politics


Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

he title of the book—Conserving America?—tells us much of what we need to know about Deneen’s thesis. For much of conservative intellectual history in the United States the question of whether or not America should or could be conserved was beyond dispute, and, for the most part, it remains so. This conservation typically takes the form of conservative intellectuals fighting for the preservation of the principles of the Declaration and Constitution against those who seek, to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI, to read those documents through a hermeneutic of rupture. Interestingly, Deneen argues in the book that if America is to be conserved it will not be through the promotion of conservative principles but in a rejection of those principles. Deneen believes that the philosophy, a Hobbesian and Lockean form of liberalism, upon which the United States was founded, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Deneen has become, over the course of his long career, one of the nation’s sharpest critics, arguing that America’s founding principles are at their root progressive and at odds with the national self-image preferred by conservatives. Conserving America? is composed of twelve chapters taken mainly from speeches and lectures on subjects ranging from whether in fact America has a conservative tradition (according to Deneen, no) to what will happen when American liberalism possibly falls apart.

Deneen argues that the “Enlightenment and liberal philosophies that informed the American founding posited the existence of radically autonomous human beings in the state of nature, rights bearing creatures who consent to the creation of a government which exists to secure those rights.” But the truth, according to Deneen, is just the opposite. This radical autonomy and the state of nature exist only in theory and it is government that is put to the task of making that theory come into existence.

Deneen further argues that our electoral choices are in fact false choices and that there is a “consistent and ongoing continuity in the basic trajectory of modern liberal democracy both at home and abroad” regardless of whether the political left or the political right is in power. This trajectory results in the concentration of power in the hands of a global aristocracy that controls more and more wealth—an aristocracy that moves “continuously back and forth between public and private positions, controlling the major institutions of modern society.”

Deneen argues that the political left is the greatest beneficiary of this arrangement though they remain silent, or even at times, blissfully unaware of liberalism’s beneficence and focus their attention on identity and sexual politics. The political right, on the other hand, “promises to shore up traditional family values while supporting a borderless and dislocating economic system that destabilizes family life especially among those who do not ascend to the global elite, those outside the elite circles who exhibit devastating levels of familial and community disintegration.” For Deneen, conservatism cannot do both and indeed, its support of a limitless globalism destroys any real basis for a conservative polity.

While Deneen discusses the problems and shortcomings of the political left in the book, it is his critique of the political right that is most interesting. American conservatives would do well to take Deneen’s critique seriously even if they find they cannot fully embrace it. His critique of the destabilizing nature of capitalism is important and that critique should find ears after an election cycle that in many ways hinged on the “forgotten man,” an election cycle during which a major conservative magazine published an article arguing that communities that have been ravaged by capitalist creative destruction in some sense deserve to die, and that the poor people living in them need, more than anything, a U-Haul.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further in that he recognizes that capitalism makes it difficult to have a common good toward which a society can work. Because capitalism is based on the idea that each person working toward his or her own self-interest will benefit society as a whole, it results only in something that resembles cooperation rather than actual cooperation, much less working toward a common good that benefits the whole. This might be okay, argues Deneen following Tocqueville, if not for the fact that the “language of self-interest would [over time] exert a formative influence upon democratic man’s self-understanding” causing him to lose sight of communal responsibility and the common good. The language of self-interest is also deceptive in that “in thinking solely of our own advancement and accumulation, we deceive ourselves in thinking we are wholly self-sufficient and that our success has come solely through our own efforts.” Both of these effects of the reliance on self-interest to direct society result in the breakdown of conscious cooperation and therefore become corrosive to society.

Deneen’s critique of capitalism is instructive but at times it falls prey to what might be called a boutique mentality. For Deneen the ideal community looks something like Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In one of his more well-known essays, Deneen sees George Bailey as almost as much a villain as Mr. Potter, for it is Bailey who brings urban sprawl to Bedford Falls, in the form of affordable housing. Deneen sees in Bailey not a hero but an agent of destruction: “George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment. To re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.”

Deneen argues that a community like Bailey Park cannot sustain trust and community in the same way as Bedford Falls. Deneen sees Bailey Park as the gateway to an America “wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs.” It’s a long list of wrongs to load on the back of George Bailey. Where should the people who moved to Bailey Park live? They can’t afford to live in Bedford Falls unless Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further than it seems. Deneen is not altogether wrong about suburban life or urban sprawl, but it’s not clear what a realistic alternative would be without a massive re-appropriation of wealth. Moreover, conservatives have long admired this movie for its opposition, in the form of George Bailey, to a rapacious capitalism: the movie’s alternative view of Bedford Falls had the rapacious banker Potter prevailed is even less attractive. The challenge to Deneen is to demonstrate that there is some path that avoids both forms of consumerism and community-erasing that the movie presents.

Another theme worth grappling with is Deneen’s argument that American conservatism is not at all conservative. Deneen argues that the two main commitments of mainstream American conservatism have been the “strenuous defense of a relatively unregulated market and the insistence upon a strong military posture that extended American power into every corner of the world, often explicitly in defense of promoting universalized liberal democracy …” Neither, he says, supports the local and humane scale of community necessary for the common good and political liberty.

