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Occupy Wall Street and the Obama Democrats

It’s Not Only About Justice

by ANDREW LEVINE

Egalitarian justice (or fairness) has been Topic A for political philosophers since even before 1971, when John Rawls published his monumental A Theory of Justice.  Rawls is widely hailed as the most important English-speaking political philosopher since John Stuart Mill.  Whether this assessment will stand the test of time, it is beyond dispute that, for the past four decades, his influence has been unequalled in academic precincts.  It would be fair to say that, as a result, we now have a deeper understanding than we used to about what justice and equality involve and about why they matter.  It would also be fair to say that these advances have had no real world political impact at all.

Insofar as Rawls’s philosophical views reflect a political orientation, it is social democratic, though with an American tinge – reflecting the New Deal liberal settlement and the aspirations of left-leaning (but, alas, also Cold War Anti-Communist and pro-imperialist) Democrats from the Truman period through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and beyond.  In other words, it represented a political orientation that was already beginning to fade from real world politics just as it was becoming hegemonic in academic circles.

From the 1980s on, Rawls’s work came to focus as much on issues of political legitimacy and democratic theory as on egalitarian justice, and again he carried others along with him.  This turn only widened the gap between academic theorizing and real world politics.  The difference is particularly striking where the issues in question involve protections for basic s and liberties.  Rawls and his co-thinkers consistently advanced positions to the left of those promoted by the comparatively liberal Supreme Court of the Earl Warren era, just as that third branch of government was reverting back to its traditional and, by now, firmly entrenched role as a defender of elite interests and enabler of money driven, anti-democratic politics.

Could it be that, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, this very anomalous situation – where a way of thinking that flourishes in a premier ideological institution, the university, has almost no resonance in the mainstream political culture – is about to change?   Could a sense of the urgency of egalitarian justice be taking hold of the collective consciousness of “the 99%”?  I would venture that this is so; that something like what Rawls had in mind seems to be developing into something like what Marx had in mind when he spoke of consciousness becoming a “material force.”

This would be a welcome development, especially now.  Philosophically informed, liberal egalitarian accounts of justice and equality, along with empirical investigations consistent with this perspective, can clarify and deepen the otherwise muddled intuitions about justice and equality that flourish in liberal quarters.  In that sense, they can provide a theory of the practice of the Occupy movements.

But we should be wary about taking that theory at its word insofar as it, like so much else in our intellectual culture, is dissociated from a deeper understanding of the economic social and political context within which the intuitions to which it gives theoretical expression arise.  The sea change that now seems underway cannot be explained just by pointing out indefensible inequalities that, to a greater or lesser extent, have always been with us.  Why would awareness of these inequalities become a political factor only now?    The answer is not hard to discern, at least in broad outline: the movement’s rise and its trajectory from this point on respond to developments inherent in the nature of capitalism today.

This point can be difficult to appreciate because, in recent decades, the institutions that shape popular consciousness have largely succeeded in obscuring the problematic nature of capitalism in our historical period and in installing the idea that there is no feasible or desirable alternative to it.  Despite their support for equality, liberal egalitarians are culpable on this account too; though, it must be said that, in A Theory of Justice and in some of the critical literature to which it gave rise decades ago, issues of political economy, though never central, were not entirely ignored.

Because the conceptual resources necessary for contextualizing the charge that economic inequalities are becoming acutely unfair have gone missing, it is no surprise that when Occupy activists seek to explain themselves they sometimes focus just on the injustice of the system in place without referring to the economic structure that generates these inequalities.  What is surprising, and also heartening, is that they don’t do so more often; that instead personal stories generally take precedence over global moral indictments.  This is characteristic of consciousness raising efforts and it is entirely apt.

It is also wise.  Around the time that Rawlsian political philosophy became hegemonic in academic circles, an inclination to ethicize political questions emerged as well.  In part, this was a late and misguided consequence of student demands for “relevance.”  But, whatever the intentions of those who championed “progressive” academia’s ethical turn, it was also a way to defuse the political turmoil of the preceding period.

