Democratic Realism

We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.

In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.

This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.

As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.

Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.

Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.

This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.

That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.

Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.

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This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.

The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.

Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.

So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.

Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.

Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!

Social Democracy, Soviet Socialism and the Bottom 99 Percent
(text below is from link)

Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.

This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:

• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.

These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.

So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]

Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]

The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.

Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]

Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.

Conclusion

When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.

But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.

Their Liberty and Your Death

Why is the ideal of liberty so strongly associated with economics? And why is it used to rationalize oppressive systems of hierarchy? What does it mean to use the language of liberty to favorably frame social Darwinism, plutocracy, and inverted totalitarianism? What kind of liberty is it when the Trump administration pushes for reopening the economy during a pandemic, even early on when potentially millions of deaths were predicted by leading experts around the world? What is this liberty? One thing is clear. Liberty is not freedom. It is about me getting mine; or else someone getting theirs. We must ask ourselves, when the mantra of “liberty or death” is repeated with real or implied threats of violence in watering the tree of liberty, whose death is being offered up on the altar of whose liberty.

Originally, in the Roman Empire, liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while living under the threat and oppression of a slave society, an authoritarian hierarchy that imposed varying degrees of unfreedom. Or if a slave, according to Stoics and early Christians, it was the otherworldly faith that one’s soul was not enslaved even as was one’s body. This etymological and historical context offers a better understanding of what is meant by negative freedom as opposed to positive freedom, a pseudo-freedom of opportunity that rationalizes away the harsh reality of results and consequences. That is to say it’s not freedom at all. Genuine freedom is the complete opposite of such liberty, but the defenders of privileged liberty co-opt the rhetoric of freedom and, in conflating the two, degrade the very meaning of freedom, making it even more difficult to imagine an alternative.

When the American colonists demanded liberty, the context was their situation as imperial subjects in having been treated as second class citizens. A significant number of them were or descended from landless peasants, convicts and indentured servants, often not far above slaves. Earlier in the colonial era, most of the poor sent off to the colonies never lived long enough to know freedom, such as paying off the debt of their indenture; instead, they were typically worked to death. Inequality of wealth and power lessened to some degree by the late 1700s, but it was still quite stark and the majority were treated as cheap and expendable labor. Most of the colonies, after all, were established as for-profit ventures organized under corporate charters and so they were never intended to be free societies, much less democratic self-governing communities. Their only relative freedom came from the indifference of a distant imperial regime, as long as trade continued and profits kept rolling in.

By invoking liberty during the American Revolution, there was no necessarily implied demand of freedom for all, as few could even imagine such a utopian vision. It was the individual’s liberty at hand and only the liberty of particular kinds of individuals — primarily white men of the propertied class and mostly Protestant Christians at that; not women, not blacks, not Native Americans, not the poor, not the landless. Only a few radical rebels were actually demanding a genuinely free society, as an expression of a faint memory of the once independent tribes that formed the British ancestry prior to the Norman conquest. Freedom, as from the Germanic tongue, is etymologically related to friend. To be free means to belong to a free people, to be among friends who would defend one’s rights and fight on one’s behalf. It is the idea that the individual good was identical to or at least inseparable from the common good. In the American tradition, such freedom has always been subjugated to liberty, often by law and violent force. And the legacy of liberty retains its privileged position within the ideological order, what is proclaimed as reality itself.

This ideological realism continues to limit our public imagination. Yet it was always a weak foundation and the cracks have long been apparent, most of all during times of shared crisis. We see that now during this COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional frame of understanding is a conflict of extremes between the perceived authoritarians and the self-identified libertarians, but the social reality is more complex than the ideological rhetoric would allow. “This ambivalence is not a red-blue split. It is internal to both. On the right, laissez-faire economics chafe against Christian cultural intolerance, isolationism against imperialism. On the left, the Stalinists are still at war with the anarchists, the nanny-statists with the hippies, and a taste for utopian direct democracy, as in the Occupy movement, strains against a hunger for big government” (Judith Levine, The Pandemic Brings Out the Authoritarian and the Libertarian in Us All. Can We Meet in the Middle?). It’s a divide in the American soul and it makes our society schizoid.

There is a reason why hyper-individualistic societies that hold up liberty as an ideal so easily turn to authoritarian measures under stress. Even among self-identified libertarians, it is far from unusual for them to make anti-authoritarian arguments for authoritariansim, sometimes related to what some call libertarian paternalism but taking other forms as well, based on the self-serving conviction that most people have to be forced into ‘liberty’ against their will. In practice, this once again means liberty for the supposedly deserving and oppression for those who would threaten the liberty of the deserving — it just so happens that those with the most wealth, power and privilege, those who own the corporations and the government get to determine who is deserving and not. And so, in reality, this reactionary ideology is no different than the privileged elitism of the past, even if proclaiming a slightly different variety of ruling elite — Corey Robin discusses this reactionary mentality in great detail, in how it challenges old hierarchies so as to replace them with other authoritarian regimes.

Theoretical liberty of hypothetical choice, in its lazy slogans of apathetic submission to injustice, easily trumps the demanding awareness of real world harm, the uncomfortable knowledge of how oppression grinds people down and makes them bitter and cynical. And so to speak of freedom for all as a fully functioning social democracy, to speak of not only a government but a society and economy of the people, by the people, for the people gets dismissed as communism or worse. Oppression in society is preceded by an oppression of the mind, of radical imagination. What gets sacrificed is not only the public good but democracy itself, the supposed tyranny of the majority. So, instead, it becomes a contest between one’s preference of which minority should get to control all of society. Right-wing libertarians, like Randian Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists, can find a way to convince themselves that they’d make the best tyrants (The Moral Imagination of Fear, Freedom From Other People’s Freedom, & The Road to Neoliberalism).

Yet we shouldn’t dismiss the fears about authoritarianism. The problem is that there are cynical demagogues who will use those fears of authoritarianism to promote their own brand of authoritarianism. Historically and ideologically, liberty and authoritarianism are two sides of the same coin and it’s vital that we understand this, if we ever hope to build a fully free society. The equal danger is that, in too heavily focusing on the hypocrisy of liberty rhetoric, we open ourselves to the hypocrisy of those who wave away the real concerns about the loss of what freedoms we do have. Both competing groups heard in elite politics and corporate media are too often agreeing to attack freedom but from opposite directions, while the majority is being silenced and excluded from public debate. Being for or against liberty tells us nothing about one’s position on freedom, especially when the two are falsely invoked as the same.

This pandemic has shown the fractures in our society. There wouldn’t be so many worries about the economy if most people hadn’t been experiencing economic problems for about a half century, as markets and governments were taken over by oligarchic plutocracy and neoliberal corporatocracy, friendly fascism and inverted totalitarianism. The United States government has put itself in permanent debt with the military-industrial complex, big biz subsidies and bailouts, and tax cuts for the rich. Then we are told the working class have to go back to work during a pandemic in order to save the economy, er profits. Do the ruling elite of the capitalist class own not only most of the wealth, property and large corporations but also own the entire American economy, labor force, and political system? Do the opinions of most American citizens and workers not matter in political decisions? Shouldn’t they matter? If this were a democracy, they would matter more than anything else.

Dogmatic absolutism is the opposite of helpful. Even during lockdown, 70% of the American economy has remained open and running, and many states didn’t even go that far. Among the informed, contrary to what the ideologues would suggest, reasonable debate was never about either total authoritarian lockdown of all of society or total liberty and death imposed upon the masses. It was declared that we can’t afford to have the economy shut down because so many are out of work and struggling economically. As fake sympathy was offered to the jobless poor, what has gone ignored is the trillions upon trillions of dollars stolen from the public every year, not to mention the trillions of dollars committed to the oppressive and anti-libertarian War On Terror in response to the 9/11 casualties that were lower than a single day of deaths from COVID-19. We can afford all kinds of things when the plutocracy demands it.

As the economy is reopened, who is being put in harm’s way of infectious exposure? Mostly not the politicians, CEOs, upper management, stockholders, bankers, etc; nor the white collar workers and college-educated professionals. It’s the low-paid workers who are forced to deal directly with customers and to work in close contact in crowded workplaces. These working poor also are largely without healthcare and disproportionately minority. Liberty advocates and activists are mostly whites among the comfortable classes, whereas those with higher rates of COVID-19 are non-whites and the poor. Some populations are experiencing infections and fatalities at rates similar to the 1918 Flu pandemic while, for other populations, it’s as if there is no pandemic at all. If the whole country was similarly affected at such high rates, we’d be in the middle of mass panic and all these right-wing whites would now be demanding authoritarian measures to protect their own families and communities.

“As the pandemic became widely recognized,” noted Judith Butler, “some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work. One can see how the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not. Under conditions of pandemic, it is, of course, black and brown minorities who count as vulnerable or not destined to survive” (Francis Wade, Judith Butler on the Violence of Neglect Amid a Health Crisis).

The plan was to simply to let the pandemic kill off the undesirables, the excess labor force of cheap and expendable lives, as the professional class worked safely from home and the rich isolated themselves far from the dirty and diseased masses. Most Americans, minorities and otherwise, disagree with this plan by the upper classes to sacrifice the poor and working class. But minorities disagree most strongly: “According to a new survey from Pew Research Center, health concerns about COVID-19 are much higher among Hispanics and blacks in the U.S. While 18% of white adults say they’re “very concerned” that they will get COVID-19 and require hospitalization, 43% of Hispanic respondents and 31% of black adults say they’re “very concerned” about that happening” (Allison Aubrey, Who’s Hit Hardest By COVID-19? Why Obesity, Stress And Race All Matter). It turns out that people generally don’t like to forced to die for the benefit of others who make no sacrifices at all. What is being asked of these people is no small risk.

“The health divide is even sharper than the economic one,” writes Jennifer Rubin. “The latest Post-Ipsos poll found that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.” Even more frightful, a third of those forced to leave the home for work “said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13 percent said they lack health insurance themselves.” The sick get sicker in this pandemic and in the altered economy it has created. By contrast, half of those employed can work from home — and 90 percent of those are white-collar workers.

“In short, if you are poor, a woman, nonwhite or live paycheck to paycheck in a blue-collar job, you have a greater chance of being unemployed or, if still employed, of getting sick and dying. (We saw this vividly in Georgia, where 80 percent of those hospitalized with the coronavirus were African American.) That is as stark a divide as we have ever seen in this country. The longer the virus rages without a vaccine, the longer the economy will be hobbled. And with that extended economic recession, we will see the gap between rich and poor, already huge, widen still further” (Inequality is now an issue of life and death).

Think about all of the protests and actions that have come from angry whites demanding the liberty to risk the lives of others with their proclamation of liberty or death, including the death of others. Now imagine masses of poor blacks did the same by likewise showing up with guns at state capitals and blocked the entrances to hospitals, and imagine there were numerous cases of poor blacks violently threatening and sometimes attacking workers who asked customers to follow safety measures — if that were to happen, it would not be tolerated so casually nor rationalized away as the necessary resistance to dangerous political power. Think about whose lives are being offered in exchange for liberty, whose liberty is prioritized and privileged. The public, poor minorities most of all, is not being asked to freely and willingly sacrifice their lives for the public good of the national economy but being told that their lives must be sacrificed against their will for the profit of big biz and the capitalist class, to keep the corporate behemoth running smoothly.

With that in mind, one might note that a major part of what is going on is a lack of trust. What is interesting is that it is precisely those who have most benefited from government who now attack it. They have the privilege to attack government with the assumption that government should serve them. Poor minorities have never been able to make that assumption. And so it’s unsurprising that a privileged white elite that has led this attack of public authority in order to promote their own authoritarian authority. It is a crisis of public trust that has built up over generations, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s attack on public institutions that has continued with every Republican administration (although with no small help from conservative Democrats like Bill Clinton).

Interestingly, for all of this right-wing attack on governmental legitimacy, it is Trump that the American public trusts the least, whereas one of the few areas of majority support is found in the public trust of health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Despite all of the media obsession in reporting that makes the liberty protesters seem more numerous and significant than they are, the general public remains unconvinced that individual liberty should trump public health during a pandemic. Even most Republicans are opposed to a full, quick reopening of the economy. This position being forced upon us by certain elements of middle class activists, plutocratic elite, and corporate media does not indicate any actual public debate going on among most Americans. The average person does not see it as a forced choice between the extremes of liberty and death.

