Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Rebuilding the left - 3 - back to basics

When we see politics permeate every sector of life, we call it totalitarianism. When religion rules all, we call it theocracy. But when commerce dominates everything, we call it liberty. Benjamin R. Barber - Los Angeles Times
David Seaton's News Links
One of the most interesting things that Howard Dean has been pushing of late is the idea of the Democrats campaigning on "values": Not abandoning that field to the Republicans without a fight. That there could be some common ground between conservatives and liberals on what constitutes an optimum, human experience: A 'decent' life. I think that this is a powerful idea whose time has come.

In a previous post I had a clipping about a grade school in Louisiana where the dear little 5th graders fornicate on the classroom floor when teacher is absent. Here, for example is something people of both conservative and liberal views might find equally troubling and have a common, human, "catcher in the rye" impulse to do something to change. The welfare of children is a theme that unites and where there isn't a huge amount of daylight between parents of the entire political spectrum. Let's develop that theme in more detail:

Here is an interesting "values-driven" piece by Benjamin R. Barber from the Los Angeles Times, which gives a concentrated critique of today's capitalism.
The crises in subprime mortgages betrays a deeper predicament facing consumer capitalism triumphant: The "Protestant ethos" of hard work and deferred gratification has been replaced by an infantilist ethos of easy credit and impulsive consumption that puts democracy and the market system at risk.(...) Capitalism's success, however, has meant that core wants in the developed world are now mostly met and that too many goods are now chasing too few needs. Yet capitalism requires us to "need" all that it produces in order to survive. So it busies itself manufacturing needs for the wealthy while ignoring the wants of the truly needy. Global inequality means that while the wealthy have too few needs, the needy have too little wealth. Capitalism is stymied, courting long-term disaster. We still work hard, but only so that we can pay and play. In order to turn reluctant consumers with few unsatisfied core needs into permanent shoppers, producers must dumb down consumers, shape their wants, take over their life worlds, encourage impulse buying, cultivate shopoholism and invent new needs. At the same time, they empower kids as shoppers by legitimizing their unformed tastes and mercurial wants and detaching them from their gatekeeper mothers and fathers and teachers and pastors. The kids include toddlers who recognize brand logos before they can talk and commodity-minded baby Einsteins who learn to shop before they can walk. Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private-market logic ("What I want is what society needs!") and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy ("What society needs is what I want to want!").(...) Compare any traditional town square with a modern suburban mall. In the square, you'll find a school, town hall, library, general store, park, movie house, church, art gallery and homes — a true neighborhood exhibiting our human diversity as beings who do more than simply consume. But our new town malls are all shopping, all the time. When we see politics permeate every sector of life, we call it totalitarianism. When religion rules all, we call it theocracy. But when commerce dominates everything, we call it liberty. Can we redirect capitalism to its proper end: the satisfaction of real human needs? Well, why not? The world teems with elemental wants and is peopled by billions who are needy. They do not need iPods, but they do need potable water, not colas but inexpensive medicines, not MTV but their ABCs. They need mortgages they can afford, not funny-money easy credit. READ IT ALL
Barbour is basically saying that "all that is solid melts into air". The latest build of our economic system is destroying individuals, families, cultures, the environment and communities. We are living in a self-inflicted hell. In Barbour's article we can see that the issue of child welfare is linked to issues as diverse as public space and the Protestant ethos. He also points out the Achilles heel of our economic system, perhaps its principal contradiction: its over-productivity. The system just produces too much stuff and if it can't sell it all we suffer and if it does manage to sell it all we suffer even more. In producing so much useless stuff it destroys the environment too.

