Exit over Voice: Kojin Karatani on Athens’ Equality Problem

(This post is part of a roundrobin reading group on Kojin Karatani’s Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy. I focus here on chapter one; James Stanescu previously discussed the preface and appendix, and Joseph Trullinger will be discussing chapter two in the next few days.)

In a certain sense, much of Karatani’s book is a brief in favor of the claim that Western philosophy was born in Turkey, not Greece, and then promptly destroyed by the Athenians, though some of the true Turkish philosophy occasionally reappears. But it’s difficult to ascertain why this slight geographic shift across the Aegean Sea should matter so much. (Karatani is Japanese, and so might have some slight preference for locating philosophy’s origins on his continent rather than the European one, but….) But like Heidegger before him, this allows Karatani to argue that the most prominent philosophical voices—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—were actually suppressing the insights that they stole from elsewhere and rebranding the whole enterprise.

The Axial Age: State, Market, Temple

Speaking very, very roughly, Buddha and Lao-tzu are contemporaries of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What happened in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE to launch these philosophical traditions? The main candidates are novel political organizations (states and empires), population growth, and agricultural innovations.

Of course, it’s important to understand that there isn’t actually much evidence that the axial age was unique in generating egalitarian ethics, moralizing religious ideals, and wisdom traditions;  there was a market for satirical stories like The Eloquent Peasant a millennium and a half earlier. But perhaps for the first time, following the Axial Age these innovations stuck.

Karatani’s claim, ironically, is that they didn’t stick. Instead, Ionia’s egalitarianism was replaced by Athens’ democratic inequality, where equality for a few was purchased at the expense of the domination of many more. Most political units, Karatani claims, went from tribal units to tribal agglomerations dominated by one tribe and structured by class contestations mapped onto those tribal lines. This, he argues, produces a despotic Asian state, characterized by bureaucratic price fixing. A market where buyers and sellers agree on prices through negotiation is thus a major innovation—one he credits to Ionia. And unlike in other city-states and empires, the free market did not amp up economic inequality in Ionia. Instead, it led to economic equality. Despite his disdain for neoliberalism, Karatani here sounds like a classical liberal: if only markets were truly free, there’d be no permanent winners and losers and free markets would produce both affluence and equality.

The Ionians were somehow able to dissolve their older tribal allegiances and create something he calls a covenant community” without either tribal boundaries or fixed class identities. And they did this by embracing the commodity fetish of coinage, market pricing, and somehow refusing to form a state, not in the sense that all tribal societies refuse to be joined into states (until they are conquered) but in some independent way. This last refusal then becomes the basis of “moralizing” religions in which even prayer and sacrifice are understood as primarily reciprocal relationships with the divine.

Later, of course, Ionia was conquered by the Delian league, and then by the many antecedents of modern Turkey. But something briefly flared in Ionia that was eventually perverted into Athenian democracy: Karatani calls it isonomy.

Defining Isonomy

The term isonomy” is usually defined in English as equality before the law” in the sense of equal civil rights. I usually follow Herodotus in defining it as a kind of maximally inclusive government, such as election to public office by lottery would produce. However, there are two other candidates: isonomy sometimes refers to home rule” or independence from foreign domination, and it was used by Hannah Arendt to refer to a kind of resistance to government which she calls no-rule.”

Karatani starts with Arendt. Here’s the relevant passage from On Revolution:

“Freedom as a political phenomenon was coeval with the rise of the Greek city-states. Since Herodotus, it was understood as a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government, as the ancients had enumerated them, was that the notion of rule (the archy’ from archein in monarchy and oligarchy, or the cracy’ from kratein in democracy) was entirely absent from it. The polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy. The word democracy,’ expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is no-rule’ is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos. 
Hence, equality, which we, following Tocqueville’s insights, frequently see as a danger to freedom, was originally almost identical with it.”

Most readers of Arendt will know and love this passage. But it’s at odds with Herodotus and may well misread the historical political theory, if Karatani is correct. Karatani argues that the Ionians of the ancient Mediterranean world were able to achieve no-rule isonomy only through economic equality. From this economic equality they were able to dependably and sustainably preserve the possibility of equal self-government. And this economic equality was only possible because of a strong cosmopolitan right to immigrate and emigrate, along with a refusal of tribal or any other form of cultural or geographic loyalty to origins.” No-rule” then is only possible as no-source,” no arche.