This effectively argues that conservatism’s main goals have been to promote liberalism. In appropriating the tools of liberalism, Deneen argues, conservatism was wildly successful, but its success did away with conservative ways of life like family farming and family-owned businesses. Deneen further argues that conservative promotion of economic and cultural globalization and conservative commitments to the “abstractions of the markets and the abstractions of national allegiance” destroyed the local forms of American life that had sustained distinctive communities across America.

So what is the way forward? Deneen sees the collapse of liberalism as possible even though in his estimation nearly every human institution has been formed to enact and perpetuate liberalism. What reason is there for hope in the face of these odds? Deneen believes that as liberalism becomes more itself, it will become harder to explain its “endemic failures [massive income inequality, the breakdown of community, etc.] as merely accidental or unintended.” Deneen is not overly optimistic on this score. He explains that as the failures of liberalism come out, many proposed alternatives will be even worse and so it is our responsibility to defeat these alternatives and propose in their place something better.

The book’s concluding chapter is titled “After Liberalism,” a deliberate homage to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Deneen acknowledges that many of the alternatives to liberalism on the world stage are not comforting, but he urges us to actively hope for the end of liberalism and that it might be a “fourth sailing—after antiquity, after Christianity, after liberalism into a post liberal and hopeful future.”

If we are to have any hope for this future after liberalism, conservatives will need to take seriously the challenges thinkers like Deneen put forth. The effects of liberalism and the free market on community must not be dismissed as intractable or their possible alternatives as unrealistic. Conservatives would also be remiss if Deneen’s critique of the deleterious effects of, especially the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, as applied through constitutionalism, are not adequately addressed. If conservatives fail to address these problems seriously it will be due to a failure of imagination. In fact it can be said, based on Deneen’s argument, that the only way to achieve the stated goals of conservatism, is to stop being “conservative.”  

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

I’m a big fan of Murray Rothbard and have read pretty much everything that he wrote, which was a lot as he was a prodigious author. I came across this article which for the most part was very flattering, but contained these two criticisms.

Unfortunately, Rothbard also sidesteps some difficult problems. The primary argument for having a state at all is that the state can overcome the public goods/free rider problem, while private entrepreneurs cannot. Rather than addressing this argument, Rothbard effectively denies the problem exists, which is no answer at all and certainly does nothing to assuage the doubts of critics. Similarly, in response to the challenge that his proposed private protective agencies would fight among themselves and oppress people, he simply asserts this would be too costly for them and they’d realize peaceful cooperation and trade are more profitable.

Well, no. One could use this logic to “prove” that Al Capone would never order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of the North Side gang, or that Hitler would never invade Poland. There’s nothing special about whether we call an organization a “state” or not that changes the benefit-cost analyses of the leaders in these matters. Perhaps it’s possible that under certain circumstances an anarchic society could be peaceful and stable, but Rothbard simply ignored the most difficult problems for his theory.

That, to me, illustrates Rothbard’s primary flaw. It seems to me that for him, no argument is too shallow so long as it leads him to a libertarian conclusion. His dedication to liberty is admirable, but as the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat warned, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” In my view, by not taking arguments for a minimal state sufficiently seriously, Rothbard ends up deceiving himself and supposing that the case for his anarcho-capitalism is airtight. I think it is not, and there are other examples of this sort of error in Rothbard’s economic, political, and historical writing.[3]

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Well, this comes as no surprise. With Republicans now controlling the Senate, House and White House, they have decided that they didn’t really mean what they said about states’ rights. And they didn’t really mean what they said about personal responsibility.

Out of the House of Representatives, courtesy of Rep. Steve King of Iowa, comes a bill (H.R. 1215) to grant immunity to doctors and hospitals if they negligently injury someone.

Given that 210,000 to 440,000 are estimated to die each year from medical malpractice  — a number that dwarfs the 30,000+ killed by guns — you should care about the subject.

Cynically named as a bill to “improve patient access to health care services” by “reducing the excessive burden the liability system,” the King bill slams an artificial cap on awards for pain and suffering at $250,000 in both federal and state cases, among many other things.

Did the hospital negligently operate on the good leg instead of the bad one? 250K.

Did you lose the good leg? The same 250K.

Did you also lose your previously bad leg because they operated on the wrong  one? The same 250K.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that lawyers won’t actively jump at the chance to spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on a suit that is so artificially limited. Thus, de facto immunity for most pain and suffering causes of action from medical malpractice.

How does King go all federal on this, going deep into what is most often a state cause of action? By stating that it will apply to anyone that receives health care through a “federal program, subsidy, or tax benefit.” [Copy Of Bill] That means anyone who uses Medicaid, Medicare, veterans health plans or Obamacare.

And by “tax benefit,” it may mean anyone who has a deduction for healthcare of any kind.  Essentially, the idea is to make sure that no one, anywhere in the country, can ever bring a meaningful action for medical malpractice.

The losers in this, of course, are the patients and their families who have already been injured once. And the taxpayers, who are now forced to pick up the tab for the rest of the loss.

