Category Archives: American Politics

The Paradox of Bureaucracy and the Politics of the Left

Nobody likes talking about bureaucracy anymore. (Ok, there are some people, but they never get invited to fun parties.) Talking about bureaucracy is passé; the main studies of bureaucracy in America were all written at least thirty years ago. The marketization and privatization of everything, and the subsequent dismantling of the administrative state over the last forty years, has made bureaucracy seem irrelevant.

David Graeber thinks we’re doing it all wrong. In Utopia of Rules, he argues that we have entered an era of “total bureaucratization”: rather than disappear, the political foundations of bureaucracy have metastasized into all aspects of life. Privatization has not defeated bureaucratization but rather joined forces with it “in a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth.” Bureaucracy is more important than ever; we just don’t even realize it.

Graeber’s critique is particularly provocative when it comes to the relationship between bureaucracy and left-wing politics. We often think of the political Left in America as defenders of a benevolent bureaucracy, protecting welfare state programs against the predations of right-wing politicians hellbent on shrinking the government. Yet Graeber suggests instead that the fundamental assumptions of Left politics make it incompatible with bureaucracy. 

“The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states,” he writes. That “the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state,” is indicative of how American politics has lost its way.

Bureaucracies are arrangements of rules, a particular arrangement of social order that prioritizes predictability, stability, and order. “Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and—-within certain parameters, at least—-treat everyone more or less the same,” he writes. Bureaucracies, then, can be highly effective in certain circumstances—-but they are so only by removing as much humanness as possible.

The departure from human impulses is what makes bureaucracy incompatible with foundational elements of a left political project, he argues, which must be grounded in the idea of imagination. In those youth rebellions of the 1960s, bureaucratic authority represented the fundamental stifling of the human spirit, of creativity and conviviality. The bureaucratic mindset is the rejection of human imagination; a revulsion toward the fetters of bureaucracy is inextricable from the core energy of what motivates a true egalitarian. “The Left, in its essence, is a critique of bureaucracy, even if it’s one that has, again and again, been forced to accommodate in practice to the very bureaucratic structures and mindset it originally arose to oppose.”

Graeber invokes Marx to promote an idea of the political imagination as the inherent human capability of envisioning a better world. In Marx’s terminology, Graeber says, this is production: the ability to envision things, and then bring them into being, unconstrained by the notion that we are limited by what the world currently is.

Imagination does not—-and should not—-be relegated to utopian fantasizing and attempts to use force to impose visions of society from above. It should be a bottom-up project, grounded in the basic creativity of regular individuals. The ability to imagine is not something that is reserved for the prodigies or high-powered elites, while the masses labor purely with their hands and without their minds. Rather, the imagination he speaks of is “the practical common sense imagination of ordinary cooks, nurses, mechanics, and gardeners.”

The combination of the bureaucratic mindset plus the neoliberal belief in markets and individualism creates an environment that seeks to limit the human imagination as much as possible. Graeber’s focus on the importance of political imagination and his sharp critiques of the elite managerial classes echo the more radical writings of George Orwell: “The ultimate imperative of those running the world is choking off the possibility of any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that will be fundamentally different than the world today.”

Even the most benevolent bureaucracies are really just taking the highly schematized, minimal, blinkered perspectives typical of the powerful, turning them into ways of limiting that power or ameliorating its most pernicious effects. Surely, bureaucratic interventions along these lines have done an enormous amount of good in the world…But at the same time, in taking forms of willful blindness typical of the powerful and giving them the prestige of science—for instance, by adopting a whole series of assumptions about the meaning of work, family, neighborhood, knowledge, health, happiness, or success that had almost nothing to do with how poor or working-class people actually lived their lives, let alone what they found meaningful in them—it set itself up for a fall. 

In many arenas, most notably academia, radical critics of the status quo often cling to the strictures of bureaucracy to root out existing networks that favor the well-connected and the closed-off, patronage benefits they promote. Bureaucracy is juxtaposed with a feudal system and arbitrary personal authority. Yet, Graeber notes, the comfortable embrace of bureaucracy is dangerous: it adds more rules and limits creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily upset the order of authority. Channeling his anarchist forebears like James Scott, he argues that bureaucratization 

had to take what had always been a subtle, nuanced form of procedures and turn them into an explicit set of rules. In effect, they had to turn custom into a kind of board game….Such reforms may aim to eliminate arbitrary personal authority, but of course they never actually do. Personal authority just jumps up a level, and becomes the ability to set the rules aside in specific cases.

The tension between Left politics and bureaucracy was perhaps most apparent in Maoist China. The antithesis to true mass politics was bureaucracy and its associated diseased ideologies was “bureaucratism” and “formalism”—when bureaucrats become too distant from ordinary people and enslave themselves to rules rather than what people need. Bureaucracy won out in the post-Mao era, and the contemporary Chinese bureaucratic state is beset by the key feature that Graeber attributes to the bureaucratic mindset: a fear of arbitrariness, and, thus, an embrace of power that is deeply wary of uninhibited human creativity.