At best, ethicization misses the point; more often, it disguises what is essentially a political stance, representing it in a misleading and inauthentic way.  Focusing just on the ethical issues the Occupy movement raises does both.  That focus can be benign.  And, insofar as it motivates welcome political engagement, it can be beneficial.  But, even when it is, it obscures what the stakes really are, and that will likely become debilitating as the movement expands and deepens.

The potential danger is especially evident when ethicizers insist that the Occupations have nothing to do with what they, along with defenders of the 1%, derisively call “class war.”  It is telling that in his much-touted Osawotomie, Kansas speech last week, where the born-again “populist” Barack Obama invoked the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, that this was the line he took.  It is a tribute to the Occupy movements that Obama should find such a line opportune.  But it should also be a warning to those who focus only on the injustice of the inequalities that afflict us, and not also on their underlying causes; in other words, to those who are soft on capitalism.

* * *

It is interesting to observe how Team Obama has dropped the Franklin Roosevelt references of four years ago, and is now endeavoring to attach itself instead to FDR’s distant relative, Teddy.

Teddy Roosevelt was an unabashed imperialist and militarist; Obama is these things too, though, it seems to go against his nature.  He is therefore less blatant and more discreet than TR, who was nothing if not gung ho on war and on America’s imperial destiny.  Obama is no Rough Rider charging up the San Juan Hills of the world’s oil producing regions – he leaves that to the economic conscripts he puts in harm’s way or out-sources the task to unaccountable mercenaries.  And the “big sticks” he carries – and lobs at every opportunity! — are drones on remote control.  But these differences are more stylistic than substantive, and mainly have to do with the differences between an imperial power on the rise a hundred years ago and one currently in decline.

It is remarkable how, during his time in office, Roosevelt was thought well of abroad, and that Obama still is.  Indeed, for both Presidents, the gap between reputation and reality is so extreme that they both won Nobel Peace Prizes.   In TR’s case, the prize was arguably deserved, since he did help broker an end to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.  Obama got his prize just as he was rebranding one of Bush’s wars, escalating another, and starting or ratcheting up no one quite knows how many “low(er) intensity conflicts” of his own.

But TR’s domestic policies were another matter. The Square Deal was about trust busting and conservation and regulating wild capitalism.  One has the impression that Obama is more comfortable with this side of the TR legacy, but all he does about it is talk a good earful; that and offer up a few half-hearted initiatives which he folds as soon as Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats object.  Roosevelt really was a Progressive and, as such, an enemy of many a capitalist, though of course not of capitalism itself.  Obama toadies up to capitalists.  That he was not laughed off the stage of the auditorium where TR once promoted his Square Deal only indicates how much more consciousness raising remains to be done.

Even more distressing was the reaction of liberal pundits to Obama’s Osawotomie Address.  Could they still be so invested in cheerleading for Democrats that they ignore the past three and a half years or, for that matter, what is going on now in plain sight?  Who would have thought that silver-tongued words could still beguile the evening lineup on MSNBC?  “Fool me once,” the saying goes, “shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”   Occupiers know better than to be shamed.  Fear-mongering pundits and the people they scare by driving home what whack jobs Republicans are and how retrograde their base is are another story.

Therefore, thank you Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for overruling your own Food and Drug Administration’s decision to sell Plan B contraceptives over the counter.  Not really, of course, because, as you know, the harm you’ve done far outweighs the good of knocking a modicum of sense back into the liberal commentariat.  But thank you nevertheless.  It’s not just that you gave in to the Republican base even before the hot air had cleared out of Osawotomie.  Recalling Obama’s own recent capitulation on smog controls, you helped him diss his most ardent supporters again, while purposefully denying his administration’s express policies and his purported determination to let science be its guide.

And thank you too Barack Obama for chiming in gratuitously in support of this outrage with disingenuous sophistries about the possibility of eleven year olds doing themselves harm.  One can only wonder about liberals who, after that, still cut Obama slack.

* * *

Even before Osawotomie, it was already evident that the majority of appeals to justice or fairness today come not from participants in the Occupy movement, but from Democrats intent on coopting that movement and enlisting it in behalf of Obama’s reelection.

