Posts tagged ‘individualism’

The problem with Occupy Wall Street

By , 7 October, 2011, 1 Comment

As regular readers will know, I worry that the American left is preoccupied with culture at the expense of economics, more concerned with identity politics than it is with combating inequality. As someone who leans left primarily because of economic issues, that’s made me feel a bit homeless, politically.

So, as a critique, from the left, of our economic malaise, Occupy Wall Street interests me. But I am frustrated by the way the critique is framed.

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Thanksgiving Book Recommendation

By , 25 November, 2010, 5 Comments

I’m surfacing briefly from my food coma induced nap to type out this post, and then I’ll be climbing right back into bed. Those of you who read this blog regularly (all five of you, that is) will know that I’m preoccupied–some might say obsessed–with the conflict between the communitarian and individualist strains in liberal politics. And I keep returning to the subject in large part because I feel I’m doing a lousy job of articulating what I think–or indeed, understanding myself well enough to be articulate. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, is helping me work through it, and for that, I recommend it to you.

The best analysis of the novel I’ve read is over at Apostrophe, a lit blog by a former schoolmate of mine, Amelia Atlas. Here’s what she says,

There is a totality to what he writes that extends beyond its visible horizons, a moral universe as well as a visual one.  Whether or not one believes in the fundamental enterprise of realism—a conversation for another time—there are few equal practitioners of it working in America today.

… the entirety of Freedom could be taken as one long performance of everything that Mill, in his utilitarian idealism, got wrong.

…In On Liberty, Mill outlines a vision of freedom wherein the only constraints on the actions of any one person are those which entail harm unto others.  He is not so naïve as to believe in an automatic consensus of what constitutes harm, but he does believe that it’s possible for untempered individuality to exist alongside a sense of the common good

…I make no claim that Freedom is by any stretch a kind of one-to-one test of Mill’s harm principle.  What Franzen does do, however, is capture the difference between a conceptual and an experiential politics.  Like his nineteenth-century progenitors, he checks our moral compass against its reality on the ground (this, not simply mimesis, is the heart of the realist tradition).

Really, there’s not much to do except issue a huge +1 to the above.

What spoke to me most about the book is that it solves a problem I have had in explaining my preference for communitarian over individualist liberalism to friends, colleagues etc. What I find is that EVEN when I can make a legitimate case for why the communitarian approach produces a better policy outcome in some area of public life, I face a lot of skepticism for why anyone, personally, should be drawn to it. It always seems to my listener that I’m asking them to trade IN themselves for the community, when in fact the core of communitarianism is the notion that the self is MOST fulfilled when grounded in relationships to others. Very few people seem to buy that notion of positive freedom anymore. Franzen does a pretty good job of making the case in reverse, by showing not only what hollow social doctrines Millian individualism produces, but also–and more importantly–how soul-crushing it is FOR the individuals who participate in it. It is a book about people who believe that they are acting in the general interest by fulfilling themselves personally, and it is a book about the personal tragedy that comes from this delusion.

This makes for tough reading. The characters are unpleasant people, and get worse as the book–and their individualist experiment–progresses. There are no good guys and no light moments of relief from the ugliness the book sets out to expose. It will upset you. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One of my former colleagues thought it could have been a better novel if it gave us more lovable faces. But my favorite thing about it was its unrelenting tone, an urgency and desperation, as if Franzen were the last sane man in the asylum screaming to be heard before the individualist madness engulfs him too. The fact is, I’ve not read anything that felt so completely of–and in response to–its moment than this book in about ten years.

Read it. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Another One Bites the Dust

By , 5 June, 2009, 1 Comment

It is technically premature to call Gordon Brown a dust-biter, but the dismal results from yesterday’s local elections suggest Labour’s days are numbered. Indeed, David Cameron made a good point, for once noting that everyone gathered around their tellies looking for election results couldn’t even get them because the only news story was the flood of cabinet resignations and calls for Brown’s ouster. So far, Brown is hiding behind the loyalty of Darling and Mandelson, but I don’t think it will carry him past mid-summer, if that.

I’ll leave the horse race analysis of how the coup will unfold and who will replace Brown to others, but there’s one point relevant to the paradigm shifts Cappuccino follows. The nail in the coffin for Labour seems to have been the populist uproar over MP’s expenses and the rhetorical space that created for other anti-institutionalist arguments including the Tory rants against European integration and government welfare programs.

The election results thus support my longstanding belief that the real divide in society is between individualists and institutionalists and my hunch that institutionalists are losing that battle so badly and on so many fronts (from the referendum on Europe to Obama’s “new politics” to the collapse of organized media) that we might not rise to fight again.