The Forgetting of Isonomy in Athenian Democratic Theory

The Athenians, in contrast, prioritized positive liberties like voting and speaking in the Assembly over exit. This meant that their democracy was founded both homogeneity and several forms of domination: the domestic domination of slaves and immigrants, on the one hand, and the imperial domination of foreign cities on the other.

Solon’s term as archon might have had some hope of creating the conditions for true equality, as he eliminated debts and granted membership in the newly formed assemby to resident foreigners. But it took a tyrant to institute these reforms, and the tyrant who followed Solon, Peisistratus,  was able to seize power in large part because he executed land redistributions. This accustomed Athenian citizens to a novel form of equality, achievable only through the strong-man tactics of a tyrant who would enrich himself and his allies and thus preserve class relations.

Later Athenian tyrants would turn abroad to find resources to redistribute rather than risk their own wealth, like Percles who used profits from the Delian League to pay off Assembly members. Thereby, Athenians discovered something (seemingly) better than domestic equality: foreign conquests. Where the Ionians found true egalitarian isonomy through statelessness, the Athenians could only achieve a facsimile of  isonomy–democracy–through a strong state and an adventurous military. An active military requires a clear distinction between agricultural labor (slaves) and the standing army and navy (citizens), so this is the foundation of Athenian democracy, which is why all efforts to learn modern lessons from Greek demoratic forms are doomed to fail.

Exit and Voice

Political philosophers are more likely to argue about the contrast between positive and negative liberty, or between freedom and equality, than to focus on the pairing of exit and voice that derives from Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Understanding negative liberties like freedom from censorship or freedom from the establishment of a state religion primarily in terms of individual liberty and restrictions on state power creates the wrong impression. It’s an impoverished ideal of free speech rights that conceives of them merely to allow unlimited self-expression. When we defend free speech to ensure the effective support for each citizen’s policy preferences—in terms of positive liberty and effective political participation—we similarly run into questions about how much to tolerate intolerable ideas beyond leaving them uncensored.

The Hirschman paradigm suggests that we are better off if we think of two kinds of engagement: effective voice and cheap exit. Consumers and workers can always express their distaste for a product or working condition through mere complaining, but effective voice requires that the companies we work for or purchase from actually listen and respond, even if they don’t always give us what we want. For our exercise of voice to be effective, we need to feel heard and we need to feel that the exchange of reasons that follows is not merely a distraction. In the same way, the right of exit cannot be merely notional but impractical. Where exit costs are high, as when competing products are much more expensive, or other job prospects are poor, there is no cheap exit and threats to leave or switch brands are implausible. The nation-state often combines weak voice and expensive or impossible exit: it’s almost impossible for most people to effectively emigrate legally, and most citizens do not have an effective means to exercise their voice. Instead we are exhorted to practice loyalty—patriotic displays—and for some reason many of us accept this hostage situation with the forced loyalty of Stockholm syndrome.

Karatani argues, however, for an alternate: equality is realized through freedom. “The ability to move is a fundamental precondition of isonomy.” But where could they go? Karatani argues that emigrants could easily form new colonies in Ionia, or join older ones without penalty or prejudice. The underlying commitment to cosmopolitanism is distinct from the kind of ease of travel we now associate with the nation-state. (And note that fewer Americans move for jobs than we used to do.)

A Positive Role for Colonization?

According to Karatani, the Ionian system of isonomy was based on the priority of cheap and easy exits.  It’s hard to think of colonialism as a positive political impulse, but in this case it’s closer to the ideology of the frontier: rather than wrangle with entrenched interests or demand to be heard, an Ionian could simply pull up stakes and leave. As Karatani tells it, this both empowered Ionians in their effort to gain effective voice in the endeavors of their current states, and it ensured that all market transactions occurred in a truly reciprocal and ultimately egalitarian manner, without rent-seeking activities which could create permanent class divisions. Trade with neighboring city-states was carried out privately, while Athenian trade leagues were state affairs with plenty of skimming by elites. Conquest of other states could create a revenue stream for division as well.

In part this is based on Karatani’s claim that the ease of emigration and new city-state formation meant that no large farms and landholders could emerge. In contrast, the capture of slaves enables larger farms and a division of labor that then grounded the class system. The “despotic Asian state” always lurks as a possibility so long as human beings are too closely attached to the land, whether as serfs, slaves, or ethno-state citizens.

What is Faith to Free Men?

