The Great Leveler

The Great Leveler
Walter Schiedel

What a disappointment. The thesis sounds interesting, but Walter Schiedel is a dull, academic writer, making the exposition nearly unreadable. Despite all the charts and graphs, I also found the point being made rather vague. Only violent events lead to significant reductions in inequality. On the one hand that’s obvious – power is rarely relinquished voluntarily. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, drawing on the example of the French Revolution, it’s a “firm rule” that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

But Schiedel stretches this across too wide a swath of history (“from the stone age to the twenty-first century”) for it to mean very much. War, revolution, state collapse, plague: why render all these as “violence”? What is meant, I think, is more along the lines of collapse. In any event, the question then becomes what it will take for our own unbalanced, dysfunctional society to correct its course. As a more complex and advanced civilization, will we require a bigger bang, or a smaller? I suspect something smaller, but leading to even greater consequences. Interesting times ahead!

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The Death of Truth

The Death of Truth
Michiko Kakutani

As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.

Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.

How Democracy Ends

HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS
By David Runciman

The election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist/populist movements in Europe are phenomena that have led many to question the health of Western politics. In particular, there has been much hand-wringing over political polarization and authoritarian threats to democracy. Are we in the grip of a “democratic recession”?

Discords are not healed. Representative Assemblies, and so-called democratic governments, have fallen into contempt. Disappointment with ‘popular government’ shows itself in the growth of ‘direct action,’ in reversions to autocracy, and the like.

That is a judgment that could have come from any number of recently published books, such as How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder, or How Democracy Ends by David Runciman.

In fact, it’s taken from a chapbook my grandfather wrote that was published by Ryerson Press in 1933, titled Is Democracy Doomed?

In other words, the alarm has been sounding for a long time.

The direst warnings heard today draw comparisons between what’s happening now and the rise of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. For Runciman, however, such analogies are overdrawn. In his eyes our situation is a far cry from what it was in the 1930s. Instead, what we are experiencing is a more prosperous, well-established democracy beset by a mid-life crisis.

He does admit there’s a problem. “Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become.”

The good news is that we can change. The great strength of democracy has always been its ability to adapt to various crises. Indeed, Runciman argues that it performs best when under pressure (an optimism not shared by Levitsky and Ziblatt, who think Trump’s ability to exploit a crisis represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today).

With an eye to the near future, Runciman identifies three challenges that could take democracy down: coup, catastrophe, and technology. Of these he is most concerned with the third, describing Mark Zuckerberg as a bigger threat to democracy than Donald Trump, and Facebook as the new Leviathan or digital overlord. Timothy Snyder also sees social media as danger, though he casts Vladimir Putin in the role of puppet master.

Whatever the threat, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our politics. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, democracy is more likely to die not with a bang but a whimper: undone by incremental steps that may be imperceptible until, like the frog in the pot being brought to a boil, we don’t realize what’s happening until we’re cooked.

This “mindlessness” is a major theme in How Democracy Ends. For Runciman the election of Trump in 2016 is evidence that people felt overly secure, to the point that they believed anyone could be elected president and it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a false sense of comfort, and it underlines Runciman’s main concern: that we take democracy too much for granted. Snyder addresses something similar in The Road to Unfreedom, alerting us to authoritarian forms of politics that turn us into zombies and our elections into empty rituals. “Democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters.” Hence the need for books such as these to keep us on our toes.

Of course democracy is a continually evolving experiment, and part of the problem in identifying threats to it lies in defining what core principles we think need to be protected. Looking around the world at the different political systems calling themselves democratic we see a wide variety of hybrid forms, not all of which stand for the same things.

Even granted a baseline of free votes in a fair election there is a wide latitude for disagreement. Is the party system democratic? My grandfather didn’t think so. Which electoral system is best for democracy: proportional representation or first-past-the-post? What do we mean by “populism” anyway? Is it an excess of democracy, or just democracy we don’t like?
“Mature, Western democracy is over the hill,” Runciman concludes. “Its prime is past.” Though unlikely to end or die anytime soon, we might expect it to change into something different. In navigating that change we still have some degree of choice. These books aren’t epitaphs so much as guidebooks to where we’ve been and where we may be going.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 22, 2018.

The Locomotive of War

The Locomotive of War
Peter Clarke

Why the “locomotive of war”? The expression is attributed to Trotsky and refers to the way war provides an engine for social change or revolution. Peter Clarke begins by invoking it ironically, seeing the First World War as having had more progressive results than Trotsky envisioned, at least in the English-speaking world. Aside from that initial reference, however, it’s not clear how the image fits with any larger argument Clarke is making.

Instead, this is less a book with a theme than a series of historical-biographical sketches of some of the leading British and American personalities of the period: Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and John Maynard Keynes. There seems to be a point Clarke wants to make about the moralistic bent of Anglo-American policy, with later politicians taking the grand old man Gladstone as a model, but this is not very well developed. One suspects Clarke didn’t want to be seen as only writing another centenary book on the First World War, but that’s pretty much what he got.