On a Roll

By , 31 May, 2009, No Comment

I am feeling very smug about my predictive track record when it comes to the “revolution in culture” that is this blog’s subtitle.

Exhibit A: After recommending that news organizations negotiate an ad-share with Google, I was thrilled to discover that the New York Times was exploring it, and amused to find, yesterday, that Jeff Jarvis is now touting the idea as though he came up with it AND apparently without knowledge that the Times is already doing it. Since I have many bones to pick with Jarvis, this pleases me.

Exhibit B: After cautioning against the takeover of politics, media, etc by individualists over institutionalists, I am overjoyed to see the Fast Talker–a citizen-media enthusiast and individualist liberal-tarian at times–taking my side. What woke him up? A glimpse at the individualist Right in David Cameron, and the damage the Tory bashing of MP’s expenses has done to his party–Labour–in the lead-up to this week’s local elections. Here is the thing: To turn the tide for Labour, British lefties have to develop a defense of institutions, and that includes many institutions that the individualist Left likes to rail against. Liberal-tarians whining about corporate bonuses sets up a conservative critique of big government. Both kinds of whining need to be given up, but the cultural tide towards individualism in both left- and right- leaning circles makes that unlikely.

Another option, it seems to me, is for institutionalists of both left- and right- flavors to band together against both kinds of individualism. The question for the Fast Talker is whether he is willing to defend the corporation and the Church to protect the National Health System. If he’s not, I think he should prepare for bad news in Thursday’s polls.

David Cameron’s Cowboy Justice

By , 25 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Although today’s a U.S. holiday, I’m taking my time off to worry about the political winds across the pond in the U.K. Not only because I lived there a while and have friends with vested interests in how the next election pans out, but also because the core issue in that election is the same as the one I’ve been ranting about in our politics: the battle between institutionalists and individualists.

In Britain, however, it’s the individualist right, rather than the individualist left, that is ascendant over a Labour party that, so long as it’s led by Gordon Brown, will be all about big institutions tackling big social problems. The latest missive is Conservative leader David Cameron’s op-ed on the uproar over MPs’ expenses in the Guardian. Cameron begins with an assault on government abuse that reminds me of the individualist left’s assault on corporate bonuses a while back. His core argument: this is why institutions, all of them, are bad, and we should devolve more power to the people

“The anger, the suspicion, and the cynicism – yes, with politics and politicans, but with so much else – are the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them, and over much that determines whether of not they’ll live happy and fulfilling lives…So I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: form the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street…We should start by pushing political power down as far as possible…With every decision government makes, it should ask a series of simple questions: does this give power to people or take it away? Could we let individuals, neighbourhoods and communities take control? How far can we push power down?”

Part of me is glad Cameron wrote this item, because it should finally kill the delusions of those who are trying to cast him in an institutionalist light. The scariest claim is the push for replacing “judges”–the rule of law–with “the people.”–as in cowboy justice. The most absurd claim is the argument that the purpose of government should be to determine how much power it can give away. This is the great paradox of the individualist right: why run for state office if, ultimately, you don’t believe in the writ of the state? One hopes that the “people” in whom Cameron places so much faith will see through this circular logic, but that would require Labour to offer something coherent in response.

The institutionalist triumph

By , 23 April, 2009, 1 Comment

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.

Apocalypse 20: Some ruccus in the new media ranks

By , 29 March, 2009, No Comment

As a silver lining to the recessionary cloud, I’ve been trumpeting the boisterous and robust debates taking place among newshounds over new business models for media.

Among the internet evangelists, these debates are usually taken as signs of professional media’s last breaths before the dictatorship of the proletariat (aka a citizen-driven “gift” economy) comes to save us. So of course, the internet evangelists yippee’ed at the announcement from the HuffPo that they are creating a fund to finance investigative reporting that will then be gifted to anyone who wants to run ads against it on their own site. They yippee’ed again at the new bill in Congress to make it easier for news outfits to claim nonprofit status.

Now all of these ventures, while helping to take down the existing structures of professional media, take their cues from the same value system that professional media folk claim–that journalism has a civic role to play, as a watchdog on those in power, as a forum for debate and a cultivator of public opinion, etc.

Yet the project of dismantling the mainstream media and claiming the legal rights of journalists on behalf of a citizen-activist runs directly counter to that value system. The civic function of journalism is enshrined in constitutional laws that, with the rise of computers, have lost their clarity: is a blog free Speech or free Press? There are ways to untangle that mystery, but most of them, as I’ve angsted before, seem to lead us into anarchist terrain. My angst seems justified in light of this essay in Slate–the author thumbs his nose at any democratic use for journalism and bemoans the journalism-as-civil-society theory as an old media meme.