Obama’s Osawotomie speech expanded the focus somewhat, but it remains the case that, for the most part, when Democrats talk of unfairness, what they have in mind is just that the super-rich don’t pay quite enough in taxes.  This is one side of a remarkably shallow, but highly polarized, “debate” in which the other side claims that taxing the well-off is self-defeating – because the rich are “job creators” who need to hold onto as much of their market generated income and wealth as possible if prosperity is to “trickle down” for the benefit of all.

It bears mention that the tax proposals Democrats advance are not even pale approximations of what Rawlsian justice calls for; they hardly even count as redistributive.  The proposal is just that those who have been making out like bandits in recent decades should be taxed a little bit more than they currently are – maybe at Clinton-era levels, but certainly not to the extent they were back in the days when Republicans still liked Ike.

For liberal egalitarians, redistributive taxation should aim at equality except insofar as inequalities increase the share going to the least well off – as they might if they incentivize increased productive contributions.  Rawls’s point was that this is what the prevailing understanding of justice as fairness implies.  If he was right, this news has yet to reach the Democratic Party.

It therefore follows that either the philosophers have seriously misinterpreted the world or that the Democrats are not the least bit interested in changing it.  Is it not obvious which is the case?  And then how hard is it to see that when Democrats speak of injustice, they are only disguising their real – very political – intent?

Obama and his minions want modestly higher tax rates at the very top of the income distribution to help legitimate the very regime the Occupy movement implicitly (and increasingly explicitly) opposes.  They think they can do that just by smoothing out some rough edges.  No edge could be rougher than the (almost) free ride accorded the 1% who take in some 25% of the country’s income and who control more than 40% of its wealth, or the near immunity from taxation enjoyed by the corporations and financial institutions whose predations brought the Great Recession on and who, being “too big to fail,” were then bailed out at taxpayer expense.  The sheer outrageousness of this may not be enough to get the goat of the “values voters” the Obama administration is evidently still trying to court, but it flagrantly offends the democratic sentiments of the 99% whose support, or at least acquiescence, is indispensible for keeping the status quo intact.

It is relevant that both Democrats and Republicans also seem to think that the first order of business nowadays is to pay down the federal debt.  That there should be a consensus on a position so stunningly wrong- headed calls for an explanation.  But notice, first, that, on the face of it, this conviction should weigh in overwhelmingly on the side of taxing the rich.  That the Democrats have not yet clearly won the debate into which they are trying desperately to channel awareness of the failings of the system they help sustain attests to the continuing efficacy of the ideological mechanisms that shape the way political struggles are waged in the United States and, of course, to the characteristic inclination of the party Obama exemplifies and leads to cave first and blame the other side later.

* * *

Republicans have less need to disguise their objectives because, after three decades of getting their way with only token opposition, the high fliers who still (barely) own the Grand Old Party and the (somewhat) less fortunate one-per centers who identify with them have become too self-confident to care, while the hordes of useful idiots they’ve enlisted to their cause are so devoted to retrograde cultural values and nativist know-nothingism that they don’t care either.

But there are still Republicans who, from time to time, feel a need to justify themselves, and not all of them go as far as their front-runner du jour, Newt Gingrich, in exemplifying the old saw that “the less they know, the less they know it.”  Some of them, mostly C students like the much-heralded Paul Ryan, are besotted with the inane nostrums of pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand.  But there are also a few A students, philosopher Robert Nozick most famously, who have concocted theories of justice of their own.  Nozick was not a committed Republican; he was apolitical.  Ironically, though, his views have had more real world impact than Rawls’s, at least until now.

Nozick’s account of justice revived John Locke’s long dormant defenses of property rights and market transactions.   His arguments were clever enough for political philosophers of all stripes to find them engaging, and not just for pedagogical purposes.  Still, Nozick’s influence in academic circles has been limited and mainly invidious.  But because his work does seem to provide a rationale for minimizing state power and taxing the rich as sparingly as possible, some of it has filtered out into the mainstream.