The Only Average Guy

THE ONLY AVERAGE GUY: INSIDE THE UNCOMMON WORLD OF ROB FORD
By John Filion

Part of the immediate fallout from the election of Donald Trump as president was a tsunami of books looking to explain what happened. They all took this same question as their starting point, so much so that I even began flagging it in my notes as “the question” or just “Q.” When Hillary Clinton came to write her own account it was a natural title, with the absence of a question mark indicating that she was now able to provide an answer.

She didn’t, but the general outlines of an answer have now been pretty thoroughly sketched. Before Trump’s election, however, the same question had been asked of a very similar figure. In John Filion’s memoir of the Ford phenomenon (Filion had been a member of Toronto City Council at the time) it comes up again and again. When discussing Ford with lawyer Clayton Rub Filion gets various insights into Ford’s character, but when it comes to “the question” Ruby has to throw up his hands: “Who the hell knows how that happened?” Chris Caple, who became active in the anti-Ford movement is even more exasperated:

“The guy just staggers me. He still staggers me. If there was a Rob Ford out there working in a car wash, okay, fine, whatever. But for a person like that to ascent to a high level of political power – it’s mind-blowing. How the hell did that happen? How did that happen? There are countless lessons to be learned here. I’m going to be grappling with them for years, because I’m horribly fascinated.”

Yes, the horrible fascination. We’ve come to know that well too.

Filion trots out the usual explanations for Ford, ones that sound very familiar after all of the Trump analyses, but something remains inexplicable.

Political observers trying to make sense of Ford’s 2010 victory often point to three factors: lingering discontent over the forced 1998 amalgamation of Toronto and its former suburbs; the stench hanging over from the summer garbage strike of 2009; a pendulum swing to the ultra-right Ford from the left-leaning previous mayor David Miller. Add to this the inept campaign of each of his rivals and an anti-gay bias that Ford passively exploited, particularly among some of Toronto’s older ethnic residents. Ford’s main rival, George Smitherman, was not only openly gay, he and his partner had adopted a child near the start of the campaign.

Still, all these factors combined can’t fully explain how a man like Rob Ford became mayor of a city like Toronto, or why the Ford brand still attracted one out of three voters in the 2014 election – after his catastrophic mayoralty.

As I say, very familiar. Down to the remarkably resilient attraction of the brand even after the demonstration of Ford’s manifest incompetence. Then, after Rob Ford’s death his brother Doug would take over the family brand and become Ontario’s premier in 2018. And again we would ask what happened.

“This was a mayor like none before him – perhaps anywhere, at any time, in any major city.” Three years later Conrad Black’s Trump bio would be subtitled “A President Like No Other.” It seems they were both unique in the same way.

Were they that similar? Evidence suggests certain commonalities. Both ran as right-wing populists. Both were the sons of successful businessmen they couldn’t measure up to. Both were buffoons with limited attention spans. Take the following account from one bureaucrat who had to deal with Ford: “I started realizing, ‘Okay, I have to really dumb this thing down. No big words. Very, very simple.’ . . . I had to be able to summarize the problem and the solution within one sentence. If I don’t do that, he can’t pay attention long enough. He gets frustrated, and that frustration builds so he doesn’t want to do what you are asking him to do.” The same could, and has, been said about meeting with Trump.

All of which leaves us with the question of what the attraction was. What happened? What conscious or unconscious needs or anxieties were such figures tapping into?

In so far as I’ve been able to come up with an answer it has to do with a deepening anger against government. This is what unites support from both corporate elites mainly looking to get rid of public oversight and regulation and the common man who feels betrayed by out-of-touch pols who have done nothing to help him. What these people want is not just to shrink but to destroy the government — something they are quite open about, as Thomas Frank accounts in great detail in his essential book The Wrecking Crew. And here’s Steve Bannon explaining his political philosophy five years after The Wrecking Crew: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

This spirit of anti-government nihilism, whether opportunistic or despairing, has made every modern politician run as an anti-politician, an outsider, someone against the establishment or politics-as-usual. For some reason Hillary Clinton couldn’t see this. Characters such as the Ford brothers, or Trump, didn’t have to understand it because they felt it in their bones. They shared this hatred of government. Here’s Filion’s account of Doug Ford overcoming his father’s resistance to getting involved in provincial politics:

“He’s so anti-politician,” Doug said, explaining his father’s reluctance. “Oh yeah. He’s like me. I can’t stand politicians.”

I suggested to Doug that it was unusual that the Fords wanted to run the city, the province – the country even – when they are fundamentally against government and mistrustful of politicians.

“It’s crazy,” he agreed. “We’re anti-politician. But that’s just the way it is. It’s weird. I can’t figure it out. It just is.”

The thing about such anti-politician politicians is that it doesn’t matter how bad they are at their job. They have been elected to tear things down, blow things up, “destroy all of today’s establishment.” If they are incompetent, destructive clowns that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing (and it helps even more if they can put on an entertaining show). The disbelief felt by observers at how someone like Trump sustains high poll numbers among his base stems from their inability to understand this.

It’s horribly fascinating stuff.

Notes:
Review first published online August 20, 2018. See here for my initial review of this book. For more on Ford (Rob) see my review of Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town. Reading that review now it seems to belong to a much more innocent time.