So, if not liberty, what is all of this staged conflict about? It’s not even about the actual mortality rate of COVID-19, in general or among specific demographics. This pandemic might not turn out as bad as expected or it yet might truly become a catastrophe — time will tell (Then the second wave of infections hit…). That isn’t the issue we are facing with an elite that is willing to sacrifice certain elements of society for their own self-interest and so as to maintain the status quo. This elite didn’t wait for the data to come in before deciding how many dead poor people and dead minorities would be the price they were willing to pay for their own continued prosperity, in ensuring their good life could be maintained. What we are dealing with here is ultimately a conflict between those who want freedom and those who don’t, and such freedom is about democracy and not liberty. Now, if well-armed angry white right-wingers were demanding democracy or death, freedom for all or death, then we could take them seriously.

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Yes, the government can restrict your liberty to protect public health
by Erwin Chemerinsky

But this does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants in the name of stopping the spread of a communicable disease. There is always a danger that government might use its power as an excuse for unnecessary restrictions on freedom. This has occurred during our current crisis in countries including Hungary, which canceled elections, and Thailand and Jordan, which have restricted speech critical of the government.

In the United States, a number of states have adopted regulations preventing abortions, including medically induced abortions that involve no surgical procedure at all. It is hard to see how such restrictions have a “real and substantial” relationship to stopping the spread of COVID-19 as opposed to attempts to use the crisis as a pretext for imposing additional limits on abortion.

And courts would probably look skeptically on banning a religious service if it involved people staying in their cars in a parking lot — a drive-in service, as some churches have instituted. Such gatherings present no valid public health threat, since they do not involve interpersonal contact.

Still, most closure orders are clearly constitutional. The right to swing your fist stops at another person’s nose. With coronavirus, your freedom stops when it endangers others by facilitating transmission of a highly communicable disease.

The coronavirus protesters’ false notions of freedom
by Steve Chapman

The rallies don’t represent public opinion. Three out of four Americans prefer to “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” according to a recent Washington Post-Ipos poll.

The great majority of people understand that limitations that would normally be intolerable are justifiable in an emergency. No one, after all, objects to curfews and National Guard deployments in cities wrecked by hurricanes, floods or earthquakes.

Americans support drastic efforts to stop coronavirus, expect crisis to last for months in Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll
by Joel Shannon

Most Americans say saving lives by preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be the top priority for the U.S. government as the global coronavirus pandemic strains the nation’s health care system and social distancing measures ravage the economy, according to a new poll.

The Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll poll released Friday found the nation is becoming more accepting of drastic interventions to stop the virus’ spread, compared with a poll taken March 10 and 11. The increased support for restrictions comes as Americans believe coronavirus effects will be felt for the foreseeable future, the new survey found. […]

About nine out of 10 people now support canceling large-scale events, up from about four in 10 earlier this month. Nearly half of respondents now support grounding all domestic flights, when 22% had supported that measure. […]

Most survey respondents thought the crisis will continue for months, with 66% saying it will last “for a few months” or “at least six months.” Almost as many (55%)said they were prepared to put their normal lives on hold for those lengths of time. […]

among the majority (72%) of respondents who believe the government’s priority should be saving lives by stopping the spread of the virus, as opposed to sparing the economy.

Only about 1 in 5  said the government’s main priority should be saving the economy.

At the same time, the majority also believe the global economy and stock market are at a greater risk than their community or themselves personally.

To balance those concerns, more than 80% of those surveyed said they supported rebooting the economy slowly and carefully to avoid endangering lives.

Americans deeply wary of reopening as White House weighs ending covid-19 task force
by Matt Zapotosky, William Wan, Dan Balz, & Emily Guskin 

Americans remain deeply wary of eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy, a poll shows, even as the White House is contemplating shutting down its coronavirus task force.

With several covid-19 models taking a wrenching turn toward bleaker death forecasts in recent days because of reopening moves in some states, most Americans say they worry about getting the virus themselves and they oppose ending the restrictions meant to slow its spread, according to the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. […]

Polling suggests that despite the economic turmoil, most Americans are far from ready for a rapid reboot of society.

More than half, 56 percent, say they are comfortable making a trip to the grocery store, something many Americans have continued doing, according to the Post-U. Md. poll. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a clothing store, and 78 percent would be uneasy at a sit-down restaurant.

People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort to those in states with stricter rules. […]

Americans continue to give Trump negative marks for his response to the outbreak, while offering widely positive assessments of their governors, a trend that has been consistent throughout the pandemic, according to the Post-U. Md. poll.

Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago, while governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across party lines. […]

Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive. […]

Though the moves by some states toward reopening have been gradual, the Post-U. Md. poll indicates many residents oppose them.

The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).

The poll shows that Republicans are far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats are.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly oppose opening all types of businesses listed, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents range from mostly in favor of opening (61 percent for golf courses) to mostly opposed (59 percent for dine-in restaurants).

Fear of infection, the poll finds, has not abated at all in recent weeks.

In the survey, 63 percent of Americans say they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill, while 36 percent say they are not too worried or not at all worried.

We must prize our right to live over our liberties, for now, as COVID-19 spreads
by Steven Pokorny

[A]mong the three “unalienable rights” enumerated by Jefferson in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the first right is “life,” not “liberty.” The purpose of government first and foremost is to “secure” the right to “life” of the citizens governed. The rights of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” are rendered meaningless if government abdicates its paramount duty to safeguard the right to “life” and, instead, gives deferential preference to individual personal liberty.

Consistent with this understanding is a variant of a well-known phrase: “Your liberty ends where my life begins.” This expression is relevant and useful in explaining the current imposition by our nation’s governments of closures of non-essential businesses, of restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and of requirements of self-imposed quarantines by citizens who know they may have been exposed to the virus.

Quarantine protesters don’t represent all conservatives. Here’s why.
by Henry Olsen

The Declaration of Independence promised that people can “alter or abolish” their existing form of government to “effect their Safety and Happiness.” What happens when people believe a stronger government that infringes on some liberty is necessary to “effect their safety”? […]

These sentiments have again come to the fore during the covid-19 pandemic. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are more concerned about the public health impact of the pandemic than the economic impact. A slightly larger share, 60 percent, say that it’s more important for government to control the virus’s spread than to restore the economy. Even among Republicans, only a slight majority — 51 percent — say government policy should focus more on the economy.

This latter figure is consistent with decades of Republican voting preferences. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, and I showed in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” movement conservatives are not even clearly a majority of the GOP. Other, less doctrinaire conservatives hold the balance of power within the Republican electorate, and they have voted against the movement’s preferred candidate in presidential primaries for decades. Even a majority of Republicans are mainly content with the large modern state.

President Trump must navigate these currents adroitly to avoid being swept out to sea with a movement conservative tide. If he tilts too strongly in favor of lockdowns and public safety, he breaks faith with the GOP’s most dedicated supporters. But if he tilts too much toward them, he risks alienating the larger — and more politically volatile — group of Americans who prioritize safety over liberty in the current crisis. Polls already suggest Trump’s pro-reopening rhetoric is hurting him among seniors, the demographic most at risk in the covid-19 crisis and presumably the ones who most favor safety over liberty. Trump risks throwing away the election by moving too rapidly or openly in favor of the noisy movement conservative minority who value liberty over safety.

They Are Giving You Death and Calling It Liberty
by Jamil Smith

Death overtakes us all at some point. However, we’re now being told to numb ourselves to mass casualties and the increased possibility of our own COVID-19 infections in order help a president win re-election. Or to help some stocks rally, or even save a business from folding. That is what is happening here. “If a majority believe that we got through this, they’re not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he’s in good shape,” former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently told McClatchy. “If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough.”

The Republican rush to “reopen” is projecting a simulacrum of the American “normal” that existed before the pandemic. The genuine article needed improvement, seeing as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our systems in health care, education, tech, criminal justice, and throughout our federal government supply infrastructure, just to name a few. And rather than noting how it has sought to unbalance and defund many of the very systems that have proven deficient during this crisis, the GOP has kept behaving as if the coronavirus’ calamities are part of some divine plan. As such, before they ever “reopened” a single state, Republicans were demanding that we willingly embrace a lesser life before we bow out early.

Many cultish movements have deadly culminations, so it only seems natural that some of Trump’s most avid fans might be willing not merely to use the fiction of what they understand as freedom, risking their health for Dear Leader. But whether or not that is true, Republicans offer this fraudulent version of liberty because their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom. It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them. They have profited from the vulnerable, whose literal freedoms are limited in various ways that, at times, overlap: communities of color, incarcerated populations, service workers, the homeless, disabled people, and others for whom liberals regularly advocate.

The right has built a thin veneer that looks like independence and freedom, but the pandemic has stripped away that myth in a matter of weeks. We can love our country enough to want to build it stronger than it was before, not paint some shoddy lacquer over top of it and call it brand new again. Why should we lay our lives down for a system this fragile and rotten, and for people this desperate?

Whose Freedom Counts?
by Dahlia Lithwick

The words freedom and liberty have been invoked breathlessly in recent weeks to bolster the case for “reopening.” Protesters of state public safety measures readily locate in the Bill of Rights the varied and assorted freedom to not be masked, the freedom to have your toenails soaked and buffed, the freedom to open-carry weapons into the state capitol, the freedom to take your children to the polar bear cage, the freedom to worship even if it imperils public safety, and above all, the freedom to shoot the people who attempt to stop you from exercising such unenumerated but essential rights. Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry. Those constraints are not generally something one shoots one’s way out of, even in a pandemic, and simply insisting that your own rights are paramount because you super-duper want them doesn’t usually make it so.

To be sure, a good number of these “protesters” and “pundits” represent fringe groups, financed by other fringe groups and amplified by a press that adores conflict. The data continues to show that the vast majority of Americans are not out on the hustings fighting for the right to infect others for the sake of a McNugget. Also, it is not irrational in the least to fear a tyrannical government capitalizing on a pandemic; it’s happening around the world. But even for those millions of people genuinely suffering hardship and anxiety, it’s simply not the case that all freedoms are the same. And it’s certainly not the case that the federal Constitution protects everything you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it.

In a superb essay by Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic this week, we’re reminded that there is a long-standing difference between core notions of what he calls freedom to and freedom from. The freedom to harm, he points out, has its lineage in the slaveholder’s constitutional notion of freedom: “Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing.” Kendi continues by pointing out that these two notions of freedom have long rubbed along uneasily side by side, but that those demanding that states “open up” so they may shop, or visit zoos, are peeling back the tension between the two:

From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. Both freedoms were inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, into the American psyche. The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.

[…] We now find ourselves on the precipice of a moment in which Americans must decide whether the price they are willing to pay for the “freedom” of armed protesters, those determined to block hospitals, and pundits who want to visit the zoo, is their own health and safety. Polls show that the majority of Americans are still deeply devoted to the proposition that their government can protect them from a deadly virus, and that they trust their governors and scientists and data far more than they trust the Mission Accomplished Industrial Complex that would have them valuing free-floating ideas about liberty over the health and indeed lives of essential workers, the elderly, and their own well-being, despite the president’s recent insistence that this is what, all of us, as “warriors” must do. As Jamil Smith points out, this cultish view of “liberty” as demanding mass death in exchange for “liberty,” as in “freedom to” is an assembly-line, AstroTurf version of liberty pushed by those who are already very free. “Their true goal, plutocracy, is the diametrical opposite of freedom,” Smith writes. “It is a life lived to spite other lives, and often take advantage of them.”