King’s bill is based on a faulty premise, that doctors and hospitals order unnecessary tests to protect against malpractice claims. This is the “defensive medicine” theory of why medical costs go up.

But that theory was tested in Texas, and found to fail. As I noted in 2011, the $250,000 Texas cap didn’t stop medical increases. In fact, costs went up faster in Texas than in states that didn’t have a cap.

While doctors may have saved money with fewer suits, and insurance companies may have made buckets more money, it didn’t stop health care costs from rising.

The Texas Experiment also was also supposed to bring more doctors to Texas and more to rural counties. It didn’t work.  Even noted tort reformer Ted Frank wrote, in 2012, that the data from Texas “substantially undermines the empirical case for the conventional wisdom that Texas’s 2003 reforms against medical malpractice lawsuits attracted more doctors to Texas.” Ouch.

Frank went on to conclude:

I, for one, am going to stop claiming that Texas tort reform increased doctor supply without better data demonstrating that.

The real kicker to the artificial caps, of course, is that the taxpayers then get saddled with the costs of the injured person instead of the ones that negligently caused the injury. That’s right, saddling the taxpayers with the costs is a form of socialism. And it is being promoted by alleged conservatives.

The myth that tort “reform” reduces costs was debunked awhile ago. As Steven Cohen noted in Forbes two years ago regarding additional studies, there was no reduction in the expensive tests from states with caps:

That myth was dispatched by the recent publication of a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine. A team of five doctors and public health experts found that tort reform measures passed in three states – specifically designed to insulate emergency room doctors from lawsuits — did nothing to reduce the number of expensive tests and procedures those ER doctors prescribed.

Cohen went on to summarize that none of the “expected” reductions in health care costs came to fruition:

This latest study follows numerous others that deflated other tort reform myths: that making it harder for victims to file medical malpractice lawsuits would reduce the number of “frivolous” suits that “clog the courts;” that imposing caps on the damages victims could receive would reign in “out of control” juries that were awarding lottery-size sums to plaintiffs; and that malpractice insurance premiums would fall, thereby reversing a doctor shortage caused by specialists “fleeing the profession.”

Trump is now on the bandwagon also, or at least whoever wrote this portion of his speech last night:

“Fourthly, we should implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance — and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs, and bring them down immediately.”

This oblique reference — Trump never deals in details — was presumably put there by his staff, as I know of no other Trump comment on the subject of medical malpractice.

But wait, there’s more! Tort “reform,” you see, has never saved a life. But has it ever killed anyone? Answer, yes!

I addressed that subject a few year back by pointing to plunging payouts at Columbia Presbyterian Hosptial / Cornell Weill Medical Center. A study found that “instituting a comprehensive obstetric patient safety program decreased compensation payments and sentinel events resulting in immediate and significant savings.”

How much did they save by instituting new safety procedures — in pure dollars and cents leaving aside the human misery of injury? “The 2009 compensation payment total constituted a 99.1% drop from the average 2003-2006 payments (from $27,591,610 to $ 250,000).”

You read that right: 99.1% drop. Based on a safety program, not tort “reform.”

Now if Congress wants to take away the incentive for safety, and just give immunity, you can expect continued deaths. The results should have been screamed from the rooftops:

Safety improvements = fewer malpractice payments and healthier patients.

Tort reform = more patient deaths.

Now let’s return to politics, shall we? I just want to close by asking conservatives a few questions, and do so with the knowledge that medical protectionism has already been a proven failure in reducing health care costs:

1. Do you believe in limited government?

2.  Is giving immunity your idea of limited government?

3.  Do you believe in states rights? Would federal tort “reform” legislation that limits the state-run civil justice systems run contrary to that concept?

4.  Do you believe in personal responsibility?

5.  Do you want to limit the responsibility of negligent parties and shift the burden to taxpayers?

6.  If you believe in having the taxpayers pay for injuries inflicted by others, how much extra in taxes are you willing to authorize to cover those costs?

7.  Is shifting the cost of injuries away from those responsible, and on to the general public, a form of socialism?

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

The European Union, which only 17 years ago set a goal to “leapfrog” the U.S. in economic growth and innovation, is today on the verge of dissolution. Don’t take our word for it — they’re the ones saying it.

In a recent White Paper, the Euro-Poobahs, led by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, sketched out five scenarios for the future of the EU. One proposal would essentially dissolve the current bureaucratic structure of the EU, and replace it with what once was the sole reason for its existence: A European single market. It’s probably the only hope.

That this is being discussed now tells you everything you need to know about the EU’s dire condition today.

The truth is, none of the 500 million people in 27 European countries that belong to the massively-indebted EU like being ruled by an unaccountable bureaucracy. It has become not merely oppressive, but actively dangerous, advising countries to do economically foolish things and letting masses of “refugees” from the Mideast and Northern Africa migrate to Europe — destroying communities, disrupting law and order, and creating a massive welfare state that requires ever-higher taxes to support.

The truth is, the EU’s top-heavy bureaucrats mandate everything from the ingredients in Parma ham and fruit jam to the size of vacuum cleaners and how bent a banana or a cucumber can be. Other absurd examples number in the thousands, far too many to list.

