It would take decades for even some of them to see that this world and this vision were partial, happenstance, and incomplete. The American society that congratulated itself on being the template for a universal nation, the natural and unmodified condition of enlightened humanity, turned out to be the creation of the same Cold War forces that relaxed, then disappeared, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire and the end of the ideological and geopolitical contest between capitalism and communism. Because the forces that had made it and held it together were leaving the field in giddy victory by the early 1990s, this world was set to spin apart at very moment when it was declared universal and eternal.
The return of the conflicts that world had suppressed - the return of history, for better and worse - is what we are struggling through now. The return of those conflicts has been the long and tortuous political education of generations and half-generations that were welcomed to the world with the announcement that politics had just departed, that they would be the first to live in times when all public questions were technical, and all personal questions ethical, leaving nothing important to politics.
I. All the Neoliberal Youth: Coming of Age in the Long 1990s
When the Wall fell, I was about to turn fourteen. After spending my childhood at the fringes of the Nuclear Freeze and Central American Solidarity movements, hearing occasional dire warnings about Reaganomics and nuclear winter, I got my real political schooling in the Long 1990s. Radicalism, such as it was, came to me as a blend of aesthetics and ethics. Fugazi was against violence, and also against lies; so was U2. Billy Bragg sang about a “socialism of the heart,” and Czech president Vaclav Havel, also a long-imprisoned dissent playwright, wrote, “My heart is slightly left of center.” Figures like Havel had tremendous moral authority. They had peaceably resisted authoritarian regimes that were backed by an empire most observers expected to last through the dissidents’ lives and longer. Almost necessarily, they had worked without a plan beyond what Havel called “living in truth” - being, like punks and some pop stars, against lies and violence. Their stance harked back to a Cold War dilemma that Albert Camus tried to navigate with an ethics of negation: If you could not save the world, or even know which way to turn among the ignorant armies of your benighted time, you could at least refuse to be on the side of the executioners - especially the ones thought they had good reason to kill innocents. You could not commit violence or tell lies on its behalf. [Camus’s doctor from The Plague.] Satisfactory or not, Camus’s stance had a concrete meaning and force when it meant refusing both Stalinism and imperial wars in Indochina, or simply trying to hold the integrity of one’s own life under an oppressive and undemocratic regime. Outside those settings, however, it dissolved into a general humanitarianism, admirable, still charismatic, but vague on what do, other than harm nobody and tell no lies. The unparalleled appeal of the human-rights movement in the 1990s stemmed from its being the closest thing to a programmatic expression of this ethical-aesthetic substitute for politics. Its less heroic version was the work that drew many young idealists: community service, international development, projects that seemed incontrovertibly helpful to human beings, concretely valuable and free of ideological entanglement. Indeed, under the influence of muses such as Isaiah Berlin, systematic political thinking came under suspicion of being ideological per se, a morbid intellectual preoccupation tending to violence and totalitarianism. [Berlin quote from “Political Judgment.”]
But that time had its ideology, which was all the more effective because it could present itself as non-ideological, even non-political, an ideology of pure, touching-the-ground realism. There were no movements then [Consider: there was the Right], and campus politics were tiny and self-involved. The dismaying figures on the big, pre-internet podiums—Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd—were materialists without dialectic, polemicists without politics, and I wanted to make them impossible. Those two decades moved under the sign of Margaret Thatcher’s iconic phrase, “There is no alternative.” You could define yourself against the phrase, but still not escape the reality it called down.
The chief, and maybe sole, task of neoliberal politics is to stand watch over the market institutions—chiefly private property, free contract, and the right to spend money however one wants—that give those bargains their home. Neoliberalism welcomes market utopianism, wherein Bangladeshi factory conditions are automatically legitimate because workers agreed to work under them; but neoliberalism won’t be pinned down to a position where such conditions are celebrated. Challenged, neoliberalism switches to the tragic wisdom of (adulterated) Burke, (exaggerated) Hume, and (pretty faithfully rendered) Hayek. It might be nice if the world were different, neoliberal realism intones, but it is what it is, and so are we. Politics is no way out because, like the market, it is just the play of passions and interests, only lacking the discipline of the bottom line. Using politics to reorder social life is the dangerous dream of the utopian engineer. To try would just set loose the selfish, vain, and ignorant on our good-enough market system. Economic waste is the best we could expect from such efforts; the worst would be piles of dead. The neoliberal mind is never far from an interpretation of the 20th century’s worst disasters as symptoms of visionary politics.
Neoliberalism’s ideological premises are easy to name and quarrel with, even though they shift opportunistically from market utopianism to the tragic sigh that, alas, we can do no better than the market. What is more subtle is how neoliberal practice disables personal attempts to escape it. The neoliberal condition gently enforces an anti-politics whose symptoms are often in what doesn’t get said, or heard: nationalizing banks, nationalizing health-care payments, proposing to arrange work differently, naming class interests and class conflict as a reality every bit as basic as opportunity cost. In a time when financial capitalism is palpably endangering so many people, places, and things, you know neoliberalism by the silences it induces. To be a neoliberal, even despite oneself, is to come to find those silences natural.
The naturalness of neoliberal premises comes in the way that, in a neoliberal world, to act is to accept them. Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not doctrine but a limit on the vitality of practical imagination. Acquiescing to it means accepting a picture of personality and social life that pivots on consumer-style choice and self-interested collaboration. This is the basis of the realism, so-called, that is the neoliberal trump. It implies that market-modeled activity—ticking off the preferences, going for the ask—is the natural form of life.
There was an officially theorized version of these ideas, although it was more a symptom of the time than a key to understanding it. It was the End of History. All but trademarked, the phrase comes from Francis Fukuyama's book of the same title, published in 1992 and based on a 1989 essay in the neoconservative foreign policy journal The National Interest. Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet empire revealed something much deeper than President Ronald Reagan's success bankrupting the Soviet Union with an arms race, or reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to control events. Rather, Fukuyama argued, these were events of philosophical significance.
According to Fukuyama, 20th-century history had been a three-way tournament among different visions of modern society. First was socialism, with the state in charge of economic life. Second were nationalism and its cousin fascism, which celebrated a strong state but were defined by an exclusive identity at the center of national life — above all, the German volk. Third was liberal democracy, which was defined by free elections, strong individual rights, and a capitalist economy. Fukuyama argued that only liberal democracy, a.k.a. democratic capitalism, had succeeded in producing stable, prosperous societies, and so had proven itself the only desirable social form, the only way a people would ever choose to live.
Saying that history had ended didn't mean nothing more would ever happen, but that there was no more debate about how to organize a large, complex society. The fight that had shaken the world in the 20th century, from the struggle between right and left in European politics to the wars of postcolonial Asia and Africa, was now done. The German novelist Thomas Mann had summed up the 20th century's stakes when he wrote, "In our time, the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Now, Fukuyama argued, that fate was settled. The future would be like the present, only more so. We knew this, not just historically but philosophically.
The New York Times Magazine called Fukuyama's article "the hottest topic around." The president of the Council on Foreign Relations speculated that Fukuyama might be "laying the foundations of the Bush Doctrine." (George H.W. Bush had taken office that January after eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.) Many commentators compared Fukuyama's argument to foreign policy eminence George Kennan's 1947 article — published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X" — which laid out the doctrine of containment and did much to shape the next 30 years of Cold War thinking. Fukuyama seemed to have provided the frame for the world after the Cold War.
The heart of Fukuyama's argument was that democratic capitalism — and no other system — satisfies two great human appetites. These appetites, in turn, are the engines of history and the arbiters of the success and failure of nations. The first was the drive for material progress. Capitalism, Fukuyama argued, was the most powerful engine of economic growth: Only a market economy could allocate resources efficiently in a complex world to keep the fires of production and innovation burning. Although state-controlled economies could get through the relatively crude and stereotyped early stages of industrialization, they could never know enough, or be nimble enough, to coordinate the multifarious economies that came after. Only the free market could do that.
The second appetite was the appetite for "recognition": pride, dignity, a sense of belonging. Following Hegel, Fukuyama argued that most of human history had involved zero-sum answers to the search for recognition: Rulers lorded it over peasants, masters over slaves, men over women, chosen peoples over heathens. But democracy, for the first time, established mutual recognition: the respect of equals for equals. Ideally, it also based recognition on universal traits — the individuality and rationality of a citizen — rather than an inherent exclusive quality like nationality or religion. Waxing Hegelian, Fukuyama argued that its potential universality made mutual recognition uniquely rational, and that its rationality made it more stable.
Fukuyama also argued that capitalism served the appetite for recognition. It brought people together as equals in principle — self-interested bargainers in the market with no preexisting duties to one another — rather than as, say, masters and slaves. It gave the state, and the capitalists, an interest in universal education and training, if only to make workers more productive. Everyone would flourish together, getting richer and feeling respected.
None of this meant that conflict would immediately disappear. Less rational forms of recognition, such as fundamentalism, might continue to flare up and do real damage. But according to Fukuyama, they would burn themselves out: Attempts to organize nations around such principles would leave their people poor and parochial and, most likely, hungry for the good life of democratic capitalism. They did not present charters for the future to compete with liberal democracy.
Not everyone celebrated a young neoconservative's putative "Bush doctrine." The journalist Christopher Hitchens, then still on the left, called Fukuyama's argument "self-congratulation raised to the level of philosophy." More systematic criticism followed from not-so-neo conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that the Cold War's end would usher in a "clash of civilizations" across religious and national fissures. But the Fukuyama’s argument, with its strengths and weaknesses, its invocations of G.W.F. Hegel and Alexandre Kojeve and its hurried account of the unfolding collapse of the Cold War world, felt so real.
Of course it did. Fukuyama's argument gave a theoretical twist to what its audience already believed - and, more important than nominal belief, what his readers lived. The End of History crystallized much of the elite common sense of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously put it, "no alternative" to free market. This was soon a point of postpartisan consensus as Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK brought their countries' respective center-left parties firmly into the ambit of market thinking and policy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman served up an accessible version of Fukuyama's argument in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the global economy presented "golden handcuffs": Only capital-friendly pro-market policies could survive the pressure of globalization, but those who adopted them would be richly rewarded in growth.
Political thinking is as thoroughly learned, as entirely social, as anything people do. It depends intensely on a sense of what history means, what experience suggests is possible, uncertain, and if anything, debarred. To believe that you know such things, you must rely on people who got here before you, who seem to have sussed out the circumstances you suddenly share with them. Political writing is an attempt to exercise judgment, but the grounds of that judgment can only be a shared interpretation of common life that you try to make your own. In the long 1990s, the traditions of the left became very difficult to claim, or even feel, as part of the formation of political judgment.
But there were few grips to get hold of that world in that way. There was, for one thing, an implicit prohibition: a seemingly unanswerable sense that the left of political economy and universal emancipation from bad work, economic hierarchy, and political oligarchy, was done, fruitless—if not, worse, guilty. The no-longer-new radicalisms of the 1960s and 1970s, doubts about infinite growth, and calls to reconsider the human place on the planet as part of the general realignment of political economy were also implicitly shut down as nonsense, assumed to have been refuted, so that whoever raised them would put himself outside “serious” conversation. This limit on the substance of serious argument reinforced the reduction of political seriousness to a rhetorical style: one could point out, in all seriousness, that questions about how to shape an economy were inescapable, and inescapably political; but when all the “serious” answers are variations on one neoliberal theme, seriousness easily becomes a sonorous way of posing an almost trivial question. Realism was the watchword of the time—solving problems, wrangling facts, accepting “reality”—and although that realism was always limited and normative and seems now to have played us false, it made a great many alternatives seem fake or “improbable” along the way.
II. The Long Emergency
On September 11, 2001, I was in Washington, DC, walking down Connecticut Avenue’s slope from Adams-Morgan into Dupont Circle, when my friend David called from New Haven. He opened with, “You’re not near anything, are you? Don’t go near anything.”
It was a few minutes after 9 in the morning, on a perfect day - a cloudless blue sky, dry, cool air - the kind of day when the world seems formed just to welcome you into it. After I got a few fragmented details from David, I saw that the operator of the a newsstand (yes, a newsstand) by the sidewalk had set a TV in his window. I stopped and watched one of the iconic images, the first tower burning. I was on the cusp of two worlds. A couple passed me, the first people I’d been near in the tens of seconds since the news. They carried themselves casually, and were murmuring in the tones of ordinary intimacy about which video to rent for the evening. The next passer’s face was an unformed but urgent question, his walk harried but directionless. He joined me at the newsstand window, trying to gather something from the small screen and smoky image.
It was a caesura, a break in the flow of being. The human world is generally shattered into millions of dimly glinting points of view, light-years apart, which float in the same big milky way of experience. On that morning there were briefly two galaxies, one where those who knew were gathered, the other made up of the briefly left-behind, still at home in their worries and plans. Then, as not knowing became impossible, we all re-gathered in a changed world.