In the coming weeks, we will see some relatively small portion of Americans with great big megaphones and well-financed backers start to openly attack the selfsame health care workers who were celebrated as heroes just a few weeks ago. We will see attacks on people wearing masks and attacks on people lawfully asking others to wear masks. Some leaders will buckle under the pressure to rescind orders with claims that in choosing between liberty and death, they went with liberty. Others, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will respond by insisting that the brandishing of guns inside the state Capitol is not, in fact, “liberty,” and that if it is liberty and justice, it is hardly liberty and justice for all, but rather for a small minority of people who seek to define freedom as something they will seize and threaten and even kill for. A good rule of thumb for COVID-based discussions about “opening up” is that if someone is demanding it while threatening to hurt or kill you, you are probably not as “free” as they are, and that their project does nothing to increase freedom in America and everything to hoard a twisted idea of freedom for themselves.

When you hear someone demanding inchoate generalized “freedom,” ask whether he cares at all that millions of workers who clean the zoos and buff the nails and intubate the grandmas are not free. These people are cannon fodder for your liberty. The long-standing tension between individual liberty and the collective good is complicated, and as Kendi is quick to point out, the balance often tilts, trade-offs are made, federal and state governments shift clumsily along together, and the balance tilts again. Nobody denies that individual liberty is essential in a democracy, but in addition to parsing whether we as a collective do better in providing the “freedom from” while also offering some “freedom to,” it’s worth asking whether those making zero-sum claims about liberty are willing to sacrifice anything for freedom, or are just happily sacrificing you.

Give Me Liberty — No, Wait, Give Me Death
by Branko Marcetic

It may be hard to remember after the last four years of madness, but over the fifteen years leading up to Trump’s election, American conservatives spearheaded a successful campaign to reorient US domestic and foreign policy around waging a “war on terror.” After the attacks of September 11, 2011 left 2,753 people dead — a horrific number that now makes up just 3.5 percent of the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic so far, and is not much more than the number of Americans dying from the virus every day — the US right proceeded to pour absurd amounts of money and lives into counterproductive wars and various other initiatives aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again, shaming and attacking anyone who dissented as weak and even treasonous.

As the years went by and the nation’s bathtubs remained a bigger threat to American lives than acts of terrorism, the Right remained undeterred. By this point, they’d already erected a sprawling state infrastructure for global spying that more regularly violated the privacy of law-abiding Americans than it actually caught dangerous terrorists. Even so, they maintained, if getting rid of such programs cost even one life, the price wouldn’t be worth it. […]

Two-Party Hypocrisy

It’s hardly news that the Right are shameless hypocrites; they say whatever they need to say to achieve their political goals.

During the Bush era, those included funneling money to military contractors, building a security state to eventually destroy any future left-wing political movement, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as weak and dangerous, so bodily security and saving lives was the issue. Now, those goals have become keeping the wallets of all wealthy industrialists comfortably filled during the pandemic, preventing a sudden, mass contradiction of decades of neoliberal economic nonsense, and beating up on Democrats and liberals as tyrannical and dangerous, so freedom at any price is the issue.

The trouble is that America’s narrow political spectrum is dominated by two sides that flagrantly don’t believe anything they say and make little effort to pretend otherwise. One side spent eight years being the party of centralized government power for the sake of security, before spending eight years caterwauling about government tyranny, and now backs measures to tacitly murder tens of thousands of its own people. The other side spent eight years warning about the imminent, dictatorial danger of a centralized national security state, before quickly adopting and enlarging that same national security state for another eight years. It couldn’t even keep up the pretense that it stood for voting rights and sexual assault survivors for a mere three years before reversing itself on both.

It’s hard to predict where exactly a political system ends up when it’s dominated by cynical actors like these. But history suggests a growing army of people disillusioned and distrustful with an existing political order rarely goes well for the latter.

Liberty or death is a perilous policy for a pandemic
by E.J. Dionne Jr.

Considering this lack of leadership, what would a William James pragmatist do?

Virtually everyone except for Trump and his apologists understands the obvious: Reopening the economy requires, first, a national commitment to a robust testing program fully backed by the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed $30 billion in new emergency funding for a national testing strategy and called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act if that’s what’s needed to mobilize the private sector to produce the required tests.

Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has created an expansive contact tracing program to track the virus’s spread. It could become a national model. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner and Joshua Sharfstein suggested giving the nation’s 20,000 incoming medical students a year off, with pay and health benefits, to contribute both to care and testing efforts. The AmeriCorps program could also be mobilized for this labor-intensive work.

What pragmatists know is that railing against formal distancing rules does nothing to solve the underlying problem. As several economist colleagues I contacted noted, the economy will not fully revive until Americans are given good reason to put aside their fears of infection. Yelling at governors won’t get us there.

“Even if the government-imposed social distancing rules are relaxed to encourage economic activity, risk-averse Americans will persist in social distancing, and that behavior, too, will restrain the hoped-for economic rebound,” Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, wrote me.

“Will customers return in-person to the retail or leisure/hospitality businesses anytime soon?” asked Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Not if they feel unsafe, and not if their personal finances have been constricted by the downturn.”

Those who shout for opening the economy in the name of freedom don’t think much about the freedom of workers to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease. And employers do not want to find themselves facing legal liabilities for infected employees.

If the economy is substantially reopened without adequate testing, said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, the most vulnerable would include “low-wage workers, women, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly.” They are “concentrated in the riskiest jobs, with the least financial cushion, and the least likely to have employer-provided benefits or protections,” she said.

On freedom, face masks, and government
by Scot Lehigh

Sadly, in some quarters, mask requirements are being viewed as an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. No rights are absolute, however, and personal freedom comes with a well-established philosophical superstructure.

Consider how John Stuart Mill, the preeminent philosopher of liberty, elucidated the idea of individual autonomy — and what he would probably say about face-mask requirements in a time of public health crisis.

Mill was adamant that individuals could do whatever they wanted as long as those actions affected them alone. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he wrote.

But even this fervent proponent of individual liberty carved out an exception when one person’s conduct could hurt someone else, writing that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Where would face-mask requirements, whether imposed by states, cities, or retail businesses, fall? Clearly on the side of justified infringements, since by not wearing a mask, a person can easily spread highly contagious COVID-19 to others. That’s all the more true when you consider that an estimated 56 percent of coronavirus infections come from pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers — and that for some who catch it, the disease will be a death sentence.

Thus the notion that these requirements are unwarranted or illicit or outrageous or unbearable by free people clearly doesn’t pass the test enunciated by the West’s great apostle of individual liberty.

A second great thinker, political philosopher John Rawls, also merits mention here, both for the helpful clarity his reasoning imparts and for a tragic aspect of his biography: When he was a boy, two of his younger brothers perished from diseases (diphtheria and pneumonia) they had contracted from him.

One of Rawls’s signal contributions is the “veil of ignorance,” a way of thinking designed to overcome the bias imparted by one’s own circumstances in life. To wit: As you consider what’s just or fair, assume that you don’t know your own sex, race, socio-economic status, abilities, and so forth.

In the matter of face masks, the veil of ignorance means not knowing whether you hold (or are likely to have) a job that requires you to interact frequently with the public or, say, are in circumstances that require your use of public transportation. Nor do you know whether you face a greater or lesser chance of death should you contract COVID-19.

From behind that veil, ask yourself this question: Do you favor or oppose the wearing of masks by everyone in the public circumstances outlined above?

All of this can be distilled to an exhortation not much more complicated than the Golden Rule. If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.

* * *

Below are some articles on the demographic disparities, socioeconomic divides, and structural prejudices showing those most vulnerable to viral exposure, infections, comorbidities, death, lack of healthcare, and other health factors of concern during the COVID-19 pandemic and in general.

COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups
from CDC

The other COVID-19 risk factors: How race, income, ZIP code can influence life and death
by Liz Szabo & Hannah Recht

13 Investigates: Cellphone data shows one reason why minorities are hit harder by COVID-19
by Ted Oberg and John Kelly, & Sarah Rafique

CT Latinos suffer high COVID-19 infection rates as their jobs force public interaction
by Ana Radelat

Higher COVID-19 fatality rates among urban minorities come down to air pollution
by David VanderGriend

How Poor Air Quality Affects COVID-19 Mortality Rates
by Rachel Fairbank

The coronavirus is amplifying the bias already embedded in our social fabric
by Michele L. Norris

Racism and Covid-19 Are a Lethal Combination
by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and William J. Barber III, JD

Racial health disparities already existed in America— the coronavirus just exacerbated them
by Courtney Connley

The covid-19 racial disparities could be even worse than we think
by Ronald J. Daniels & Marc H. Morial

Blacks make up as many as 30% of COVID-19 cases, per early CDC figures
by Mark Osborne, Emily Shapiro, & Ivan Pereira

COVID-19 death rates among blacks reflect structural inequalities
by Alexandra Newman

High rates of coronavirus among African Americans don’t tell the whole story
by Chinyere Osuji

The curious case of Latinos and Covid-19
by Esmy Jimenez

Latin America women, minorities ‘to suffer most’ by COVID-19
from Al Jazeera

‘The virus doesn’t discriminate but governments do’: Latinos disproportionately hit by coronavirus
by Maanvi Singh & Mario Koran

Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans
by Jeffrey Ostler

The Coronavirus Makes Trump’s Cruelty Toward Indian Country Even More Deadly
by Zak Cheney-Rice

Native Americans being left out of US coronavirus data and labelled as ‘other’
by Rebecca Nagle

What Coronavirus Exposes About America’s Political Divide
by Ron Elving

Stop saying ‘we’re all in this together.’ You have money. It’s not the same.
by Mya Guarnieri

The Rich and Poor Don’t All Suffer Under the Pandemic Equally
by Shakti Jaising

The rich infected the poor as COVID-19 spread around the world
by Shashank Bengali , Kate Linthicum, & Victoria Kim

Imported by the rich, coronavirus now devastating Brazil’s poor
by Gram Slattery, Stephen Eisenhammer, & Amanda Perobelli

From Black Death to fatal flu, past pandemics show why people on the margins suffer most
by Lizzie Wade

The Black Death Killed Feudalism. What Does COVID-19 Mean for Capitalism?
by John Feffer

How COVID-19’s egregious impact on minorities can trigger change
by Andis Robeznieks

A Pandemic of Ignorance

The main failure in this COVID-19 pandemic has been about knowledge. The United States government was unprepared for dealing with a pandemic, specifically in being unprepared for quickly gathering the data, analyzing it, basing official policies on it, and communicating it to the public. We were blindsided and slow to respond.

We not only have lacked necessary info but, more importantly, lacked leadership in relationship to what we needed to know. Government positions and corporate practices for the most part have not been dependably based on good data nor did those making the decisions emphasize the importance of getting good data. Instead, we’ve too often been handed partisan politics, campaign rhetoric, and slogans.

Unlike in some other countries, US government and major businesses have failed to do mass infection testing, temperature scanning, contact tracing, and app tracking. All of this would’ve offered useful data for controlling the spread of infections and making informed decisions about which actions to take. Compare companies that kept running in the US to some in other countries.

In the US, meatpacking plants that have close working environments weren’t even requiring employees to wear masks and that is insane, as quickly became apparent. A German company, on the other, managed to keep infections down using not only masks but data collection to quickly determine the infected so as to isolate them. The same pattern was seen in how many Asian countries were much more systematic in their control measures. Why did those other places seek out knowledge early on and acted on it while the US decision-makers embraced willful ignorance in hoping everything would be fine?

Even when US leaders had info, they would sometimes keep it a secret, instead of sharing it in a way that could’ve helped. For example, health officials were apparently afraid of their being a run on medical masks and so, instead of being honest with the public, they intentionally lied to us by stating masks offered no protection. This led many to not take the protective gear seriously, including in extended care facilities that weren’t using protective gear.

This lack of transparency and accountability has continued. Governor Reynolds of Iowa has continually repeated that she is basing all her decisions on careful and regular analysis of detailed metrics, but she has never shared any of the supposed data and instead just makes declarations. Or consider how the Trump administration has silenced the CDC by disallowing their official report to go public. Are these officials worried what the public would do or demand if they had full knowledge?

Even now, decisions are being made about reopening businesses, schools, etc without any clear basis on data, at least not data that is being shared with the public. Almost no one in media or government is talking about how the second wave in fall will likely be far worse than anything we’ve seen so far. Many officials are acting like the pandemic is coming to an end and that now it’s time for everything to go back to normal, even as the reality is that waves of infections could continue for years.