The most provocative claim in chapter one of Karatani’s book is his speculative comparison of Ionia to Iceland, where he notes that both Iceland and Ionian literature are characterized by a rejection of the gods: the Icelandic sagas seem to reject or ignore the Norse gods, while the Ionian philosophers are uncharacteristically naturalistic for the time. In the same way, 18th century American towns were also the product of migrants fleeing the strict class structures of a homeland, where many of them had been deeply religious. And yet these Americans formed relatively egalitarian communities once they arrived, characterized by easy exits to new frontiers, and a curiously deistic and pluralistic society blessed by Nature’s God. (Karatani doesn’t comment on the murder of indigenous peoples that made that frontier possible, however.)

Karatani thus sees freedom of movement, naturalistic religion, and social and economic equality as the key to isonomy.  Returning to Arendt, he advocates for the ward system to help to broaden the sphere in which freedom can produce equality.

Tune in next week to Joseph’s blog Between Two Untruths to read about chapter two.

Is the US an Oligarchy?

"Get Money Out of Politics" by Flickr user Light Brigading
“Get Money Out of Politics” by Flickr user Light Brigading

Some things live forever in social media. In my circles, one article that comes up all the time is the Marten and Gilens study of legislative influence that is often interpreted this way: “US No Longer an Actual Democracy” or “Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy.

Part of the problem is that I think there are serious political inequality issues in the US. But the study fails to prove it, and it’s been blown out of proportion in lots of disempowering ways. The study is basically a victory for the null hypothesis: on reflection, we don’t have much evidence that policies are determined by a single group.

Here’s how it works: the study compares the policy preferences of four groups: median voters, voters in the top 10 percent of income, business-oriented interest groups, and “mass-based” interest groups. Using data from survey responses, they note that policy outcomes more often correlate with the rich and business-oriented interest groups than with the median voter and mass-based interest groups. Case closed, right?

No so fast: It’s still the case that the best predictor of the success or failure of any policy initiative is the median voter. But the median voter and the 90% voter usually agree. When they don’t, the 90% voter usually either a) prefers the status quo or b) prefers the socially liberal position. And so over the last 20 years, the status quo has tended to win out (in aggregate) except when it is broadly favored by median and 90% voters or is socially liberal and favored by the 90% voter.

A lot of this paper depends on obscuring some important issues behind difficult math. Their R2 is .074; that’s actually, pretty close to random. It means that median voters, economic elites, and interest groups, together, determine 7.4% of the variability in policy outcomes! Almost all of that is elites and interest groups, it’s true! But when you’re dealing with such small numbers, it’s easy to get *statistically* significant results that aren’t actually all that significant in human terms. In 92.6% of the policy outcomes, none of these independent variables was predictive.

That means that no group predominates most of the time, but “US System of Government is 95% Democratic” doesn’t get people to link to your study on social media.

What’s worse is that most of my progressive readers will disagree with the policy issues that the median voter has lost on.

A Metafilter friend who looked at the SPSS file wrote: “Of the 1779 polls, 105 ended up with policy being what rich people wanted and what median-income people didn’t, out of 189 polls where rich people and regular folks disagreed. The only times there was more than a 20-point gap (ie 60% of rich wanted one side but only 40% of regular people did) were the 10 or so questions about NAFTA. The rest of the time it was a slight majority of rich people favoring something and a smidge under 50% of regular folks favoring it. 

Rich people got their way mostly on social issues — RU486 legality, IDX legality, gays in the military, various abortion/birth control restrictions. But also stuff like outright banning immigration for five years, the legality of public-sector strikes, outright bans on military or domestic aid to any foreign country, and so on.”

The median voter has sometimes been prone to serious mistakes or moral failings, as you can see. So the real title should be “US System of Government is 95% Democratic and a Lot of the Rest of The Time the Demos are Assholes and Deserve to Lose.”

Then, too, nothing in their data can disaggregate the top 1% or the top 0.1%, as the authors freely admit. It also doesn’t ask about the bottom 10% or the bottom 1%, which is a perspective I much prefer.