This memory, if it is sound, confirms the myth of the day. But I also remember not feeling at all clear about what it would mean. The most banal detail: I was to meet a classmate at 10 that morning. At 10.30 I gave up waiting, went to my office, and heard a message that began, “I guess it’s obvious we’ll call off catching up today.” What was obvious? What were we called away from our lives to do, besides sit vigil by the television? How did people reach implicit agreement on what the day meant, which soon coalesced into a mandatory blend of focused piety and diffuse fear?
It was not by some common instinct. Conversations that day were a cacophony: people weeping, wild speculation about the identity of the attackers, reflection on the reasons people might have to attack the Pentagon, free association to the history of iconic traumas (I heard references to the Kennedy assassination, among others). Some people - most, I hope - saw it as a time to seek out the company of family and friends. Others, though (and I include people with influence, whom I will not name) declined that, said affirming their ordinary lives in that way felt trivial, out of proportion to the weight of the day. And so, in a time when the Internet was a much smaller and more staid presence than today, they sat vigils by the television, and talked on the phone with others who were doing the same.
The meaning of it did not come from some organic American consensus, but from politics. There is a sense in which the most basic questions of survival and security come before politics, and must be in place before political life can happen - and, correspondingly, a sense in which the first duty of the state is to keep its people safe. This is easy to forget in safe times, and it returns with a shock when safety fails. Its return taps into something real that breaks the crust of complacency. But this is only half the truth. The other half is that security - preserving the lives of people and the everyday public peace of communities - has its own politics, the most dangerous politics. It is so dangerous because it defines working agreements about the source and nature of threats and the proper, even imperative response, that, once in place, will be treated as if they were prior to and independent of politics. The politics of security is the most potent of anti-politics, a political way of taking certain questions off the table and discrediting those who would raise them: Questions such as, “Do we really need this war, this state of emergency, this surveillance, these background checks, interrogation, and torture?” Even raising those questions means running the risk of seeming to betray the fundamental need for security. It is an opening to charges of disloyalty, even treason, and to expulsion from the community. The politics of security is existential, in the inaccurate but popular sense that it involves survival, and in the strict sense that it involves defining who we are, with the gravest consequences.
The political rush to define the meaning of the day began immediately. With the stakes so high, advocates did not always observe the bounds of decency. Many prophecies, some more fatuous than others, came and went just after the attacks. Some commentators declared an end to irony, as if a reminder of mortality would dampen the charm of double meanings, sly commentary, and wry self-awareness. Others predicted a new martial mood, induced by awareness of perpetual threat. The forecasts were, of course, partly efforts at self-fulfilling prophecy. “We are all Israelis now,” wrote Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, before the smoke had cleared over Wall Street. Meanwhile, President Bush aimed for a fine balance, emergency without mobilization. He told people to go shopping while he prepared for war.
Being in Washington in those months, on the periphery of influence - entirely lacking it myself, but thrown up against those who had some, or had reason to think they might - it was impossible to miss that the politics of security continued apace even as shopping resume. Some Americans felt weirdly called awake by talk of blood. I heard a think-tank prodigy recently graduated from Williams College argue to a roomful of pundits and journalists that the attack had been too small to restore Americans’ warlike virtues after decades of relativism had sapped our spirits; we needed more violence, more testing, to become hard again. On October 7, 2001, the day the American bombing began in Afghanistan, I ran past some sidewalk café seating, quite unaware that Operation Infinite Justice, as the military named it, was underway. At a metal table sat two junior faculty from my college years. They were conservatives, which in 1990s Cambridge seemed to mean that they liked old books and doubted the value of Ethnic Studies. One of them would turn up next in the pages of the New Yorker as a Hoover Institute fellow drinking at Christopher Hitchens’ California summertime pool. The other led a campaign a few years later to harass and ostracize scholars of the Middle East whom he considered anti-American. One of them – I think it was Hitchens’ pal – looked up when I broke stride, and intoned – I swear he intoned it – “The war has begun.” It came to me diffusely, in a kind of mental slow motion, that their feelings on this new violence were not divided. They were toasting the start of war.
The years that followed suffocated disagreement. The fact of the attacks took on a mandatory meaning, as if to remember the ruin and death just was to embrace the appetite for revenge, the manufactured fear, the whole enterprise of surveillance and war and general criminality that came after. Here is President Bush in his first State of the Union address after September 11:
“None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on September the 11th. Yet after America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. … For too long our culture has said, ‘If it feels good, do it. Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘Let’s roll.’”
“Let’s roll” is not a repudiation of, “If it feels good, do it.” It’s an addition: it adds the especially seductive pleasures of righteousness and power to the creed of unbounded action. In the several years after September 11, the president added to political language a recurrent “evil” – saying of Saddam Hussein’s regime, “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning” – and a God who is always, always on our side. President Bush brought evil into political language while exempting Americans - the right kind of Americans, anyway - from any involvement in it, any temptation to it. Evil is the moral equivalent of the enemy in an all-out war: nothing you do against it will be wrong; and you can hate it as much as you like. It makes your own power and your own feelings righteous. It converts “If it feels good, do it” into “Do it, and let it feel good.” It disowns the duties of reflection and judgment.
As the latitude to remake the world widened, the single decisive choice was the Bush Administration’s definition of its response not as a global police action, but as war, complete with all the rhetoric, the alleged special presidential powers, and, in time, the grinding bloodshed of occupied Iraq. The word “war” mattered because it shaped the picture of the world in which all security politics proceeded afterward. It mattered imaginatively and symbolically, then, but also forwhat it enabled the administration to do. Politics is never written on a blank slate, even after a disruption as basic as the al Qaeda attacks. Washington, like a nest of aristocratic lovers, crawls with jealous and thwarted characters waiting for someone to make a fatal misstep so they can claim their prize. So when September 11 opened a new space, familiar agendas rushed to fill it.
The extraordinary claims of executive power that President Bush and his lawyers began to announce after September 11 ahad a political pre-history. Why, critics asked, did the White House feel compelled to claim inherent power to detain “enemy combatants” indefinitely and without meaningful trial, to set its own standards for torture in the teeth of the Geneva Conventions and American legislation forbidding the torment of prisoners, and to launch a massive program of domestic surveillance that sneaked around the procedures Congress had announced? After all, Republicans controlled every branch of government, and Congress would have given the President nearly anything he requested in the first two years after September 11. The history lay in the 1970s, when Gerald Ford replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon and watched a wave of new legislation impose Congressional oversight on the president’s control of intelligence and law enforcement. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney served in that historically weak and embattled White House, and contemporaries say that they were determined to restore the authority of the presidency against congressional interference. Perhaps they realized that only a war could do it. In any event, when a war dropped in their laps, they knew what to do with it.
The greatest pre-existing agenda of all was the centerpiece of these troubled five years, the invasion of Iraq. Reporters’ accounts of the run-up to the invasion make clear that Cheney and Bush drove the decision to take down Saddam Hussein. What we may never know is just how the two men understood a choice both were evidently primed to make. Cheney was the temperamental opposite of Bill Clinton, preferring silence to self-revelation, his dark charisma lying in understatement, his fascination with concealment ranging from his periodic disappearances into “an undisclosed location” to his declaration that the war on terror would be fought in the shadows, an image that now seems a perverse hint of the torture in the Abu Ghraib prison and the domestic surveillance program. Bush was Clinton’s intellectual opposite, a man whose chronic inability to explain himself suggests incapacity to understand himself, although his admirers take it as evidence of instinctive judgment too clear to require words. Both seem likely to die with their secrets, or their confusions.
As the mainstay of post-9/11 strategy, the Iraq invasion was the jewel in a fool’s crown. In humanitarian terms, it was a disaster: more than 4,0000 American and allied troops dead, nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians killed in violence, half a million or more “excess deaths” from war-related disease and the shredding of the country’s infrastructure. Geopolitically, its chaos was the crucible for a second generation of Islamist terrorism, as the self-styled Islamic State rose to replace al-Qaeda as the focal point of anti-modern ideology and loosely networked violence. In the United States, it was the centerpiece of a new domestic politics of perennial wartime. There was a mobilization against the long run-up to the Iraq War, but it proceeded in the face of massive consensus among “respectable” voices that we lived, now, in wartime. The appetite for violence that emerged with the new permissions of war sometimes found the crudest and most brutal expression. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who was then still regarded by serious people as a theorist of globalization rather than a joke, told Charlie Rose in March 2003. “What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don't you understand?’ You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”
Meanwhile, disagreement was colored as disloyalty. Skepticism about violence was recast as a lack of moral seriousness, peace as a child’s dream.. I have a fragment that catches something of how this faux-realist hegemony worked in micro-practice, even before the declaration of wartime had turned to Iraq. Sometime in the fall of 2001, I was in a room of journalists, commentators, and foreign-policy mavens at the New America Foundation in Washington. (Fukuyama was then on the foundation’s board, which seems, in hindsight, both astonishing and inevitable.) [Need to establish that 9/11 had happened] Most were some kind of humanitarian realist, the sort of person who would staff the short-lived 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and four years later the first Obama campaign. It was heady to be there; I felt I had arrived where ideas mattered. The convener asked us to indicate whether we expected “another major attack” on the US within seven years. About two-thirds of the hands went up right away. The rest followed, in a few seconds that felt like a slow but inexorable tug toward the far side of something. Mine was one of the last, but it went up.
I remember this vividly because I it shames me. I wouldn’t have said, even then, that this forecast justified restricting civil liberties, the Iraq invasion, or the geopolitical vision of the “war on terror.” But we weren’t being asked to assess an actual threat or responses to it, but rather to consent to a view of the world. Such consent is not just the product of sober reflection: What you treat as true is what you believe, no matter what you think you believe
III. Barack Obama: the Halfway Revival
On January 26, 2008, I was in Columbia, South Carolina, after several days in Dillon, an hour and forty minutes’ drive to the northeast, near the North Carolina state line. Dillon is the hometown of economist Ben Bernanke, who was then chair of the Federal Reserve, a position he held until 2014. It, and the small towns nearby, are arrestingly segregated and poor. A two-lane main street with two-story commercial buildings - some shabby, some closed, but they gave the impression of keeping up appearances - gave way, one block back, to dirt streets and tiny houses, the houses where entire families of mill laborers used to live, which today could fit, porch and all, into an exurban living room. Most were neat as pins - the antique phrase feels somehow appropriate, but the paint was not usually fresh, and the cars parked in front were old. Everyone on the streets I walked, and the trailer parks I visited, was Black.
I was canvassing for Barack Obama, who had stunned Democrats by winning the Iowa caucuses decisively over Hillary Clinton and North Carolina senator John Edwards. In an overwhelmingly white state, Obama had soundly beaten both his opponents in caucuses that nearly doubled their turnout from 2004 to 2008. He had huge support among young people, who had helped to swell those numbers, confounding the political cliché that the youth vote is a non-factor because it doesn’t show up on election day. Something was happening. But Obama then fell back in the New Hampshire primary, losing to Hillary Clinton. South Carolina was a test. If Obama lost there, in a state where more than half the Democratic primary voters were black, Iowa would start to slip from memory, and the supposedly inevitable Clinton nomination would begin to unfold.
The conversations were delicate. Massive canvassing efforts have become familiar since then, and both the canvassers and the canvassed know the drill. But this was the second full-scale Democratic primary in South Carolina, and the Obama mobilization was something new. I found myself standing on the front stoop of a woman who, the first time she voted, first had to pass a literacy test. Several times, the person who met me at a front door let me know, politely, that the house was “well aware, well aware” that the vote was coming and that Barack Obama was on the ballot. There was a kind of civic diplomacy at work, a negotiation over dignity and over whose campaign this was. I had driven from Durham to tell them what, exactly, that they did not know, that they had not kept close and thought of for weeks? Everyone was polite, even the night-shift workers who woke up to tell me I was not the first volunteer to knock, and that they were well aware. I ended up feeling, other than my campaign door hangers, courtesy was all I had to offer. [Canvassing as a kind of civic sacrament, or not?]
A few hours after dark on election day, we knew that Obama had won more than 55 percent of the vote, twice Hillary Clinton’s share. As in Iowa, turnout had doubled over 2004; Obama had won more votes in 2008 than were cast at all in the 2004 primary. Although the contest went on until May, Obama did not fade again. In the downtown auditorium where the candidate spoke to some of his supporters that night, the crowd chanted, “Yes we can,” and also a more awkward slogan, “Race doesn’t matter.” There was no chanting where I stood with a few fellow canvassers, next door in a small lobby at the Columbia Hampton Inn, although the 60 or so people jammed into the room were giddy with the news. As the speech began, though, the room was silent and attentive. No one murmured into a cell phone, no one seconded the candidate.
The noise started when Obama denounced
A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.
With the next line, "That is not the America we believe in," there came a collective release of breath, then shouting, clapping, stomping. For the rest of speech, about half the room was visibly in tears.