Obviously, we still lack the knowledge we need. It’s true we know that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as first thought, although it still is far more deadly than the common flu. All these months after the pandemic began spreading globally, there is no mass infection testing in the US nor are places of business implementing the basic tools like temperature scans used elsewhere from the beginning.

So, we aren’t sure how many Americans have been infected. On top of that, despite some hoping herd immunity will save us, our knowledge about immunity to this novel coronavirus is next to nothing. There might be some short term immunity, but even then it might not last long enough to prevent the same people getting infected again with the second wave. And no one knows if we will have a vaccine soon or ever.

Why is the US economy being reopened when even the most basic message of mask-wearing hasn’t been consistently and effectively communicated to much of the population? Instead, most of the major leaders are refusing to wear masks while speaking in public and so are modeling to Americans that they shouldn’t wear masks. Are we still at the level of not even agreeing on masks?

What lesson have we Americans learned from our mistakes during this pandemic? Have we learned any lessons? Would our leadership respond differently if the same situation happens again? When this pandemic began, we were in a state of collective ignorance and we were caught without even the capacity to ameliorate our ignorance. So, we acted blindly. In the same state of collective ignorance, we’d be forced to respond in the same way again or something similar.

The worst part is that this demonstrates the culture of ignorance that dominates in the US, as part of a broader failure of democracy. Much of the American leadership is brazen in pushing ignorance and much of the American public is apathetic in accepting it. There has been little political will to pursue data-driven policy and to put respect for knowledge front and center. Sadly, in the understandable mistrust by the public, those officials and experts worthy of trust are equally dismissed as the rest.

Our response in American society has been based primarily on ideology. The related problem in the US is that, in our reactionary hyper-individualism, a large part of the American population is dismissive to the very concept of public health, as if no individual should ever sacrifice the slightest freedom to save the lives of others. No healthy society can function that way.

Some of the most successful methods, besides masks, have been contact tracing and tracking apps. But many Americans would call that authoritarianism. It’s understandable that we should be cautious about what we allow in a society that aspires to democracy (aspires, if rarely succeeds). The problem is when paranoia destroys the culture of trust that is essential to a democracy. By promoting mistrust, the sad result is that authoritarianism becomes inevitable. Truth becomes whatever is declared by those with the most power and influence, by those who control the media and other platforms.

That is exactly what President Donald Trump has taken advantage of, in his own brand of authoritarianism. He loves to play on people’s fears, to scapegoat and attack all sources of authority other than himself so as to muddy the water. In his authoritarian worldview, US workers should be forced to go back to work with nothing in place to protect their lives because to an authoritarian workers are expendable and replaceable. This was his position from the beginning and no new data was ever going to change this position.

Yet most Americans are opposed to fully reopening the economy. That is largely because the top US leadership has utterly failed in the most basic test of human decency, even ignoring all of the deception and demagoguery. Americans don’t trust Trump or many other figures of authority, including the capitalist class asking for Americans to sacrifice their lives for the profit of others, and they aren’t sure who to trust. If some basic protections were put into place as is done in certain other countries, we could begin to rebuild some public trust.

The American public health crisis first and foremost is a public trust crisis. And it is a crisis that has been a long time coming. If not remedied, it could become an existential crisis. And the only remedy would be democratic reform through an informed public. That means the public will have to demand knowledge or, failing that, will have to educate themselves. A functioning democracy with transparency and accountability is the best preparation for any crisis, but that would require nurturing a culture of knowledge and learning, a shared respect for intellect and expertise.

The Death and Resurrection of the Public

What is the public? It relates to the idea of the People as démos and the body politic. The basic notion is that shared experience and identity is in some sense real, that we aren’t merely a collection of individuals. But a public sensibility has been on the decline. We’ll avoid a thorough analysis here. Instead, let’s look at a couple of areas.

Common identity most obviously is expressed through common appearance, in what people wear, how they cut their hair, and bodily modifications such as tattoos and earrings. In tribal societies and other small communities, this naturally happens through a common culture. The rise of the modern nation-state undermined this organic expression of communal bond. To satisfy the same need, the popularity of uniforms took hold. This has been done formally as symbols of public service such as the military, although uniforms have also been used in the private sector. Even the business suits common among men have become a kind of uniform that disallows much personal expression. The uniform became popular during the world war era and remained popular through much of the Cold War.

A uniform expressed not only a sense of common identity but solidarity and pride. This was true outside of the military, from postal workers and park rangers to gas station attendants and hotel porters. To be in a uniform signified belonging and meant a basic level of respectability, even for the most lowly worker. Besides police and firefighters, uniforms have receded from the public sphere and remain primarily as a symbol of the military — it might be unsurprising, if depressing, that the military is the only part of the government in the United States that retains public trust.

This shift has accelerated over the past few decades. As late as the 1990s, uniforms were still seen more often, although having had become uncommon. For example, some parking ramp cashiers were still wearing uniforms until the early Aughts, but they had already lost their cultural cache as meaningful symbols. These days, postal workers aren’t always immediately recognizable when walking around, as there is barely any semblance of a uniform remaining, and the symbolic value of postal workers has accordingly declined as private delivery services have increasingly taken over this once public service.

We’ve now reached the point where one might go weeks without seeing anyone in a uniform. That isn’t to say that conformity of appearance has disappeared, but we’ve come to embrace the illusion of individual expression through the conformity of consumerist fashion and corporate branding. This is said without any clear judgment in favor of uniforms, simply a social observation and a rather interesting one at that. It represents a deeper and broader change in society.

We can see how fuzzy has become the category of ‘public’, even in ‘public’ debate. It’s extremely unusual to hear a politician invoke the rhetorical force of the People, much less directly refer to the démos and body politic, almost entirely alien concepts at this point. This muddled state of a non-society society was intentionally created as ideological realism — it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Until the rise of Donald Trump, that is possibly the single most bizarre statement by a modern leader of one of the global superpowers.

The sad fact is that President Donald Trump as the main public leader in the United States does bizarre on a daily basis, often while attacking public authority, public expertise, and public institutions. It has become nearly impossible to speak of the public good, as a hypocognition has taken hold. This is how Trump supporters are able to hold up signs that say “Keep government out of my Medicare” and to argue that it’s better that this pandemic happened under Trump than President Barack Obama because Trump is wealthy enough to write everyone a $1200 check, in both cases not grasping that these are government responses designed to promote the public good.

For most of human existence, the concept and experience of ‘private’ was rare to non-existent. From tribal bands to feudalism, people typically lived cheek-to-jowl. Look at the growing urbanization of the early empires such as in Rome where everything was a social event — going to the bathroom, gymnasium, doctor, work, etc. So, in speaking of the communal experience that dominated for so long, we aren’t only talking about tribes but even for most of the history of advanced civilization, into the modern era.

It was only in colonial times that the Quakers introduced the practice of maintaining privacy with nuclear families and by having separate rooms or at least separate beds for each family member (Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family), sometimes with spare rooms for visitors (Arthur W. Calhoun, The American Family in the Colonial Period), but at the time they were far outside the norm (Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were). In early America, to live in a village meant that your business was everyone’s business and there were no locks on the door.

The notion of privacy and the private sector was slow to take hold. Well into the 1800s, many feudal practices remained in place. There was a lingering belief in the commons and, in some cases, it was enforced by law for generations after the founding of the United States. This was seen in land use where ownership didn’t mean what it means today. A landowner couldn’t deny anyone else use of his land, if he wasn’t using it as defined by what land he specifically had fenced off. So, any open land, owned or not, was free to anyone for camping, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering. This only changed with the abolition of slaves when these laws were eliminated in order to force blacks back into labor.

On a related note, consider corporations. Likewise in early America, they had a very different meaning, as an organization with corporate charter is by definition a public institution. The founding generation made sure that corporate charter were only given in relation to an organized activity that served the public good such as building a bridge and so the charter ended when that public good was achieved. Now the relationship has reversed where corporations have so much power that governments serve them and their private interests. This is also seen in land use, such as how governments subsidize corporations by selling natural resources off public lands at below market prices which basically means giving public wealth away for private gain.

Corporations and governments have become so enmeshed that they are inseparable. The idea of what is public has become conflated with government, and government has increasingly become identified with big biz. When the government is controlled or influenced by private interests in declaring that a company or bank is too big to fail, it is essentially declaring that something private is to be treated as part of government, which further erodes the sense of the public. If the last bastion of the public is government, and if government serves the private sector of a plutocracy, then what meaning does public have left remaining?

Instead of the public as a people determining their own self-governance, we have a private ruling elite who by owning the government control the people, that is to say inverted totalitarianism. Whatever remains of pubic rhetoric becomes a mask to hide authoritarian power, as seen in how the U.S. has become a banana republic. One study has shown U.S. federal politicians rarely do what their supposed constituents want, instead doing the bidding of the wealthiest (Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens), and it can’t be rationalized by a ludicrous claim that the poor want to be ruled over by a plutocracy (Nicholas Carnes & Noam Lupu, Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates? Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class).

Growing concentration and inequality of wealth inevitably coincides with growing concentration and inequality of not only political representation but of power and influence, resources and opportunities. Even the most basic necessities for survival like clean air and water are not evenly distributed, something that would be a human right if we lived in a functioning democracy. When clean air and water don’t fall under the guaranteed protection of the public good, the ideal of a society built on a public has lost all meaning.

It’s unsurprising, under these conditions, that the overt symbols of public good have been particularly under attack. With this comes talk of privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare, and much else. At one point, the public good was understood to be integral to national security. This is why the U.S. federal government in the past invested so heavily to ensure cheap education, housing, travel, etc — even if we might question some of these investments such as the creation of car culture and suburbia through government funding. My parents’ generation essentially got free college and great jobs in an economy boosted by big gov simply for being born in the post-war period.

The point is that, in an earlier time, the understanding and support of the public good was strongly held across American society and within both of the main political parties. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who, as a Republican passed the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed universal healthcare and universal basic income, the latter policies being now considered as communist by conservatives and too far left-wing by mainstream liberals. How far we’ve fallen.

Right-wing Republicans complain about high taxes while corporatist Democrats seem to agree, but not that long ago both parties supported immensely higher tax rates than we have now, specifically for the upper brackets. When looking at public opinion, Americans do still support taxing the rich far more. The problem is the plutocracy owning our government don’t agree with the public on this issue. Hence, so-called public policy has become disconnected from the reality on the ground of public opinion.

Loss of taxes hasn’t stopped the government from going into permanent debt by pumping immense public wealth and resources into the highly profitable military-industrial complex. This is seen with how Amazon, by way of the Pentagon cronyism Jeff Bezos inherited from his grandfather, has made huge profits from its government contracts while operating its private sector business at a loss for decades (Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires). Then when corporatism crashed the economy in 2008, government bailed out failing banks and corporations because they were too big to fail, which is an argument that they were so essential that they no longer should be allowed to operate according to market forces in a free market. It was another step further into fascism. Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the relief money once again is going to big biz in conflating private interest with public good.

The role that government used to play was in promoting areas of society that genuinely were for the public good. This included fundamental things like massive investments into education, housing, and infrastructure; but it also went into equally necessary things like basic research. This created immense knowledge that helped with technological invention and innovation. It funded the kind of research that benefits the public but doesn’t directly benefit corporate profit, although it is highly useful for private research companies in using it to build upon in their own research. In the slashing of government funding for research, it’s forced companies to do more of it, even though never to the degree as ween before. For-profit businesses are too conservative to take the risks that lead to new scientific discoveries. It’s a public good that can’t be re-created on the private market. The loss of that funding was also a loss of a mentality of public service, as demonstrated by Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine.

Strangely, even ‘public’ media no longer gets most of its funding from government. NPR, for example, is now primarily supported by corporations and other private organizations. When sponsors of public media are listed, it essentially comes down to another form of advertisement. And anyone with a lick of sense realizes this influences what gets reported and not, along with how it gets reported. Some analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of guests on NPR come from right-wing think tanks (NPR: Liberal Bias?) that often advocate corporatist ideology or else simply presume capitalist realism.