The real battle, it seems, is not old media vs. new media but, as I continue to argue, institutionalism vs. individualism. If you think (as I do) that journalism has a civic value, then your solutions to the industry’s current struggles might turn towards to redefining journalism for the digital age in a way that separates those who report (ie journalists) from those who just make noise. If you think the journalism-as-public-service argument is maudlin junk, you might simply hail the demise of journalism as an organizational category.

While these two camps of new media thinkers duke it out, there’s room for old media organizations to experiment–I’ve blogged before that I think the NY Times is onto something in its merger with the Herald Tribune. That merger takes another small step today–the Times rebranded the IHT’s website as the “Global Edition of the New York Times” months ago; now they have rebranded the international pages of the Times’ own site with the IHT logo.

Obviously, a website redesign does little for the Times’ bigger problems, but the merger yields a reporting structure that any future model should take into account.

Partisanship Changes, but it doesn’t go away

By , 18 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I’ve been blogging that I think post-partisanship is a sham. To the extent that the stimulus process was meant to be the test of Obama’s “post-partisan” vision, I’m relieved to report that it didn’t quite work out his way. Partisanship does not, cannot and should not go away. But the nature of the debate reminds us that partisanship is not static, because the parties themselves shift and redefine over time. And THAT kind of change has surely arrived.

Start with the stimulus: what’s the divide between the three Republicans who voted for the bill and all the rest who didn’t? The simple answer is that the three—Collins, Snowe and Specter—are “moderates,” that they fall in the center of the current partisan spectrum. But the Republican party has fiscal, social and defense types, and you can be moderate on one axis and conservative on the other. The divide in this case was on fiscal issues, between fiscal conservatives who think government is more problem than solution and should be shrunk by spending cuts, and fiscal moderates who think government is one kind of solution and should be strengthened by (responsibly financed) expansion.

At its highest minded, this disagreement is a conflict between those who believe in the power of the individual and the decentralized and those who believe in the power of the central institution or community. But being anti-institution is not at all part of the current, about-to-be-old conservatism. On the social axis, for example, it’s the far right that believes in the institution (the nuclear heterosexual family, the Church) and the libertarian-right that leaves such things to individual choice. Meanwhile, it’s the far right (the neocons) that advocates for U.S. military interests and the moderate realists who say no often on grounds of national sovereignty and opposition to global governance. That the institution vs. individual fault line has suddenly become the chief fault line on the right is a new development.

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Some Thoughts on Obama’s Big Day

By , 20 January, 2009, 6 Comments


For a man known for his soaring rhetoric, I thought the speech was comparitively flat, disjointed in rhetoric, and plagued by mixed metaphors.

From a vision perspective, he dropped a lot of his “change” rhetoric for an emphasis on the “era of responsibility,” but that’s a pretty innocuous and vague vision that has been used before. What does it mean? Let’s ask Gordon Stewart:
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama — we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either. Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.

Refreshingly, unlike most of Obama’s campaign speeches, this one did have some actual suggestions about policy in it, and policies I rather liked. First off, he offered up a centrist economic agenda—a medium-sized, efficiency-oriented government that will cut failed programs. I’m with Mickey Kaus on this: it’s a pie-crust promise, but if he pulls it off, it’ll be a massive coup.

Secondly, he offered up a progressive foreign policy, in what was the only real killer line:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
As Howard Fineman reminds us in Newsweek, Barack Obama’s career started with this idea of dialogic foreign policy and the core merit of his election is the image, the brand, of America he presents abroad. The woolliness of “change” is perfectly suited to the figurehead component of the Presidency.

It is not so suited to domestic policy, though what I call woolliness President Obama calls post-partisanship. And my biggest problem with the speech was that moment where he, again, called anyone who doesn’t buy the post-partisan thing a “cynic.” Let me explain this again: a cynic is someone who has ideal A, but opts for action B because it seems achievable. In the case of President Obama’s vision, a cynic would say “post-partisanship sounds great, but I don’t think it can happen.” I am not that person. I paraphrase Gail Collins: “God forbid we ever have post-partisanship. I would hate that. Partisanship IS my ideal.”
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I believe great policies are often crafted in the ideological center. But they emerge from principled back-and-forth between two sides. Ex: Even if President Johnson could have passed the Great Society laws without threatening Republican Senators and fighting partisan battles I would not want him to have done so. By alienating and angering some on the Right, he ensured that they would spend a generation trying to find private sector alternatives to his policies. Which meant that when the 1990s rolled around and some of his policies were proven roaring successes [Medicare, education and arts funding], while others started to falter [ex: the urban renewal projects], ideas developed by Johnson’s wounded enemies were ready to fill in gaps. The result was welfare reform, the appropriation of some right-wing ideas by a liberal President [Clinton], without any claims to share a universal set of ideals. Clintonian “triangulation” had a sort of Hegelian dialectic logic to it; Obama’s post-partisan vision is different, and in my mind, worse.
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President Obama and his supporters have every right to disagree with me, or with Hegel, or with anyone else, but to dismiss my ideals as nonexistent, or to assume that I share THEIR ideals and am cynically settling for something lesser is presumptuous.