Even an exasperated Pope Francis has weighed in, saying “bureaucracy is crushing Europe.” Yes, it’s that bad.

Worst of all, the EU is not even a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. This is what happens when bureaucracy, not people, rules.

Take the elected European Parliament. It meets in Strasbourg, France. But the bureaucracy is in Brussels. So about once a month, the whole Parliament — all 751 members and 9,000 or so others, including staff, lobbyists and journalists — pull up stakes and go to Brussels. And the lawmakers “make” no laws at all. They only vote on laws from the nonelected European Commission — a virtual dictatorship of bureaucrats.

Is it any wonder that dismantling the whole mess is now viewed as a real possibility? Britain is thriving after voting to leave the EU. Maybe the rest of the EU can, too.

And, yes, this is relevant to Americans today. For one, the EU has not “leapfrogged” the U.S. The average American today produces about $52,000 in real GDP. The average EU citizen produces about $35,000. And the gap is growing wider.

Even so, the stagnant, dysfunctional EU is the same vision American progressives have for the U.S. — bureaucratized, undemocratic, heavy-handed and inefficient, soul-less socialism-lite.

The lesson is, Europe would be wise to dismantle the EU while it still has the chance, and the U.S. would be wise not to repeat the EU’s failures.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Two weeks after David Stockman warned that “the market is apparently pricing in a huge Trump stimulus. But if you just look at the real world out there, the only thing that’s going to happen is a fiscal bloodbath and a White House train wreck like never before in U.S. history” and exclaimed that, when looking at markets, “what’s going on today is complete insanity” he is back with another interview, this time with Greg Hunter of USAWatchdog in which he, once again warns, that a giant fiscal bloodbatch is coming soon, and urges listeners to pay especially close attention to the March 15, 2017 debt ceiling deadling, at which point everything could “grind to a halt.”

As Greg Hunter writes, former Reagan Administration White House Budget Director David Stockman says financial pain is a mathematical certainty. Stockman explains, “I think we are likely to have more of a fiscal bloodbath rather than fiscal stimulus.  Unfortunately for Donald Trump, not only did the public vote the establishment out, they left on his doorstep the inheritance of 30 years of debt build-up and a fiscal policy that’s been really reckless in the extreme.  People would like to think he’s the second coming of Ronald Reagan and we are going to have morning in America.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it looks that promising because Trump is inheriting a mess that pales into insignificance what we had to deal with in January of 1981 when I joined the Reagan White House as Budget Director.”

So, can the Trump bump in the stock market keep going? Stockman, who wrote a book titled “Trumped” predicting a Trump victory in 2016, says, “I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in the hot place that’s going to happen. This is delusional.  This is the greatest suckers’ rally of all time.  It is based on pure hopium and not any analysis at all as what it will take to push through a big tax cut.  Donald Trump is in a trap.  Today the debt is $20 trillion.  It’s 106% of GDP. . . .Trump is inheriting a built-in deficit of $10 trillion over the next decade under current policies that are built in.  Yet, he wants more defense spending, not less.  He wants drastic sweeping tax cuts for corporations and individuals.  He wants to spend more money on border security and law enforcement.  He’s going to do more for the veterans.  He wants this big trillion dollar infrastructure program.  You put all that together and it’s madness.  It doesn’t even begin to add up, and it won’t happen when you are struggling with the $10 trillion of debt that’s coming down the pike and the $20 trillion that’s already on the books.”

Then, Stockman drops this bomb and says:

“I think what people are missing is this date, March 15th 2017.  That’s the day that this debt ceiling holiday that Obama and Boehner put together right before the last election in October of 2015.  That holiday expires.  The debt ceiling will freeze in at $20 trillion.  It will then be law.  It will be a hard stop.  The Treasury will have roughly $200 billion in cash.  We are burning cash at a $75 billion a month rate.  By summer, they will be out of cash.  Then we will be in the mother of all debt ceiling crises.  Everything will grind to a halt.  I think we will have a government shutdown.  There will not be Obama Care repeal and replace.  There will be no tax cut.  There will be no infrastructure stimulus.  There will be just one giant fiscal bloodbath over a debt ceiling that has to be increased and no one wants to vote for.”

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

For the American left, 2016 proved to be a year with a cruel twist ending. In the first few months, a self-
described democratic socialist by the name of Bernie Sanders mounted a surprisingly successful primary challenge to the Democratic Party’s presumed and eventual presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. By the end of 2016, however, not only had Sanders lost the primary race, but Clinton had been defeated in the general election by a billionaire who dressed his xenophobic and plutocratic ambitions in the garb of class resentment.

But the apparent strength of the left wasn’t entirely an illusion. Even as late as November, the Sanders campaign had racked up a set of important victories. The Cold War had helped to entrench the idea of socialism as antithetical to the American political tradition, and Sanders had gone a long way toward smashing that ideological consensus. By identifying himself explicitly as a democratic socialist from the outset of his campaign, he helped give renewed meaning and salience to it as a political identity firmly rooted in the American tradition.

