One of Those Years

1848, 1914-17, 1929, 1968, 1989, in some years, a break or rupture in the sociopolitical landscape of particular places has so much resemblance to events unfolding in other places with near-simultaneity that a perception of a momentous and widespread crisis in the order of things grips and takes hold, intensifying the unfolding rupture.

2016 is now that kind of year. Maybe Brexit, the recent vote in Colombia, the extrajudicial killings openly sanctioned by the new elected president of the Philippines, the war in Syria, student unrest in South Africa and the presidential election in the United States don’t seem to have the strong resemblances that events in other momentous years of rupture and transformation did. But they all seem to me to have a strong connection: they feel to me like the dying thrashing of the post-1945 nation-state and the liberal-bureaucratic order it created. Neoliberalism laid parasitic eggs inside of it in the 1980s, and I think now even neoliberalism’s architects are watching with uneasy discomfort at their progeny worming their way out of the host.

The striking thing to me is that all of those other crisis moments had a spirit of possibility lurking beside them. Somewhere there was a vision of progress, a description of a future which might arise out of the fading or death of an older order. Even 1929, which gave a new form of social democracy a strong push forward. All of them also had their demons and dangers: reactionary vengeance, world war, anarchy, fascism.

Where’s the hope and progress in this rupture, the new vision of another future? So far I don’t see it. If we are not feasting on the corpse of the old order, then most of us cling to the best of meritocracy before neoliberalism or the best of social democracy as alternative hopes. We do it half-heartedly or in a defensive crouch. We pick at each other’s scabs. We are going to need a new idea. Or many new ideas. Something to believe in. A re-enchantment of the world. Otherwise this feels like we have entered a tunnel so long and so dark that we might come to regard it as the only world there is or could be.

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8 Responses to One of Those Years

  1. y says:

    > Neoliberalism laid parasitic eggs inside of it in the 1980s, and I think now even neoliberalism’s architects are watching with uneasy discomfort at their progeny worming their way out of the host.

    Mind fleshing this out or pointing to a source you recommend for learning more about this? My modern American history is lousy and I don’t understand what you’re referencing.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m sensitive to the complaint that “neoliberalism” is a buzz word that can mean almost everything (usually something the speaker disapproves of).

    A full fleshing out is more than I can provide, though. But here’s some sketches of what I have in mind:

    1) The Reagan-Thatcher assault on “government” and aligned conceptions of “the public”–these were not merely attempts to produce new efficiencies in government, but a broad, sustained philosophical rejection of the idea that government can be a major way to align values and outcomes, to tackle social problems, to restrain or dampen the power of the market to damage existing communities. “The public” is not the same, but it was an additional target: the notion that citizens have shared or collective responsibilities, that there are resources and domains which should not be owned privately but instead open to and shared by all, etc. That’s led to a conception of citizenship or social identity that is entirely individualized, privatized, self-centered, self-affirming, and which accepts no responsibility to shared truths, facts, or mechanisms of dispute and deliberation.

    2) The idea of comprehensively measuring, assessing, quantifying performance in numerous domains; insisting that values which cannot be measured or quantified are of no worth or usefulness; and constantly demanding incremental improvements from all individuals and organizations within these created metrics. This really began to take off in the 1990s and is now widespread through numerous private and public institutions.

    3) The simultaneous stripping bare of ordinary people to numerous systems of surveillance, measurement, disclosure, monitoring, maintenance (by both the state and private entities) while building more and more barriers to transparency protecting the powerful and their most important private and public activities. I think especially notable since the late 1990s and the rise of digital culture. A loss of workplace and civil protections for most people (especially through de-unionization) at the same time that the powerful have become increasingly untouchable and unaccountable for a variety of reasons.

    4) Nearly unrestrained global mobility for capital coupled with strong restrictions on labor (both in terms of mobility and in terms of protection). Dramatically increased income inequality. Massive “shadow economies” involving illegal or unsanctioned but nevertheless highly structured movements of money, people, and commodities. Really became visible by the early 1990s.