That brings me to the last point about this speech: there’s a lot of hubris in President Obama’s claim that the end trajectory of history is to some middle point where binary conflicts end and that he represents that path. He claims to speak for all of us, and expects us all to fall in line and march towards his professed goals. It’s a bit groupthink-oriented for my tastes. Mickey Kaus and George Will concur. Worse still, he claims that all past history was marching this way even if we didn’t know it. That bit about slaves and pioneers suffering “for us” was borderline offensive, especially since he brushed aside the very real history of racial struggle in one sentence.

It’s paradoxical in a way. President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech. The rest of us matter so long as you believe, as he does, that everyone is—in their hearts—a believer in his postpartisan ideals. If you actively reject those ideals in favor of conflict-as-an-ideal, you don’t fit his worldview. The notion that processes drive history and that individuals emerge FROM those processes, conditioned by impersonal forces, and able to exercise agency within existing balances of power, is out of sync with Mr. Obama’s rather audacious sense of self.

Pompous, hyperbolic, and intelligent, however, is a welcome relief from pompous, hyberbolic and inept. Good riddance, good night and good luck.

Thank God for Leon Panetta

By , 5 January, 2009, 4 Comments


With his nomination today, the Obama team jolted this blogger back into her native state of righteous indignation, and so Cappuccino springs back into action.

I have expressed no shortage of skepticism about 44-elect, in part about his vision of government as driven by ideas rather than process [it’s not cynicism: I actively prefer the institutionalists and backroom dealers], but also about his rhetoric of change, of bringing “new players” to the “Washington game.”Link
Ironically, that rhetoric is among the least new things about him. It’s the argument that worked for Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, and that’s just in recent history. Each of them campaigned as a Washington outsider, but where Carter and Clinton actually brought unseasoned folks into power, Reagan was just talking, and wisely re-employed all the old Nixon and Ford hands. If you’re a progressive like me, you probably didn’t like Reagan’s agenda, but you have to concede that he was able to push that agenda through. That’s because his staffers knew how to work the system. Carter brought a whole bunch of his buddies from Georgia in, and while his personal character, intellect and vision were fine when it came to finessing the U.S. image abroad or lending some good feeling to peace negotiations, on the domestic front (energy reform, anyone?) the approach was a giant flop. Clinton is the middle example: he came in with some friends from Arkansas, then found out they really weren’t up to the job the hard way. His party got walloped in the 1994 elections and by the following year, you had some older wiser hands running the Clinton show. Net result: success on big issues like welfare reform after some big staff reshuffles.

Obama represents a more unpleasant kind of middle ground. He’s trying to have both the goodwill that comes from promising “change” and the success that comes from tapping experience by appointing experienced people (ahem a bunch of Clintonites), but putting them in charge of policy areas they have no experience with. Hillary Clinton, health care, women’s rights and childcare expert, is in charge of foreign policy. Bill Richardson, erstwhile Energy Secy, has been born again–briefly–as an authority on commerce. And now Leon Panetta, Washington inside-baseballer and person-to-person expert, has been charged with managing our national intelligence with the outside world. Oh brother.

This is bound to create precisely the leadership structure Obama wants: each of these people will disregard their institutions and give the President direct advice on the issues they ACTUALLY know about, as individuals and friends. It will be character and idea based, and then 44 will call his own shots based on his relationships to those people and his assessment of their trustworthiness.

Even if he wasn’t such a spring chicken, I’d be mildly alarmed by that. The most effective presidents call their own shots based on advice that comes to them from their deputies NOT as people but as representatives of A. specific policy arenas and B. specific government instutions–the Fed, the Pentagon, the Department of Labor, say. The advice itself then reflects the institutional judgment and memory of those bureaucracies and the seniormost advisors have the experience WITH THAT SPECIFIC AGENCY to squeeze the best intel out of it.

This model isn’t romantic, for which reason the Obama folks won’t adopt it, and I seriously fear that the administration, the country, and the Democratic Party will pay for that audacity.