Also, consider how HBO as a private company has bought the rights to the PBS show Sesame Street, one of the greatest shows ever produced by any public media in the world. HBO has also gained exclusive rights in the United States to streaming BBC’s Doctor Who. Or look at how the BBC has partnered with for-profit media: Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, etc; one example is the Hulu-BBC show Normal People. This is a growing trend.

So, despite accusations to the contrary, not only is public media not always clearly public but not even particularly liberal in a meaningful sense, except maybe in the historical sense. I’m thinking of how American liberals were some of the strongest Cold Warriors during the McCarthy oppression with red-baiting and blacklisting, not to mention the liberal fear of the likes of Martin Luther King jr. It’s similar to how German liberals supported the Nazis in their opposition to left-wingers. Liberalism, in practice, too often becomes yet another variety of reactionary.

The casualty in this has been the public — the public as the people and as the common good; the public as a guiding concept, principle and vision. This allowed public rhetoric to be usurped by authoritarians who use it to great effect, maybe for the simple reason that the public is so hungry for someone, anyone to powerfully invoke a public message, however distorted. That could be taken as a positive sign. This moment of national and global crisis is ripe for a re-awakening of the public sensibility as a genuine force of inspiration and political will toward reform. This might be a new age of rebuilding public institutions and shoring up public authority. The public might begin to remember they are a public, that they are the majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Government as self-governance is an important part of what defines the public, but the two should never be conflated. It is we the people who are the public.

 

On Democracy and Corporatocracy

“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
~U.S. Declaration of Independence

“Democracy was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule…The basic idea of democracy is simple . . .
“Democracy is a word that joins demos—the people—with kratia—power . . . It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project . . . if people take it up as such and struggle for it.”
~Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy

“It is that right to local self-government – a right that we’re told that we already have, but which people discover is not there when they need it most – that serves as the guide-star of this slowly gathering movement.
“To stop them, corporate and governmental officials will be forced to slay their own sacred cow – the ‘rule of law’ – which they have used since time immemorial as their own version of ‘God said so’” Thus, governmental and corporate officials will be forced to bring the power of the system’s own courts, legislatures, and regulators crashing down on them, in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence that our food and water systems, our energy systems, and our global climate are themselves crashing as a result of policies created by those very same institutions…
“These communities’ new rule of law – made in the name of environmental and economic sanity – believes that people and nature have rights, not corporations; that new civil, political, and environmental rights must be recognized; and that we must stop (immediately) those corporate acts which harm us.”
~Thomas Linzy, Local Lawmaking: A Call for a Community Rights Movement

“The main mark of modern governments is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure. We see the politician and not his backer; still less the backer of the backer; or what is most important of all, the banker of the backer. Enthroned above all, in a manner without parallel in all past, is the veiled prophet of finance, swaying all men living by a sort of magic, and delivering oracles in a language not understood of the people.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Contour magazine

“The large extent of bank influence is not easily seen. We seldom see an identified bank or a money corporation candidate running for office; but when questions arise which affect them, the banks have agents at work, whose operations are the more effective because they are unseen.”
~William M. Gouge, Advisor to President Andrew Jackson, Editor fot the Philadelphia Gazette, Publisher of the “History of the American Banking System” and a “Fiscal History of Texas”

“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
~Adam Smith, 1776, Wealth of Nations, book V, ch.I, part II

“[T]he basic problem of legal thinkers after the Civil War was how to articulate a conception of property that could accommodate the tremendous expansion in the variety of forms of ownership spawned by a dynamic industrial society…The efforts by legal thinkers to legitimate the business corporation during the 1890’s were buttressed by a stunning reversal in American economic thought – a movement to defend and justify as inevitable the emergence of large-scale corporate concentration.”
~Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law

“What did he [Bingham] think about the conversion of the Fourteenth Amendment from a protection of all constitutional rights for all citizens to a bulwark of corporate power against the protests of farmers and workers? Here we have a bit more information. Bingham later wrote that the amendment had been designed to protect natural persons, not corporations.
“That seems quite reasonable, particularly since the first sentence of Section one refers to persons ‘born or naturalized in the United States.’”
~Michael Kent Curtis, John A. Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the ‘Lost Cause’, The Akron Law Review
(John Bingham was a Republican Congressman from Ohio and principal framer of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted due process and equal protection under the law to freed slaves.)

“I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet…Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation?…To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we’ll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future, and what we are seeing in the present…We’ll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action…Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate ‘code of conduct,’ or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts…Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We’ve got a ‘cop in our head,’ and the cop comes from corporate headquarters…What must be done?
“When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, ‘By what authority can corporations do that? They have no authority to do that. We never gave them authority.’ And we must work strategically to challenge their claims to authority…”
~Virginia Rasmussen, “Rethinking the Corporation”, Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) principal, talk given during Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference, July 24-31, Baltimore, MD

Source – REAL Democracy History Calendar: July 22 – 28, July 15 – 21, & July 8 – 14

Finnish Municipal Socialism

“Finland is the only EU country where homelessness is falling. Its secret? Giving people homes as soon as they need them – unconditionally.”

Finland, simply put, is socialist.

In the good ol’ days here in the United States of America, this is what used to be called sewer socialism or municipal socialism, what some would now prefer to more safely brand as social democracy but it’s the same difference. It was famous in Milwaukee, having lasted for almost three quarters of a century, from the Populism of the 1890s to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. This pragmatic socialist city was known all across the country as one of the most effectively governed at the time, praised during the early Cold War even by those who weren’t socialists.

Did you ever wonder why the citizens of Milwaukee were so happy in the tv sitcom Happy Days? It’s because they were living under this local form of democratic socialism, one of the few governments in U.S. history that literally was “of the people, by the people, for the people”. It truly was a good time to be a citizen of Milwaukee. The People had faith in their government and their government honored that faith by serving the public good. To put it far more simply, one might just call it democracy. What a crazy idea! Democracy, we should try it again sometime here in this country.

The sewer socialists were called such because they were the earliest American government to fund major public health projects. It was meant to be derogatory in the hope of dismissing their achievements as a mere obsession with sewers, but the socialists took it as a point of pride in it being a major advancement in dealing with the pollution of industrialization and the diseases of mass urbanization. Instead of only building sewers for the rich, they ensured all members of the community had hygienic living conditions and clean water, something that was novel during that period. Everyone was guaranteed to have basic needs met, including a public-owned-and-operated bakery. On top of this, they cleaned up organized crime and political cronyism. They were social and moral reformers.

Their success became the precedent that all other US cities followed and has since become standard all across the developed world. We now take this sewer socialism for granted since it has become central to every major country, either at the national or local level. Government municipalities are seen as a basic function of any well-functioning political system, but that wasn’t always the case. That was a profound change in the public perception of government’s role. Any country that lacks such basic amenities are presently judged as backwards or even as “third world”, as it is considered a sign of some combination of poverty, failure, and corruption.

Most important, sewer socialism is proven to work, proven again and again and again. It turns out improving the living conditions of the poor improves the living conditions of all of society. For those who have heard of Jesus Christ, you might remember him saying in no uncertain terms that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Now consider this — as of 2010 in Finland, “church attendance is just 1.5 percent in the capital city region” (Nina Mustonen, Church Attendance Falls; Religion Seen as Private). So, why did it take the capital city in one of the most secular countries in the world to follow a central Christian dictum?

American Christians might want to contemplate that. All of us, Christian and otherwise, should rethink socialism, maybe rethink our entire society.

* * *

‘It’s a miracle’: Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness
by Jon Henley, The Guardian

Housing First costs money, of course: Finland has spent €250m creating new homes and hiring 300 extra support workers. But a recent study showed the savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system totalled as much as €15,000 a year for every homeless person in properly supported housing.

Interest in the policy beyond the country’s borders has been exceptional, from France to Australia, says Vesikansa. The British government is funding pilot schemes in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, whose Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, is due in Helsinki in July to see the policy in action.

But if Housing First is working in Helsinki, where half the country’s homeless people live, it is also because it is part of a much broader housing policy. More pilot schemes serve little real purpose, says Kaakinen: “We know what works. You can have all sorts of projects, but if you don’t have the actual homes … A sufficient supply of social housing is just crucial.”

And there, the Finnish capital is fortunate. Helsinki owns 60,000 social housing units; one in seven residents live in city-owned housing. It also owns 70% of the land within the city limits, runs its own construction company, and has a current target of building 7,000 more new homes – of all categories – a year.

In each new district, the city maintains a strict housing mix to limit social segregation: 25% social housing, 30% subsidised purchase, and 45% private sector. Helsinki also insists on no visible external differences between private and public housing stock, and sets no maximum income ceiling on its social housing tenants.

It has invested heavily, too, in homelessness prevention, setting up special teams to advise and help tenants in danger of losing their homes and halving the number of evictions from city-owned and social housing from 2008 to 2016.

“We own much of the land, we have a zoning monopoly, we run our own construction company,” says Riikka Karjalainen, senior planning officer. “That helped a lot with Housing First because simply, there is no way you will eradicate homelessness without a serious, big-picture housing policy.”

The Elite Know What Makes Democracy Work

“Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government.” ~Friedrich A. Hayek

That might have been one of the truest statements ever made by Hayek. Yet he didn’t state this with the assumption that, therefore, we the public should seek nor that the ruling elite like him should allow for “a great measure of local self-government.” Instead, he supported authoritarian regimes such as that of Augusto Pinochet.

He believed that democracy should be sacrificed every single time, even if it required violent oppression and mass death, in order to ensure the dominance of capitalism, that is to say of plutocratic corporatism and cronyism. He understood the precise conditions under which democracy thrives and he feared it.

Freedom must be prevented at all costs, according to his vision, at least freedom of everyone other than the capitalist class in a highly unequal society where the few horde the concentrated wealth. Our present lack of democracy isn’t for a lack of understanding democracy. Those seeking to destroy democracy understand full well what they’re doing.

Think about the next time you hear a self-proclaimed expert, not limited to the political right (Democratic professional politicians are among the worst), warns against too much democratic populism, warns against the mob — advising instead for lesser evilism, paternalistic moderation, centrism of an Overton window shifted far right. They are not defending your freedom but their own power, privilege, and profit.

Those like Hayek hoped to prevent democracy. They envisioned an authoritariasm of totalitarian proportions, such that social control would be absolute. Anyone who questioned or challenged, anyone who dared to speak with an honest and moral voice would be eliminated as untold numbers did under Pinochet. But other elites like John Sherman understood another threat, as he said of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890:

“[P]eople are feeling the power and grasp of these combinations, and are demanding of every State Legislature and of Congress a remedy for this evil, only grown into huge proportions in recent times… You must heed their appeal, or be ready for the socialist, the communist and the nihilist.”

Theodore Roosevelt echoed this thought when he warned that the elite should take heed of the problems the left-wing points to because they are real problems. Otherwise, the masses would turn to those who would do what needed to be done. More than a century on, Nick Hanauer, yet another white male elite of the capitalist class, warned of the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats.

If the elite don’t allow for basic democracy, the left-wingers will gain power. Hayek simply personified why radicalism was necessary, made clear that this is a fight to the death. And the death that the authoritarian elites have in mind is your death and that of your loved ones, your neighbors. This is why we find ourselves with a police state with the largest mass incarceration in history. The Hayekian elite haven’t quite figured out how to implement a Pinochet-style regime, but they’re working on it.

Now if the general public only understood democracy as well as did Hayek. Then we would have a revolution.