  3. NickS says:

    You’ve been in this mood for a while, and I both feel very sympathetic to the feeling of crisis — there are many things happening right now which make me think, “how can this possibly be happening?” But, at the same time, I’m just not convinced by your diagnosis.

    I keep coming back to your previous post about the failures of neoliberalism, because I am curious to ask questions and see if I can figure out what it is that you’re seeing, or what’s pushing you in a certain direction which I’m not following.

    But first, let me start by taking a stab at this question.

    Where’s the hope and progress in this rupture, the new vision of another future?

    I think the first, albeit unsatisfying, answer has to be that things are getting better for many, many people. While peace and prosperity aren’t a direct response to your question they are, at least a reason not to panic*.

    In terms of the sense of political catastrophe** that you’re talking about I see three things happening simultaneously***. The first is a reduction in local or geographic-based political organizing. I have much less sense that myself and my neighbors are collaborating in any political project. We may vote similarly or differently, but I don’t feel an awareness of a civic culture which would join us. Secondly there’s a rise in partisanship, nationally, which I think is the primary driving force between the coarsening of politics — politicians no longer fear that they will alienate their own supporters if they are too strident; instead they risk ugly primary fights if they aren’t strident enough, leading to a steady ratcheting up of volume and personal abrasiveness. Third is that the internet and social media do allow new forms of politics and political organizing.

    I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of how politics in the age of social media will play out. But I think that, for what it’s worth, Black Lives Matter is the most effective grassroots political movement that I can remember in my adult life, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

    I think we’re seeing that it is simultaneously more difficult for groups to get small-scale political victories or payouts**** but that it is easier for outside groups to force items onto the national political agenda — whether it’s the Brexit referendum, Black Lives Matter, or the fight against TPP, there is more of a microphone for groups pushing against the status quo.

    That leads to a politics in which small incremental changes are more difficult, because of the increased partisanship, but, paradoxically, it’s easier to force discussion of big changes. I don’t know if there’s an analogy to be made to the fact that mass shootings have become more frequent while, simultaneously, there has been a massive decrease in gun violence. . . . (I’m just going to leave that with an ellipses because I don’t think there’s actually anything to gain by comparing the two phenomena, but I’m not quite willing to delete that reference either).

    This terrifies me, some of the time, because I am an incrementalist by temperament, but I don’t know that it’s completely a bad thing. The rise of partisanship makes politics feel deeply off-puting, and I’d like that to change, but I think there are other, positive, changes which go along with it.

    * [Disclaimer: all reasons not to panic may be invalid depending on the effects of global climate change]

    ** With a hat-tip to Nicholas Mosley’s sense that the idea of catastrophe contains within it an element of optimism.

    *** Personal observations which may or may not generalize.

    **** I’m thinking in part of the elimination of earmarks from the budgeting process.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I found Moises Naim’s The End of Power interesting and useful to explain some of my feelings and why they’re trending as you describe. Naim’s analysis argues that people are increasingly feeling that they have no input into the systems that control their lives except a sort of refusal: they can block or stop or inhibit action by an institution or government or system, but they cannot initiate or propose or see an idea come to fruition. I see that certainly in my own working life: almost all interesting proposals that have some sharp or original objective or mission get ground down into a kind of procedural soup and grind slowly to a halt. I think even people in powerful positions feel this way, that they can have clear insights which are impossible to do anything about, and this is one reason that the “California Ideology” types like Elon Musk are so enamored of framing their actions as outside any imaginable form of collective action or collaboration, because they feel that to work with others or work inside organizations is to lose all hope of doing something dramatic in scale and impact. Naim basically observes that people are right to feel powerless at the same time that they’re missing just how inclusive many organizations are.

