Sunday, January 03, 2010

My evolving political views

Over the years I have put together a few autobiographical reminiscences. These deal with persons and situations, to the neglect of my intellectual development, especially with regard to politics. That issue I will address here. Parenthetically, I note that, In discussing them with others, my politics tend to elicit indifference (because they are eclectic) or disparagement (because they fit no particular established pattern). Still, here goes.

My parents brought me up in a far-left political sect. We tempered our consumption of the “bourgeois” press with a reading of the Daily People’s World, the West Coast counterpart of the Daily Worker, Like many intellectuals of the thirties my stepfather had adopted the vulgar Marxism rife during those Depression years.

In our household I don’t remember any airing of such key issues of Marxian economic theory as surplus value or the purported progressive immiseration of the working class. In the immediate postwar period, when plumbers and truckdrivers began to earn more than professors, this stuff would not have had much traction. We were told, of course, that another Depression was just around the corner (NOT). The main thing I remember absorbing from those conversations and readings was a Manichaean view of the contemporary global situation in which the valiant “progressive forces” (that is the Warsaw Pact nations dominated by Moscow, and Mao’s China) were arrayed against the evil nemesis of capitalist plutocracy. Without question the US was always the archvillain in this process, a view that I have found wearyingly replicated over and over again in later dissident movements.. This is so even now that the Soviet Union is dead and gone. As far as I can see, the unending flood of screeds of Noam Chomsky simply mimics this hoary and simplistic sheep-and-goats doctrine.

Some averred that the only hope for change was the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, who ran in 1948 under the aegis of a third party. In fact, the hapless Wallace, whose main expertise lay in agriculture, was manipulated by his Communist and fellow-traveler advisers.

At the age of 16, however, I got off the bus, the Comintern Express. The precipating event was the defection of Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia from Soviet allegiance in 1948. I wrote a long letter, a kind of cri du coeur, to the Daily People’s World, asking how a stalwart champion of the people could so suddenly turn into a “social-fascist beast.” No answer came. Of course the excoriation simply reflected the fact that Tito had had the temerity to defy Stalin. and got away with it. Stalinism, enforced by the party line, pulled the strings that made all the puppets, including my foolish parents, dance.

I then deprogrammed myself by reading two authors, George Orwell (1984; and Animal Farm) and Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon). I later came to find Orwell a narrow and simplistic puritan, riddled with misogynistic, homophobic. and other suburban prejudices (he denounced "pansy" poets). For his part, Koestler returned to his first love, the history of science. I followed him in this interest, as seen most notably in his brilliant treatise, The Act of Creation. Two recent biographies have highlighted Koestler's personal failings, charges that may well be true. But for me his life was one of the most emblematic trajectories of the twentieth century.

Any perceptive person can benefit from offtrack experiences such as my Commie education, tossing out the dross (lots of it) and retaining what still seems of value. In keeping with their beliefs, for example, my parents sought out and made friends with black people, whom we sometimes entertained in our home. Another thing I gained from this misguided though formative orientation was a healthy skepticism about our two major parties--or rather the Demopublicans. Their alternating dominance is simply a series of switches from Tweedledum to Tweedlee and back again. The reason, of course, is the Permanent Government in Washington DC, staffed by venal career bureaucrats, ruled by lobbyists awash in money, and abetted by a disgraceful, toadying press. Today the truth of this principle seems to be affirmed once again, as the Obama policies more and more mirror those of George W. Bush. Only the rhetoric changes.

From time to time a third party arises, only to fall by the wayside. By and large the Anglo-Saxon political system does not permit such pluralism. We are resolutely binary. Does this realization lead to despair? Not necessarily, because of the success of movements organized around particular goals, as seen in the civil-rights, women's, and (to some degree) GLBTQ movements. I write the acronym reluctantly, as it points to a degree of fragmentation ("diversity") that is not helpful.

In college I took a worthless course in that misnamed discipline Political Science. It was only in the 1960s that I began to read on my own in this field. As a medieval scholar I found, curiously enough, succor in that era, which invented the concepts of separation of powers, representative government, the common law, and the just war. (The latter, however, gives me pause, as the criteria for determining which wars, if any, are just, seem elastic, all too conveniently so.)

My own views have been marked most profoundly by the writings of Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. (I attended Popper's seminar in London). My gay "libertarian" friends claim the same heritage, but in fact most of them are simply neocons with some surface camouflage. Still, If pressed for a label, I would say that I am a libertarian anarchist--but not entirely, since I retain Popper's hope for a better world, which can only be constructed with the aid of "partial planning."

I also maintain a strong dose of political Realism, honed by my readings of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Time devoted to these towering figures is never lost.

At this point I copy some remarks I made on this blog in 2005 regarding some less well-known thinkers in the Realist vein, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. Reflecting on his experience in Italy, Mosca (as early as 1893) posited that all societies, whatever their formal constitutions and public rituals, are controlled by an elite political formation. This harsh dynamic acknowledges only two social categories: the rulers and the ruled. Mosca’s ideas, and those of his contemporaries Pareto and Michels, differ from those of Marx in that the ruling group is composite, rather than unitary, and therefore not a class in the strict sense. In my view, Marx’s idea of the ruling class was more traditional, in that he envisaged a kind of pseudo-kinship group modeled on, though not the same as, the traditional nobility.

