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Monday, February 27, 2017


I should like to spend a little time on this Monday morning reflecting on the current political situation with the aid of Max Weber, arguably the greatest sociologist who has ever lived.  In his magnum opus, Economy and Society [Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft], Weber presents the classic analysis of the phenomenon that was then coming to characterize German society and has since become the dominant phenomenon of the modern era, bureaucracy.  I think we can gain some insight into, and perspective on, the current struggle for control of the Democratic Party by thinking about the Party not as a conspiracy or as a movement or as a betrayal or as a cop out, but quite simply as a bureaucracy.  This will take me a while, so settle down.

Bureaucracies are social organizations consisting of defined roles with associated functions and duties determined by objective rules – that is to say, by rules that are to a considerable extent independent of the individuals who occupy the roles at any moment.  In contrast with some other systems of social organization, in a bureaucracy the roles define the individuals who occupy them, not the other way around.  The roles have rights, powers, duties, and titles associated with them, which the individual takes when he or she assumes the role and puts off when he or she steps out of the role.  Sometimes, but not always, occupants of roles wear special clothing or carry special symbols to identify them as role-bearers.

Modern armies are bureaucracies.  Corporations are bureaucracies.  The Catholic Church is a bureaucracy.  Universities are bureaucracies.  Charities are bureaucracies.  The Boy Scouts of America is a bureaucracy.  And political parties are bureaucracies.

For the individuals who occupy the roles defined by the rules of the bureaucracy, their occupation of those roles is a job.  It is the way they earn their living, and with very few exceptions, the individuals need those jobs to live.  They are not independently wealthy amateurs who agree to perform the functions of the role out of love or ideological commitment or on a lark.  Modern political parties depend on these bureaucratic role-occupiers for their regular, continuous functioning.

Think about it.  Suppose someone is the Registrar of Voters in a county in which such positions are political appointments or else partisan elective offices.  That person goes to work every day, five days a week, all year round, registering voters, certifying election results, maintaining files, writing periodic reports, and doing all the other bureaucratic tasks specified by the rules that define the office.  If this is a political position, the Party counts on him or her to show up and perform these tasks, whether it is an exciting October day weeks before a crucial election or a lazy March day when nobody in town is paying attention to anything but the performance of the local college basketball team in the NCAA tournament.

Such jobs do not pay a great deal, so politically engag√© upper middle class doctors and lawyers and college professors may have no interest in competing for them.  Sixty thousand a year does not seem like much to them, even though it is a bit more than the median household income for an American family, but you can bet that it means a good deal to the Registrar of Voters.  That job is his or her meal ticket.

The Registrar probably got her job [let us assume the Registrar is a woman] by going to local Party meetings several times a week for years, volunteering during elections, ringing doorbells, serving as one of those folks who check you in when you go to vote.  For her, the job is not a sacrifice she is making out of deep ideological conviction [though of course she may have that, as anyone might].  It is a paycheck and a title she is proud of, a positon that gives her status in the community, and maybe, if she sticks with it and is seen to be doing a good job, a step up a ladder to an even better job with a bigger paycheck.  There is nothing reprehensible about this.  Quite to the contrary.  It is the norm in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organizations.  Her behavior, viewed objectively and functionally, is little different from the behavior of an Army Captain bucking for Major or an Intern trying to get a Residency or a Law Associate angling for a Partnership or an Assistant Professor trying to get tenure.

Political professionals, or pols as they are sometimes called disparagingly, rely on the party’s coffers for their jobs.  Not surprisingly, they tend to view with favor big donors who, in return for preferment or maybe just access, provide large donations that keep the organization going.  They may welcome enthusiastic small donors, but long experience has taught then that small donors are fair weather friends [or maybe foul weather friends, as the case may be.]  Their enthusiasm waxes and wanes, because for them – but not for the party professionals – politics is a sometime thing.  A protest candidate like Bernie Sanders may fund an entire run for a presidential nomination with donations averaging $27, but those $27 donations have a way of drying up when the election is over, and for someone whose full-time employment depends on party funds, that is a very nerve-wracking way to live.  I think of Immanuel Kant, who until 1770, when he was awarded a professorship at the University of K√∂nigsberg, earned his living as a privatdozent, being paid by those students who chose to attend his lectures.