In addition to helping end the stigma around socialism, the Sanders campaign provided a blueprint for a new generation of leftists and progressives. By running in the Democratic primary and showing that he could draw large crowds, Sanders revealed an emerging left-leaning constituency. It seemed in those early autumn months that even in defeat, Sanders had opened up the path for a more progressive Democratic Party: “Sanders Democrats” could continue to work within the party and not only protest outside it. The way forward seemed clear: After Clinton won the general election, a strengthened social-democratic left could work toward the universal provision of various social services and push for criminal-justice reforms and other key priorities.

But now, instead of holding a strengthened position within a troubled but relatively secure Democratic Party, the left appears to be simultaneously invigorated and institutionally irrelevant. The ambitious ideas and goals that have blossomed in recent years—single-payer health care, debt-free higher education, a $15-dollar-an-hour national minimum wage, paid leave, criminal-justice reform—seem to belong to a political world that no longer exists. The left is now primarily on the defensive: Rather than seeking to push the welfare state toward completion, it must defend against its dissolution. Rather than ensuring fair access to public goods like health care, education, and housing, the task of the left is now to prevent the wholesale pillage of the commons. And rather than merely restraining the hawks in the Democratic Party, the left must worry about global devastation, whether through nuclear action or climate inaction.

So what remains of 2016’s hoped-for “political revolution”? Two books by Sanders, Outsider in the White House and Our Revolution, and two volumes of essays by some of this new left’s leading voices, The ABCs of Socialism and The Future We Want, offer us some clues. While written with different conditions in mind, these books still serve as important references for thinking through how to move forward.

Sanders’s emergence as the de facto spokesman and moral conscience of the American left was nearly impossible to anticipate. In spite of having risen to the highest elected position of any socialist in US history, Sanders wasn’t viewed by many leftists as central to their projects and organizing efforts, most of which, in the early 2000s, were directed toward non-electoral goals and communities in urban areas. But the themes that Sanders struck—reducing economic inequality, fighting climate change and the corrosive influence of money in our politics—­were well-chosen for our moment of economic upheaval and drew progressively larger crowds.

A careful account of Sanders’s story, and why he emerged so suddenly, will be the work of future historians. But he has written two campaign autobiographies that provide a reasonable first draft. Outsider in the White House was produced relatively quickly and published in 2015. Other than a new preface by Sanders and an afterword by The Nation’s John Nichols, it is essentially a retitled version of Outsider in the House, his 1997 book. Our Revolution, published in the days after Trump’s election, recapitulates the candidate’s biography but also gives us an account of his primary campaign against Clinton and concludes with a detailed policy agenda.

Both books provide similar accounts of Sanders’s life, but the earlier book offers a more complete portrait of his youth and political formation. Sanders was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish household in Brooklyn. The son of a paint salesman, 
he didn’t grow up in poverty but was conscious throughout childhood of the family’s lack of money. He attended Brooklyn College for his freshman year and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he felt isolated among the children of businesspeople and professionals. By his own admission, Sanders wasn’t an especially good student, instead dedicating much of his time to activism with the university’s chapters of the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress of Racial Equality.

The civil-rights movement was an important factor in Sanders’s politicization in the early 1960s. He participated in protests against the segregated housing owned by the University of Chicago, for which he was arrested, and in 1963 he made the long bus trip to Washington, DC, to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Sanders also joined the Student Peace Union and became involved in the antiwar movement. After college, he moved to Vermont and lived in rustic conditions. After joining the antiwar Liberty Union Party, a statewide socialist party founded in 1970, Sanders ran for the US Senate in 1972, winning just 2 percent of the vote. Four years later, he ran for governor, winning all of 6 percent.

Perhaps it was Vermont’s isolation from the civil-rights movement and other struggles of the era that made Sanders incline toward electoral politics rather than other forms of activism. Or perhaps it was simply that the Liberty Union Party’s leadership could fit into a living room, and he happened to be the one who volunteered for a Senate run. But at a time when New York–based socialists like Michael Harrington were forming the predecessors of today’s Democratic Socialists of America to push the Democratic Party to the “left wing of the possible,” Sanders was instead gaining experience in presenting socialist ideas as part of electoral campaigns. If many on the left had reconciled themselves to the task of trying to reform the Democratic Party from within in the 1970s, Sanders had decided to carry on the tradition of electoral socialism inherited from his idol, Eugene Debs.

Sanders’s first political success came in 1981, when—to nearly everyone’s surprise—­he was elected as mayor of Bur­lington by a margin of 14 votes. But it wasn’t his own election that prompted him to first use his signature phrase “political revolution.” Elected on a platform that included protecting the environment and halting property-tax increases, Sanders soon found that Burlington’s board of aldermen was unwilling to work with him. So he decided that he needed to lead a “political revolution” in order to win more elections: this time to take aldermanic seats as well as the mayor’s office. In the following election, his Progressive Coalition ran candidates in every ward, an effort that found them knocking on nearly every door in the city. The Sanders forces won several of these races, and while they didn’t have a majority, they had enough seats to veto any Democratic or Republican initiative, forcing the traditional parties to work with them. “If the mayoral victory one year before had been regarded by some as a fluke,” Sanders writes, “there could be no mistaking what was happening now. A political revolution had occurred in Burlington.”