(Source: REAL Democracy History Calendar: May 6 – 12)

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

This social order, this political system, this economy — it is the best we can hope for, some claim. The best of all possible worlds. Or else the best under present conditions. Good enough for the time being. Be grateful for what we have. It could be a lot worse. Accordingly, what we should accept: A little less suffering is good even if not confronting the cause for the time being, as pain management for the symptoms is better than nothing at all. Let’s moderate and reform a bad system, small steps toward small changes. We’ll deal with the real issues and hard problems later on… after the next election… after the next crisis…

Just don’t rock the boat or we might capsize. Radical ideals and revolutionary aspirations are dangerous. Let’s settle for compromise, no matter how imperfect, no matter how often it fails, no matter how bad it gets. We need to be reasonable and practical, to be patient and accept the lesser evil. After all, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Keep our dreams manageable. Because if you shoot for the stars, you might crash and burn. It’s better to stay safe and succeed at low standards. These are dangerous times and we are fighting a rearguard action. This is not time for big talk. The barbarians are at the gate. Let’s just hunker down and hope the storm passes.

And on and on.

Bullshit! That isn’t good enough, not for those suffering and oppressed. These are the excuses of fearful children cowering before abuse, of the comfortable classes trying to soothe their own guilty consciences while they look the other way.

On this day in 1936, David Lummis was born. And on the same date a little over a quarter century later in 1963, W.E.B. Dubois died. The former said that, “The spirit of democracy appears now and then in history, at those moments when people fight for it. If you try to achieve democracy by waiting for it, you will wait forever.” And the latter had similar sentiments: “Call back some faint spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln, and when again we can hold a fair election on real issues, let’s vote, and not till then. Is this impossible? Then democracy in America is impossible.” (see REAL Democracy History Calendar: August 27 – September 2)

Those are words not intended for the faint hearts of good liberals with their good intentions. These aren’t calm and compliant voices. Instead, the sentiment expressed is that of immediacy and urgency. There is no time like the present, and it will only get worse and harder as time goes on. This attitude of social responsibility and moral courage is nothing new. It’s what our country was founded upon, what the greatest of the revolutionaries hoped for us later generations — in the words of Thomas Paine, the most democratic of the founders, on more than one occasion:

“I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” And: “If we fail to act, we’re self-deceiving cowards condemning our children to tyranny and cheating the world of a beacon of liberty.” And: “let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” And another:

“As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; that eminence will present a prospect which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight.”

Paine’s only child was lost earlier in his life when his wife died in childbirth. It didn’t stop him from caring about the children of others, from being willing to sacrifice his own personal benefit for the sake of future generations. He had many opportunities to have settled down and lived an easy life. Yet it wasn’t in him to remain silent before injustice and bow down before oppression. Yes, he was quite capable of being an asshole and a troublemaker but more important he did it with moral righteousness. Having watched The Young Karl Marx, I realized much of the same could describe Marx as well, someone who like Paine refused to back down from what he knew was right.

Without righteous assholes pushing for change, there would have been no revolutionary era, no progressive reform, no abolition of slavery, no labor movement, no universal suffrage, and no United States as a battleground for justice and fairness. Paine for certain was ahead of his time and, in many ways, he is ahead of our time as well (such as his having advocated for the equivalent of a basic income). What are we waiting for to finally live up to the vision and ideals our country was founded upon? If the time has never been quite right for fully functioning democracy in more than two centuries of American history, the time will never be right. Otherwise, we have to accept that the time is always right when what needs to be done is before us, a lesson hammered home by the fiery sermonizing of Martin Luther King, jr:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

The thing is the American public knows this. They feel the urgency in the everyday experience of their lives, as the chasm of inequality grows. Americans feel stressed and anxious, often desperate in not knowing what is coming next. This isn’t a stable situation that will last much longer. Maintaining the status quo and seeking gradual reform is not an option at this point. Either we collectively make major changes that transform our society or revolution will follow, probably sooner than later.

None of this is a secret. The population is getting restless and, as long as freedom and justice is denied, we’ll keep getting demagogues like Donald Trump and eventually an authoritarian far more dangerous. Most Americans have lost faith in public institutions and, realizing how it is rigged by dark money and hidden influences, have stopped voting in most elections. This leaves the field open for the worst elements in our society. If the ruling elite keep this up, they might as well point a gun at their own heads because that is essentially what they’re doing. All of their power-mongering will harm themselves in the end.

The public has made clear what they are demanding. The problem is the public, short of revolution, has no power to enforce their demands. Still, the demands remain and the pressure continues to build, as the American public shifts further to the left of the political establishment… and in reaction, the political establishment pushes further right.

For example, the Clintons and Obama only came out in support of same sex marriage a few years ago, long after the majority of Americans had already declared being in favor. This same pattern is seen on numerous popular and important issues, from abortion rights to free college tuition. Also, consider the fact that most Americans have long wanted healthcare reform far to the left of anything Democratic politicians were willing to fight for and their corporate backers were willing to allow. Even now, the Washington cronies of the DNC won’t back the radical healthcare reform that the public is demanding, despite the majority of Republicans having joined the majority of Americans in supporting Medicare for all. The same is establishment failure is seen with net neutrality, as 83% of voters and three out of four Republicans are in support). And I could list many other examples.

The DNC follows, doesn’t lead.

Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and let that sink in. On issues like this that could decide elections, the DNC is to the right of the average Republican. That is mind blowing! Claims of lesser evil that again and again leads to ever greater evil? No thanks and fuck you! And Democratic ignoramuses pretend to act surprised by how Donald Trump, in having made promises reminiscent of the New Deal (e.g., infrastructure rebuilding), won the presidency. Maybe it has something to do with their own candidates being neck-deep in corruption and cronyism, not to mention their pockets overflowing with dirty money. The American public isn’t so stupid as to not realize that the Clintons are full of shit and a danger to our society. There was no lesser evil but instead two greater evils, one a blunt force trauma to the skull that was an immediate shock to the body politic and the other a putrid gangrenous rot that will kill more slowly.

The polarization isn’t between conservative and liberals but between the powerful and disfranchised, the rich and the poor, the comfortable and desperate, those against self-governance and those for it (this has been true for centuries, going back to the American Revolution: “we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”). A century ago, popular conservative politicians made powerful conservative arguments for economic populism and corporate regulation: “The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth,” as it was put by Theodore Roosevelt (New Nationalism speech), a born plutocrat who was no friend of left-wingers but smart enough to know the only sustainable path into the future was social democracy. Here we are after generations of hard fighting and what do we have? Supposed ‘liberals’ like the Clinton Democrats are in the back pocket of big money (of big tech, big banks, etc) with their backroom deals, closed door talks, and games of pay-to-play. This has given covering fire for Republicans to go far right-wing and so given a platform for the most radical of reactionaries.

The ruling elite keeps talking about moderation and centrism. But we the American public don’t want moderation toward the center of the ruling elite. What we want is fairness and justice, pure and simple. If democracy is allowed, most Americans would love to have it. Failing that, there are darker paths we could go down. That would be a sad fate for a country that began with so much promise. We shouldn’t allow that to happen, not without a fight. Instead, let us choose democracy and commit to it with every fiber of our being. No matter how dark it gets, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Now is the time.

The Coming Collapse

“I seriously believe this country deserves everything that’s going to happen to it. War, revolution, madness, the whole bag.”
~ Hunter S. Thompson, 1968

Authoritarian strains in American politics and economy have a long history. Major American figures, including President Jimmy Carter, have warned that the United States is now a banana republic. To put emphasis on the nonpartisan nature of this judgment, it was during the last Democratic administration that Carter stated in no uncertain terms that, “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” That was before anyone knew of Donald Trump running for the presidency.

Plenty of data supports this assessment, such as American democracy recently being downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”, according to the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). But even long before that, others had noted that in the past these rising rates of high inequality were always a key indicator that a country had become a banana republic.

One person noted that this was what they were taught in public school a half century ago back when the United States had low inequality, a large middle class, and high economic mobility. It was taught as a way of comparing how the American economy was superior in the egalitarian American Dream it claimed to represent. Few at the time thought the United States would follow the example of the authoritarian regimes and puppet states our government put into power. It should have been known, though, that what a citizenry allows their government do to others will eventually and inevitably be done to the citizenry, first targeting the disadvantaged but eventually targeting everyone (as Martin Niemöller famously explained about those in power finally coming for him).

It’s very much been a bipartisan failure of democracy or, if you prefer, a bipartisan success of cynical realpolitik. The ruling elite are doing great, for the moment. And the general public have been kept ignorant and distracted, resulting in a lack of urgency. But all of that is irrelevant, as far as it matters for the disempowered and disfranchised majority — that is irrelevant until the inevitable collapse or revolt. It is with such a dire threat looming on the horizon that the ruling elite further push disinformation and spectacle.

Most Americans have no idea how bad it is has gotten. For example, Americans think economic inequality is far lower than it actually is and yet the actual levels are far higher than what most Americans believe should be tolerable. As soon as Americans realize they’ve been lied to by their corporatocratic government and corporatist media, that will be the end of the charade and the ending will come quickly once it starts. On an intuitive level, Americans already grasp it doesn’t all add up. And this can be seen in every aspect of our society.

Propaganda, no matter how successful, can only deny reality for so long. High inequality, in creating rampant stress and anxiety, is a problem that solves itself by destabilizing the entire system. There is no example in history of a high inequality society that didn’t either destroy itself or else became more authoritarian in delaying collapse, but in either case it involves a sharp increase of public unrest and revolt along with violence and death. The Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a last ditch effort to avoid this fate. But now we are too far gone. We will be forced to ride this out to its bitter end.

To be clear, Sanders isn’t a socialist nor are most of his supporters. Sanders is a rather moderate social democrat who is to the right of the old school New Deal Democrats, not coming close to the large-scale reforms and high tax rates supported by presidents in both parties earlier last century. It isn’t only populists threatening the powerful. Even among the powerful, there are those who don’t see the situation as sustainable.

Nick Hanauer, a wealthy businessman and early investor in Amazon, has warned about the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats. He makes this warning because, as with Adam Smith, he knows inequality is bad for any hope of a free society and free economy. And Hanauer is talking not only to Trump-like Republicans but also to major Democratic political operators such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. “They’re super exploitive—just unacceptable,” Hanauer says. “What I can guarantee you is that Jeff Bezos is not going to change those things in the absence of somebody putting essentially a gun to his head and forcing him to do it.”

That is one plutocratic Democrat talking about another plutocratic Democrat. If there is that much harsh disagreement among the ruling elite in the once considered working class party, imagine the outrage from below that is coming when civil unrest boils over. Instead of listening to the likes of Hanauer and Sanders (and earlier Nader), we got the corruption of the Clinton Democrats whose power-mongering created the monster in power now, Donald Trump. Don’t forget that Trump who, before becoming a Republican president, was a Clinton Democrat and close friend and supporter of the Clinton family. All of these people represent the splintering of the Democratic Party, splintering along the lines of populism and plutocracy.

As a Silicon Valley pastor of a church in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, Gregory Stevens bluntly spoke of the wealthy elites of the liberal class who, I might add, heavily fund the Democratic Party. The tech industry has become the core support behind the Democratic neoliberalism of the Clinton Democrats, endlessly espousing empty rhetoric about social justice but never willing to confront the actual problems that they profit from. Here is what Stevens said, according to Sam Levin in a Guardian piece:

“I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power, and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action,” Stevens wrote, lamenting that it was impossible for low-income people to live in the city. “The insane wealth inequality and the ignorance toward actual social justice is absolutely terrifying.”

He later added: “The tech industry is motivated by endless profit, elite status, rampant greed, and the myth that their technologies are somehow always improving the world.”

Remind me again how societal decline is all the fault of Donald Trump and his co-conspirators. The only thing that makes Trump different from the Clintons is that he is more honest about his motivations.

Below are two views. The first was recently written under our present Trump administration. And the second was written under the Obama administration. The problems described have been continuously worsening under administrations from both parties going back decades. These kinds of warnings go even further back, as expressed in the predictions by the American Revolutionaries and Founders known as the Anti-Federalists. It’s long been known what kind of society this is and, unless it was changed, what kind of society it would become.

* * *

The Coming Collapse
by Chris Hedges

The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience, like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age.