On Left-wing Politics

Two op-eds in the New York Times (first, second) about the problem of elites in a left-wing political party.

Can the Democratic Party, as it is currently constructed, maintain its commitment to a redistributive agenda?…Asking people to think of themselves as compassionate and to pay higher taxes is one thing — many Democrats have made that leap — but ask them to live in a mixed income neighborhood or ask them to have their kid give up her spot at Princeton, and you get a different response. (Tom Edsall)

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000). (Richard Reeves)

George Orwell, book review, 1939:

In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left­-wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don’t genuinely want.

A Post-Mortem of Post-Mortems

Human beings are always looking for something to blame. My roommates are looking to point the finger at whoever ate all of their avocados (wasn’t me), and the population of Beijing has been searching for years for the real culprit as to why the air we breathe is laced with harmful pollutants (also not me). Now, much of the world is searching for a reductionist, digestible answer as to why Donald Trump, the man who personifies the word ‘bloviating’, has been elected president of the United States of America. (Ok, I took an avocado. So what?) So far, I have been informed that the real reason he won is racismsexismstupidity, the director of the FBIsocial media, the electoral collegeidentity politicsHillary Clintonthe DNCthe Russians, the liberal bubble, the white bubble, and Barack Obama.

It’s got to be one of those. Or maybe all of them. Or maybe some of them?

The Democratic Party, claiming the mantle of cosmopolitan anti-racism that gestures to the working class in an oblique way (“trumped up trickle-down”), suffered a crushing defeat — not only against its own expectations of vainglorious triumph, but in a favorable electoral map and running against a candidate disliked by 60 percent of people. The Republican Party hung onto majorities in the Senate, the House and statehouses around the country, despite facing numerous vulnerable seats; the Democrats could only pick up two seats, both in states won by Clinton. The Democrats now hold a minority of seats while staring headlong into an unfavorable 2018 map. The election of Donald Trump, regardless of what his own views happen to be or become, has emboldened the fringe elements of society who traffic in hate and fear.

In the days since the election, the internet has churned out a pile of ex-post analyses, mixing together a hodgepodge of righteous indignation, justifiable fear, and alarmist doomsaying about the state of liberal democracy (the justifiability of which remains to be seen). And a few people have written things that challenge us to think a bit more deeply about why politics matters, why tens of millions of people would vote for a man who has so openly broken social and political norms, and why the Left cannot uniquely claim the moral high ground. Here are a few of these; I welcome more. There is no comments section, so you have to email me or blockchain me, whatever that is.

They’re Going to Keep Losing” by Freddie DeBoer

You don’t have to get in touch with the rest of the country because that’s the right thing to do. You have to get in touch with the rest of the country because they’re kicking your ass. The Republicans will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, have the chance to appoint at least one and probably several Supreme Court justices, run 68 out of 99 state legislative houses, and hold 31 gubernatorial seats. That is domination on an unimaginable level. Every minute you spend signal-boosting people who say that it’s Republicans who have to get on board with liberal values is a minute you’re not doing anything to change that condition…It doesn’t matter if you should have to change. You do have to change. Or else you have to accept the irrelevance of what you do.

The End of Identity Liberalism” by Mark Lilla

“How should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

“The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.” Continue reading

Profiles in America: The Unexpected Trump Voter

The gig economy may be disastrous for workers, but it’s great for meeting a diverse cross-section of America. In two days of using car-sharing app Lyft in the Bay Area, each of the five drivers I met was of a different ethnicity. A small sample size, sure, but sufficient for making sweeping, unsubstantiated statements about the country.

Enter Michael (name changed), a Lyft driver from San Jose. An immigrant from the east African nation of Eritrea, Michael came to the US fifteen years ago, first to study and then to work to support his family. Now he drives Lyft and travels when he can; recently, he took a trip to Northern Europe. (London is great, but he could never live there — it’s too busy). He was friendly and positive, eager to strike up a conversation about life in the Bay area and my experiences in China.

Also, he’s voting for Donald Trump.

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“Trump is a businessman,” Michael said when I popped the “what do you think of the upcoming election?” question. “The Democrats had their turn to fix the economy. Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the economy.”

On immigration, Michael had similar ideas. “I don’t like the way that Trump says it, but he’s right on immigration.”

“But you’re an immigrant,” I replied.

Legal immigration is fine, he explained, but we need to stop illegal immigration. “If people are coming in illegally, who knows what they’ll do?” Donald Trump’s rudeness is off-putting, Michael said, but at least Trump knows that that stopping illegal immigration is important. In Michael’s view, Trump can create more jobs, and that’s the most important task.

I tried to gently dissuade him from voting for Trump. I launched into a long and rambling explanation of why Trump’s economic policy would not actually create jobs, and then tried to argue why he would be a terrible representative for the United States in the world. Michael listened patiently. I talked uninterrupted for what felt like hours, wrapping together myriad different lines of argument and eventually tripping all over any semblance of a straightforward, convincing argument.  I resorted to technocratic exhortations of “trust me, I’ve studied the economy.” Seeing my sincere efforts to convince him fall flat, I merely asked him to reconsider his choice. He said he would think about it.