But that means that their conclusions regarding elite domination are even less well-supported. As a progressive I’m primed to suspect that very wealthy interests usually dominate: what’s interesting is how hard it is to prove what “everybody knows.” If you believe in their conclusions, then you should actually downgrade your priors on the basis of this study. Mostly, this is a study that demonstrates how hard it is to do serious empirical work on this question. It ignores selection bias issues like which policies pollsters poll on. (Hint: they tend to poll on popular policies that are not yet in place.) If there aren’t any polls on the vast majority of things affluent and median disagree on, we’d be in the dark about affluent influence. As longtime readers know, my favorite policy initiative is the basic income guarantee, but it’s very rarely polled and when it is polled, it’s fairly unpopular.

So I do think “median voters and affluent voters generally agree in polls” is the most significant finding here. Democracy may often lead to this confluence of elite and mass interests, either through propaganda or elite-deference to voters. Perhaps voters judge outcomes rather than policy inputs, so politicians aim to guarantee good economic and social outcomes even when these contradict the policy preferences that would have unintended consequences. Perhaps it’s even true that the petite-bourgeoisie still finds its class interests allied with capital most of the time. The real victims can’t vote, right?

What are the ruling ideas today? Is “College For All” among them? (Doubts-that-don’t-change-our-practices edition)

by flickr user ChrisM70
by flickr user ChrisM70

I’ve just finished an article on higher education and the liberal arts, and it’s full of hope and comes to some definite conclusions about particular ways that an education in the liberal arts is valuable. It’s out for peer review right now, which means that if the reviewer is googling phrases maybe she’ll find this, so I want to say up front: I believe in what I wrote there. But I also have doubts about the progressive push towards education for all, the idea that through education we can all shed the demands of material labor, or that the value (and cost!) of an education should be totally disconnected from its role is securing a job.

Automation v. Education

The Economist recently gave voice to this particular error in its article on how technology will increasingly be automating office workers out of their jobs, which will widen the already broad inequality between those who must compete with machines and computers, and those whose jobs cannot (yet) be reduced to an algorithm. Here’s how they put it:

The main way in which governments can help their people through this dislocation is through education systems. One of the reasons for the improvement in workers’ fortunes in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution was because schools were built to educate them—a dramatic change at the time. Now those schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.

Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work. The definition of “a state education” may also change. Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive abilities and social skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential. And adults will need continuous education. State education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.

Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed.

What value, then, is an education, if it won’t prevent the technological obsolescence of our skills? Put simply: if there are going to be ditches (which are required for plumbing, among other things) then there are going to be ditch diggers, or ditch-digging-machine-operators, or ditch-digging-machine-programmers. The move to automation replaces many operators with a few programmers, enriching the educated programmer at the expense of the uneducated operator, and that’s the move that should concern us, since it violates a basic rule of maximin: the people hurt are both more numerous and more needy than the people helped.

The standard economic argument is that lower prices help the poorest the most, and that freedom from unskilled labor allows workers to do something more rewarding, something that requires an education but cannot be imagined under the current political economy that requires so many to dig ditches. It’s like the old joke:

An industrialist is visiting a construction site and watching a newly-invented steamshovel in its first job. The union foreman complains that its job could be done by a dozen men with shovels, each earning a decent wage. The industrialist retorts it could be done by a hundred men with spoons.

Usually I prefer state-level redistribution through a basic income guarantee, but sometimes I think it makes more sense to fight for higher wages for the folks doing the digging than it does to hope that everyone will be able to escape that life if they could only get a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD. That hope in education has an ideological function that exceeds its aspirational and inspirational effects.

Who is the Ruling Class?

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…”

So wrote Karl Marx in the The German Ideology. I’m not entirely sure that there is a single ruling class in American politics, in the sense Marx articulated it, but if there is one, it’s the folks with Bachelor’s degrees, the modern bourgeoisie. We are often-enough regaled by politicians with solicitations to the “middle-class” or “working Americans” that we might be tempted to identify these groups as the ruling class, but about 60% of the population participates in the workforce, and exactly 60% of the population are in the middle three quintiles of income sometimes identified as the middle class. I would argue that these groups are too large to have conjoined interests or ideas.

On the other hand, we are sometimes assured that the very rich and very few (for instance, the top 1%) are in fact governing the US, and that the masses don’t perceive the truth of this dominance because of ideology. If I’m right about the college educated, then it’s much too convenient to limit the ruling class to bankers and stock brokers and identify neoliberalism as the ruling idea; if the traditional bourgeoisie still exercises a great deal of control, then even the very rich must still win over that larger group in order to maintain their wealth. Arguably the 99% v. 1% language of Occupy was a clever rhetorical strategy for enlisting the support of the larger ruling class with the interests of the proletariat. It may be that billionaires manipulate the agenda, but the baseline agenda the wealthy are trying to steer is set by the merely well-off.