These facts may be offensive to those of us for whom politics is a grand calling, but they are a way of life for the people for whom politics is their daily bread.  Do we need such people?  Well, in a country of three hundred thirty million souls, with fifty states and innumerable counties and municipalities, the answer is yes.  These are the folks whose daily work determines whether voter suppression laws are passed or blocked.  They are the people who decide whether Creationism is taught alongside Evolution in the local high schools.  They are the people who decide whether laws are passed making it hard to form a labor union.

But, someone protests, Why couldn’t we dispense with pols, with paid professional pollsters and fund raisers and ward captains and media massagers and the crowd of people who make a living out of what ought to be a civic duty?  We could, of course, if we could count on civic-minded or ideologically driven volunteers to do all the work that the working stiffs in the political parties now do.  But as Oscar Wilde famously observed, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.”  Which is to say, in a large, modern bureaucratic society, even one like America which exhibits a remarkably high level of ground level volunteer activity, it is going to require an organized political party staffed by paid men and women and funded in a regular and reliable fashion to have a continuing and sustainable effect on the public life of the nation.

So, we have a choice to make, and like all serious and important choices, it is neither easy nor unambiguously clear:  Do we on the left try to take over the existing Democratic Party, with its vast and well-established cadre of local, state, and national professionals?  Or do we wash our hands of the Democratic Party and try to build a new party pretty much from scratch?

Let us be clear:  That is the choice.  If you are not willing to do the work of building a new party, hoping to rely instead on what Mao in another context called a Permanent Revolution, then you are on a fool’s errand.  You may succeed in getting your candidate nominated for the Presidency, but you will not win back the 1000 state legislative seats lost to the Republicans during the Obama years, and you will not therefore re-establish the right to vote, or to have an abortion, or even to use the bathroom of your gender, in all the locations where those rights have been effectively taken away.

Now, on rare occasions, new parties have succeeded in the United States.  Rarely, but they have.  My personal judgment is that we have a better chance of advancing our goals by trying a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, but I do not know that for a fact, and I respect those like Chris who have clearly made a different judgment.  All I ask is that we recognize the bureaucratic reality of modern American politics and make our decision with that recognition before us. 


James said...

I agree with the need for bureaucracies in these situations, and you are right about the choice now faced. But let me offer a clarification. A takeover of the Democratic Party seems like the right way to go, but it would be completely useless if that takeover just means a takeover of democratic principles by the Democratic machinery. The problem is even worse and the choice even more complex than you let on. It will do no good to "takeover" the Party if, in the end, bureaucratic and economic interests are still the raison d'etre of the Party. That is what got the Democrats into this embarrassing situation. After all is said and done and more progressives and leftists are incorporated into the Party, will they have transformed the Party to be one of principles or will the Party have transformed them to deflate their principles for the sake of the functioning of the organization? This is the important question, because this will decide whether any gains made by the Democrats against Trumpism and any future fascist threat will be lasting or whether they are merely temporary measures to advance the Party.

So to Weber and idea of the neutral role of the bureaucracy, we must also add Horkheimer, who would offer a word of caution to Democrats/Leftists that would pretend to fight tyranny while simultaneously sacrificing all democratic principles to economic and "majority" interests. He would not be surprised by the Democrats inability to understand and to fight Trumpism. Every move that prioritizes expedient bureaucracy over principles removes their claim to the very notions that must be harnessed to fight fascist tendencies in democracy, namely, freedom, justice, truth, etc. The Democrats have been making these moves and sacrifices for a long time, so it is not just a temporary measure to build a stronger movement but the end of the conversion of that party into an unprincipled machine. Does no one remember Socrates’ warning about the fate of such unprincipled political calculation? A city will not have justice if its leaders can no longer offer a rational and public defense of the idea that justice itself is better than injustice and freedom better than oppression.