As early as his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama made cynicism, doubt and fear the targets of his most important speeches. He was the candidate of hope and "common purpose," of a country not defined by political tribes of red and blue. “We have gay friends in red states,” he had said in 2004, “and we worship an awesome God in the blue states.” It was understandable that critics - cynics? - called his language vague uplift. And of course the South Carolina victory speech could be parsed tactically, for the ground being staked out, the elbows thrown and memes released. Obama’s theme of connection beyond “the categories that supposedly define us” was a jab at doubters who talked down his South Carolina campaign for relying on black votes. (Bill Clinton was one of those doubters, comparing Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s runs in the 1980s.) But those tactical considerations were not why these parts of the speech brought that exhausted, celebratory crowd out of its attentive silence to cheers and crying. They heard what Obama said as addressed to them, an announcement that constraints they had been taught to see as inevitable were open to change: the mandatory identities of race and party, the condescending assumption that you can know someone by looking at her or that political beliefs are just the tribal fetishes of Fox News and NPR, the awkward, pained politeness and circumlocution of white people talking to and about black people, and the other way around. The room was about half black, half white, with ages ranging from the teens to the early eighties, and everyone seemed equally sick of the pervasive, implicit idea that they had to approach one another through inherited categories, and hold themselves out in the same way.
Was this really a political impulse, or just wish-fulfilment? In a way it was elementally political: it concerned whether political language was nothing but flat, encoded, ritual vocabulary unanchored from everyday life, words as phrases on a chess board, or something more, a way of speaking truths and turning them into facts. It made wish for a more open engagement with other people the compass of a political movement. It made solidarity - a word that then sounded old and foreign - feel fresh, vital, and American.
I am staying with these early moments in Barack Obama’s astonishing presidential campaign because they now seem so far away. The appeal to “Republicans” who “cross over” sounded real for a little while, a prospect of a decent consensus. But Obama’s eight years in the White House saw growing partisan polarization. When he was done, Republicans and Democrats lived in different worlds - neighborhoods, workplaces, news sources, religious lives - to a greater degree than ever before in modern American life. Obama’s theme of racial unity, too, hit rough waters. Critics observed from early on that enthusiastic talk of a “post-racial society” was foolish or pernicious in a country where the color line also marked vast differences in household wealth, incarceration, vulnerability to crime, and health and life expectancy. In Obama’s second term, the inequality and open violence along the American racial divide, which few black people had ever been able to look away from for long, had become inescapable for anyone with open eyes. Police violence was the immediate spur for Black Lives Matter, the most vital racial-justice movement to emerge in decades, but its activists also turned attention to subtler and slower forms of injustice, from pollution to poverty, that diminish black lives.
Yet in 2008 it felt like a reawakening of politics. In hindsight, some of this was simple excitability. The Bush years had been terribly dark, and the return of a Clinton to the White House did not feel like a new dawn. At least for some of the young people who threw themselves into his campaign, too, Obama’s campaign fit a lived sense that our world had opened to possibility that had been foreclosed. Some of this sense of possibility reflected real changes at the level of experience. Categorical differences that had been everything for older generations matter less, and differently - which is not to say that they ceased to matter. In the politics of sexual identity, a scorned sexual caste had become, in the main, just people, and many young gays and lesbians found themselves refusing stereotyped style and affect, insisting that just as they didn't have to be straight, so they don't have to be gay in any particular - and expected - way. It was the very beginning of the gender politics of the next decade, when “male” and “female” themselves got thoroughly queered up as matters of performance rather than essential and authentic being.
Even race was changing. A 2007 Pew study found that 44% of African-Americans aged 18-29 believed there was no longer a single "black" race in the United States, but that class and other divergences had split black people into different peoples. What Obama's own life expresses, after all, is not a diffuse idea of being "beyond race", but a choice, half self-creation and half self-discovery, to identify foremost with one community and tradition. Joining in that way cannot but change the community that one joins. Choice and authenticity, freedom and belonging, are the sometimes opposite ideals that this kind of story tries to reconcile, and the seemingly successful effort was a part of what made Obama an emblematic figure for a generation.
The high point of Obama’s offer of new ways of talking about - and living - old dilemmas was his “race speech,” delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008 after his Chicago minister, Jeremiah Wright, was recorded saying in a sermon, “God damn, America!” The sentiment would not have been strange to an earlier Illinois politician: Abraham Lincoln had reflected in his Second Inaugural, that the bloodshed of the Civil War might be a punishment for slavery, and seemed to embrace the scourge:
If God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword; as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
But Obama, a black man with a black minister, did not get the trust that enjoys in hindsight (though Lincoln got little enough at the time), and as his polls began to falter, he summoned the rhetoric of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and issued a tactical campaign speech that was also a meditation on race, resentment, and mistrust in American life.
The speech aimed to be as open and complex about race as private conversations among friends sometimes are, but public language - then as now - hardly ever manages to be. It was, two months after Obama’s South Carolina victory, a clear repudiation of "Race doesn't matter", the chant that filled the Columbia hall then. In it, Obama asked whether there might be paths out of old ways of experiencing it.
The candidate in effect presented his own life and told the audience, ecce homo, behold the man, and check out America too. People are injured, angry, afraid, irrational. They latch onto bigotry, grudges, conspiracy theories and symbols of strength to keep them afloat. This is true whether you're black or white, American or something else - as Obama knew first-hand, having all of this and more in his immediate family. These deeply flawed people are the same hopeful, generous ones who lived through, and supported, or made, or finally accepted, the Civil Rights Movement’s Second Reconstruction and other episodes that have made the country more nearly just and decent. The same people may find themselves in very different postures. Politics is one way that people call themselves into one shape or the other. A politics of division, cynical tactics and small aims it keeps us small and trapped in ourselves. From there nothing changes.
It was a distillation of Dreams from My Father, a book populated by injured, angry people, halfway shut up in themselves, who are sure they are the ones to teach the young narrator what it means to be a man. Drunk, bitter, deeply literate old Black men in Hawaii whose wisdom is that America will never be their country. An Indonesian stepfather, lucky to get through Suharto's coup and purges alive, who taught that life is a boxing match, a struggle for survival against endless assault. White grandparents whose lives grew smaller, more scared and more racist as they grew older and lost their middle-class hopes. Black-nationalist hucksters in Chicago, somewhere between social entrepreneurs and pool sharks.
By the end of the book you can almost hear the author say, with Terence: "Nothing human is alien to me." He gets there by digging into others' pain, asking, "Is this me?" and concluding, no, his life is something else, larger - because he's brave and smart, but also because he grew up in a different world than any of his ancestors and mentors. He forgives them their distortions and confusions, even their efforts to impart those to him, when he understands that he doesn't need to become them. He came to see America as an unfulfilled promise and a legacy of injuries that cannot be denied and must not be repeated. Not only are we caught in this country together, he concluded; we're also prickly and easily injured, and we don't always make a lot of sense. One reason political language often seems both rarefied and sleazy is that it denies this on the one hand, by nattering about principles, and panders to it on the other, with code words and veiled appeals to fear. The gamble of Obama's address was that that it is possible to look this in the face, call it what it is, and decline to become it. As the candidate admitted, that wouldn't be enough. But it was our only new beginning.
Obama’s campaign seemed to promise redemption from a certain kind of fractious and diminishing politics. “We are,” he said in effect, “more, better, something else than this country we find ourselves in; and we - we are America.” “We are,” he said literally, “the people we have been waiting for” - a brilliant phrase, impossible to pin down for specific meaning, but rich in the feeling that an urgent promise can be kept, here and now, if only we find the right spirit in ourselves. It was this appeal that led conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer to call Obama’s speech a "brilliant fraud" that used "Harvard Law nuance" to "bathe [supporters] in racial guilt and flatter their intellectual pretensions."
In the political register as in the personal one - and the border is blurred - Obama rejected handed-down ideas about who one has to be, and how the world has to be. When he denounced the politics of pure tactics and received rules, he brought to politics a sense that some of his ardent supporters had of their own lives: that the world did not yet know its own possibility, or recognize theirs. From this perspective, politics was trapped in tedious, spiritually oppressive forms of conventional wisdom, in which cynicism was the mark of adulthood even among twenty-four year-old staffers. People saw politics as a chess-game of huckster knights, voter pawns, and elite kings. They were sure that politics could not - or would not - change anything for the better. Cynicism was a point of bitter pride: when people lie to you, you can at least have the self-respect not to believe them. But relentless cynicism will leave you sick, not least of yourself. "Under every no," wrote poet Wallace Stevens, "lay a passion for yes that had never been broken." Obama has found a way to awake the passion for yes. In his candidacy, people find themselves believing that being American can add to the dignity and meaning of their lives - not just personally, but also in a civic sense, binding them to other citizens and a common fate, linking them to a heroic political tradition of partly redeeming a terrible past and jointly creating a different future.
Obama's centrist critics, especially the Clintons and their supporters and proxies, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, dismissed all the talk of unity and bridge-building as a fanciful story that could produce nothing but disappointment. For Obama and some of us who believed in his campaign, it felt like the beginning of a realignment. It seemed that new voters and even formerly Republican moderates might come together in a new, more generous idea of what Americans owe one another. In this way, the campaign was more than flattery of his young, diverse, often well-educated base. It was also an affirmation of the very idea of politics as a vehicle of democratic self-rule. Hillary Clinton’s consultant-heavy, data-based 2008 campaign (rather like her reprise right years later) was premised on the certainty that winning elections was a game with definite, fixed rules, which an expert could master. This idea has a pragmatic, unillusioned note. At the same time, there is something unsettling in it, for if elections can be gamed out for certain victory, then in a real way no decision is being made, no choice is really open. It is the superior team of experts that is really making the decision. Obama’s campaign created the real and convinced experience of a different axiom about politics: that mobilized people, with conviction and energy, can shift the ground, remake the rules, even become - sometimes, to some degree - different people.
IV. Slow Crises: Technocracy and Redemptive Constitutionalism
As I said earlier, part of the reason to recall Obama’s first campaign is that these aspects of it now feel very far away. From the time he entered office, Obama shifted tone, setting aside the democratic poetry of the campaign, hiring the realpolitik centrist Rahm Emmanuel (famously contemptuous of Obama’s idealistic supporters) as White House political director, and declining to mobilize his supporters behind legislation and other priorities. He proved a conservative in disposition: deferential to expertise and hierarchy, including those of finance and the military, decorous in the extreme, and a thoroughgoing anti-populist. In governing, the Obama style had two pillars. First, he brought to apotheosis the American political tradition of redemptive constitutionalism. This is the creed of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which he promised, “we shall overcome.” Redemptive constitutionalism holds that democracy and equal freedom really are the nation’s foundations, that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible deviations from these principles, and that, if we manage to take them seriously, to live by them, Americans will finally be free together.
In one respect, Obama’s victory and inauguration unavoidably embodied a version of this idea: a black man speaking the constitutionally prescribed oath, as Lincoln had done, and invoking the Declaration of Independence, not to promise equality but to pronounce it. Short-lived fantasies of a “post-racial” America were one symptom of this moment. A Tom Toles cartoon quoted the iconic “all men are created equal” and added, as if a note of legislative history, “Ratified November 4, 2008.” The fantasy of redemption was instantaneously ironized, of course—on the election-eve episode of the Daily Show, Larry Wilmore informed Jon Stewart, “We’re square”—as if the country’s black-white ledger were balanced by one symbolic election. But the audience laughed precisely because so many people wanted to feel it might be true.
This redemptive version of American politics was the aesthetic, the poetry, the moral sense in Obama’s presidency. Both in his campaigns and in the public-facing aspects of governing, he insisted on common principles and the possibility of a shared perspective. His persistent refrain, from the career-launching speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the elegiac address after the murders of Dallas police officers in 2016, was that unity is deeper than division. Race has always been a central preoccupation of the redemptive style of American politics. That is partly because it has been the basis of national crimes and savage inequality. But the redemptive style also promises that, if Americans come together in the right ways, including but not limited to healing the angry wounds of racial injustice, their shared principles can make them whole. This tone carried forward the style and language of the first campaign, though in muted ways and only on the highest occasions. More often in public Obama was diffident, a bit inward, with an air of husbanding finite energy.
The second pillar of the Obama style, his prose and practical compass, was technocracy. In this respect, he broke sharply from the spirit of the first campaign, the idea that people can remake their shared world in line with social and moral vision - although he continued, in effect if not in intent, to flatter the more elite among his core supporters, who were often experts themselves, or their children or adjutants. The Obama administration was intensely deferential to the expertise of conventional authorities: generals and national-security professionals, political operatives like Emanuel, and, above all, mainstream economists and bankers such as Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Deference to the professional culture of economists led, in particular, to open-trade policies commitments to harmonize American regulations with those of other large economies, until a political rebellion against the Trans-Pacific Partnership drove even Hillary Clinton to repudiate it while campaigning. The technocratic approach to governing rests on the idea that there is a right way to manage major policy questions, and that much of the point of electoral politics is to keep the way clear for expert administration. In practice, outside of questions of war and security, this has meant managing the economy for maximum total growth. Even Democratic wonks have tended to promote market-style competition. (The usual difference is that the Democrats believe government has an important role in creating and policing such competition, while Republicans are more likely to think that rolling back government gives “the market” room to work.)