Another possibility is that that larger class really does share class interests with the 1%, so Occupy was unsuccessful because the ruling class’s ideas can’t be moved by rhetoric if its interests are at stake. (As I understand it, this is Marx’s point: ideology is believing that ideas matter more than practices.)

Bourgeois Ideology

So what does that class (to which I and my readers probably belong) have in common?

  • We are college educated.
  • We work in offices, with computers.
  • We are employed, and if we are in relationships we probably cohabitate with our partners who are also employed.
  • We live in cities or “suburbs” which have been adopted by some metropolitan area.
  • We own our own home (though this may be changing.)
  • We often don’t live near where we were born, or in the same city as our families.
  • We are likely to work in education, health-care, technology, management, or the public sector.
  • Our careers tend to benefit from globalization.
  • We are predominantly white.
  • We have very little contact with police, prisons, or the criminal justice system unless we are employed by those institutions (which many of us are.)

If what I’ve described above is correct, then perhaps these would be the ruling ideas:

  • Education is for everyone, and more equal educational access will create a more equal society.
  • Office-work is difficult and valuable, and education ought to prepare us for it.
  • Jobs and workplace regulations are the primary mode by which the state ought to see to the public’s good.
  • Marriage is good for everyone; even homosexuals should marry.
  • Urban life is better than rural life.
  • The American Dream should require (and subsidize) home ownership even if that punishes renters and those too poor to afford a home.
  • Family ties matter less than economic success.
  • Education, health-case, technology, and the public sector are the “best” jobs and ought to be subsidized.
  • Globablization is good.
  • Race is irrelevant.
  • The criminal justice system should supply entertaining plot lines for movies and television, but it is not otherwise relevant. Probably most people in prison belong there.

To be clear, while I’m not advocating these ideas, I believe (or act as if I believe) many of them. If those ideas are fundamentally aligned with my class-interest, it would be more surprising if I didn’t believe them. It’s not simply a coincidence that those with the most power and influence in society never have their fundamental interests questioned in our politics. That’s what makes them ideological, that these aren’t partisan issues: no one contests the value of education or marriage, and very rarely do they contest the important of home ownership.

Another possibility is that the top 20%-30% of Americans are not members of some ruling class, that the class is either much smaller than that or that there really isn’t such a thing as as single ruling class any longer, just a number of different social groups that align themselves in ways that they can succeed and govern on some topics and not others. For instance, none of the possible ruling ideas I mentioned included things that are quite clearly also governing American culture and politics, like support for the elderly through Medicare and Social Security (unless you think the elderly are the true ruling class), or America’s military role in the world (unless you think the military is the ruling class). Ideas like meritocracy and personal responsibility, patriotism and faith are frequently rejected by the richest two quartiles, precisely because they conflict with the values instilled by higher education and urban life.

If those ideas are also “ruling” in some way, then we would expect that those who hold them would be the true ruling class if all ruling ideas must belong to the ruling class. Perhaps instead, ruling ideas come from all the classes. Indeed, other ideas aren’t even “ruling ideas” so much as deeply felt constitutional claims, like the important of markets and prices for mediating our economic interactions, the idea that personal property and capital property should be governed by similar rules, or the assumption that inequality can ever be justified by increased productivity or merit. These ideas no longer have their source in a single class, even if they once did, just as in some sense American’s deep commitment to the idea of democracy and one-person-one-vote is a classless idea, at least in the US.

(It should be pointed out that what I have just written in the last paragraph is almost precisely the position being lampooned by Marx in The German Ideology. Ironic, eh?)

At What Cost?

I worry that the cultural promotion of the value of education is ideological, often, because I both benefit from it and yet also regularly watch how “College For All” seems to be disadvantaging a lot of my students. My fellow progressives who rail against the false equality of opportunity that makes the poor think they will someday be millionaires ought to understand why college can’t be an exit from the working class for everyone. Sure, anyone can be a millionaire or good at college, but everyone can’t. It’s a meritocratic institution, not an equalizer, and very little of the so-called college wage premium goes to those who graduate from community colleges and unselective four year universities. The inequality is built into our political economy!