It seems like the Democrats have no such defense and no such foundation, but are just like the Republicans in this respect: justice and truth are good only insofar as the prevailing winds of opinion make it convenient to talk about them. They are not--Socrates would note--the good and end of the Democratic Party, and thus when fascism comes to town they will offer little resistance. The Democrats can raise money and organize participation, but can they offer a public account of why we should prefer justice over injustice and a Democrat over Trump? If not, they have nothing to say to those, who are many now and very vocal, that think that injustice and oppression are acceptable means toward their self-interests (which are just as legitimate as anyone else's). I hope you see that this is not a mere theoretical question but the conflict at stake in the antagonism between Leftist principles and the Democratic Party...

James said...

Now, to Horkheimer...

"Deprived of its rational foundation, the democratic principle becomes exclusively dependent upon the so-called interests of the people, and these are functions of blind or all too conscious economic forces. They do not offer any guarantee against tyranny."

"Subjective reason has no use for such inheritance. It reveals truth as habit and thereby strips it of its spiritual authority. Today the idea of the majority, deprived of its rational foundations, has assumed a completely irrational aspect. Every philosophical, ethical, and political idea--its lifeline connecting it with its historical origins having been severed--has a tendency to become the nucleus of a new mythology, and this is one of the reasons why the advance of enlightenment tends at certain points to revert to superstition and paranoia. The majority principle, in the form of popular verdicts on each and every matter, implemented by all kinds of polls and modern techniques of communication, has become the sovereign force to which thought must cater. It is a new god, not in the sense in which the heralds of the great revolutions conceived it, namely, as a power of resistance to existing injustice, but as a power of resistance to anything that does not conform."

s. wallerstein said...

I have no reason to doubt your description of how political bureaucracy functions in the U.S. However, couldn't things be different?

Let's start with Wilde's witticism, that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.

After a two hour commute in each direction and after stanting on your feet for 8 hours with a fake smile for the customers and for the boss and earning the minimum wage or close to it, few are in the mood for doing socialism. They'd rather turn on the TV, watch Celebrity Apprentice or the Superbowl, while eating white sugar and junk food.

However, would people be more in a mood for doing socialism in the evening if they earned decent wages at non-alienating jobs, with guaranteed healthcare and ultra-rapid comfortable cheap public transportation subsidized by taxes and no one was obliged to smile at customers and bosses they didn't like?

I prefer doing socialism in my evenings to watching the Celebrity Apprentice or the Superbowl, to going to a discoteque or a cocktail party, to eating in a fancy restaurant, to staying at an expensive hotel, to almost all human activities except reading a good book, drinking good coffee, conversing with friends and sex. So aren't there probably lots more people who prefer doing socialism to lots of activities that Wilde or others with his value system must have considered or consider more "entertaining"?

If we support mainstream Democrats, we have a good possibility of beating the Republicans in the forthcoming elections and going back to business as usual, which is what those Democrats represent. The problem is that business as usual gave rise to Trump: Trump is the product of a neoliberal celebrity culture where only money, fame, sex appeal and sports ability count. By the way, take a look at Woody Allen's 1998 film, Celebrity, where Trump appears for a few seconds playing himself. That is, we may be in a vicious circle where the mainstream democrats suppport business as usual, business as usual brings us Trumps and then back to business as usual with the mainstream democrats.

Can we break out of that vicious circle? I have no idea, but it seems worth a try. I'm sure that someone smarter than me can frame it in terms of a wager, like Pascal's wager, where while breaking out of that vicious circle is uncertain, but what we stand to gain is so much greater than if we don't try.

Chris said...

"The problem is that business as usual gave rise to Trump"


Chris said...