In Sanders’s time as mayor, Burlington became a small-town echo of the municipal socialism of the 1920s. He halted the property-tax increases, as promised, and raised revenue through a room-and-meal tax. A community land trust was set up to create affordable housing for low-income residents. There was also lakefront beautification and cultural renewal, with free blues, jazz, reggae, and country-music festivals, and events featuring left-wing luminaries like Studs Terkel and Noam Chomsky. Sanders also gave the city something of a foreign policy, traveling to Managua for the anniversary of the Nicaraguan Revolution, to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon in 1988, and to Cuba in 1989.

The question remained whether San­ders’s form of “political revolution”—the idea that mass organizing and local electoral victories could help push American politics to the left—could work on a scale larger than the municipal one. In 1990, Sanders ran successfully for the House of Representatives, where he served eight terms; in 2007, he was elected to the Senate, where he caucused, sometimes uneasily, with Democrats. He became the highest-ranking American politician to describe himself as a socialist.

Sanders remained out of step with the centrist politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, which dominated the party in those years. He was willing to endorse Bill Clinton for president in 1996 as preferable to Republican rule, but he did so without enthusiasm. He thought mainstream Democrats had abandoned the language of class, and he opposed DLC-championed trade deals like NAFTA, which served to place American workers in direct competition with the lower wages and regulatory standards outside the United States.

Once he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1991, Sanders helped set up the Progressive Caucus with Democratic allies like Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Lane Evans of Illinois, and Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums of California. He worked on adding progressive components to existing bills, and he wondered, as he watched the 1996 Republican National Convention produce a huge bounce in the polls, “What could happen, what would happen, in this country if progressives were allowed to have four or five nights of prime-time television and front-page newspaper coverage? What would happen if we could present a point of view that most Americans are unfamiliar with? Would we suddenly become the dominant political force in America? No. Would millions of Americans develop a much more sympathetic attitude toward democratic socialism? Yes.”

But it would be impossible to test his theory of political revolution from the confines of Congress. It required far more public attention, and a galvanizing campaign that would raise money and consciousness and inspire volunteers to put in work across the country. That could happen with a presidential campaign, the only realistic way to test his theory on a much larger scale. In 2015 and 2016, Sanders discovered—one suspects much to his own surprise—just how far he might be able to take this tactic.

If Sanders had won the presidency, he would have encountered, just as he had in Burlington in the early 1980s, a legislature consisting of Republicans and many Democrats who would have been unwilling to work with him or accept his victory as more than a fluke. The real test would have come in the 2018 midterms—­analogous to those aldermanic elections—with pro-Sanders candidates running across the country, competing for every House seat and the contested Senate ones. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sanders’s run in the Democratic primary was cultural rather than electoral: He gave renewed vigor to the egalitarian ideals of socialism and, along the way, revealed a growing base of young voters who shared his enthusiasm for them.

Sanders defines democratic socialism in an idiosyncratic way: It is, above all else, fundamentally Rooseveltian—especially the Roosevelt of the never-implemented Second Bill of Rights in 1944. For Sanders, certain social goods—housing, education, and health care—deserve to be understood as rights rather than as commodities sold for profit. To achieve these ends, he sees the need to fight the power of concentrated wealth, which distorts both markets and politics in favor of the wealthy. But Sanders has another critique that is equally powerful and just as salient to our moment. His frequent invocation of the 1 percent and its undeserved share of the national wealth is not only an argument about economic inequality; it is also an argument about political inequality. One cannot be an equal member of a polity if those with wealth have far more say and far more power in the political system. A political democracy requires an economic democracy—or, as Sanders writes in Our Revolution, “today’s tyrannical aristocracy is no longer a foreign power. It’s an American billionaire class that has unprecedented economic and political influence over all of our lives.”

Sanders’s success with young voters reveals a bimodal distribution of socialist enthusiasm. The old guard that came of age in the 1960s, like San­ders, has now been met by a growing influx of organizers from the ranks of those born after 1980, people who have entered the workforce during years marked by varying degrees of capitalist crisis. The ABCs of Socialism, edited by Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara, and The Future We Want, edited by Sunkara and The Nation’s Sarah Leonard, offer us some insights into the ways in which this new generation is attempting to redefine the socialist tradition for the 21st century.

The two books have much in common, sharing an editor and several authors. The ABCs of Socialism is a direct response to the surge of interest in socialism generated by the Sanders campaign. During his candidacy, subscriptions to Jacobin increased by the hundreds each week, and basic definitional and historical questions poured in. The ABCs of Socialism offers selections from the magazine, in the form of questions and relatively brief answers, to provide a useful history of the socialist ideal.