The Great Class War

The Great Class War 1914-1918
Jacques R. Pauwels

So much has been and continues to be written about the First World War that it’s hard for any general history to stand out. The Great Class War does stand out for the directness of its thesis: that European elites deliberately planned the war, looking for imperial gain in the form of colonies abroad and attempting to roll back the growing threat of democratization and revolution at home.

Pauwels insists that we see the First World War as having two fronts: consisting of a horizontal war between nations and a vertical war between classes. Needless to say this is painting history with a broad brush, but there’s enough in the record to give such a thesis some validity. I think things were a lot more complicated than Pauwels makes them out to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Rendezous with Oblivion

RENDEZVOUS WITH OBLIVION: REPORTS FROM A SINKING SOCIETY
By Thomas Frank

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before how I think Thomas Frank is the best commentator going on American political culture. His book The Wrecking Crew nailed the essential, unifying principles of today’s Republican party, while Listen, Liberal did the same for the Democrats. Rendezvous with Oblivion doesn’t set as high a bar, being a collection of essays he’s written over the course of the last five years without any overarching thesis. There is, however, a lot to take note of as he is still pitching strikes.

There’s one part of the analysis in particular I want to mention. This has to do with the role our supposed guardians have played (and are playing) during a time of extreme economic anxiety brought on by a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s basically the lifeboat scenario: where too many people are struggling to get on the lifeboats while those already on board want to do everything to secure their own position of security and privilege. Frank looks at two places where this scenario has been playing out, both relating to the guardian role I mentioned: academia and the press.

Both universities and newspapers are under a great deal of pressure in the new economy. Tenured faculty are being replaced by contract or sessional workers, while reporters, in the few newspapers that remain, have been reduced to content providers and “minimum-wage flunkies.” It’s a very, very bad time to be a prof or a journalist, and the future looks even worse. There are, however, still a few lifeboats bobbing amid the wreckage. Might the survivors lend a helping hand for their drowning sisters and brothers? Frank has his doubts.

First up are the universities:

What their [the professoriate’s] downfall shows us is just how easily systems of this kind can be made to crumble. There is zero solidarity in a meritocracy, even a fake one, as the writer Sarah Kendzior showed in a series of hard-hitting articles on the adjunct situation. Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the deprofessionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job: maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep.

From my own experience talking with faculty this is an accurate take on the situation. Tenured faculty invariably (I know of only one exception) speak of adjuncts or sessionals as “losers.” There is zero solidarity.

Now here’s what’s been happening in the newsroom, from Frank’s essay on the Washington Post’s smearing of Bernie Sanders. The Post is itself a lifeboat, one of only a few newspapers that has positioned itself as a winner in the new media landscape. But, as Frank writes, the “people at the top of the journalism hierarchy don’t really identify with their plummeting peers.” They are the insiders, the Beltway punditocracy, and “it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge.” Above the deluge and in the lifeboat. As for those left behind, they are, just like the university adjuncts, a bunch of losers. Furthermore, and this is the important point Frank is making, “between journalism’s insiders and its outsiders – between the ones who are rising and the ones who are sinking – there is no solidarity at all.”

Until the day, that is, when you wake up and learn that the tycoon behind your media concern has changed his mind and everyone is laid off and that it was never really about you in the first place. Gone the private office or award-winning column or cable news show. The checks start bouncing. The booker at MSNBC stops calling. And suddenly you find that you are a middle-aged maker of paragraphs – of useless things – dumped out into a billionaire’s world that has no need for you and doesn’t really give a damn about your degree in comparative literature from Brown. You start to think a little differently about universal health care and tuition-free college and Wall Street bailouts. But of course it is too late by then. Too late for all of us.

This lack of solidarity is the key, and it’s something I first noticed, and was horribly depressed by, some twenty years ago when I worked in a large industrial union shop. It was staggering to me that the only thing any of the union members saw the union as being good for was what it could do for their own personal benefit. In pursuit of such selfish ends they were more than willing to kneecap their brothers and sisters, and indeed the union itself. As a result, whenever a union steward would mention the word “solidarity,” even in passing, my mouth would fall open. Nobody who worked there showed any indication of caring a bit about that.

My takeaway from the experience wasn’t just that unionism was dead, but that it was dead from the roots up. For it to come back something essential to our whole way of understanding how such social organizations work would have to change. Meanwhile, the good ship of society is on its way down – an image invoked by Frank’s subtitle. Unions, those that survive, do provide lifeboats, but there aren’t enough of those even for just their dues-paying members to each have a place. In the zero-sum competition to be an insider or outsider, winner or loser, solidarity has no place.

This is, of course, the language of Trump, whose favourite pejorative is that of “loser.” Frank ends the book on a dismal note, explaining how Trump will win re-election: easily if the economy stays strong, and if things tank then with the assistance of the snooty Democrats. The problem with the Democrats being that they too are only interested in who comes out on top. They’ve bought into the war-of-all-against-all world view completely, but just have slightly different criteria for selecting the winners. Best advice is to get a lifeboat and a paddle. Not to row with, but to hit anyone on the head who tries to clamber on board.

Notes:
Review first published online August 6, 2018.