In very different but curiously similar ways, both redemptive constitutionalism and technocracy promise deep reconciliation between different groups of Americans. If they can just take the right principles seriously, they’re square. If they can just plug the holes in the economy, the rising tide will lift all boats. And it was in this respect that both of Obama’s pillars of governance came under fissiparous pressure during his two terms, and were shoved to the side in the 2016 elections. The promises of reconciliation were too simple, and they glossed over too much. Insurgent campaigns from both right and left insisted, in very different ways, that Obama’s reconciliation was a false promise, that distributive conflicts remain inevitable in politics. These battles were simultaneously fights over respect, honor, and standing among different racial and cultural groups, and also fights over material resources.
[It needs to be said, somewhere in here, that Obama’s first campaign was, among other things, a kind of peace movement after the madness of wartime described in the last portion of the manuscript; but what we got, consistent with the technocratic and deferential tone of the administration, was war with less belligerence and a security state with more of the forms of legality - civilizing and thus, ironically, “normalizing” the very things we had opposed, and so making the differences with the Bush years more aesthetic than substantive.]
Redemptive constitutionalism has always had two sets of enemies. Some are whites who have benefited from concrete racial advantages—from formal segregation to access to home loans to better police protection—as well as from the softer privilege of feeling that the country is their own. People committed to white supremacy and other kinds of formal hierarchy have resisted every wave of change toward equality and inclusion. On the other hand, critics on the left, both black and not, have criticized the redemptive story for the opposite reason: that it glosses over deep inequality that does not recede just because the constitution’s guarantees are extended to people who were once excluded. These critics point out that racist settler-colonialism lay at the heart of the American founding, determining both how the riches of the new continent were shared (or hoarded) and what, so to speak, an American looked like - who was really in “We the People” and who remained someone else, in 1789 and 2009.
As Obama championed redemptive constitutionalism, white resisters felt that something of utmost importance was being taken from them - their place at the center of the country - and poured their dissent into the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. At the same time, activists on the left, especially young people mobilized by police violence against black men, coalesced in new movements. The symbolic apotheosis of racial reconciliation in the presidency of Barack Obama was followed by a retrenchment of economic inequality - average white family wealth was about nine times that of a black family when Obama won the 2008 election, and eleven or twelve times greater than a black family’s four years later, as the housing crisis reaped its unequal harvest - and intense awareness of pervasive, persistent, often horrific police violence against young black men. The reality of racial inequality was all the starker against the shining promise of constitutional redemption, which now looked like a cruel lie. Words do not shift wealth or stop bullets, no matter how perfectly arranged or intensely felt. Black Lives Matter is the political expression of this insight. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is its literary voice.
At the same time, the promised reconciliation of technocracy—market policies producing more wealth for everyone to share—fell back before to a newly vital politics of distribution. Bernie Sanders’s anti-oligarchic campaign was by far the most vivid and consistent face of this politics, but Donald Trump’s attacks on trade agreements also ripped open a distributional politics in a Republican party that, officially at least, had been the country’s most adamantly pro-free-market since the Gilded Age. Both campaigns insisted that politics is about who gets what, not just how much there is. Sanders’s version was about class struggle within the country, Trump’s more a kind of neo-mercantilist nationalism, a view of global trade as a zero-sum affair where one country’s gain is another’s loss; but both reject root-and-branch the strategy of letting experts “grow” the national and global economies for everyone.
None of this means that there is some kind of symmetry between the Trump and Sanders campaigns, let alone between Trump and Black Lives Matter. But these kaleidoscopic developments, some hopeful, exemplify the crisis in Barack Obama’s governing style. And the crisis is not only Obama’s, but a crisis of the Long 1990s, which Obama’s campaign called into question, but his administration ratified. Although he lent it a greater moral and historical charisma, Obama’s economics-minded technocracy was just the defining technique of the New Democrats, the faction of the party that Bill Clinton brought to power in 1992, consolidating the Democrats’ neoliberal turn. Nor is redemptive constitutionalism Obama’s special political métier, though he gives it a particular dignity and force. Rather, it has been the major American register of optimism and unity.
A zenith of liberal politics passed when Barack Obama’s legacy slipped from triumph to crisis. Even if Hillary Clinton had managed an electoral-college victory to match her narrow but decisive majority in the popular vote, her presidency would have been a transitional one, grappling with new movements that reject failed promises of reconciliation and instead insist on asking who gets what—money, jobs, resources, and respect and standing in the national community. There is much to hope for here, in a realistic grappling with problems of racial and economic inequality that are unsolved and, in some cases, worsening. There is also much to fear in an angry, centrifugal, zero-sum politics of wounded national and racial pride. It is the mixed fortune of the present to face these two prospects entangled in a single pregnant moment.
The crisis of the long 1990s that shook Obama’s legacy was a long time coming. Obama, however, intensified it and hurried it along precisely by conjuring up the energy of democratic self-rule and the impulse to deepened equality in a way that the Clintons and their cohort of Democrats never did. The Clintons and the political world they created embodied a variation on H.L. Mencken’s remark about Teddy Roosevelt, that he didn’t care for democracy but loved government. Although Bill Clinton had his reasons for enjoying campaigns, the upper echelon of think tanks, financiers, consultants, and elite lawyers that they gathered around the Democratic Party represented a profound division of labor between voters and experts. Real authority came from expertise; electoral majorities simply rotated sets of experts and organized interests through the institutions of government - with certain continuities, as both the military and elite finance had a seat at every partisan table. Indeed, the Clintons took a certain pride in not promising too much to their more demotic constituencies - publicly pressing black constituencies on criminal justice and affirmative action, forcing organized labor and blue-collar workers to accept trade deals that hurried de-unionization and the collapse of industrial jobs - the pride of people enforcing what they were sure were the correct rules. Their attacks on Obama during his run for the presidency were not only in defense of Hillary Clinton’s run; they were also reproaches for breaking the tacit pact of technocratic consensus and, in effect, going over the heads of his fellow meritocrats to the people. They thought he was a smooth-talking demagogue. (They had seen nothing, as yet.)
In another sense, though, the crisis simply confirmed that the long 1990s had not ended history. There might be no world-historical competitor to democratic capitalism, but democratic capitalism was not generating the stable, consensual order that neoliberal optimism had expected, and which both enthusiasts and skeptics, projecting the attitudes of their moment, thought Francis Fukuyama had announced. Both of Obama’s promises - issued in the campaigns, withdrawn in governance and under the exigency of opposition and events - would return as the realities of inequality and stifled democracy became more vivid. They returned in the strangest ways, and in unexpected places.
V. Irruptions: Occupy
Obama came into office near the height of a global financial crisis that was also a debt crisis for the most vulnerable: millions of mortgage-holders, especially working-class and nonwhite people, who suddenly owed banks much more than the value of their homes; students who had borrowed tens or hundreds of dollars for college or graduate programs, now unemployed; and national government’s, such as Greece’s and Ireland’s, that had found willing lenders after joining the European Union, and now faced fiscal crisis and cruel austerity. There was a good deal of moralizing about reckless, but it was clear that lenders had been eager to extend credit, and had jeopardized whole economies with complex financial instruments, such as derivatives and credit-default swaps, that mainly benefited investment banks and certain of their wealthy clients. The incoming Obama administration was understandable wary of making things worse while trying to unravel a crisis that experts said could become a much worse catastrophe. But the administration’s response also captured Obama’s deep identification with the same elites who had the crisis. In a telling conversation with Bloomberg news, he defended the heads of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs against criticism of their multi-million dollar bonuses: “I know both these guys,” Obama said, marking how different his world had become from his supporters’: “They’re very savvy businessmen.” He continued, “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”
Conceptually, it is a fallacy to imagine that there is any natural and inevitable version “the free-market system” that implies that super-complex financial transactions must produce huge bonuses for top bankers. Politically, Obama’s comfort pretending otherwise was an abdication of exactly the spirit he had called up in winning the presidency: that the world we were born into was not the only possible one, that politics could bring about better forms of fairness and cooperation. The long 1990s continued in the form of more conscientious, modestly chastened expert governance. Talk of inequality and the harms of economic precariousness, where it came up at all, got quickly dismissed as “class warfare” and - as Obama had hinted in his defense of bankers’ bonuses - un-American. The democratic radicalism of the campaign retreated into the margins, only to return in downtown New York in the fall of 2011.
In the few days that I spent in Zuccotti Park that October, I learned that, as an approach to library science, anarchism is at both its strongest and its weakest. The volunteers at the Occupy Wall Street library “shelved” no book into the waterproof bins that served open-air browsing without first cataloguing it online and branding it with a Sharpie. This procedure created a complete catalog of the books that sympathizers have donated, thanks to a small knot of natty book-lovers, some of whom unroll their camping gear at night amid the stacks of political theory, alternative economics, polemics on the financial crisis, bodice-rippers, and spiritual charlatanism of every kind. Once catalogued, the books went into an anarchist lending system, which is to say, no system at all: take it if you want it, return it if you will, keep it if you need it. The catalog disclosed nothing about the library’s present holdings. It was an instantly obsolete memorial produced by tirelessly fastidious people who declined to turn their fastidiousness into a rule for anyone else. It sat at the meeting-place of the database, the civic institution, and public art.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers often tried to understand society by imagining people without it – in a “state of nature.” Philosophy developed a genre of just-so stories in which hairy, under-dressed women and men meandered through forests and deserts, careening into each other and producing fistfights and couplings. Although rightly wary of one another, these semi-sociable monads soon find they do better together than alone, and through a series of crises and discoveries they create language, law, property, government, and the division of labor. Their natural freedom is gone, but the ambiguous benefits of civilization have replaced it. Voila! – a natural history of how we live together.
The old stories came back to life, in diorama form, in Zuccotti Park. Friday night featured a four-hour debate on how Wall Street’s Occupiers should govern themselves. This constitutional crisis came out of a very state-of-nature problem. It had rained for days, and although the sun was back, there was a hill of wet laundry just west of the Information and Press tables, across the path from Sanitation’s collection of brooms and dustpans, and blocking the street from the orthodox-Marxist encampment that calls itself Class Warfare. Revolution may require patience, but wet laundry does not tolerate delay. The only way to requisition a couple of thousand dollars in quarters and detergent money was by consent of the whole community, or, if that failed after full debate, “modified consent” – a vote of 90 percent. It naturally seemed to the Structure Working Group – a kind of constitutional drafting committee – that this was an apt moment to give say-so over the quarters to some body less unwieldy than the whole people assembled.
Every exchange in the debate would have made good sense – with a little idiomatic translation – to the propertied white men who drafted the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. It turns out that, whenever you try to merge a loosely self-governing multitude into a sovereign body, the same practical problems and acute fears arise. If all power lies in the people, and they give it to a Congress or committee to use, how can they control the government they have created? What if it becomes corrupt, or turns around and tries to control them? What happens if the bigger groups use the concentrated power against smaller ones? (Class Warfare was already grumbling that some of its tents had been “expropriated” – an ideologically awkward point made nonetheless with heartfelt pissiness.) Who will watchdog the committees in winter, when it’s too cold to sit through a General Assembly outside? If we just worked harder and were more virtuous, couldn’t we deal with the laundry ourselves?
These debates took place through the community microphone, the no-amplification technology for holding an open-air debate among 500 or more people: the speaker speaks, a circle around her shouts her phrases in unison, and, when necessary, a second circle repeats it again. This technical fix to a ban on amplified sound has major side-effects in moral education. It has a liturgical quality: the speaker has to break every ten words or so, to match the limits of short-term memory. The crowd intones together for hours. Every position argued in the assembly is literally embodied in the voice of everyone participating. What’s most striking is to see those who disagree sharply, and palpably dislike and mistrust one another, reciting each other’s attacks. Even when the speaker was agitated, an audible care governed the phrasing, as if the anticipated echo of the crowd and the memory of other voices in one’s own mouth dissolved the ordinary narcissism of oratory.
The geography of Zuccotti Park resembled a Victorian ascent-of-man exhibit. At the eastern fringe, a tree had been designated the community’s sacred space, where all gods and sentiments were welcome. Icons, devotional cards, beads, incense, and a poster of John and Yoko were prominent. Drum circles worked nearby, to the east and northeast, and their rhythmic neo-tribalism throbbed into the night, indifferent to what the General Assembly was debating on the other side of the park. A third or so of the space belonged to long-term campers, unkempt, tired, often sick or asleep during the day. There was some panhandling. Idealists are hard to pick out from professional transients and freeloaders. At night this part of the park closed up, a faceless field of blue tarps and camping tents.
In the middle, a division of labor had arisen to meet the most pressing human needs. A kitchen ran at nearly all hours, and there was always a long line for whatever was on offer. The medical tents and sanitation supplies were also here, and on the edge of this zone the mound of laundry issued its mute call for constitutional reform. These volunteers struck me as the salt of Zuccotti Park, and they presented a practical challenge to radical democracy: they were too busy to spend five nights a week in self-government. Yet as long as the place was run by spontaneous action, they were as good as anyone else – indeed, they were leaders, because they were the first to pick up soup pots and brooms when the community needed those. The more decisions got concentrated in an efficient government, the more they would be carrying out orders and doing someone else’s work.