Conventional wisdom assigns Mosca, Pareto, and Michels to the Right. However, a similar point was made by Sidney Webb, the Fabian who, together with his wife Beatrice Webb, was one of the founders of the British Labor Party. Sidney noted, [n]othing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London, not 2,000 in number." Edwardian England was both centralized and close-knit, and probably one has to assume a somewhat larger, more diffuse elite in other countries.

As Vilfredo Pareto emphasized, the pool of the ruling elite are being constantly and continually refreshed, as new members find access. Yet the absolute number of these is small--it cannot be otherwise. This changing configuration, shifting by a continuing process of minute adjustments, helps to maintain the Participatory Illusion that would-be players cherish. "If Henry Kissinger could make it to the pinnacle of power, then maybe I can too." In fact, this outcome is very unlikely, perhaps fortunately so for those of us who are ruled.

Robert Michels aptly summarized this situation as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This law applies to all kinds of societies, whether they be nominally democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian states. Moreover, size matters. The bigger the society, the more necessary—or at least convenient—it is that this ruling elite control matters.

In the old USSR this situation came out into the open (after a fashion) in the concept of the Nomenklatura. The term derives from a formal list (always hard to access) of privileged Party members who make all significant decisions. Oddly enough, in that respect the old Soviet Union was more transparent than the US today. As we have seen, however, the social mechanism is generally applicable-—above all to societies like our own, where regrettably its workings are obfuscated as much as possible.

Does this reality mean that individuals such as ourselves (who do not belong to the ruling elites) can expect to have no influence at all over policy decisions? On the whole that is just what it does mean, though there are some marginal exceptions. If they are wise, elite members in good standing will occasionally consult friends who stand outside the magic circle of power. However, if these seemingly consultative players seek, as a result, to foster a policy that goes counter to the collective wishes of their comrades, they will be instantly overruled. If it is a project that the group has already decided to undertake, the advice of the kibitzer is superfluous. At the end of the day, then, the actual influence the outsiders can bring to bear through this channel is highly circumscribed.

It is said that non-elite individuals can make a difference by joining together to form pressure groups. In union there is strength. Even here, though, the leverage accorded to non-elitists is exiguous. In many cases, the officers of pressure groups are usually themselves members of the elite, whose bidding they are more likely to do than that of their members.

For a time at least mobilization efforts such as those of the civil-rights and women’s movements can effect change. Another example, more narrowly focused ,is ACT-UP, which has had a beneficial effect on medical policy. Given enough “testicular pressure,” those who manage the elites will yield, though only up to a point. Their overarching goal, which they pursue with only the most minimal deviations, is to maintain power.

Occasionally there are popular upheavals, as in the massive opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet when it came to deposing president Nixon, that change was deftly managed by a few key players on the inside, who had made sure that one of their more pliable colleagues, the dimwitted Gerald Ford, would take the place of his disgraced predecessor. The king is dead, long live the king!

I do in fact see hope in the rise of the blogosphere. A few of the bloggers are very widely read and quoted. Most though are not. The Iron Law of Oligarchy, it seems, extends its pall even over the blogosphere. Yet at least the blogs hasten the process of the circulation of elites. Andrew Sullivan is in; David Broder is out. Fresh faces may mean better policies. Or so we may hope.

In closing, two objections to the above sketch of the Iron Law of Oligarchy may be noted. First, the analysis seems unduly bleak and pessimistic. In fact, we may easily observe contermporary societies much worse than the managed one we live under now. Examples are the kleptocracies that dominate much of the Third World. Pareto might well have agreed with Churchill that elitist democracy is the worst system in the world—except for every other. Still, it makes sense to go about the world with our eyes open.

The second objection is that mine amounts to a conspiracy theory. Along these lines, there have been attempts to pinpoint the loci of the elite conspiracy—the Club of Rome, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bohemian Grove clique. Yet my theory differs from pinpointing of this type, for it posits a set of arrangements that are looser and pretty much out in the open, if one will simply look to see. There is no need to leave the living room. Watching C-Span on a regular basis shows the ruling-elite folks doing what they do best, talking to each other. Like some privileged prisoner, one can witness this spectacle, but is not allowed to participate.

In this short summary of the Iron Law of Oligarchy I have presented an ideal type. What would be needed to put flesh on these bones would be a series of case studies. One might begin with certain think tanks, such as the odious Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. Doubtless such studies exist; the task would be to correlate them.

FOOTNOTE. Much of my recent thinking about these matters has been guided by my discussions (sometimes down-and-dirty) with the brilliant thinker and blogger Stephen Heersink of San Francisco. Alas, such discussions have now ended, for Stephen died on December 28. An obituary will follow. I am glad to say that much of Stephen's work is perpetuated at his blogsite Gayspecies. blogspot. com.



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