Enthusiastic though they were about the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s writers are explicitly rooted in Marxism in a way that Sanders is not. For the authors in The ABCs, socialism means something more than his vision of a Rooseveltian social democ­racy. In their analysis, socialism cannot be achieved through progressive taxation and a more robust system of rights that decommodifies certain social goods; this would bend, but not break, the power of capital. And capital will always fight back, just as it has for the last 40-plus years, starting with the crises of the early 1970s, which created opportunities for businesspeople and their political allies (like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) to fight the power of unions and the welfare state.

For Sanders, the problem is Wall Street and the billionaire class, which have captured the government and shaped the market to their advantage at the expense of ordinary workers. For Jacobin’s socialists, the problem is more acute: It is capitalism itself. In Our Revolution, Sanders defends the idea of capping the size of major banks and briefly discusses having the government support worker-owned businesses. But as Sunkara, going far beyond Sanders, puts it in his essay for The ABCs, the socialist vision remains “abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use—factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure—and replacing it with social ownership, thereby undercutting the power of elites to hoard wealth and power.” That doesn’t mean the state will seize your “Kenny Loggins records,” Sunkara puckishly adds: Socialism requires the abolition of private property, not personal property.

One of socialism’s problems in the 20th century was that its existing examples—at least the ones claiming to have gone beyond social democracy—were always politically repressive single-party states. The new socialists neither deny this fact nor dwell on it. Instead, they focus on the ethical appeal of socialism. For Jacobin’s writers, so long as capitalism remains—even in the modified form of social democracy—
injuries to human flourishing can be stanched, but not cured. It isn’t enough simply to expand the purview of the state if it leaves private property intact. But although the essays in TheABCs occasionally offer a Marxist critique of Sanders, they mostly articulate a view of socialism’s purpose that is similar to his own. As Sunkara puts it, the desired goal is “a world where people don’t try to control others for personal gain, but instead cooperate so that everyone can flourish.” Jacobin, which sometimes seems to take pride in being part of an unreconstructed left, more closely resembles the tradition of Marxist humanism that cropped up in the mid- to late 20th century, when actually existing socialism in the Soviet bloc too often proved to work against human flourishing. The point, after all, is to improve things.

If The ABCs seeks to establish a socialist ideal upon which to ground the left, The Future We Want is less theoretical and more focused on outlining the kinds of policies that might help to realize this ideal in our present moment. Collectively, the essays of The Future We Want think through how high-quality universal services, in an egalitarian context, would change human life.

Megan Erickson, in her essay “Imagining Socialist Education,” looks at our school system and argues that socialists must fight for universal access to the kind of liberating, decommodified education that members of the elite receive. In “Sex Class,” Sarah Leonard describes the importance of universal child care for socialist feminism—because otherwise the best that liberal feminism can offer will only be available to those who can pay. In “How to Make Black Lives Really, Truly Matter,” Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith argue that overcoming the legacy of racism can only happen by closing the wealth gap between black and white Americans. To this end, they propose job guarantees and baby bonds that mature at 18 for all those born to families below the median net wealth.

Several of the book’s contributors mention the prospect of a universal basic income to cope with technological and social changes here and on the horizon, and to help manage the transition toward less work—the decommodification of life itself, and thus the weakening of the power of capital. But overall, the imagined interlocutor of these essays is neither on the left nor the right; it’s the sort of liberal who also seeks to reduce inequality, but would do so by increasing opportunity rather than reducing economic disparities. By highlighting the inequalities born out of liberal policies, the writers and editors of The Future We Want assert that the kind of goals that liberals and socialists share—greater formal equality, more egalitarian representation, a political system that doesn’t solely benefit elites—can only be realized through socialist means.

As we are no longer in a moment in which well-intentioned liberals are in power, these arguments will have to be repurposed. Donald Trump’s election has been a radicalizing experience for many: Subscriptions to the left’s magazines and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America increased throughout the Sanders campaign and jumped again after Election Day. But in 
spite of its energy and vigor, the left now needs to rethink some of its strategies and ideas. Total control of the government by the Republican Party, joined with Trump’s executive power, means that even massive mobilizations will produce defensive victories at best. Those victories are real and clearly worth the fight—not least because they produce solidarity—but the losses will still pile up. We are no longer debating a slower or longer path to social democracy; we are defending against the racist, misogynistic, and kleptocratic practices of a man committed to dismantling the New Deal.

But the left cannot sustain itself on defense alone. Other than doing what it can to stop Trump’s worst abuses, the left must develop a theory of change for a moment when the Democratic Party doesn’t control any branch of government. For a time, Sanders seemed to have shown us how to pull the Democratic Party to the left. Yet the vulnerability of his strategy was that it required the party’s more centrist wing to win the presidential election—which, as events have proved, isn’t something we can take for granted. Despite this defeat, the energy to resist—and to build—is there. If the Democrats are still afraid to speak of class, they will have to be taught. Those who cannot or will not stand up to Trump need to face primary challenges from the left. And even if the party’s next presidential candidate isn’t a progressive, the left needs to make clear in the intervening years that he or she will have to win over a sizable number of young voters who are.