Howard Meyerson in the Washington Post writes about the great American multinational corporation's campaign to prevent the creation of labor unions in their Chinese workplaces. It is obvious that capitalism and political freedom are in no way connected and may well be arch antagonists.
Listen to the apostles of free trade, and you'll learn that once consumer choice comes to authoritarian regimes, democracy is sure to follow. Call it the Starbucks rule: Situate enough Starbucks around Shanghai, and the Communist Party's control will crumble like dunked biscotti. As a theory of revolution, the Starbucks rule leaves a lot to be desired. Shanghai is swimming in Starbucks, yet, as James Mann notes in "The China Fantasy," his new book on the non-democratization of China, the regime soldiers on. Conversely, the American farmers who made our revolution didn't have much in the way of consumer choice, yet they managed to free themselves from the British. In New England, however, they did have town meetings, which may be a surer guide to the coming of democratic change. It's a growing civil society -- a sphere where people can deliberate and decide on more than their coffee -- that more characteristically sounds the death knell of dictatorships. Which is why the conduct of America's corporate titans in China is so disquieting. There, since March of last year, the government has been considering a labor law that promises a smidgen of increase in workers' rights. And since March of last year, the American businesses so mightily invested in China have mightily fought it.(...) It's not as if Chinese unions would use these laws to run roughshod over employers. Chinese unions are not, strictly speaking, unions at all. They remain controlled by the Communist Party. Their locals can be and frequently are headed by plant managers, whether the workers want them or not. And yet, these changes proved too radical for America's leading corporations.(...) Andreas Lauff, a Hong Kong-based corporate attorney, wrote in the Jan. 30 Financial Times, "comments from the business community appear to have had an impact." The new draft "scaled back protections for employees and sharply curtailed the role of unions."(...) Admittedly, a few nettlesome issues remain. First, about one-fourth of the global labor force is in China. Opposing steps toward the formation of unions there suppresses the wages of so many workers that its effect is felt worldwide. Second, since authoritarian China remains an adversary of the United States and a backer of some genuinely dangerous authoritarian regimes, blocking even the most modest steps toward the development of a civil society and democratic rights there poses a threat to U.S. security interests. READ IT ALL
Some hoary old Marxist lounging on the ash heap of history might raise himself up on an elbow and be heard to croak something to the effect that the system had "entered into contradiction". Community, civil society, the family, the air and the water... and even or especially, independent thought are enemies of this version of "prosperity". Margaret Thatcher maintained that "society" doesn't "exist". Perhaps she was a prophetess. Certainly that is the direction we are taking.

Returning to the opening idea of common ground between progressives and the devout Christians. Certainly both have more in common with each other than with the economic system that we have been discussing.

The left as it was explained to me by word and example (unfortunately more of the former than the latter) is about, equality, austerity and the value of work and most of all about the brotherhood of those who work. The Catholic, "Blessed" (official title) Mother Teresa of Calcutta spoke of "the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God" and so, using the exact same words, do the thoroughly un-Catholic Freemasons. Even Confucius say, "The man of human-heartedness is one who desiring to sustain himself, sustains others, and desiring to develop himself, develops others; that may be called the way to practice human-heartedness."

So we might begin by dividing up people between the "human-hearted" and those who, while belonging to the species and living from it, are unconcerned for its welfare. The Spanish writer Ramón María del Valle Inclán, had a character named the "Marqués de Bradomin", who divided everything and everyone in the universe into two major categories:
the Marqués de Bradomin and everything else. How does this sort of personality develop? Richard Conniff writing in the New York Times has this to offer on the subject:
Let’s begin with what I call the “Cookie Monster Experiment,” devised to test the hypothesis that power makes people stupid and insensitive — or, as the scientists at the University of California at Berkeley put it, “disinhibited.” Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table. It reminded the researchers of powerful people they had known in real life. One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light.(...) The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie — not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all, but preferably all at once — that they become oblivious to the people around them. Indeed, the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green (and damn the pedestrians). Professor Keltner and his fellow researchers describe it as an instance of “approach/inhibition theory” in action: As power increases, it fires up the behavioral approach system and shuts down behavioral inhibition.(...) The bottom line: Without power, people tend to play it safe. Given power, even you and I would soon end up living large and acting like idiots. READ IT ALL
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity are the basic values.

Christians are given to asking themselves, "what would Jesus do?" and not even a hardened atheist would ever suggest that Jesus would act like any of the jerks described in Conniff's column. So it shouldn't be that difficult to get from "Am I my brother's keeper?", The Beatitudes, the parable of the Good Samaritan etc, etc to universal public health care plus decent public education.

So I think Howard Dean is really onto something of genuinely revolutionary potential. Something, that combined with political micro-financing and participatory democratic activism could reshape and humanize the face of America and American politics. DS


Anonymous said...

Left, right...

Who the hell cares?

I know where my nephew is...

In the Virginia National Guard AND in the frigging pipeline to IRAQ...

Even as we chat on line..

Marcia said...

Thanks for this post and particularly the Barber link. Makes an interesting companion piece to an excerpt from Bill McKibben's book:

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Thanks for the great link!

Marcia said...

I am pleased to be able to reciprocate in some small way. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your site.

I would love to ask where you get your photos but, then again, a good part of their impact, for me, is due to the mystery...

anansi said...

Yes, thanks, marcia, for the link. Great post.