I mean no disrepect to my students, either. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to appreciate the priorities of those who are actually choosing between homework and subsistence labor, for instance, or attendance and childcare. I’ve only been working at an unselective institution for three years, after seven years at selective universities, and the difference is palpable. I watched one student’s children so she could take exams without leaving them accessible to her abusive ex. She barely passed, and we both called that a victory: she hadn’t had much time to study, and had to read her notes through a hell of a black eye. Was education really the most important thing to do for her? What did she learn that she’ll remember later?

What about the student who I have cried with because she is dying from cancer: her husband just left her because the chemo makes her not want to have sex, and all she wants to do is graduate before she dies? Or the student who discovered she was pregnant and came to me because she didn’t know what to do? Or my student whose brother was shot and broke down in class? Or my student who was followed into class and physically threatened? Or my student who thought she had to be a nursing major until she realized she was really good at philosophy, but is still majoring in nursing to be practical? Or my student who asked me to help him figure out how to transfer when he realized that the only way he’d get a good education in computer science was if he left us? Or my students who are also incarcerated?

Rights and Privileges

I’m not saying that they don’t deserve an education: they do! Those are almost all people who will have college diplomas or already have them. Most of them are women. They won’t dig ditches, but they will work in jobs that only require a college degree nominally, where the skills they’ve often failed to learn are irrelevant. The diploma will prove that they have grit and conscientiousness, and give them a leg up in a job market where signaling such things are necessary, but they, like most people, will not remember what Modus Ponens is or how the the Rawlsian original position is supposed to help us think about justice.

There’s a difference between saying, “Right now, you have more important things to do than your logic homework, and that’s okay,” and saying, “Because you are poor, you don’t deserve a college education.” My students in prison are much better academically than the ones who are free, just because they have the time to focus on their studies, and I think there is a lot of value in the work that we do together. But no Pell Grants means no credit, and a felony record means that the skills they learn may never be put to work.

Maybe there’s a difference between “deserving” and “needing” an education. Most people don’t need a college diploma, certainly not to do their jobs, and probably not to be good citizens. They need a union or a basic income guarantee or a social minimum or a citizen capital grant or workplace democracy. But increasingly the only people who still have unions and political power are the people who also have college degrees, and those of us in that group like to pretend that increasing subsidies for bourgeois students (our kids) will help the ditch-diggers, too. That’s a bit too convenient, isn’t it?

The Season of Political Irrelevance

It is my considered opinion that the next three months will involve no serious deliberations regarding substantive public policy. Though readership and viewership for such matters will be at its highest, none of the things discussed will be discussed in a way that comports with public reason or with anything like the goal of exchanging reasons and evidence in the search for truth-tracking beliefs. Our best analysts, pundits, and public intellectuals will be busy with horse-race coverage and fact-checking the candidates’ claims. Worse, few of the matters discussed in highly rhetorical fashion, upon which our fellow citizens will be asked to make their determinations, will even be relevant to the public policy matters that ought to concern us most.

Here are the things I suspect we will discuss most:

  • Taxes
  • Jobs and the economy
  • The distribution of income and wealth
  • Globalization and outsourcing

Since none of these are under the control of the presidency, it’s absurd to stage the debates on these matters around the presidential election. And yet we will.

Since this is a highly cynical claim for a democratic political philosopher to make (well, not contentious among professionals) here are the things we ought to be talking about:

  • Climate change
  • Mass incarceration and its causes
  • Immigration
  • Regulatory agency capture by the financial sector
  • The proper size and role of the US military

Notice that all of these policies are administered by agencies under the President’s control. But perhaps even this is undemocratic. Accounts of politics that focus on leaders and the vertical measures of “greatness” are at odds with the pervasive sense of horizontality that ought to guide us in a democracy. Presidents are not the only political actors, nor even the most important: they perch atop the bureaucratic state barely able to steer it, using the reins merely to hold on to their office a bit longer.

Here’s Arendt in Reflections on Violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Still relevant, forty-three years later.

Greece and the European Union

This Newsnight piece paints a picture of the widespread breakdown of the Greek social compact:

What was no joke were the clashes between police and the hardline protesters.[…] Time and again, on the grounds of confronting the rioters, police made incursions into large masses of peaceful protesters. […]I can tell you from repeated experience, it feels like a process of collective punishment of a peaceful majority.

I think this week caught Greece on the proverbial brink of something. The anger could easily solidify into anti-German sentiment, but with the conservatives and Orthodox right implicated in the first bailout, anger can more easily flow to the left.