At the western end of the park, across from the Harriman Brothers banking house and just down the street from the Federal Reserve, the diorama of stylized human history emerged into Athenian democracy and learning, circa 500 B.C. The General Assembly met here, with its back to Broadway, and the library huddled in the park’s northeast corner. The General Assembly was not particularly a gathering of the campers, let alone the drummers. Many of the debaters would home late to apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, then return to the park in the morning. Many of the campers were under their tarps during the constitutional convention on the laundry pile. Like Tolkien-esque tribes, the different populations identified themselves by their hair, their dress, and their manners. The stroll across the park felt like walking from Bonnaroo to Debate Club, if Debate Club met in an alternative universe designed by the Anarchist Gospel Choir.
The only articulate demands coming out of the park were on the buttons stamped out at an artisanal and unofficial table between the General Assembly space and the library, and these were in the broadest terms – democracy and equality. Participating for a couple of days, though, can bring home a subtler insistence. Plenty of Occupiers were vain and pleased with themselves, but most were also trying to live out an ideal of equality and personal freedom while making their little society work, albeit on a tiny scale with cops, subways, and wifi provided from outside. When someone dropped and shattered a piece of plate glass near me, I hurried to tell the sometime drummer I saw pushing a broom, a mark that she was working with Sanitation. With perfect equanimity and sweetness, she pointed me to the Sanitation station, not so that I could tell a responsible person, but I could grab a broom and dustpan. By the time I got back to the site – no more than 90 seconds later – the glass was gone.
I am dwelling on these features of the place, its strange, radically experimental, charismatically humane qualities, because they seem to be me to be as important as, and inseparable from, the parts of Occupy that are better remembered. It has been reduced in memory to a slogan: “We are the 99 percent.” Something in that phrase, applied to the extraordinary pressure of three years of vivid inequality and precariousness under a humanely neoliberal regime, served as a kind of permission for otherwise respectable people to say the recently unsayable: that inequality mattered, that it was not somehow humiliating or un-American to complain about the crushing debt a bank or college had encouraged you to take with assurances of “return on investment,” or to resent the bonuses of the people at the top of the economic order. Moments when these kinds of permission arose, when the unspeakable suddenly became sayable, are central to the political history of the last two decades. They are among the signal effects of social-media politics. De-centered networks of communication are brilliant at picking out what people are hungering to say, finding ways to say them, and letting the speakers find one another and take courage in the words - for better or worse. It is surely true that this new permission to name inequality and to denounce it, not hunker down and accept it stoically as Obama indirectly told “most of the American people” to do, prepared the way for the triumphant procession of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century two years later, and the Bernie Sanders campaign’s reorientation of Democratic politics to economic inequality two to three years after that.
But these essential legacies of Occupy are incomplete without understanding how much it was powered by a radical impulse to democracy, a commitment to reexamining the terms of our cooperation, interdependence, and hierarchy, and seeking ways to reshape these. It was, in a sense, the most concrete expression of the political impulse that the first Obama campaign, three years earlier, had conjured up in the most diffuse and rhetorical ways. Do it yourself – DIY – is an aesthetic and also an ethic, which the Occupiers were trying to take from the personal to the social scale. Our world is rich, convenient, and often efficient because we parcel out tasks – governance, library science, cooking, sanitation – in a set of more or less hierarchical roles. Things get done, and there is time for private life and play. At the same time, we often deal with one another as representatives of these roles and tasks: you make my food, process my book, clean my floor, run my government, and, though I try to show a polite interest, that pretty much exhausts my interest in you. In Zuccotti Park a visitor realized that the person pushing the broom is not Sanitation, but someone it would not be so bizarre to call by one of those old liberal-revolutionary terms, like citizen, and that you, too, citizen, might need to grab a dustpan right about now. Then it is easy to accept that things are lost in our usual efficiency: equality, and also intelligibility, a sense that you have to know how everything works – cleaning, cooking, shelving, governing – because you, too, might have to take responsibility for it at any moment. Nothing is someone else’s job, and – it somehow follows – everyone is more than the job they happen to be doing.
The financial crisis, and the self-satisfied and esoteric industry behind it, underscored not just how unfair our social life can seem, but also how opaque. How many really understood what had happened, and, of those, how many understood what we might do now about where the crisis has brought us? The Occupiers were experimenting with the thought that inequality and opacity are optional, or, at least, that there might be ways of living together that are much more equally free, and much more intelligible, than those we have accepted. Their contribution was to invite others to pursue the same thought. It was really no more, or less, than the thought behind the Declaration of Independence: that societies are erected by naturally free and equal people, who are entitled to change the rules when they believe a different arrangement would serve their freedom better.
VI. Irruptions: Piketty and the New History of Inequality
Thomas Piketty’s unexpected best-seller, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, matter first of all because Piketty is an economist, and economics is the master discipline of our time. You may not think you are interested in economics, but whatever you care about — the environment, the future of the university, race and poverty, or whether independent artists can eat — economics is interested in you. It mattered, too, because Piketty’s book was revolutionary. It rewrites the mission of economics, discarding claims that the discipline is a super-science of human behavior or public policy and returning it instead to what the 19th century called “political economy”: a discipline about power, justice, and — also, but not first — wealth. The questions of political economy are political: how should we freely organize our interdependent economic lives?
The book blended empirical complexity and political urgency. How unequal is the division of wealth and income? How did it get that way, and where is it going? How worried should we be, and what can we do? And — check this out — are democracy and capitalism in conflict? The answer - more arresting then than now: Yes. This flew in the face of longstanding conventional wisdom, supported by economics Nobel winners like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, plus lots of less controversial characters, that capitalism is democracy’s best friend. Free markets respect freedom by honoring personal choice, treat people as equals by tying economic rewards to social contributions and opening paths to social mobility, and check an overreaching government by dispersing power among owners, workers, and entrepreneurs. They create widely-shared wealth, so no one’s life needs to be hopeless or degraded.
There was, and is, something to each of these just-so stories, but Piketty’s vast stockpile of new data, told another story that was just as important. It showed a world getting radically more unequal, the return of hereditary wealth, and — at least in the US — an economy so distorted that much of what happened at the very top could be described as class-based looting. And he gave some fairly strong reasons to suspect that this, not the relatively open and egalitarian economies of the mid-20th century, is what “capitalism,” unmodified, looks like. As it built its case for an inexorable conflict between democracy and capitalism, it led readers to an urgent question that it didn’t do all that much to answer: how could democracy prevail?
The book’s argument was often stripped down to a controversial little inequality (in the technical sense of that word): r > g. These three characters, which appeared on tee-shirts and in graffiti that fall, mean that the rate of return to capital (r) is greater than the overall growth rate of the economy (g). It’s a shorthand for a historical observation: over the history we can measure (a couple of hundred years, give or take a degree of confidence), financial investments and land - that is, capital - have yielded returns of about four to five percent a year on their base value. Growth in the economy as a whole, the total pool of wealth, has been closer to one or two percent per year. That means the part of the pie that capital represents is growing faster than the pie as a whole, leaving a smaller share for everyone else. Although most people know that wealth begets wealth, it’s worth working through the implications of that difference on the largest scale, over the long haul. At a five percent rate of return, the value of capital doubles every 14 years, while at a two percent rate, the economy doubles in size after 35 years. That means that over a century and change, wealth coming from capital would have doubled seven times, to 128 times its starting size, while the overall economy would be only eight times larger. At the end of that imaginary century, everyone would be much richer; but anyone whose ancestors had been sitting on a pile of money or a spread of land would be hugely richer. This wouldn’t matter if everyone had a nice chunk of capital, so they shared in the gains. But ownership of financial assets and land has always been highly unequal.
Capitalism, purely by the numbers, looks to be a giant inequality machine. So why, more than 200 years after the Industrial Revolution, don’t we live in a wildly unequal world, divided between Scrooge McDucks swan diving into their cash and Bob Cratchits pleading for a break (while squinting and trying to understand Disney’s duck-ification of the archetypical job-creator)? Actually, we do. Piketty and his fellow researchers concluded that in the US today, the wealthiest 10 percent hold about 70 percent of assets, and the top one percent alone 35 percent. Both those numbers have been climbing since 1970. Europe has seen similar rises since 1970, although the share of the top 10 percent and the top one percent are each about 10 points lower there. The lowest inequality Piketty has observed was in Scandinavia in the 1970s: The top 10 percent held 50 percent of wealth, and the top one percent owned “just” 20 percent. For about forty years, we’ve been living a world where r > g seems to be doing its stratifying work.
It might be much worse except that, as Piketty persuasively explains, the 20th century was a very strange one, full of epochal destruction and singular progress. It started with wealth inequality much more extreme than today. In Britain circa the first episode of Downton Abbey, the top one percent controlled 70 percent of wealth. But between World War I and sometime in the 1970s, r > g was suppressed by the worst and the best of the century. In the 30 years before the start of the first world war and the end of the second, the United States and — especially — Europe liquidated a huge amount of capital, especially in great fortunes, through devaluation, collapse, and the cost of war. For the next 30 years, taxes on asset-based incomes — profits, rents, royalties — and confiscatory tax rates on the highest incomes kept capital concentration under control in the US and continued to drive it down in Europe.
There have been two big runs, then, for r > g. The first one started sometime before 1810, when Piketty starts most of his historical estimates, and climaxed in the Gilded Age. Then the clock started again around 1970. Our new Gilded Age is the consequence. Occupy had it right, more or less. The economy is rapidly becoming more unequal, whether measured in terms of who owns it or in terms of how its annual payouts are distributed. In the US today, a member of the one percent has on average almost 40 times the income of the 90 percent who fall somewhere below the top 10 percent — the “ordinary American.” Stratification increases much more dramatically at the very top, where mere percentiles run out, and inequality of wealth is much more extreme than inequality of income. Capitalism is producing a new super-class of rentiers — those who live on income from capital. They own the world, and they collect its dividends.
What is the human meaning of the changes that these numbers describe? If you live in a dramatically stratified society — and Piketty’s point is that you do — you know this class structure. There’s a small set of the super-wealthy, with powerful influence in culture and politics. These people control capital. Then there is a slice of professionals and mid-level executives, as well as some small-business owners, who generally own their houses and save some significant financial assets over their lifetimes – the nine percent. The true middle class, 40 or 50 percent, owns a house but not much else. Many of the rest have negative or neutral net value and live month-to-month.
Piketty’s book charted the economic basis of cultural changes that had come to a head in the long 1990s, as capital accumulation built up the financial power of the one percent and the 0.1 percent, social life changes. Talent and ambition followed the money, going where capital either trades (Wall Street) or ventures (Silicon Valley). The professions seemed drab by contrast, and building up a good life by working for wages looked increasingly impossible. Working-class security, middle-class mobility, and stable, respected professions all gave way to a rush for the big money. Remaining in the asset-holding middle class — the class that was the real social innovation of the last century, and formed the rhetorical (though not the actual) center of American political life — ceased to feel desirable or even viable. Picking the right parents becomes the key to good prospects — or marrying into the right family if you were born into the wrong one. Piketty lingered over Jane Austen’s asset-oriented marriage comedies with affection but also a certain horror: the need to marry someone with the right capitalization level, a central assumption of those plots, no longer seemed a quaint feudal relic by 2013. It was, instead, courtship in advanced capitalism.
Piketty’s new history of inequality implied that mainstream economics for some sixty years had succored a complacent folk tale, albeit with lots of mathematical sophistication tacked on. Except for some discernible “market failures,” that folk tale insisted that all was for the best in this best of worlds. What you earned was what you were contributing; otherwise, the market would step in to restore efficiency. As long as this machine was working, we could concentrate on total wealth —the size of that tiresome, proverbial pie — and set aside divisive issues about distribution as afterthoughts. These just-so stories veiled urgent and inflammatory problems: Self-accelerating inequality was splits society into privileged rent collectors and everyone else, who must either get halfway rich ministering to capital or stay on the low end of the pole doing the humanly necessary work of teaching, nursing, keeping the utility wires humming, and so forth.
The new multi-century portrait of wealth and income obliterated economists’ complacent narratives. Or, more accurately, it historicized them. There was a period in the twentieth century when profound inequality seemed a thing of the past, growth was widely shared, and the division between capital and labor in national income looked stable. Much of modern economics took shape in this happy time. Those economists assumed they were living in Act V of a comedy, watching history’s conflicts resolve into harmony. It turns out they were in Act II of a tragedy, observing but failing to understand capitalist dynamics that war and depression had recently re-set near the starting line. We are now in Act III or IV of that tragedy. Tragedy demands altogether different judgments from comedy. We have more important problems than accessorizing the groomsmen for the marriages of liberty and equality, capital and labor, and public and private.
Suppose you care about civic equality, social mobility, the dignity of ordinary people, and the long-term prospects of democracies that need all these values. What to do in the face of rising inequality and oligarchy? Piketty recommended a small, progressive global tax on capital to draw down big fortunes and press back against r > g. He admitted that this idea wouldn’t get much traction, but urgeds it as a fixed point in political imagination, a measure of what would be worth doing and how far we have to go to get there.