Trump’s enormous unpopularity means that, assuming the continued existence of small-D democracy, the Democratic Party will win major elections in the future. The left’s job is to make sure that when it does, it will be a more egalitarian and progressive force. Until then, the broad left should focus on the common ground: civil rights, economic equality, universal services, and real democracy for all. Whatever Trump succeeds in dismantling, we must have the ideas at hand to rebuild it stronger and better once he’s gone. In short: What do we need to do next? Everything.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto, penned clearly in response to accusations leveled at the social network in the wake of the bitter U.S. election campaign, is a scary, dystopian document. It shows that Facebook — launched, in Zuckerberg’s own words five years ago, to “extend people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships” — is turning into something of an extraterritorial state run by a small, unelected government that relies extensively on privately held algorithms for social engineering.

In 2012, Zuckerberg addressed future Facebook investors in a letter attached to the company’s initial public offering prospectus. Here’s how he described the company’s purpose:

People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives. By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.

Whatever those beliefs were based on, they have largely failed the test of time. Instead of creating stronger relationships, Facebook has spawned anxieties and addictions that are the subject of academic studies from Portugal to Australia. Some studies have determined that using Facebook detracts from a user’s life satisfaction.

A Danish experiment in 2015, involving people weaned from Facebook for a week and a control group that kept using it, showed that people on the social network are 55 percent more likely to feel stressed; one of the sources of that stress is envy of the glossified lives reported by other users. Users’ well-being, research has showed, only tends to increase when they have meaningful interactions — such as long message exchanges — with those who are already close to them.

In his latest manifesto, Zuckerberg uses parenting groups as an example of something his company does right. But recent research shows that some new mothers use Facebook to obtain validation of their self-perception as good parents, and failing to get enough such validation causes depressive symptoms.

As for the “rewired” information infrastructure, it has helped to chase people into ideological silos and feed them content that reinforces confirmation biases. Facebook actively created the silos by fine-tuning the algorithm that lies at its center — the one that forms a user’s news feed. The algorithm prioritizes what it shows a user based, in large measure, on how many times the user has recently interacted with the poster and on the number of “likes” and comments the post has garnered. In other words, it stresses the most emotionally engaging posts from the people to whom you are drawn — during an election campaign, a recipe for a filter bubble and, what’s more, for amplifying emotional rather than rational arguments.

Bragging in his new manifesto, Zuckerberg writes: “In recent campaigns around the world — from India and Indonesia across Europe to the United States — we’ve seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins.” In the Netherlands today, liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s page has 17,527 likes; that of fiery nationalist Geert Wilders, 174,188. In France, rationalist Emmanuel Macron has 165,850 likes, while far-right Marine Le Pen boasts 1.2 million. Helping them win is hardly something that would make Zuckerberg, a liberal, proud — but, with his algorithmic interference in what people can see on his network, he has created a powerful tool for populists.

Zuckerberg doesn’t want to correct this mistake and stop messing with what people see on the social network. Instead, the new manifesto talks about Facebook as if it were a country or a supranational bloc rather than just a communication-enabling technology. Zuckerberg describes how Facebook sorts groups into “meaningful” and, presumably, meaningless ones. Instead of facilitating communication among people who are already part of social support groups offline, he wants to project Facebook relationships into the real world: Clearly, that’s a more effective way of keeping competitors at bay.

The Facebook chief executive says his team is working on artificial intelligence that will be able to flag posts containing offensive information — nudity, violence, hate speech — and pass them on for final decisions by humans. If past experience is any indication, the overtaxed humans will merely rubber-stamp most decisions made by the technology, which Zuckerberg admits is still highly imperfect. Zuckerberg also suggests enabling every user to apply the filters provided by this technology:

Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don’t need to dig around to find them. For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.

The real-life effect will be that most users, too lazy to muck around with settings, will accept the “majority” standard, making it even less likely that anything they see would jar them out of their comfort zone. Those who use the filters won’t be much better off: They’ll have no idea what is being filtered out because Facebook’s algorithms are a black box.

Zuckerberg casts Facebook as a global community that needs better policing, governance, nudging toward better social practices. He’s willing to allow some democracy and “referendums,” but the company will make the ultimate decision on the types of content people should see based on their behavior on Facebook. Ultimately, this kind of social engineering affects people’s moods and behaviors. It can drive them toward commercial interactions or stimulate giving to good causes but it can also spill out into the real world in more troubling ways.

It’s absurd to expect humility from Silicon Valley heroes. But Zuckerberg should realize that by trying to shape how people use Facebook, he may be creating a monster. His company’s other services — Messenger and WhatsApp — merely allow users to communicate without any interference, and that simple function is the source of the least controversial examples in Zuckerberg’s manifesto. “In Kenya, whole villages are in WhatsApp groups together, including their representatives,” the Facebook CEO writes. Well, so are my kids’ school mates, and that’s great.

People are grateful for tools that help them work, study, do things together — but they respond to shepherding in unpredictable ways.  “Virtual identity suicide” is one; the trend doesn’t show up in Facebook’s reported usage numbers, but that might be because a lot of the “active users” the company reports are actually bots. If you type “how to leave” into the Google search window, “how to leave Facebook” will be the first suggestion.

Next Page »