Obviously at some point this bureaucracy model shifted into corporate neo-liberal democrats. So someone or group bears responsible for turning the party into a bunch of hacks and charlatans.

As a matter of thought experiment, what would have if all the effort that went into transforming the dnc, working with democrats, supporting democrats, etc., went into a third party. Maybe we wouldn't have a green party president, but we might have enough dems AND third party folks in congress to halt Trump's policies (presuming democrats didn't cave per usual). We live in anti-establishment times, is nothing is more establishment than identity politics in the workplace, and status quo economics. That's the exact recipe that makes Trump appealing.

Unknown said...

I have to confess that I don’t follow some of the arguments made by James and S. Wallerstein. I’ll read them again in a while, but as a preliminary matter, I wonder why James seems to think that if progressives get themselves elected to positions of power as Democrats they will be transformed into the kind of Democrat they abhor. It seems to me the other way around—that they will transform the party—as the Tea Party and now Trump have transformed the Republican Party. This isn’t Lincoln’s Republican Party, or Eisenhower’s, or Bush’s. It isn’t even Reagan’s.

Prof. Wolff has made the case far more persuasively than I am able to do. So has Robert Reich:

“The Democratic Party needs the progressive grass roots if the Party is to have the energy and enthusiasm it needs for the midterms and 2020. The progressive grass roots need the Democratic Party if it's to transform its energy and enthusiasm into political power. But will the connection be made?”

S. Wallerstein seems to believe that the only thing we can do evenings is Socialism or watch Celebrity Apprentice or the Super Bowl while eating junk food. I’ve never spent an evening doing Socialism; I had never heard of Celebrity Apprentice until the recording of Trump’s infamous remarks were disclosed a few weeks before the election. I have watched the Super Bowl, but that’s only one evening a year, and I don’t pay that much attention any more. But there are many other things I’d prefer to do with my evenings than Socialism—read, listen to music, watch the PBS News Hour and some of their other programs. There’s more to life, I believe, that Celebrity Apprentice, the Super Bowl or Socialism.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

I'm using the Celebrity Apprentice, the Super Bowl, etc., as metaphors, as I'm sure that you realize.

Doing socialism is simply active political participation, with the idea of constructing a society without exploitation or oppression. I've bet that you've spent an evening or two doing socialism in that sense.

James said...

David Palmeter,

I don't think "that if progressives get themselves elected to positions of power as Democrats they will be transformed into the kind of Democrat they abhor". I only raise the question. The burden of proof isn't on me but on the Party to live out its supposed principles. Because this is in fact what tends to happen with large bureaucratic machineries like the Democratic Party: things like freedom and justice get converted into means not ends, a sort of functional democratic nihilism acceptable for the sake of survival. But this trade-off is what brought about many of the problems the Party now faces. This was Horkheimer's insight into how fascism can grow within--or at least be aided by--supposedly democratic organizations.

My point is that the choice Prof. Wolff offers, which I agree with, requires another ingredient for success: an explicit effort to keep means and ends straight and to cultivate those principles within the machinery.

RedRosa said...

My take on this is that, as of now, the Democratic Party is the best way to actually win elections. This is evidenced by the large percentage of voters that go into voting booths and check either D or R regardless of who is on the ticket. This is especially true of local/state races. I think that, for the time being, the most effective way to effect change in the Democratic Party would be to have an outside party/group that would play the role that unions used to play in many areas of the country and push the Democratic Party to adopt positions on issues under threat of a withholding of a large contingent of votes. This could be done through a group like Our Revolution, DSA, others, or a combination. Together with a strategy to get progressives into the Democratic Party, I think we could have an effect.

Charles Pigden said...