[…]in the three hours I spent at or close to the front of the rioting on Sunday night, I did not see a single other television crew. Ours was repeatedly harassed, verbally and physically, most harshly by a small group of right wingers who accused us of being German.

The article details the effects of austerity on public services combined with widespread tax and fee defiance. Higher taxes and fewer public goods will create a spiraling legitimacy crisis, all while European leaders demand that Greece postpone elections. That means less democracy and accountability to the Greek people when they need it most. It seems untenable, and indeed even Jürgen Habermas has tempered his Euro-optimism with this:

“Sometime after 2008, I understood that the process of expansion, integration and democratization doesn’t automatically move forward of its own accord, that it’s reversible, that for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn’t think this was possible. We’ve reached a crossroads.”

The right answer seems obvious: default on the loans. Even the Financial Times proclaims it: “Greece must default if it wants democracy.” But there are problems. For one thing, Greece isn’t just in debt from past expenditures: it’s currently spending more than it takes in taxes. So a default isn’t the end of its troubles: it’ll still have to make costly cuts and increase taxation. Debt forgiveness won’t be enough: the Greeks would immediately need to go back to borrowing, only now the rates would be even higher since they will have signaled that loans should be treated more like gifts.

That means that the Greek government will not be able to avoid austerity through default and inflation. So what’s left?

  • Institute technocratic rule and massive austerity enforced by the IMF and the Eurozone
This seems to be the plan dreamed up by Greece’s creditors. Send in the efficiency experts, raise taxes and improve tax collection while cutting the public sector. Given the unrest and the lack of hope, this is absurdly unsustainable. A corrupt public sector and uncontrolled (and largely untaxed) private sector don’t become more legitimate when they’re all managed by foreign eggheads. “Do the Greeks even have a word for democracy in their language?”
  • Leave the Eurozone and allow the new drachma to inflate faster than the European Central Bank is doing

This is the Communist Party’s answer. But it faces many of the same problems of a simple default, only now exacerbated by capital flight. Leaving the Eurozone will dissipate the wealth that Greece must tax: the wealthy have been waging a quiet run on Greek banks and the behavior has spread to the working-class. They’ll likely disseminate the cash to non-Greek banks in the form of Euros, to avoid the devaluation of a new drachma. This may well be their best hope, and if Greeks vote for it, we should support their efforts to go it alone. But I don’t think they’ll enjoy the same post-default bump that Argentina got, and this actually seems like the course of action with the greatest number of possible unintended consequences. The Communists could easily end up destroying the Greek public sector in order to save it.

  • Institute a military junta in Greece

This is obviously the scariest prospect: I include it only to make the others seem more palatable than they’d otherwise be. But there was a coup d’etat in 1967, and the Junta ruled until 1974, and that’s recent enough that such a solution is still imaginable. Right now, the far left in Greece holds more appeal than the far right, but that need not last. What will the Communists do after their plan to leave the Eurozone and default on the debt fails to end the spiral of service-cuts, tax rises, and the resulting illegitimacy? Historically, austerity and low growth seem to lead people to value the fantasies of security and strong leadership that characterize military rule.

  • Institute a federal fiscal union with regular interstate tax/spending transfers

Right now, there’s little financial incentive for Germany and France to continue to subsidize Greek debt, and there’s little financial incentive for Greece to remain in the Eurozone. True, German and French banks are massively exposed to the possibilities of default, and this may well preserve the union for a while; but more than a financial bailout or an economic stimulus to jumpstart their economies, I believe the whole EU needs the political stimulus that only closer federation can supply.

Where the financial incentives fail, Habermas and other Euro-optimists have always suggested that cultural commitment to the ideal of European Unity would have to suffice. The way to cement this is to create meaningful democracy at the EU level, along with the mechanisms for regular taxation and spending decisions to be made throughout the entire Union.

Currency union without political unification has always been dangerous, yet it’s common to resist a political union because sharing governance gives people outside of our communities a legal claim on our resources and rights. Still, there’s plenty of evidence that this interstate transfer is what makes the United States function. Much as we in the US hate Congress, especially the way that politicians representing values we don’t share can still govern us… we can’t be federalists without them. And as a bonus, the perpetual transfers lead to better infrastructure investments in currently low-productivity states that allow those states to remain productive rather than suffering from adverse selection.

“More Democracy!” Yes, that’s my final answer.