It’s a fine enough idea, but it shows the limits of Piketty’s argument. He had no theory of how the economy works that might replace the optimistic theories that his numbers devastated. Numbers — powerful ones, to be sure — were all he had. He counted things that were harder to count before now — income, asset value — and adorned the bottom line with some splendid formulas for holding onto their importance. But r > g, as Piketty readily admitted, is not a theory of anything; it is shorthand for some historical facts about money’s tendency to make money. Those facts held in the agrarian and industrial societies of Europe and North America in the nineteenth century and seem to be holding in today’s industrial and post-industrial economies. But these are very different worlds. Is there something constant that unifies different versions of inequality — that unites plantation owners and Apple shareholders, in their shared privilege above bondsman and Best-Buy techs — or is the inequality itself the only constant? Without answers to these questions, we don’t have a theory of capitalism, just a time-lapse picture of it.
This is not only a theoretical problem. It bears on whether past is prologue, whether inequality yesterday forecasts inequality tomorrow. Without a theory of how the economy produces and allocates value, we can’t know whether r > g will hold into the future. This is essential to assessing Piketty’s warnings against the responses of his critics, who argued that shouldn’t worry, that rates of return on capital will fall toward that of the overall economy, as mainstream economic theory would predict, or that the overall growth rate will spike with new technological innovations. Either would blunt r > g. Piketty doesn’t really have an answer to these challenges, other than the weight of the historical numbers.
The lack of a general theory is a bit of an epistemic irony. Piketty’s work is a triumph of the Enlightenment aim to make the world intelligible, demystifying it by showing us the patterns that emerge from millions of facts. But by calling for economics to become a historical science, concerned with what has happened and is happening rather than with evermore refined mathematical models, he carries out a massive epistemic dethroning. History happens only once. Its “natural experiments” are few and highly incomplete. And casting light on big and inconvenient facts, he also points out an area of darkness; ignorance where we had been lulled into thinking we had knowledge.
Going beyond Piketty, but informed by his argument, how should we think about rising inequality? For one, we shouldn’t be complacent because he can’t prove that r > g will hold in the future. Instead, as environmentalists have long argued, we should use a version of the “precautionary principle”: with a clear worst-case scenario in front of us, and plenty of evidence that things are trending that way, we shouldn’t demand an airtight demonstration before we start trying to prevent it. The precautionary principle is a useful compass when the stakes are high and certainty is scarce. That is pretty much always the situation of acting in real time, with only “historical sciences” like Piketty’s economics to guide us.
Second, we should grope toward a more general theory of capitalism by getting modestly systematic about two recurrent themes in Piketty’s work: a) power matters and b) the division of income between capital and labor is one of the most important questions in any economy. Piketty makes much of the grabbiness of crony-capitalist executives and the forgiving tax laws that help them get away with huge hauls, but when he talks about the larger vicissitudes of labor and capital, he is mostly interested in the effects of big shocks such as economic crisis and war. Yet the period of shared growth in the mid-20th century was not just the aftermath of war and depression. It was also the apex of organized labor’s power in Europe and North America, the fruit of many decades of organizing, not a little of it bloody, not a little under the flag of democratic socialism. Various crises cleared the ground, but the demands of labor, and an organized left more generally, were integral to building the comparatively egalitarian, high-wage world that came after the wars, with its strong public sector, self-assertive workers, and halfway tamed capital. There’s a lesson we can learn here about what we might do to combat inequality, and how.
Why not generalize a thought that surfaces in many of Piketty’s specific analyses: the rate of return on capital is in part the product of struggles, between those who own the world and those who just work here. Sometimes these are contract negotiations, sometimes strikes, and sometimes elections and lawmaking. Together these struggles decide what can be owned (slaves count as capital in some of Piketty’s calculations), what the owners can do with it, and how much bargaining power non-owners bring to the table. Maybe the basic question is power, the comparative power of organized wealth on the one hand and organized working people on the other. Focusing on this question means putting human struggle at the very heart of any analysis of economic life. As the author of an earlier book titled Capital put it (though not in that book), the root is man.
That author was Karl Marx, of course. His name was unmentionable for a few decades, except as kitsch or anti-utopian bromide. Today his charisma has returned, and the echo of his title in Piketty’s has lent the latter a certain frisson. Some of the Marxian revival is very serious, some is trendy, and much is symbolic. Whether or not one wants to travel far with theories of surplus value, overproduction crisis, and the proletariat as the universal class, Marx stands for essential ideas that have been scorned but are back and vital again: economies are about power; to understand an economy you have to ask who gets, and how; the ways that economies undercut freedom and equality are cause for indignation; and political democracy will not be complete until we find a way to extend its commitments to economic life. Marx stands, too, for the conviction that, as humans, we owe ourselves and one another more than mutual advantages under the aegis of the invisible hand. Part of the power of Piketty’s argument, troubling as his predictions are, is that he shows that the questions Marx addressed are still on the table. This is important for those of us who for whom Marx’s questions resonate, along with his refusal to believe that standard pro-market answers should give us any satisfaction.
I am sure I am not alone, among those who got some of their book learning in the last two decades, in a particular memory of college. There were courses in which we thought very hard about what kind of distributive justice would respect the freedom and equality of every member of society. There were classes in which we talked about how power, multifarious power, shaped everything from prisons to sexual identity, and how one could hope to counter it. And then there was this: an economics class, in my case taught by a former head of Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, where we drew intersecting lines representing supply and demand and learned to demonstrate that high tax rates on the wealthy would diminish marginal productivity, plaguing us all with lost social wealth. A thousand whispers and hints let us know that those other classes were for stimulation, personal ethics, and literary aesthetics. The economics class, though – that was the world. The real world.
Part of Piketty’s important was that he went deeper into the real world than the people who taught Economics 101, and his lesson was that it needs those other classes. It needs the rich history of political economy, which includes not just Marx, but John Stuart Mill, even Adam Smith, and a rich panoply of American reformers and radicals. Piketty shows that capitalism’s attractive moral claims — that it can make everyone better off while respecting their freedom — deserve much less respect under our increasingly “pure” markets than in the mixed economies that dominated the North Atlantic countries in the mid-20th century. It took a strong and mobilized left to build those societies. It may be that capitalism can remain tolerable only under constant political and moral pressure from the left, when the alternative of democratic socialism is genuinely on the table. Piketty reminds us that the reasons for the socialist alternative have not disappeared, or even weakened. We are still seeking an economy that is both vibrant and humane, where mutual advantage is real and mutual aid possible. The one we have isn’t it.
Reading Piketty gives one an acute sense of how much we have lost with the long waning of real political economy, especially the radical kind. As mentioned, Piketty did not expect his one real proposal, a modest wealth tax, to go far in this political environment. Ideas need movements, as movements need ideas. We’ve been short on both. In trying to judge what to do about Piketty’s grim forecasts, there was a crevasse between “write op-eds advocating higher tax rates” and “rebuild the left.” It wasn’t Piketty’s job to fill that gap, but he did show just how wide it yawns, and how devastating is the absence it represents.
But in another sense, it was not Piketty that demonstrated any of this. The scope and depth of his work were extraordinary, but well-substantiated data about growing economic inequality were not new. Stagnating working-class wages and the share of wealth owned by the richest Americans were familiar complaints on the left, and usually written off as crankishness or class warfare - the latter in a way that implied class warfare was obviously un-American and irresponsible. Piketty generated a longer story more convincingly than earlier researchers had done, and he greatly refined the picture of how income was concentrated, not just in the highest marginal tax brackets, but at finer levels of resolution - among the top 0.1 percent, for example, as it turns out that the richest one-thousandth of us take home a great deal of the nation’s income. But all of this mattered in the way it did because enough people had been prepared for it to matter - prepared by the growing sense that the forms of inequality they had been habituated to were neither acceptable nor inevitable.
It is a mistake to understand the significance of Piketty’s findings as being simply a matter of the progress of knowledge, let alone a quirky publishing phenomenon. Pikettymania, as it was wryly called, was a product of a long and difficult political education. The language of solidarity and political redemption was not enough, nor was the sentiment of democratic mobilization. The moral energy of naming the distance between the “one percent” and everyone else would do nothing toward closing that distance, nor would the theatrics of occupying public space or anything else. The small and initial experiments in making a world, the less-remembered impulses of Zuccotti Park, would have to grow and come into politics. There had to be movements, and they had to try to win.
VII. The Sanders Campaign and the Return of “Socialism”
Still, when Bernie Sanders formally announced his presidential campaign in late May 2015, no one expected much to come of it. Hillary Clinton was already regarded as a prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, and Sanders was running, with the seeming perversity that he had never abandoned, under the banner of an idea that had no place in American politics: democratic socialism. So when Sanders won the Hampshire primary by twenty-three points, the rationale that he coming from neighboring Vermont gave him a home-field advantage was small comfort to the shaken Clinton campaign. Sanders won every group of Democratic voters in New Hampshire other than households earning more than $200,000 a year, a warning that Clinton’s support was “establishment” and that Sanders had managed to appeal both to blue-collar and middle-class voters - the Clintons’ traditional stronghold - and the younger and more idealistic voters who had supported Barack Obama in 2008 and anti-war maverick Howard Dean in 2004. In the end, Sanders won thirteen million primary votes - about three-and-a-half million fewer than Clinton - and twenty-three states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and much of New England and the Pacific Northwest. He overwhelmed Clinton among the young, and although large majorities among non-white voters helped Clinton hold California and the South and take the nomination, Sanders won voters of all backgrounds under age 30.
What did democratic socialism have to do with this extraordinary run? To understand that, it is essential to understand what Sanders was doing with the term, and what his supporters made of that. Speaking on his political philosophy at Georgetown in November 2015, when he was posting strong poll numbers but had not yet won a vote, he opened with a long invocation of Franklin Roosevelt and the social protections that the New Deal created: minimum wages, retirement benefits, banking regulation, the forty-hour workweek. Roosevelt’s opponents attacked all these good things as “socialism,” Sanders reminded his listeners.
He seemed, a bit oddly, to agree with them, taking his definition of “socialism” from its nineteen-thirties opponents, the people Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders said. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.” It wasn’t the first time Sanders had defined his position from the right flank of history. Pressed in a Democratic debate to say how high he would take the marginal income tax, he answered that it would be less than the ninety (actually ninety-two) per-cent level under the Eisenhower Administration. He added, to cheers and laughter, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.” In substance, Sanders’s “socialism” is a national living wage, free higher education, increased taxes on the wealthy, campaign-finance reform, and strong environmental and racial-justice policies.
Both Roosevelt and Eisenhower distinguished themselves vigorously from “socialism,” which they understood as a revolutionary program of extreme equality, committed to centralized control of the economy, and a cat’s paw of Soviet power. Accusations of “socialism” trailed liberals for decades after Roosevelt parried his opponents, from Ronald Reagan’s attacks on Medicare to the Republicans’ refrain against Obamacare. Democrats, like Roosevelt, have furiously defended themselves against the charges. But now a candidate whose ideal American economy does in fact look a lot like Eisenhower’s world—strong unions, secure employment, affordable college—is waving the red flag, and finding favor with large numbers of Democratic voters. Indeed, it is something of a fallacy to imagine, as liberal historians sometimes do (and I have in other writing) that we can identify Eisenhower with the policies and rhetoric that he accepted as the reality of his time, rather than recognize the role of the Republican Party he headed in the long business-led pushback against union power and the New Deal. Sanders was not calling on an ideology that Eisenhower or even Roosevelt held, but a whole condition of the world, the relatively egalitarian social democracy that prevailed for many Americans, especially the rising middle class and white, industrial working class in the decades after World War Two. This was one seed of the commonplace charge of nostalgia against Sanders: that the world he called for lay less in the future than in the past, and was less a political vision than a memory of a safer historical order of things.
The 2011 Pew Poll that found more respondents between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine reporting a positive view of “socialism” (forty-nine per cent) than “capitalism” (forty-six per cent) did not do much, either, to reveal a thought-out commitment to an alternative economy. Gallup polls regularly find that a slim majority of Democrats express a positive view of socialism, but an overwhelming majority supports “free enterprise,” suggesting, charitably, some ideological flexibility. Later polling did not show dramatic differences between Clinton and Sanders voters on most economic questions, and where they did, Sanders supporters were not always further to the left in conventional terms. Perhaps more significant is that those under-thirty poll respondents, the same group that voted for Sanders in huge numbers, are the first voters of the post-Soviet era, whose formative experiences are of a not very heroic unipolar world of American power and market-oriented ideas. They are the first wave of voters to have lived all their lives in the long 1990s, and in 2016 they voted against the world that formed them.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire put the word “socialism” up for grabs again: it may have landed in history’s dustbin at first, but that left it free for scavenging and repurposing. Meanwhile, in the same decade when the Wall fell, the United States saw a sustained assault on the relatively strong welfarist state that, from the middle of the twentieth century, had supported public universities and other institutions of social mobility, managed the conflicts between big companies and unions, and driven such transformations as desegregation and the War on Poverty. After the Second World War, leading American institutions and movements put into practice the core idea of the earlier Progressive movement, which both F.D.R. and his cousin Theodore championed: personal liberty, economic opportunity, and civic equality could not survive in a laissez-faire industrial economy. Earlier in American history these values had been associated with small government, at least rhetorically, but they now definitively needed big government—the regulatory state. So, in 1937, F.D.R. urged that government should “solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization,” and, in 1965, L.B.J. echoed him, warning that “change and growth seem to tower beyond the control and even the judgment of men.” Strong government was the answer: a counter-power to wealth and to economic crisis. Their world was also Eisenhower’s.