However, despite what most libertarians suppose, the political implications of neo-Lockean theories of justice are far from clear.  What Nozick defended was clean capitalism – where property is acquired and transferred in ways that violate none of the rights Locke and his followers deemed inviolable.  Actually existing capitalism bears not the slightest resemblance to this ideal.  Therefore even if Nozick’s defense of private property and markets could be sustained – which, I would hazard, it cannot – nothing would follow that justifies real world market-generated distributions.  The implications of neo-Lockean theories of justice are, at best, indeterminate.

This is why the B students who populate right-wing think tanks and who therefore do influence Republican policy usually defend existing inequalities on the grounds that market mechanisms produced them and that markets are always right, provided only that governments don’t interfere with their operations.

Insofar as they have reasons for holding this view, they are inferred from neo-classical economists’ accounts of how abstract market economies operate when a host of unrealizable conditions (no information asymmetries, no economies of scale, no monopoly price distortions, and so on) obtain.  According to that theory, free markets – including futures markets for any financial instrument anyone might want to buy — will arrive at equilibrium states in which every economic agent’s distributive share accurately reflects their productive contribution.  In that sense, market distributions are just.  [They are also, in theory, maximally efficient, according to a definition of efficiency that bares only a distant relation to what the word means in plain English, but that gives credence to Adam Smith’s conjecture about the beneficial consequences of an untrammeled market’s “invisible hand.”]  But, again, these results hold only for abstract models of economies that have as little to do with the real world as Nozick’s clean capitalism does.

Defenses of market arrangements on grounds of justice are rationalizations for positions held for other, non-rational, causes; not grounds for conviction in themselves.  In this sense, they are like theology.  Some nine hundred years ago, Saint Anselm described the famously arcane argument he contrived to establish the existence of God as “faith seeking understanding.”   That characterization is apt for today’s pro-market theologians as well, though they are usually less self-aware than Anselm was about the cognitive bearing of their own arcane endeavors.

* * *

For these ideologues, the faith they defend comes to nothing more exalted than support for the limitless greed of the 1%.  This is as much a fool’s errand as trying to establish that God exists, but there is a market for both species of folly.  Market theology is especially in demand nowadays because plutocrats now need all the ideological support they can muster – inasmuch as, unlike thirty years ago, their interests and everyone else’s have come to be glaringly at odds.

For fortuitous, and non-reproducible, reasons, it was possible for some three decades after World War II for (small-d) democratic aspirations to cohere fairly well with the requirements of capitalist development, and for a booming capitalism to improve the lot of many, though hardly all, people.  This was an historical anomaly; capitalism and democracy are normally at odds – not just because a system based on private ownership and market arrangements removes the economic sphere from popular control, but also because popular control threatens the hold capitalists have over productive assets; it threatens capitalists’ power.

By the mid or late 70s, the era of capitalist expansion that made it possible to bring the less well off along and therefore for inequality to diminish and a semblance of fairness to obtain had run its course.  All developed capitalist economies then entered into a protracted period in which, for political reasons, the inherent tension was papered over in a variety of ways – mainly by incurring public and private debt.  These evasions were ultimately unsustainable, as we now can see.   They also increased the political and economic power of those at the very top of an increasingly unequal income distribution, while vastly diminishing the power of those institutions, labor unions especially, that advanced justice and democracy in the post-War years.

It looks now like there are no panaceas left, no matter how much they are needed if everything is to stay the same.  Certainly, the ones that kept the lid on for so long are now thoroughly exhausted.  Thus we find ourselves where OWS says we are: with the 99%, fighting to make life better for almost everyone, and the 1% using their considerable power – and our increasingly dysfunctional political system — to keep them down, the better to hold onto what they’ve got.  This is what the bipartisan – indeed, worldwide — turn towards austerity is about.

So yes indeed, the increasing inequalities around us are intolerably unjust; and yes, the occupations, not the coming electoral circus, is what democracy looks like.  But that’s not the whole story or even the main part.  OWS is, or is becoming, the main locus of political class struggle in our time; and what is at stake ultimately is nothing less than the future of capitalism itself.  If our future, the future of the 99%, is finally to turn course and change for the better, it is urgent that this understanding be accorded its rightful place and that, along with consciousness of the moral failings of the inequalities that afflict us, it too becomes a material force in the years ahead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.