As we pulled up to my destination, Michael looked at me and asked, “Who do you think is going to win?”

All of the polls seem to say that Donald Trump had no chance. Clinton holds a consistent lead in all of the swing states, and has even closed in on Trump’s lead in reliable Republican strongholds like Texas and Utah. Despite my concerns, I said, at least I felt confident knowing that Clinton’s chances seemed strong.

He thought about my answer for a few moments before replying. “I think Trump is going to win,” he said.

Donald Trump and the “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” Strategy

When I think of Atlantic City, I think of the Trump Taj Mahal. My family would go down to the shore each summer to visit relatives; every so often, we would find ourselves in Atlantic City. The Taj — a glittering, bombastic, outrageous monument that makes small-scale cultural appropriation look like child’s play — held special appeal for a geography nerd like myself who rarely made it far past the New Jersey suburbs. My aunts and uncles and cousins worked in the casino business, and my grandmother would rack up comps from playing the nickel slots and take my brother, my cousins and me to a big all-you-can-eat buffet in the glittering, smoke-filled halls of the Taj or one of its brethren.

Atlantic City ain’t what it used to be, everyone says these days, and of course it’s true. The Trump Taj Mahal — which no longer has any relation to Trump but bears his name in countless light bulbs and golden letters — is hemorrhaging money and is set to close next month. The number of casinos in town has nearly halved since 2014. Jobs are disappearing; crime is up.

When I visited the area last month, the cover story in the local paper reported on a casino job fair — for casinos in other states who wanted to lure experienced dealers to new facilities in Maryland, New York, and even islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Plenty of casinos are hiring in Atlantic City,” the Press of Atlantic City explained. “But many of the jobs aren’t in Atlantic City.”

Donald Trump, the name and face of Atlantic City at the peak of its glitzy reverie, wants to sever all ties with the struggling city. Atlantic City, in turn, wants to sever all ties with him. When I asked my relatives in the casino industry what they and their colleagues thought of Trump running for president, the response was unequivocal. “The idea of Donald Trump being president is a joke to us,” they said. All he did was take a bunch of other people’s money and run casinos into the ground; the idea of anyone thinking he would be a good president is inconceivable to the people who actually saw him operate.

This finding is neither new nor surprising; plenty of reporters have gone to Atlantic City and drawn similar conclusions. It is interesting only in how it sheds light on the most fascinating part of the Year of the Donald: not his candidacy itself, but in his opponents’ complete disempowerment in trying to combat it.

Trump blunders with unrivaled fecundity, yet emerges relatively unscathed — simply by claiming that he has not blundered at all. If mistakes were made, it was somebody else’s fault. “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and left 7 years ago, great timing (as all know). Pols made big mistakes, now many bankruptcies,” Trump tweeted.  Continue reading

Donald Trump Is Not The Problem; Or, How American Liberals Are Doing It All Wrong

“I can’t wait for when we stop talking about Donald Trump and get to return to normal life again.” My roommate, in Beijing, China, March 2016

Experiencing the 2016 presidential election from China has been a uniquely frustrating experience: the longer I spend living in a non-democratic single-party political system, the greater the fundamental respect I have for American political and social institutions. Yet American politics and media seems determined to undermine my newfound goodwill with the charade that is the current election.

The problem, however, is not Donald Trump. It is the reaction on the Left to Donald Trump. Donald Trump says something offensive, liberal commentators recoil in visceral horror, somebody writes a trend story about the process of obtaining a visa to move to Canada, etc. It is a map dotted with little volcanoes of individual self-righteous outrage: Americans who support Trump must be stupid or racist, liberals say, because there is no other alternative that fits within their current worldview.

Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.”” The economy added 160,000 jobs last month; I assume that at least half of those were for new bloggers to write about how dumb Trump voters must be.

I spent a long time trying and mostly failing to express in words why this attitude frustrates me so deeply, but thankfully Emmett Rensin’s excellent essay at Vox on the ‘smug style’ of American liberalism fills much of the gap. The Left has embraced a smug attitude, Rensin argues, in which there are only two options for human thought: rationality (in which you would support liberalism, as embodied in the Democratic Party), or stupidity (in which you support Trump).

Rensin’s essay, despite its length, is worth reading in full. I want to elaborate on what Rensin writes and push the argument one step further. Those who are not ‘rational’ are likely not only stupid, but also racist. And the proper response to either stupidity or racism seems to be shame: these are unforgivable sins and whoever espouses these views must be beyond rehabilitation.

What is left of the Left is a motley coalition of rich coastal elites and minorities. Its main policy tools are means-tested social programs and semi-privatizations, promoting finance and tech elites while increasing support for the poorest. It is moving ever further away from the pro-labor party that prioritizes the interests of the working class.

Did elites abandon the labor left, or did the labor left jump ship? Both questions are primarily about the intersection of race and class. It is a question of which group prioritized race over class first. Continue reading