The Relevance of Scholarship to Social Change

It can go in any direction – you can have horrible right wing fantasy utopias realised in some cultures, extreme patriarchal ones in others, and so on and so forth. But I think we need to start thinking about history. Radical social movements, revolutionaries, reactionaries and all those things we’re familiar with in contemporary politics weren’t invented two hundred years ago. We’ve been taught that they were – that right and left suddenly came into being, and that all these revolutions suddenly started happening, in the middle of the eighteenth century. But I think they’ve actually been happening for thousands of years, it’s just that we don’t have the language to describe them.


– David Graeber interviewed in the White Review: on anthropology, anarchism, and more. He touches on how his ethnographic investigation of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, his recent survey book on the history of debt and money across societies, and Occupy Wall Street are connected.


What Meaningful Survival Requires

Law students are threatened neither with death nor the whip, but modern society has imposed quite effective facsimiles in the form of competitiveness needed to get into law school, the ambition and determination to do well, and the sense that success will be aided by accepting attitude toward whatever does or doesn’t happen to you during the process of learning law.

The goal is to get a degree, to avoid all confrontations with persons of authority, and to defer service activities and good works until you are established in your practice. Of course, in most cases the avoidance and deferment become a life-time pattern that, as with slaves, continues naturally and without thought long after the original motiviation is forgotten.

Your fear is not of death but of failure. Your chains are forged, not of iron, but of the magnetic force of money, status, and professional acclaim. These fetters can be as effective a restraint on liberty as was the slave’s desire to live and avoid the lash. But wealth and recognition are not the modern equivalent of the freedom sought so fervently by African slaves. Meaningful survival – as slaves like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Gabriel Prosser, and Frederick Douglass learned – requires risk, confrontation, and revolt.

– Derrick A. Bell Jr., The Law Student As Slave

Kinds of Left Practice

In the law school context, and more specifically in the U.S. law school context, because that’s the only place I have any idea of what might be possible, my sectarian thought is that there are two kinds of left practice to focus on.  One is producing polemical but tightly reasoned analysis and alternatives that are clearly to the left of what American liberals are now willing to contemplate.  The other is to help students resist and colleagues resist cooptation into the training machine of the American regime.

The first requires the analysis of the larger society’s political dynamics, which include things like the war but also like the incarceration rate for African Americans in the United States.  It includes things like the fate of minimum-wage workers and illegals.  Not just those things: absolutely every policy issue on which there is a division and as yet no well argued left position, or just one position where there should be several left positions.

At this level, the idea is to develop policy alternatives and classroom materials and teaching protocols that will reinforce the liberals, and also establish a presence on their flank to keep them honest.  This is a classic left intelligentsia role, which we can play in the United States, and in a few other countries, just by virtue of the relative centrality of law schools in the policy apparatus of the regime.(Of course, there are many places where it’s not a meaningful option.)

We can play a second counter-hegemonic role, because we are situated not just within a policy generating apparatus, but also within a cadre training operation.  The complexly oppressive American system, with its enormous power to draw people into it, is also based on the training of its elites.  Law school is not a site for mass movements; law school is a training ground for the elites who manage and develop and produce the system that we are against.  Law school is training for hierarchy; law school is a place where the Hessian mercenaries train to carry arms against the revolutionary forces.  At the same time that it’s a source of policies, it’s a source of personnel.

It builds consciousness, a way of being that makes you a willing participant.

It makes you a bought-in person who is doing the work of the system and enjoying the rewards of rulership, administering disastrous policy for yourself as well as for other people.  That is a psychological enterprise; it inculcates a way of being in relation to the state; a way of being in relation to power in general, and it’s taught in law school classrooms.  Not today in the brutal Socratic mode of the 1960s but in a much more seductive, in fact, mind-numbing mode.  The new, nicer mode is just as much a mode of recruitment, of intra-elite solidarity, as the old hazing mode was, and we can resist this one, too.

—  Duncan Kennedy, Teaching from the Left in my Anecdotage



For Jobs AND Leisure (or, Against “Against Job Creation”)

Peter Frase comes to the defense of leisure and rebels against the idea that the left should be rallying around jobs. Although we share some commonalities that are worth noting, I think Frase is way off base. I think the case is clear, though somewhat counterintuitive, that we need to create jobs in order to achieve greater leisure.

Frase argues that the Left has placed too much weight on the value of work, and that we should orient ourselves toward promoting income for all irrespective of work. I think there’s a lot to this, actually, and he raises one good set of examples in describing the many arenas of socially valuable but unpaid work – from traditional categories like child-rearing, keeping house and taking care of the elderly to editing Wikipedia and working on community gardens. He suggests that the organized Left should bring back the call for a shorter work week and focus on promoting greater income security (he never explicitly proposes this, but I would suggest a small Universal Basic Income for everyone). I want those things too! Unlike Frase, however, I think the best way to protect socially valuable unpaid work and to create the conditions for demanding more leisure time is to get back to full employment.

One of the most important, and most frequently ignored elements of high unemployment is the suffering employed people experience during these periods. During high unemployment, the positional strength of management against workers is stronger, and they can squeeze higher productivity out of workers for the same pay. There’s a larger reserve pool of labor, so competition for even the worst jobs is fierce and this competition holds wages down. Workers who might otherwise be inclined to pressure their bosses for a raise or even strike over bad working conditions, will be disinclined from doing so due to the increased risk of debilitating poverty if they are (illegally) drummed out of the firm for doing so. People who are dissatisfied with their jobs will stay at jobs they hate longer, for fear of being unable to find a better job with ease.

