Buckling and curling in the US political spectrum

Sometimes I think my liberal friends are wrong when they say that the Right has moved further right in recent years. Maybe they are correct, but here’s another way of looking at it. If you think of the spectrum as two poles with a center point, I’ll agree that the center has shifted right since the emergence of Fox news and talk radio, but the right ideological pole, with its emphasis on deregulation and privatization, lower taxes, a distrust of group-based rights, etc., has held firm. This means the right half of the spectrum has been compressed, bunching up and causing internal tensions. To keep to the metaphor, one could say that the right half of the spectrum has constricted and buckled, with new subgroups like the Tea Party and the Alt-Right buckling up from the base like tectonic plates. I propose, for the sake of argument, that we consider these groups not as philosophically more conservative, but rather as a sublimated version of the base. Sure, they push further right on some issues, like immigration, but for the most part they are not more right-wing but just a less grounded (historically, factually and psychologically) version of the conservative base: the idiot version of birthers and Obamacare death panels.

Although this analysis has seemed to take a partisan turn, the Left fares not much better. It might be that those who think the Left has moved further left may be wrong. Yes, they have become more strident, more unwilling to compromise, more given to vitriolic name-calling of their conservative counterparts, but that merely indicates a change in tone, not a philosophical move to the left. So has the Left buckled also? Not exactly. Has it stretched further left? I don’t think so. I think the problem on the left is that it is “curling” back to the right. The “true north” of the left-wing vision dates to the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. The left-wing goal then was to liberate people from all conventional restraints on what to say and think, on living arrangements and paths to self-actualization. The goal was to celebrate our sexuality and our differences without denying our shared humanness, to see each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics. We were fellow human beings, first and foremost, and it was precisely the vantage of that shared humanness that brought into focus the absurdity of racism, sexism, and other social injustices.

But now the curling. The Left’s new tendency to police sexuality (a new puritanism ever watchful to prove, e.g., that male desire and heterosexuality are intrinsically exploitative), to police dissent, to set us-vs-them identity-based triggers that shame and alienate white from black, male from female, for short-term political gain. In the New Left’s view, it seems that viewing each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race and gender is a “microaggression,” bridges are replaced by walls and defending one’s turf against “cultural appropriation,” the post-60s battle lines with a rainbow coalition of progressives resisting a status quo Establishment are replaced by demographic battle lines between white and black, male and female, and all of the other reified categories of the intersectional encyclopedia. In these ways – the cultural policing, the revivified segregation of demographic groups into insulated interest groups, the authoritarian resistance to dialogue and free expression – the Left has curled back toward the “Right” as it was defined on a 1960s spectrum.

So my contrarian conclusion to my friends at both ends is that the spectrum has not widened but narrowed, with the Right buckling up and the Left curling back. Sure, there are still policy differences – on immigration, health care, environmental regulation – and, to be clear, I favor the liberals on these issues – but the shorter the horizontal space of the spectrum becomes, the more ad hominem and the more vicious the personal attacks on those who disagree. And this is the state of things today. The only hope, if there is a hope, is for some new force to emerge outside of today’s left-right spectrum, a unifying voice that can connect with the idea that we are all in this together, and with a limited amount of time to address issues of environmental destruction and inequality and tribalism before the tipping point. There were such inspirational voices in the past, so perhaps it can be done again, but not from within the political spectrum as we now know it.


Obama’s Legacy Has Already Been Destroyed, Andrew Sullivan, New Yorker (5/18/18)

We need a PC that includes White People, John McWhorter, CNN Opinion (11/25/16)

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

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Hobby Lobby’s Day in Court

I think it’s today that Hobby Lobby makes its case at the U. S. Supreme Court. I don’t know all the details, but from what I hear it seems pretty clear. Obamacare mandates that health care plans meet certain minimum benchmarks, including contraception coverage. Hobby Lobby does not want to provide contraception coverage, which the owners consider immoral. They claim that this requirement violates their religious freedom. But if Hobby Lobby wants to play in the marketplace, they should meet the same minimum benefit benchmarks as everyone else. Do we really want our insurance coverage to change every time we change jobs, subject to the various moral preferences of our employers? Should we really be under pressure to conform to our employer’s morality when it comes to our own health care?

This is not about religious freedom. Churches and non-profits already have an exemption from the law for core-mission employees. If Hobby Lobby had the least interest in religious freedom, they would provide the same options as everyone else and let every woman make her own reproductive health decisions based on her own faith and conscience. They would not be imposing their religious preference onto their employees without regard to employee beliefs. They would not be claiming “religious freedom” to justify religious compulsion.

Bottom line: The owners of Hobby Lobby are fully entitled to practice their religious beliefs in whatever legal manner they choose; they are not entitled to make that call for every individual they hire.