Ronald Reagan’s declaration, in his 1981 inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” was the rhetorical flag of an attack on the mid-century state that included sweeping tax cuts, an assault on public-sector unions and license for private companies to elude or break organized labor, and a retreat from anti-poverty and desegregation efforts. The New Right agenda that Reagan once described as protecting an America where “anyone can get rich” was, more relevantly in most lives, an embrace of persistent and growing inequality. Government did not in fact shrink, thanks largely to military spending and retirement benefits, but it became a much less egalitarian and progressive force, no longer the vehicle of what F.D.R. had called “a permanently safe order of things.” Bill Clinton, first elected in 1992, ratified the New Right’s program while giving it a humane gloss. He declared, “The era of big government is over” and presided over the dismantling of the family-support (“welfare”) system, a rise in policing and incarceration (even after Reagan’s demagogic and racist “war on drugs”), and banking deregulation that cleared the way for the financial crisis that later shadowed Barack Obama’s presidency. So, by the mid-1990s, two figures had gone into the wilderness: on the one hand, the American idea that a market economy would be intolerable without strong, egalitarian government, public institutions, and organized workers’ power; and, on the other, the word “socialism” as a name for an altogether different kind of society. Exiled as opponents, they returned as friends. Bernie Sanders’s socialism is Eisenhower’s and F.D.R.’s world if history had taken a different turn in 1979: economic security updated by the continuing revolutions in gender, cultural pluralism, and the struggle for racial justice. In a word, Denmark; but also America with a counterfactual history of the last forty years.
In the arc of twentieth-century politics, Sanders’s program would most accurately be called social democracy. Programs of social democracy, which formed the Northern European states and economies that Sanders often calls on as models, do not aim to replace the market, but to keep it in its place, using regulation and social supports to police the line between economic competition and other values: security and dignity in the workplace, independence and leisure at home, time in life for family, learning, and retirement. Democratic socialism has always stood for stronger political displacement of private economic power, including public ownership of some industries, political decisions about aspects of investment and other economic priorities, and, perhaps, a direct role for workers in governing the workplace. These lines are blurry, of course, but the point is that Sanders selected a name for his stance that, besides being long treated as anathema in American politics, is some degrees to the left of what he advocates.
“Socialism” may be an idiosyncratic name for Sanders’s politics, and may even obscure its other, more radical meanings. But some of the term’s appeal is precisely that it sounds more radical than it is. The radical label accentuates the feeling that something has gone wrong in economic life. It marks the intensity of dissent. It is a moral claim about the need for a different politics, aimed at a different economy. In this way, Sanders’s use of the word harkens back to pre-Soviet, even pre-Marxist socialism. Then the term named a clutch of objections to industrial capitalism: the physical toll of the jobs, the equal and opposite toll of unemployment and economic crisis, widespread poverty and insecurity in a world where some lived in almost miraculous luxury. Assessing the socialists of the nineteenth century, whose programs ranged from the nationalization of industry to the creation of village cooperatives, John Stuart Mill doubted that they understood how markets worked, but he admitted their moral claims unreservedly: “The restraints of Communism would be freedom in comparison with the present condition of the majority of the human race.” Most of Sanders’s supporters might not say that, exactly; but they did seek a way out a savagely unequal economy that leaves many of them indebted, precariously employed at best, and generally anxious and powerless. In 2016, defying nearly all expectations, “democratic socialism” became the exit sign from this economy.
VIII. The Wages of Taking Democracy Seriously
As the Sanders campaign became a threat to the Clinton nomination, its critics launched a mix of dire warnings and condescending dismissal. Thomas Friedman called Sanders a dangerous anachronism, an avatar of “an idea that died in 1989.” Friedman’s line displayed indifference to both the actual course of twentieth-century ideas and the actual content of Sanders’s campaign, but that is just what was revealing about it. Having spent twenty years embodying the fast-arriving decadent phase of the end-of-history consensus, Friedman seemed to take for granted that the course of human events had justified his position to any honest observer. He no longer bothered to give reasons or confront contrasting evidence; it was enough to assume that any competing worldview had fallen with the Wall, that the collapse of the unequal, anti-democratic, and often brutal Soviet regime and its Eastern European empire had also been a thoroughgoing philosophical vindication of capitalist democracy. But the leap from the failure of one regime to the apotheosis of another’s flattering self-image was a non sequitur, perhaps the most consequential of the late twentieth century, and certainly the most telling. It was precisely what the events of 2016 were putting under pressure.
A more condescending line of attack came from Paul Krugman, on the same page, who reprised his 2008 broadsides on Obama, now taking aim at Sanders. Then, in a column titled “Hate Springs Eternal,” Krugman accused Obama’s supporters of spewing “bitterness” and “venom” and coming “dangerously close to a cult of personality.” But it was, candidly, a little hard to describe the decorous Obama and his dewy-eyed base (and I emphasize that I was one of those dewy-eyed canvassers who tracked every work of his key speeches) as a bilious mob. The real danger for Democrats, Krugman decided, was idealism: “On the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” This, he said, fairly enough, was part of what drove the Obama campaign in 2008. By 2016, however, Krugman was pleased that President Obama had broken with Candidate Obama and governed rather like a Clinton: pragmatically, with the hand he was dealt.
Sanders, said Krugman, was pandering to that high-minded electorate of evergreen losers. Sanders’s “purist” positions, like talk of truly universal health care, meant “prefer[ing] happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.” To be political grownups, Krugman argued, we had better put away these child things, as Obama had learned to do. He contrasted high-minded but unrealistic idealism with “politically pragmatic” governance, like Franklin Roosevelt’s during the New Deal. Roosevelt, Krugman reminded readers, cut deals with Southern segregationists and introduced programs like Social Security incrementally. This dirty-hands commitment to halfway measures, not purity, is what it takes to get things done. Sanders might flatter his enthusiasts’ moral sentiments but governing is messy, complicated, grown-up. Krugman insisted, “The question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked?”
The answer, of course, depends what you think the Sanders campaign’s theory of change is. And this basic and crucial point, Krugman was wrong. Like his colleague Thomas Friedman, his mistake stemmed from being unable to see political events outside his own rather narrow worldview. The Sanders campaign’s theory of change wasn’t that a high-minded leader could draw out Americans’ best selves and usher in a more humane and egalitarian country. It was that a campaign for a more equal and secure economy and a stronger democracy could build power, in networks of activists and alliances across constituencies. The campaign addressed itself to institutionalized inequality, from gaps in wealth and income to racialized policing and incarceration, and proposed policies to buttressed and expand the middle class, protect workers from insecurity and exploitation, and open learning and training to everyone. Sanders argued that economic power and political power are closely linked, and that both need to be widely shared for democracy to work. This means, he went on, a redistribution of effective citizenship from organized money to organized people - beginning with the organizing that the campaign itself represented. If it succeeded, it would build both a movement and a cohort—a political generation—around the ideas and policies of this self-styled American socialism. It was, in short, a campaign about political ideas and programs that happened to have an adoptive Vermonter named Bernard at its head, not one that mistook its candidate for a prophet or a wizard.
Krugman’s appeal to Franklin Roosevelt’s example was more instructive than he might have imagined, and not in quite the way he intended. Yes, Roosevelt governed “pragmatically,” in the sense that he counted votes and cut deals. Every sane politician does this. (The stipulation of sanity seems especially pertinent at the time of writing.) But what made it possible for him to pass sweeping changes in economic regulation and social support, changes so radical that his enemies accused him of betraying the Constitution and becoming an American Mussolini? The answer is in two parts: power and ideas. His administration stood at the confluence of two great movements. The first was the labor unions, which had been building power, often in bloody and terrible struggles, since the late nineteenth century. The second was the Progressive reformers who had worked in states, cities, and universities—and occasionally in national government—trying to build economic security and strengthen political democracy in an industrial economy.These movements were sources of both power and ideas. Why did enemies and reluctant allies end up meeting Roosevelt halfway? The answer was not his pragmatic attitude, his admirably adult willingness to compromise. The reason that even some who hated him had to deal with him or give way was the political force he could marshal. His theory of change was no more about compromise than it was about high-minded words: It was about power. Compromise was a side-effect, a tactic at most. But the central place of power does not mean idealism had no place in the New Deal. Roosevelt explained what he was doing, and why, in language that was more Sanders than Clinton, more vision than wonkery. He famously called for a Second Bill of Rights, an economic program of security, good work, and material dignity. And, while F.D.R. was willing to compromise, he was also willing to draw hard lines, calling out “economic royalists” and saying of his enemies, “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Roosevelt used the highest idealistic language and the toughest words of conflict. They conveyed the vision behind his program and forced other politicians to form battle lines on the landscape he defined. Then, and only then, he compromised, on his terms. Indeed, Krugman’s portrait of Roosevelt is so denuded and misplaced that it seems to be a historical substitution in which Roosevelt stands in Bill Clinton or perhaps Barack Obama. The historical Roosevelt stands for the stronger, older tradition of campaigns based on ideas and programs rather than personalities, candidates run to build power, and use idealistic language to explain why that power matters. Then, if they get to govern, they use it.
This was different from anything Obama managed to do, or really tried, which is it matters that the Sanders campaign was not a reprise of Obama’s 2008 run. The first Obama campaign was an instant mass movement, and it had the potential to produce widespread mobilization. In Durham, North Carolina, to take one example that I happen to know well, there was an active local Obama group, canvassing and registering voters, well before the official campaign showed up. As I emphasized earlier, anyone who had a hand in the 2008 campaign can remember the heartfelt sense of being part of something, of moving history a little. But the Obama campaigns were ultimately about the candidate: his intelligence, charisma, integrity, and almost preternatural rhetorical gifts. After the long darkness of the Bush years, he brought alive the wish for progress, solidarity, and unity around a better version of the country. Nothing he said was unfamiliar; it was just that he said it—embodied it—so well. [Because he declined to turn his moving moral vision into a distinctive program, and assimilated himself so readily to the technocratic centrism that the Clintons had established, Obama ended up ratifying in governance the same long-1990s political realism that he had defied in his campaign.]
The most important question about Krugman’s argument, which represented the views of a whole political and intellectual class, is not how, exactly, it was mistaken, but rather what made the mistake so irresistible. How did the political constraints of the long 1990s come to seem so natural and inevitable that Sanders’s campaign, an effort to revive an earlier style of American political mobilization, got assimilated to the recent and narrow precedents of the Clinton years and the Obama-Clinton primary contests? Some of the answer is surely that those who don’t learn history will misunderstand both past and present, projecting backward the experience of their own time and, just as surely, understanding their time in terms of its own parochial events and conceits. But there is also an implicit view about democracy - a deeply pessimistic, even cynical one - that this present-minded parochialism cleaves to quite unawares. It is, however, the view that figures like Krugman have in mind when they praise political adulthood.
To understand this picture, it helps to go back to its intellectual origins. In the first half of the twentieth century, influential intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter pressed an argument that should sound familiar today. Political judgment was a disaster. As Schumpeter put it in 1942, “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the field of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.” Schumpeter went on to argue that all of this meant that democratic decisions—majoritarian votes—were terrible and dangerous things: shifting with emotional winds, subject to manipulation, and basically “unintelligent and irresponsible.” Taking them seriously, he warned, “may prove fatal” to a country. Schumpeter wrote as an Austrian émigré to the United States, and these passages are easy to read as the tragic wisdom bequeathed by the twentieth century’s totalitarian catastrophes. But that is mostly coincidence. Lippmann had made all the same arguments, somewhat less floridly, in the 1920s and with a mainly American scope of concern. The idea of democratic self-governance was mainly myth, he argued. The motors of politics were emotion and ignorant instinct, organized around symbolic catchphrases - “socialism,” or “the big banks” - that produced electoral majorities haphazardly or, worse, through manipulation. The actual business of governing involved much more concrete, constrained, and complicated decisions.
More fundamentally, there were two entirely different domains of human judgment in politics: democratic contestation and practical governance. They did not touch. Even the rare citizen who was earnest and worked to be informed, Lippmann wrote, “is trying to steer the boat from the shore.” But, tragically, democracies pretended that governing depended on democratic will—something that, considered dispassionately, did not exist. Influenced by logical positivists’ efforts to root out meaningless terms from language, both Schumpeter and Lippmann argued that most of democratic politics was as meaningful as a theological debate about the nature of God, as stable and reliable as a dream recalled on an analyst’s couch, as rational as the conversational dynamics of a family holiday dinner. The grown-up task of governing was lashed to this flailing, preening, unmeaning mob that needed to believe it was in charge.