    So this is exactly the politics in which small incremental reforms are difficult (perhaps impossible) even while we have wide-ranging discussions of big possible changes. There are too many rents being collected by too many people in all possible systems and institutions, and we have no clear grounds for dispossessing anyone of those rents–but this is also why we all resist the creation of new processes, instruments, institutions that we can guess will quickly become captured by rent-seeking.

  5. NickS says:

    Interesting, I will think about that and look up the book. Thanks.

  6. y says:

    > I’m sensitive to the complaint

    thanks for filling me in.

  7. Jane says:

    I think it is more apt to call 2016 a year of counter-revolution than a year of revolution. The dominant world order, being grounded in economic growth and social cosmopolitanism, is a form of perpetual revolution. Across Colombia, Britain, and the United States those privileged by limited liberalism (a liberalism narrow in its understanding of who is human) are realizing the revolutionary road that we are on, and are doing their best to halt our motion, even at the cost of running off the road.

    But I have the naive hope of youth that believes in that incrementalism and be revolutionary and that sill trusts in the ability of reason, discourse, and the free movement of people to build a better world.

    I suppose I should have paid better attention in my history classes at Swarthmore :p

  8. The malaise you describe is familiar to me. In my working life I helped design systems that were aimed at easing the malaise of my customers. Our national systems of government and economics are no different–they are just systems and there are solutions to the problems they create.

    The Framers did a rotten job of designing a system of government and we, at least most of us, have suffered ever since. We only think it is worse now because our systems of communication, measurement, and commiseration are much improved. We know now what we did not know in centuries past. The remedies for our problems lie in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence, our true founding document, in its second sentence, lays out the goals of our revolution, it gives us the criterion for measuring our success, and it gives us the authority to change or replace the parts of our systems that do not work. Our Constitution is a document that was deliberately, knowingly intended to define a system that favors seven groups: whites, males, Christians, heterosexuals, well-to-do, not-disabled, and native-born. The seven hated groups: not-white, not-male, not-Christian, not-heterosexual, not-well-to-do, disabled, and the not-native-born are the ones who are in the majority and have endured the majority of the suffering.

    So, we have a system problem. And the lamentations I see here and elsewhere are nothing more than the symptoms of a badly-designed set of systems. Change is possible, but only if those who suffer go to work to force the change. Our political system does provide us a way out, but only if we use it in a new way. We must view ourselves as a team of systems engineers who will define and implement the necessary changes.

    I make these points on many blogs and have done so for years, and the reactions are of two kinds. Some say that it can be done, but the overwhelming majority say that it cannot. Their reasoning is circular. They can say that our system needs to be changed and we should work within our system to effect that change. Idiocy compounded by stupidity. We will never produce the changes we need by working within the system. We seem to think that we, the people, are powerless, but we are not. Our government, as the Declaration of Independence says, derives its power from us. We are in power, but we are entangled in a trap that seems to keep us from acting.

    The Occupy movement of a few years ago seemed to recognize this fact, but they had no real plan for effecting change and their movement vaporized.

    So, don’t look to our current institutions to produce the changes ordinary people want and deserve. Change will have to be forced on them. And we won’t have to arm ourselves and march on various capitols. We will have to withdraw our consent from the government and act, among ourselves, as if the government we want is already in place. We have to act democratically to produce a democracy. In the computer system jargon, this is known as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” But the inertia is overwhelming. Most people over 25 will not make the change. Changing our systems can only be made by the younger generations with the funding and support of the older generations. The older generations will give support if they are not asked to do more. They can provide resources and encouragement to the younger generations and they will have to provide action in certain situations and at certain times to make the revolution work.

    I came to realize that this change was possible when I first started using computers in 1965. It was easy to see a time when the people would decide what they wanted their government to do and then would order their representatives to do it. But that day has not yet come. The computer systems are in place and available to all, but the people, especially the people over 25 do not have the will to do it–and their inaction can result in the destruction of our civilization and ultimately the extinction of our species.

    If you want change, you will have work for it, and you will have work in a harness yoked to millions of others. Outside of divine intervention, there is no other way.

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