These are not good conditions for securing greater leisure. Full employment can perhaps be understood as a kind of (metaphorical) income security – the more readily available jobs are, the less one has to fear total poverty as a result of leaving one’s current job. It means that there’s always a fallback, even if your new venture fails, or you get sick of your job and quit, or you get pressured to leave following an unsuccessful strike. If someone wants to take time off, demand a shorter work week, or detach themselves from traditional notions of success by starting a community garden, the best environment in which to do this is full employment. After all, what if the community garden doesn’t pan out? With unemployment at 4% or lower, you can always go work at Starbucks. With unemployment at 9% or higher, you’re fucked. No one will have the leverage to demand better wages and working conditions, unconditional income, or more leisure time if there’s always a desperately jobless person willing to scab at your job for less.

More on the precarious nature of life as a low-skill worker in times of high unemployment later.

Black Market, White Market

Let’s face it, this guy is probably right about what the broad contours of big Cannabusiness will look like after marijuana legalization. If we do a really good job with our legislation, we might be able to rein in advertisements and distribution, like we do with tobacco. Still, when a highly profitable good comes into the legal market, we all know already what will happen – mass production, exploitation of  labor, and lobbyists.

Does the mere possibility of corporate takeover of marijuana cancel the many benefits of legalization? Let’s put it this way – corporations may have an “army of lobbyists,” but drug cartels and the DEA have armies with real guns. Corporate marijuana might “ruin your life” by causing you to spend all your extra cash on pot, but the Drug War will ruin your life with a conviction. Yeah – no contest.

The Slow Boring of Holes into Hard Planks

I just can’t stop talking about the fate of the left, I guess!

Matt Yglesias comments on what we have to do to push American politics further to the left, and pretty much hits the nail on the head: “If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing.”

I’d go one step further and argue that it’s not only important to be replacing some Congressmen and Senators with even slightly more left-wing Congressmen and Senators, we need more left-wing mayors, more left-wing city council members, more left-wing school board representatives, more left-wing transportation commissioners, and on and on and on. As Yglesias notes, the right has been able to create a lock-step party machine due to decades of ideological discipline and encouraging takeovers on every level. Pat Robertson protege Ralph Reed once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members.” It’s a shame that the Religious Right has come to understand the strength of grassroots organizing better than the Left.

As we all know from the fight over school curricula, those right-wing school board members are really paying off.

On the level of institutional fixes, a third party is still less optimal than some other strategies. It’s better to propose a switch to a form of representation that’s more likely to yield stronger left-wing outcomes in places where that’s likely. This means an embrace of alternative voting schemes like proportional representation in municipalities and if we want to get really radical, a switch from a bicameral assembly and governor system in a state like California to a parliamentary system where we could cement a left-wing majority.

With that said, a third party could make sense in local elections in heavily left-leaning areas (like the Bay Area), and also could act as a credible threat to the center-left Democratic Party in smaller elections to force the Democratic candidates to move left to capture more votes. I don’t think this dynamic makes a lot of sense on the national stage, though, where the race between Democrats and Republicans is so close.

A Concrete Agenda

Not enough words for you on intra-left bickering? Here’s more!

While I believe that we all play our own part, this is not to say that there aren’t things that Yglesias and other political commentators could be doing more to build left-wing institutional strength.

1. He could be reporting more frequently on the specific struggles of ordinary people in the US, and asking his readers to give their attention and money to these struggles.

2. He could be pushing for bigger institutional “fixes” in our political system that would change the way the game is played, such as propositions for alternative voting, smarter campaign financing, and a more democratic system of representation (to his credit, he does this a little).

3. He could push for a re-evaluation of the underpinnings of our society – property laws, zoning regulations, the boss-worker relationship, and so on – to see if rules that we adopted long ago still make sense for advancing human welfare today (to his credit, he is very good about housing and zoning issues on this count).

4. He could beat the drum louder on “payment transfers,” or what everyone else refers to as wealth redistribution from the rich to the rest. He always says he believes in explicit payment transfers, but a casual reader of his blog would be hard-pressed to discover this from the way he buries it in the last paragraph of a post on barber licensing or whatever. Direct distribution of money from rich people to poor people is an idea that falls outside of the window of mainstream American political discourse, and a relatively prominent blogger like Yglesias could go a long way toward normalizing it.

5. When he calls for more participation on the part of his readers, instead of suggesting that they write to their congressman he could suggest that they volunteer with an organization they like, show up to city council and development board meetings, and donate time and money to important causes. This both deepens democracy by creating more direct social-civic bonds among people, and will probably amount to a greater impact on the whole. The NGO outpost in which I worked simply wouldn’t have been able to function without volunteers, interns, and donations – and they do great work which directly helps hundreds of thousands of people, and have a broader effect by indirectly raising awareness about refugee issues.

While we shouldn’t invest too much time in second-guessing ‘technocratic’ solutions vs. ‘collective-action’ solutions, it is still worthwhile to reflect on what we’re doing to see if there are ways that Dudes on the Internet can deepen and strengthen democracy on the ground. Since Yglesias, Professor DeLong, and others are like people with megaphones in a sea of chatterers, they could bring their name-power to bear behind these issues in a way that many others can’t.