The Democratic Party, which helped build our system of inverted totalitarianism, is once again held up by many on the left as the savior. Yet the party steadfastly refuses to address the social inequality that led to the election of Trump and the insurgency by Bernie Sanders. It is deaf, dumb and blind to the very real economic suffering that plagues over half the country. It will not fight to pay workers a living wage. It will not defy the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to provide Medicare for all. It will not curb the voracious appetite of the military that is disemboweling the country and promoting the prosecution of futile and costly foreign wars. It will not restore our lost civil liberties, including the right to privacy, freedom from government surveillance, and due process. It will not get corporate and dark money out of politics. It will not demilitarize our police and reform a prison system that has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population. It plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.

This is a doomed tactic, but one that is understandable. The leadership of the party, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, are creations of corporate America. In an open and democratic political process, one not dominated by party elites and corporate money, these people would not hold political power. They know this. They would rather implode the entire system than give up their positions of privilege. And that, I fear, is what will happen. The idea that the Democratic Party is in any way a bulwark against despotism defies the last three decades of its political activity. It is the guarantor of despotism. […]

But the warnings from the architects of our failed democracy against creeping fascism, Madeleine Albright among them, are risible. They show how disconnected the elites have become from the zeitgeist. None of these elites have credibility. They built the edifice of lies, deceit and corporate pillage that made Trump possible. And the more Trump demeans these elites, and the more they cry out like Cassandras, the more he salvages his disastrous presidency and enables the kleptocrats pillaging the country as it swiftly disintegrates.

The press is one of the principal pillars of Trump’s despotism. It chatters endlessly like 18th-century courtiers at the court of Versailles about the foibles of the monarch while the peasants lack bread. It drones on and on and on about empty topics such as Russian meddling and a payoff to a porn actress that have nothing to do with the daily hell that, for many, defines life in America. It refuses to critique or investigate the abuses by corporate power, which has destroyed our democracy and economy and orchestrated the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. The corporate press is a decayed relic that, in exchange for money and access, committed cultural suicide. And when Trump attacks it over “fake news,” he expresses, once again, the deep hatred of all those the press ignores. The press worships the idol of Mammon as slavishly as Trump does. It loves the reality-show presidency. The press, especially the cable news shows, keeps the lights on and the cameras rolling so viewers will be glued to a 21st-century version of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It is good for ratings. It is good for profits. But it accelerates the decline. […]

As a foreign correspondent I covered collapsed societies, including the former Yugoslavia. It is impossible for any doomed population to grasp how fragile the decayed financial, social and political system is on the eve of implosion. All the harbingers of collapse are visible: crumbling infrastructure; chronic underemployment and unemployment; the indiscriminate use of lethal force by police; political paralysis and stagnation; an economy built on the scaffolding of debt; nihilistic mass shootings in schools, universities, workplaces, malls, concert venues and movie theaters; opioid overdoses that kill some 64,000 people a year; an epidemic of suicides; unsustainable military expansion; gambling as a desperate tool of economic development and government revenue; the capture of power by a tiny, corrupt clique; censorship; the physical diminishing of public institutions ranging from schools and libraries to courts and medical facilities; the incessant bombardment by electronic hallucinations to divert us from the depressing sight that has become America and keep us trapped in illusions. We suffer the usual pathologies of impending death. I would be happy to be wrong. But I have seen this before. I know the warning signs. All I can say is get ready.

The Divide
by Matt Taibbi
Kindle Locations 67-160
(see more here)

The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans. Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.

As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden, yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.

To be extreme about it, on the far end—like, say, in the villages of Pakistan or Afghanistan—we now view some people as having no rights at all. They can be assassinated or detained indefinitely outside any sort of legal framework, from the Geneva conventions on down.

Even here at home, that concept is growing. After the Boston marathon bombings, there was briefly a controversy where we wondered aloud whether the Chechen suspects would be read Miranda rights upon capture. No matter how angry you were about those bombings—and as a Boston native, I wanted whoever was responsible thrown in the deepest hole we have—it was a fascinating moment in our history. It was the first time when we actually weren’t sure if an American criminal suspect would get full access to due process of law. Even on television, the blow-dried talking heads didn’t know the answer. We had to think about it.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are the titans of business, the top executives at companies like Goldman and Chase and GlaxoSmithKline, men and women who essentially as a matter of policy now will never see the inside of a courtroom, almost no matter what crimes they may have committed in the course of their business. This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.

I was originally attracted to this subject because, having spent years covering white-collar corruption for Rolling Stone, I was interested in the phenomenon of high-powered white-collar criminals completely avoiding individual punishment for what appeared to be very serious crimes. It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JPMorgan Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses and the financial press threw itself up in arms over the government’s supposedly aggressive new approach to regulating Wall Street, the basic principle held true: Nobody went to jail. Not one person.

Why was that? I quickly realized that it was impossible to answer that question without simultaneously looking at the question of who does go to jail in this country, and why. This was especially true when the numbers were so stark, zero-to-a-few on one hand, millions on the other.

Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.

Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.

Buried in our hatred of the dependent, in Mitt Romney’s lambasting of the 47 percent, in the water carrier’s contempt for the water drinker, is a huge national psychological imperative. Many of our national controversies are on some level debates about just exactly how much we should put up with from the “nonproducing” citizenry. Even the George Zimmerman trial devolved into a kind of national discussion over whether Trayvon Martin was the kind of person who had the right to walk down the street unmolested, or whether he was a member of a nuisance class, a few pegs down on that sliding scale of rights, who should have submitted to … well, whatever it was that happened.

The weird thing is that the common justification for the discrepancy in prison statistics—the glaring percentage of incarcerated people who are either poor, nonwhite, or both—is that the ghetto denizens are the people who commit the crimes, that their neighborhoods are where the crime is at.

And the common justification for the failure to prosecute executives in corrupt corporations for any crimes that they might commit is that their offenses aren’t really crimes per se but mere ethical violations, morally unfortunate acts not punishable by law. President Obama himself would hint at this in an infamous 60 Minutes interview.

But in practice, as I would find out in a years-long journey through the American justice system, things turn out to be completely different.

Yes, there’s a lot of violent crime in poor neighborhoods. And yes, that’s where most of your gun violence happens.

But for most of the poor people who are being sent away, whether it’s for a day or for ten years, their prison lives begin when they’re jailed for the most minor offenses imaginable. Can you imagine spending a night in jail for possessing a pink Hi-Liter marker? For rolling a tobacco cigarette? How about for going to the corner store to buy ketchup without bringing an ID?

They are sent away because they do the same things rich people do at some time in their lives, usually as teenagers—get drunk and fall down, use drugs, take a leak in an alley, take a shortcut through someone’s yard, fall asleep in a subway car, scream at a boyfriend or girlfriend, hop a fence. Only when they do these things, they’re surrounded by a thousand police, watching their every move.

Meanwhile the supposedly minor violations that aren’t worth throwing bankers in jail for—they turn out to be not so minor. When an employee at the aforementioned British banking giant HSBC—whose executives were ultimately handed a no-jail settlement for the biggest money-laundering case in the history of banking—started looking into how people on terrorist or criminal watch lists opened accounts at his company, he found something odd. In many cases, commas or periods were being surreptitiously added to names, so that they would elude the bank’s computer screening systems.

“That’s something that could only have been done on purpose, by a bank employee,” he said.

What deserves a bigger punishment—someone with a college education who knowingly helps a gangster or a terrorist open a bank account? Or a high school dropout who falls asleep on the F train?

The new America says it’s the latter. It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.

We still have real jury trials, honest judges, and free elections, all the superficial characteristics of a functional, free democracy. But underneath that surface is a florid and malevolent bureaucracy that mostly (not absolutely, but mostly) keeps the rich and the poor separate through thousands of tiny, scarcely visible inequities.

For instance, while the trials may be free and fair, unfair calculations are clearly involved in who gets indicted for crimes, and who does not. Or: Which defendant gets put in jail, and which one gets away with a fine? Which offender ends up with a criminal record, and which one gets to settle with the state without admitting wrongdoing? Which thief will pay restitution out of his own pocket, and which one will be allowed to have the company he works for pay the tab? Which neighborhoods have thousands of police roaming the streets, and which ones don’t have any at all?

This is where the new despotism is hidden, in these thousands of arbitrary decisions that surround our otherwise transparent system of real jury trials and carefully enumerated suspects’ rights. This vast extrademocratic mechanism, it turns out, is made up of injustices big and small, from sweeping national concepts like Eric Holder’s Collateral Consequences plan, granting situational leniency to “systemically important” companies, to smaller, more localized outrages like New York City prosecutors subverting speedy trial rules in order to extract guilty pleas from poor defendants who can’t make bail.

Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued. You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.

I went looking for it.

Trump Tower and the Public Square

In the past, a populist was someone who was popular or who held popular views. A populist, as such, was a man (or woman) of the people or at least one aligned with them. So, why do so many in the media, specifically in the corporate media, repeatedly call Trump a ‘populist’ when he isn’t popular among the populace? The majority of voters didn’t vote for him. And according to numerous polls, at no point have most Americans supported, agreed with, or had even a remotely positive view of him.

Trump was elected by the electoral college which was designed to suppress democracy by protecting the interests and power of the elite. And there are few Americans more elite than Trump, someone who not only has been a key figure among the capitalist class and within corporate media but also was close friends and major supporter of the Clintons as they took over the Democratic Party, shifting it toward the right-wing and reactionary.

Behind the scenes, Trump was one of the anti-populist forces that helped remove any remaining democracy within the Democratic Party. Having made Democrats democratically impotent, he then turned his sights on the Republican Party, taking it over and pushing it even further to the extreme. It was a brilliant one-two punch, a brash show of elitist machinations. Trump was triumphant by using the system to gain control of the system. He was no outsider hoping to tear it all down, much less drain the swamp.

What is Trump symbolized by? Trump Tower. Not Trump Square. He is the ultimate product and embodiment of the rigid hierarchy of late stage capitalism and plutocratic corporatocracy. The network is beginning to challenge that entrenched hierarchy, but it’s been slow process. Trump’s coup is the last gasp of hierarchy as the system becomes dysfunctional and deranged, turning on itself.

The tower, the hierarchy remains dominant. When the tower comes tumbling down, we will know about it. And it won’t come about by an anti-democratic economic, media, and political system placing into power a faux populist.

On a related note, I’ve spent the last couple of decades watching the local public space downtown be destroyed by local plutocratic business interests (and by the way, it is very much a Democratic stronghold). The pedestrian mall, built as part of a downtown renovation project, used to be a thriving public space and public forum where community members gathered and connected. But in recent years it was intentionally and systematically destroyed in service of the tower, quite literally as TIF-funded high-rises were built for the wealthy and the downtown was gentrified.

There was a public space informally known as The People’s Park and formally known as Blackhawk Park (Blackhawk being the native leader who fought to defend his home against powerful interests seeking to steal his people’s land). This park existed before the pedestrian mall’s construction. It was the center of the public space and gave expression to a thriving sense of community, but the tables and benches were removed. Now it is feels like a dead zone, an open space in front of a looming glass edifice that no longer welcomes public use.

This power grab at the local level is mirrored by the power grab at the national and international level, including within supposed networks as the internet increasingly comes under the control of hierarchical transnational corporations. Hierarchy is ascendant, like never before seen. We have barely begun to see the emergence of a network backlash. And the longer the backlash is suppressed, the more radical and revolutionary it will be once finally unleashed.

 

‘I expect things to get worse before they get better’, says historian Niall Ferguson
by Varghese K. George

Would it be useful to try to understand history as ongoing, cyclical, hierarchy-network swings?

It might be a little too neat. Large networks are complex systems, and they have emergent properties that are rather unpredictable. They are quite capable of sudden changes. The key here is that revolutionary networks like the Bolsheviks were capable of transforming, with amazing speed, into hierarchies of tremendous rigidity and centralisation. That hierarchical structure endured for 70 years, and then fell apart with extraordinary swiftness. I prefer to think of history as a somewhat erratic and chaotic process rather than as one characterised by cycles, or pendulum swings. That is why it is hard to predict history, and it does not operate in a way that submits to nice, neat laws.

You make some predictions and say the current phase of social and political chaos will last for some years.