Luddites & Technophobes

“Luddite”: The very word conjures up images of knuckle-dragging curmudgeons. When the wheels of the Industrial Revolution started turning in late eighteenth-century England, the cult of “improvement” was already long entrenched (indeed it had been satirized by Jonathan Swift and his motley “projectors” nearly a century earlier). Resisting the “improvements” of industrialization at the turn into the nineteenth century were the Luddites. As weavers and artisans lost their jobs to new labor-saving machinery that required fewer and less skilled workers, the Luddites of 1811-1817 fought back by smashing new factory machines in the dark of night. The dominant ideology has ever since scoffed at the Luddites’ economic naivete and lumped the Luddites themselves in with the flat earth society.

I beg to differ. I propose that the reason the Luddites were and continue to be subject to such ridicule in the dominant ideology is that they are dangerously correct, that they lift the veil on an unhappy truth about how labor markets work under capitalism. The captains of industry have always drawn upon the “improvement” philosophy to argue that increased automation would be good for everyone, enabling workers to generate the same productivity in much shorter time, leading to a utopia in which people would work a couple of hours a day and have expanded time for personal growth in whatever physical, intellectual, and cultural arenas interested them. Luddites argued that they would lose their jobs and worsen their lot while the factory owners amassed greater and greater profits. The Luddite argument shows a better grasp of the structural incentives of capitalism. The owners’ argument rests upon the hidden premise that workers themselves will profit from their increased productivity. But capitalist incentives work the other way: the company incentive is to lay off superfluous workers while remaining workers make twice as many widgets per day at the same old wages. After all, the remaining workers are now “lucky” to have a job and it is a “buyer’s market” for the employer.

Of course it is not a zero-sum game. Luddites were right in that working class conditions in Victorian England were famously appalling. (Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England is perhaps the best contemporary account.) But the government would intervene with labor laws, and the economy itself would adjust to fill the vacuum with new veins of employment. No one would argue that workers today, at least in the West, are not better off than they were in the nineteenth century. But the point is that the increase in productivity due to mechanization did not proportionately increase leisure opportunities for personal fulfillment. Workers were still expected to work full time. The curve change was not in the amount of labor time input but in the amount of productivity output. More aggregate wealth was generated with no increase in aggregate leisure (except perhaps for the investing classes).

Today’s tech revolution is subject to the same utopian mythmaking by the “improvement” industry and to the same grim truths of the labor market. We are told that computerized automation will exponentially increase per capita productivity, freeing people up for personal fulfillment. But the truth is that more often it results in layoffs, fewer jobs for humans, at least in the short run, and more productivity expected per salary. And think about Facebook’s recent (February 2014) acquisition of WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees, for $19 billion dollars. Where so much of GDP is funneled through 55 employees, what does that mean for workers in the aggregate? Does this make it easier for them to find employment or empower them to increase their leisure time? Not likely.

Moreover, those who are “freed up for personal fulfillment” by virtue of being unemployed or underemployed are charged with laziness. No matter how much productivity increases per capita, working and middle class people are expected to work their 40 hours or be damned as parasites. (I lump together working and middle classes, because the investing elite class is not subject to the same labor dynamics as those who live paycheck to paycheck.) Witness the recent CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report on Obamacare (February 2014), which said that once health care in the U.S. is universal and affordable, some people may be freed up to work fewer hours or to have one parent stay at home. This inspired much gnashing of teeth within one of our two national parties. So what if technological advances enable the same GDP with fewer hours worked, or enable affordable health care for all? How dare working class and middle class people take any extra hours for personal fulfillment!

This doesn’t mean all is lost. Although I believe the Luddites and their protege technophobes still need a fair hearing for what they reveal about technological impacts on labor within a capitalist system, I don’t believe that technological innovation is intrinsically antagonistic to workers’ long-term interests. I am not ready to completely dismiss the utopian dream of the apostles of improvement. Technology can be a force for good. But it needs to be framed by a different economy of values.  The capitalist world view of infinite market expansion incentivizes the full exploitation of a labor force, not with any eye on the human fulfillment of the workers (which is outside the scope of capitalism and its forces), but with an eye only on increased productivity and profit. This presupposition, this capitalist sensibility, is inconsistent with the utopian possibilities of technology. We need a new sensibility, a new subjective frame of reference for values like “work” and “technology” and “success.” And there are some signs that a new paradigm for self-actualization is emerging on the horizon line of capitalism. There is an increased consciousness that good stewardship of limited world resources is inconsistent with the world view whose metric of fulfillment is in magnitudes of consumption. The young techie entrepreneurs of today seem often motivated by an idealism that is beyond the scope of classical capitalism and its industrial giants. Or at least it is an idealism that is fluid or heterogeneous enough to accommodate post-capitalist ideals commingled with the residual values of productivity and profit.

The change in sensibility we need, in this case a change in the moral attitude about work, was captured as well as anyone by Buckminster Fuller at a time when the hippie revolution was coming to a head, its fate not yet decided (New York Magazine, 30 March 1970).

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Related internal blog entry: Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius
Recommended external blog entry: Global Therapy (Paul Adkin)