This is all too harsh for Krugman to affirm in as many words. But consider the way this picture divides the world. On the one hand, elections and political movements are psychological and symbolic: to understand them, you need the skills of the marketing savant. On the other hand, the real realm of expertise goes on, like the investment managers who maintain university endowments while the undergraduates debate socialism. A sophisticated person understands the difference tacitly (like so much in refined understanding), though expressing it directly would be gauche. The public has to be flattered and cajoled, yes, but political adulthood means understanding that politics is emotional theater, while governing is like banking or negotiating a merger.
The Sanders campaign breached both sides of this arrangement. It invited people to take politics very seriously indeed, proposing to invade the realm of expertise with a new agenda: actually universal health care, actually affordable higher education, a serious assault on the political power of concentrated money. Above all, it proposed pressing this agenda forward because, if—mirabile dictu—Sanders had won, the people would have chosen it. Breaching the line between majority will and real governance, Schumpeter and Lippmann argued, was like running together matter and anti-matter: the results would be destructive, perhaps fatal. It was a misunderstanding of the whole enterprise of politics. Both Schumpeter and Lippmann concluded that the most plausible role of elections was to provide a peaceful way for elites to circulate between government and their other posts (such as business, finance, and universities). It is no surprise that our current political, financial, and media elites are attached to a worldview that imparts great power and tragic responsibility to them, the only ones who can see the picture whole.
Misgivings about democracy are not groundless slurs. It’s easy to point to evidence—people can’t identify their senators, don’t know what’s in the Constitution, don’t understand how government works, elected Trump. But it’s also true that anti-democratic attitudes and condescension masked as respect tend to foster the very kind of polity they presuppose (and worry over): ignorant, resentful of manipulation, but delighted enough when it is flattered. In light of all this, it is remarkable that voters keep coming back to an earnest effort to link democratic mobilization with real changes in policy. Perhaps some of them have been underestimated, and they know it.Hope was a quick high, but fortunately the Obama movement stopped partying once its partisans had real jobs. That is political adulthood’s story about the last eight years. And it’s true that the last eight years have shown a great deal about the limits to what any one candidate can achieve, about the deep power of finance, the military, and the expert classes, and the intense mistrust of government in many parts of the electorate. Two possible lessons come from this. The standard elite story is that we fight our way back to business as usual: incremental change plus playing defense. On this view, there is no middle ground between childish emotion and the condescending, basically anti-democratic disenchantment of what passes for political adulthood. The movement-building alternative is that we need a motive in politics to keep us moving forward even in the face of elite disapproval, and even when there is no promise of quick success. In the tradition of social democracy, that alternative is not hope but solidarity. It is the motive that keeps working for concrete and basic changes out of common care for everyone they would benefit, even when the changes are not realistic yet. It is the motive to build power and ideas together so that democratic politics can give government its marching orders: fairness, security, and an even stronger democracy.
IX. Something or Barbarism: Elements of a Deeper Democracy
So far, I’ve painted the Sanders campaign impressionistically, tacking between the pointillism of its specific proposals and such grainy strokes as “solidarity” and “security.” But between the invocation of Franklin Roosevelt at Georgetown and Sanders’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention eight months later, a richer set of themes emerged that distinguished the campaign-movement’s politics from those of the long 1990s and the official positions of the Democratic Party. Nine points go a long way toward filling in what this new American politics represents.
1. The Economy is About Power
Any student of economics from the Reagan years forward learned that everything is about efficiency. Self-interested parties bargain for their personal benefit, and the invisible hand of the market makes everyone better off. This was always a thinner reed than its scientific-sounding apparatus suggested, but now we are re-awaking to a world many of us knew only through black-and-white photographs of strikes and marches, clashes between workers and bosses. A few companies control large shares of their industries, and their big profits and pressure on suppliers and consumers reflect their power to set the terms for everyone. A few banks are too big to fail and set the terms of bailout and regulation. If workers want a living wage, they have to fight for it, in the workplace and in politics, in the Fight for 15 and in unionization drives. Economic policy is about the struggle for power, and political contests are fights to control the distribution of power in economic life.
2. Expertise Is Not Legitimacy
Consistent with their demotion of emotion-drenched elections beneath technical governance, the Democrats are consummately the party of experts, economics PhDs and Yale Law School graduates. They are the party of meritocrats who do their homework. This is a fine thing, as far as it goes, but the party of experts often forgets that expertise is a tool. It helps you to get where you want to go. Politics is also about goals and worldviews. It isn’t enough to be smart and trained. The first question for politicians must be a twenty-first-century version of the old union challenge: which side are you on? Those who do not ask the question will not avoid it, but simply fail to give their answer deliberately and with self-awareness - and so, maybe, avoid accountability for it, at least for a while.
3. Economic Security Is a Valid Goal
Americans in their early forties and younger have heard all their lives about the value of “disruption,” the need for “flexibility” and “reinvention,” the whole Silicon Valley/venture capital/management consultant mantra. But, while this is very nice for the lucky few who can treat economic ups and downs as the backdrop of a heroic video game, for most people “disruption” is a nightmare. For much of the twentieth century, mainstream liberal economists understood that security—whether in a union, job tenure, or guaranteed health care and other safety nets—was a widespread and perfectly legitimate goal. In fact, it was the first thing anyone should want from an economy, because it was the precondition to feeling—and being—safe enough to go on and take risks, or just enjoy life. We need to give renewed meaning to this argument. For decades, economic security has been derided as the goal of the weak, social sponges who can’t handle lifelong competition. Once again, meritocrats, who excel at a certain kind of competition, have aligned themselves with investors, who profit from it, in advancing the idea that all-in competition makes a good economy. We need to reject the moralism of competition and the charisma of disruption, and say it is also right and good to want to be safe.
4. You Are More than Human Capital
A person’s worth is not what they can earn, and “return on investment” is the wrong way to think about living, just as “networking” is the wrong way to think about relationships. These ways of valuing ourselves are cultural and psychic distortions, in which a market culture colonizes the minds of the people living under it. But they are not just mistakes or spiritual failings: they are imposed by all-in, all-pervading competition and insecurity. Part of the point of an economy of safety is to let people remember what else and who else they are. This is part of the meaning of “free college”: treating learning and growth as part of the purpose of life, something an economy exists to support, not an input to the economy that teaches students to talk, and think, in terms of debt and dividends.
5. Solidarity Is Different from Hope
“Not me, us,” a Sanders slogan that marked a contrast with Clinton’s “I’m with her,” also announced a radical idea: politics makes commonality where it wasn’t there before. There was some of this in Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Yes we can” and “We are the people we’ve been waiting for” were ways of saying this. But Obama’s other slogan, “Hope,” was more about looking forward to a world that is coming. Hope may be shared, but it switches easily to a personal register: your hope, my hope. Solidarity is different: it looks around, and it acts with and for other people, because we are in this thing together. Americans haven’t had a politics like this for a long time; but the Sanders moment is a recollection of how it feels, and a move toward rebuilding it.
6. Democracy Is More than Voting
Democracy in today’s world concerns the relationship between economic power and political power. It is, in the old slogan, about enabling organized people to grapple with and dominate organized money. Ultimately, it is about organized people deciding how money should be organized—in financial regulation, say, or campaign finance reform—rather than the other way around.
7. Not Everything Has to Be Earned
Bill Clinton often said that he wanted a fair return for people who “work hard and play by the rules.” And of course working hard and honoring the rules (at least where the rules are fair and legitimate) deserves respect. But the national fixation on people getting what they “deserve,” from meritocratic rewards in higher education to incarceration (“Do the crime, do the time,” some prosecutors say) has gotten out of hand. It locks us into a mutual suspicion of people getting away with something—pocketing some perk or job or government benefit that they didn’t “really earn”—while ignoring the way the whole economy tilts its rewards toward those who already have wealth. What’s needed is to shift attention from zero-sum questions about who gets what, and at whose expense, to bigger questions about what everyone should get just for being part of the social order: education (including good higher education), health care, safety in their neighborhood, an infrastructure that works.
Ironically, questions about who gets what should be both less important and more important than they tend to be today. They should be less important in the sense that we should worry less about whether some people are getting things they don’t deserve. And we should care more about what everyone gets as the groundwork of social life and what the big patterns of distribution are. The two go together, as the reality of personal scarcity and precariousness are the triggers for adamant policing of others’ undeserved security and pleasure.
8. Equal Treatment Is Not Enough
Like the rest of the Democratic Party and elected politicians generally, the Sanders campaign came a bit late to the Black Lives Matter movement. But the younger voters who overwhelmingly supported him, and some of the older ones, too, are shaped by a moment in which it’s become inescapable that the twentieth-century civil-rights revolution left many forms of racial inequality intact, from wealth inequality to policing practices, from de facto segregation into social “toxic” neighborhoods to exposure to literal toxins. Some of this inequality comes from the persistence of personal bigotry and implicit bias. But much of the persistent inequality is not individual but structural. An economy that for forty years has given most of its new wealth to the already wealthy has not offered much to people who were categorically denied paths to wealth across the rest of American history. The economy continued to deny many of its benefits even to those whom, formally speaking, it treated evenhandedly.
A version of the same point holds for the victories of the women’s movement. Women’s traditional exclusion and subordination gave way to inclusion—into an economy in which working-class and middle-class households were increasingly pressed from all directions. Individual inclusion was better than old-style sexism, but in a world of compressed wages and no affordable child care, entering the workforce produced new strains. Real equality would have meant some social sharing of the costs of raising the next generation, which had been shunted off onto women’s unpaid household labor. Instead, while wealthy avatars of corporate feminism outsourced this work, other families struggled.
It turns out that the American capitalism that long took for granted a subordinated race at work and a dependent sex at home will not automatically repair either historical injury. What has to happen now to make good on both gender and racial emancipation is change in structures. The structures we have now sometimes secure personally equal treatment; they also produce persistent, predictable, inequitable results. It is these structures that politics needs to change.
9. We Have in Common What We Decide to Have in Common
This economy is hardest by far on the precarious and displaced: undocumented workers, former factory workers whose industries are shuttered, interns and young piece-workers just out of college and people without college education who are all but out of the labor market. But it is a strange bargain for people up and down the chutes and ladders of wealth, income, and privilege. Meritocratic elites compete all their lives for the prize of competing for more prizes, but who is really happier because they are serving up more deliverables and satisfying all the relevant metrics? There might be something—not a “grand bargain,” as policy mavens recently liked to say, but maybe an alliance—to take us out of this situation. In 1958, approaching the high-water mark of the social-democratic era in American life, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that “the affluent society” was on its way to an economy of widespread leisure, robust social provision, light workloads, and new frontiers of activity undertaken for its own sake, whether work or play. It was not the most profound vision of human liberation ever forecast, but it described early a possible path from what Marx called the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. That vision was broken by a combination of free-trade globalization, post-welfarist domestic reform, and the global growth of inequality. Although it may not seem radical today as an end-state, steps toward making it a real and palpable possibility —and not just for a privileged plurality, but really for everyone—would be radical indeed.
These points, once taken as obvious in political life, were obscured in the long 1990s to the point of becoming unspeakable. Their return is a practical repudiation of neoliberalism and a refutation of the crude version of the end-of-history thesis, the one that held, in the manner of Thomas Friedman, that the regnant version of democratic capitalism was both enough and the best a modern country could do. The return of a demand for a different world, against respectable discouragement, has reopened the left flank of modernity.
But the right flank has been reopened also, in the United States and other democracies. The new right-wing nationalism that came to power with Donald Trump has its own ways of repudiating the authority of experts, and, indeed, of flouting empirics altogether, disdaining inconvenient events as “fake news” while inventing its own, such as the alleged millions of illegal votes that Trump claimed Hillary Clinton had received in the 2016 election. It has its own recognition that economics is entangled in power, in Trump’s populist attacks on elite collusion and corruption and its doppelganger, his own merry path of self-dealing since entering the White House. It has, too, its own version of solidarity, rooted in a shifting mélange of ethno-national, religious, and racial loyalty and fear. It is at once an extension of the modern Republican Party’s use of very old American tropes of racial fear and an integration of those with the xenophobic wartime mood, the perennial undercurrent of emergency and terror of disloyalty, that the Bush administration cultivated after September 11th, 2001, and that Obama muted but declined or failed to repudiate entirely.
In some circles one hears, these days, a phrase from the French left of the early twentieth century, repurposed for the clash with the new nationalism: Socialism or barbarism. If socialism means the sense it has recently taken in the United States - a recognition that democracy must be economic as well as political, that solidarity is an essential political value that must be paired with civic equality and respect, that the market must be subordinate to political choices and to non-market values - than this does seem to be our choice. The politics of the long 1990s cultivated their own insurrectionaries, by fostering and rationalizing inequality and blithely accepting growing precariousness and loss of control in every domain of life. The insurrections are, on the one hand, a grotesque caricature of democracy, and, on the other, a genuine deepening of equality and self-rule. If that is right, it would also be fair to say, Democracy or barbarism, but without making the mistake of imagining that what we have now is a good enough democracy. Either way, the stakes are the same.