If one compares our age with the period of the printing press, the striking thing is that there are many, many similarities, though the speed today is an order of magnitude faster. It took a hundred years in the 16th and 17th centuries, in the age of the printing press; now it takes 10 years. If you think about what happened in the 16th century, the printing press… when the Reformation started, it unleashed at least 130 years of religious conflict in Europe. It went on until the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia. In my very rough analogy, we should expect our age’s ideological conflict to last about a tenth of that time. The age of the Internet, certainly the age of Facebook and Twitter, has given rise to a kind of ideological polarisation in many democracies. I would expect that process to continue and get worse for a whole period of conflict that is not as long as 130 years but perhaps 13 years. But this is a very rough analogy. This is about how these technological shocks, these innovations like the Internet or the printing press, change the structure of the public sphere and give rise to conflict, because of polarisation or violence… If you think of it in a rough way, we are having this 16th-17th century experience in the realm of democratic politics… but speeded up. That means I expect things to get worse before they get better. Because I don’t see any change in the state of affairs created by Facebook, YouTube and the rest soon.

Review: Even on the Internet, What’s Old Is New Again
by Jonathan A. Knee

The internet itself is a network of networks. The ability to communicate and transact across its vast reach is indeed unprecedented and represents the basic infrastructure of what has been termed the “network society.” Mr. Ferguson’s book does far more than simply track the use of the word “network” from its introduction in English language publications in the late 19th century, when it “was scarcely used,” to the modern day, when he points out that it appeared in 136 articles in The New York Times during just the first week of 2017. Rather he seeks to reframe the entirety of human history as an endless tug-of-war between eras in which powerful hierarchical institutions predominate (the Tower of the title) only to be undermined by the influence of emerging networks (the corresponding Square). In Professor Ferguson’s telling, these networks are invariably co-opted by reconstituted hierarchies and the process begins again.

For instance, Professor Ferguson argues it was the printing press that was largely responsible for three “network-based revolutions — the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.” These were followed by a hundred-year period of hierarchical international order dominated by five hubs (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) leading up to the First World War.

The new industrial, financial and communications networks that emerged during this time did not, however, overturn the hierarchical nature of things. This dominant structure survived both world wars, according to Professor Ferguson, with the mid-twentieth century actually representing the “zenith of hierarchy.” His account shows how the ability to navigate and influence these and other nascent networks determined which empires thrived in the reconfigured hierarchical orders.

Want to understand how history is made? Look for the networks
by David Marquand

Hierarchies, Ferguson argues, have been part of the human condition since the neolithic age. But in the 500 years since Gutenberg invented printing and Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church, hierarchies have been challenged again and again by networks, through which like-minded people communicate with each other, independently of those set in authority over them. Sometimes hierarchies have crushed networks; sometimes networks have undermined hierarchies. But the tension between them has been constant and inescapable. […]

But despite the complexity of Ferguson’s story, the basic argument is clear. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, it is curiously reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. For Ferguson, networks are more creative than hierarchies. Their members are more engaged than the hierarchies they confront. Without them, the world would be a harsher, bleaker and crueller place. But when hierarchies fall, and networks carry all before them, the result, too often, is an anarchic war of all against all—like Hobbes’s state of nature. Again and again, Ferguson reminds us, triumphant networks have run amok, plunging their societies into bloodshed. […]

The clear implication of these stories is that stable and legitimate rule depends on a symbiosis between Ferguson’s Square and his Tower: between networks and hierarchies. And half a millennium of human history shows that symbiosis is both extraordinarily difficult to achieve and extraordinarily difficult to maintain.

For most of the 16th and 17th centuries, the main threat to that symbiosis came from the fanatical, intolerant and often bloodthirsty religious networks that devastated central Europe. For most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries it came from more or less brutal hierarchists—Peter the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung and the like. In his brilliantly provocative final chapters, Ferguson shows that the wheel has now come full circle. The frenzied religious networks of the 16th century flourished in what he calls the “first networked era”: the age ushered in by the astonishingly rapid diffusion of print technology all over Europe. Today, he argues, we are living in the second networked age. Ours is the age of the internet, of Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web and giants such as Facebook and Google. The speedy diffusion of information that these websites facilitate allow individuals to form themselves into networks more easily, and more globally, than ever before. A development that is having profound consequences for once stable, or at least predictable, democracies.

By that very token, though, it is also the age of cyber-warfare, sometimes conducted by hierarchical states, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and sometimes by networked individuals like Julian Assange. […]

As in the past, though, the network has quickly been taken over by a hierarchy; the square has become the tower. The most astonishing feature of the second networked age is an explosion of inequality. The returns from the network, he points out, “flow overwhelmingly to the insiders who own it.” Thus, Google is worth $660bn; 16 per cent of its shares are owned by its founders. Facebook is worth $441bn; 28 per cent of its shares are owned by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg and his ilk are not alone. They are scooping up a massive rent; and, for decades, successful rent-seeking by the super-rich has been a feature of economic life right across the developed world.

The great question for the future is whether it will be possible to assemble a social coalition of Ferguson’s outsiders to challenge the dominance of the super-rich. In other words can the network strike back? The obstacles are formidable. But it is worth remembering that though left-wing insurgent Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, he might well have won the presidency if the race had been between him and Trump in his tower. Sanders’s populist campaign might yet turn out to have been the first swallow of a bright summer.

Networks and Hierarchies in the Trump Era: An Interview with Niall Ferguson
by Davis Richardson

You say that these companies in Silicon Valley are decentralized, but it seems they’re very consolidated regarding capital and the concentration of data.

The paradox of Silicon Valley is that it proclaims a very decentralized network era in which cyberspace is inhabited by free and equal netizens; yet in practice, it’s created its own extraordinarily unequal hierarchy personified by the FANG companies and the people who own them. The rhetoric of Silicon Valley has been that we’re going to be more democratized by connectedness, but the reality is that large social networks are not very democratic; they actually magnify the existing inequalities in our society.

Does social media reinforce power structures throughout history?

Or creates a new version. It was new people who became the titans of the 19th century, the Carnegies and Rockefellers. In one sense, the giants of Silicon Valley, like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, are the equivalent to Andrew Carnegie and his contemporaries.

But in our time, we now have a network inequality projected onto an existing market inequality that amplifies it. To give an example, those who are in a position to take big, speculative positions in Bitcoin are already quite wealthy from the last generation of technology.

It’s reminiscent of Marx’s philosophy that the bourgeoisie is never fixed and subject to renewal.

There’s a consolation offered by large monopoly companies which is, “Don’t worry, we won’t be monopolies for too long. New giants will come and displace this.” And that’s the standard way in which Google and Amazon have fended off the anti-trust movement from the Democratic Party. But there’s never really been such a concentration of power in content publishing as now exists.

In the age of the printing press, it was a decentralized public sphere. Whereas, what’s happened, thanks to how Google and Facebook have been run, is unique in that the public sphere is becoming highly concentrated through those network platforms. It does drive a real distortion of the public sphere because it doesn’t matter whether something’s true or false. William Randall Hearst never had that type of market share, even at the height of his power, and I find it oddly disconcerting that the people running those companies act as if they weren’t massive content publishers.

“The Square and the Tower” — Augmenting and Modularizing the Algorithm (a Review and Beyond)
by Richard Reisman

Drawing on a long career as a systems analyst/engineer/designer, manager, entrepreneur and inventor, I have recently come to share much of Ferguson’s fear that we are going off the rails. He cites important examples like the 9/11 attacks, counterattacks, and ISIS, the financial meltdown of 2008, and most concerning to me, the 2016 election as swayed by social media and hacking. However — discouraging as these are — he seems to take an excessively binary view of network structure, and to discount the ability of open networks to better reorganize and balance excesses and abuse. He argues that traditional hierarchies should reestablish dominance.

In that regard, I think Ferguson fails to see the potential for better ways to design, manage, use, and govern our networks — and to better balance the best of hierarchy and openness. To be fair, few technologists are yet focused on the opportunities that I see as reachable, and now urgently needed. […]

Ferguson’s title comes from his metaphor of the medieval city of Sienna, with a large public square that serves as a marketplace and meeting place, and a high tower of government (as well as a nearby cathedral) that displayed the power of those hierarchies. But as he elaborates, networks have complex architectures and governance rules that are far richer than the binary categories of either “network” ( a peer to peer network with informal and emergent rules) or “hierarchy” (a constrained network with more formal directional rankings and restrictions on connectivity).

The crucial differences among all kinds of networks are in the rules (algorithms, code, policies) that determine which nodes connect, and with what powers. While his analysis draws out the rich variety of such structures, in many interesting examples, with diagrams, what he seems to miss is any suggestion of a new synthesis. […]

As Ferguson points out, our vaunted high-tech networks are controlled by corporate hierarchies (he refers to FANG, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google, and BAT, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) — but subject to levels of government control that vary in the US, EU, and China. This corporate control is a source of tension and resistance to change — and a barrier to more emergent adaptation to changing needs and stressors (such as the Russian interference in our elections). These new monopolistic hierarchies extract high rents from the network — meaning us, the users — mostly in the form of advertising and sales of personal data.

‘The Square and the Tower’ a wobbly view of history
by Mike Fischer

In Ferguson’s hands, that disconnect covers everything and therefore explains nothing; his notion of hierarchy is so narrow and his definition of networks is so generic that the distinction between them becomes meaningless — particularly as Ferguson is forced to admit that “a hierarchy is just a special kind of network.”

What we get instead is a watered down survey of how “networks” spurred by the printing press enabled Luther’s reformation as well as ensuing secular revolution — before reactive “hierarchies” re-established precedence in the 19th century, thereafter themselves coming unglued following World War II.

Ferguson points to this more recent erosion in hierarchical power as cause rather than consequence of a new network revolution involving the Internet and social media, both of which make him nervous because of how readily they’ve been appropriated by populist demagogues on the left and right.

But as has been true of Ferguson before — one thinks of his insistence that the West’s “edge” can be explained by six “killer apps” — his hobby horse du jour sometimes rides roughshod over the facts.

How else, for example, to explain his bizarre view that because network analysis demonstrates that Paul Revere and Joseph Warren were more plugged in than their brethren, they “were the most important revolutionaries in Boston”? Or that it’s “doubtful” George Washington would have enjoyed the influence he did if he hadn’t been a Mason?

Neither claim is tested against the dense historical record suggesting that Washington — and Bostonians like the Adams cousins — were important because of their personal characteristics, unique talents, and ideas; for Ferguson, the content of one’s character and quality of one’s thought matter much less than being in the right place at the right time.

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson review – a restless tour through power
by Andrew Anthony

The problem is that there are simply too many strands and too much disparate information for a coherent thesis to emerge. Indeed, such is Ferguson’s restless desire to uncover connectedness that he can sound like a conspiracy theorist, though he is at pains to distance himself from that perspective. As he notes in the preface, conspiracy theorists see networks as hidden elites in cahoots with the established power structure, while far more often, he argues, networks disrupt the status quo.

But in revisiting such conspiracist tales – the Illuminati and the Rothschilds, for example – he confuses as much as demystifies. The Illuminati, a small 18th-century German order that sought to disseminate Enlightenment ideals, came to be seen – falsely – as the orchestrators of the French Revolution, and, by the modern crank tendency, as the puppet-masters behind everything.

As Ferguson notes, the Illuminati survived by infiltrating the Freemasons, where they achieved little, ultimately collapsing and disappearing long before they were adopted by the lunatic fringe as the all-purpose sinister “they”. So what was their significance? Ferguson doesn’t really explain, other than to say that they were an example of the intellectual networks that were “an integral part of the complex historical process that led Europe from Enlightenment to Revolution to Empire”.

From someone who is not bashful about making bold statements, this is a deeply underwhelming conclusion. But it stands as the basis for his case about the ambiguous, not always progressive nature of networks. It’s an argument that takes in the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Cambridge Apostles, the Taiping revolt, Henry Kissinger, al-Qaida and so much else besides, right up to Twitter and Donald Trump.

The effect is dizzying more​ than​ stimulating. Ferguson’s breadth of learning is often impressive, but by the end of the book I was little more secure in my understanding of what ​he was trying to get at than at the beginning.