In reply to S Wallerstein
I am an ambitious professional philosopher, anxious to say my say and to get recognized for saying it, but between 1996 and 2006 I did not publish a single journal article. This is because I committed about fourteen years of my life to 'doing socialism' in the evenings (or at least to doing social democracy and human rights activism), to the considerable detriment of my career. I can assure him that although I got a little cynical pleasure out of it as well as some comradeship with a few like-minded friends, it was a lot less fun than most the things I might have been doing instead, such as working on my philosophical projects, reading, watching good TV like 'Game of Thrones' or chatting with my daughters whilst watching relatively trashy TV such as Project Runway. I have been a whole lot happier at the personal level since I largely gave up activism in 2003. (My Party had collapsed, there was not much more I could do and I had begun to feel, in my late forties, that time was running out if I wanted to make my mark as a professional philosopher.) You can sell activism as a moral necessity or as something worth doing and you can even say honestly that it isn’t as awful as you might think, but for me and I suspect for many people, you really can’t sell it as an inherently pleasurable activity. It isn’t.

s. wallerstein said...

Charles Pigden,

I don't believe that much is inherently pleasurable besides sex, getting high, eating and sleeping.

Obviously, some people, not you, find doing socialism is be pleasurable. From my experience, they do not all see as a horrid duty that they do out of moral obligation. In fact, most people don't do anything for very long out of moral obligation, although they may claim to do so as a pretext to avoid having to admit to themselves that they are doing what they like.

Hannah Arendt, in On Revolution, seems to see "doing socialism", that is, political participation in the polis and especially in revolutionary instances of the polis, as a pleasure.

As I said, I prefer "doing socialism" to many other activities (I listed some above) that many people consider to be "entertaining". There are, as I pointed out, some activities (I listed them above) which I prefer to "doing socialism".

The political meetings can be tedious, to be sure. I recall an interview with Chomsky, who, as you know, believes in participatory democracy, where the interviewer asks him if he enjoys participatory political meetings and Chomsky, always honest, replies: no, not really. There is always some idiot who speaks for two hours explaining something that could be explained in two minutes, just to show how brilliant he or she is.

Still, I have to admit that most of the women in my life and nearly all my male friends I met while "doing socialism". In fact, to be honest, here we are taking time out of our day, time which could be used to make more money or to advance our careers or to do all that housework that I keep putting off and putting off, to talk politics, that is, taking the first step towards "doing socialism" and I'm enjoying it. I hope that you are too.

David said...

As someone who has done a fair amount of the nuts-and-bolts work of politics--citizen lobbyist, PCO, union strike captain, building rep, union elections committee, party executive board director, community organizer, land trust executive board director, environmental activist, campaign volunteer, campaign adviser, student adviser--I personally find most of the face-to-face meetings to be tedious, trying, and exhausting. Until Trump was elected, I was looking forward to a quiet, contemplative old age. Maybe it's a good thing that I will be forced to socialize with people as I grow older, but it's not what I would have chosen. I would, rather, have chosen to do many other things: read, join a volunteer trail maintenance crew, go dancing, hang out with friends, get in better shape. Alas, that's not going to happen. Why? Because I don't want to live in a fascist state. I hate the idea of watching people lose their health care and their retirement, watching public education get dismantled, watching the poor get ground down even more, watching immigrant families get broken up, watching people of color get killed, watching women get mistreated and abused, watching LGBTQ communities get vilified and threatened, watching Muslims get rounded up, watching our country take on yet another incredibly destructive war, watching the world generally go to hell. I don't want to sit by and watch. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother all that much with the Democratic Party any more. Otherwise, I'm not sure I would give a hoot whether it was reformed or moved left.

However, I'm fairly adept at practical politics, and since my skills are needed, I'm going to step forward and make the sacrifice. Someone has to the clean the toilets, and someone has to do the political shit-work. I realize that many people feel they are too good for that or feel they have better things to do, but I don't feel that way about myself. I'm not too good for this.

When I was a boy, my father was a PCO and held meetings in our living room, which I sat in on. When I was nine, I went doorbelling by myself for a Congressional candidate. At sixteen, I attended my first mass demonstration (again President Ford for having pardoned Nixon). I haven't been continually involved in politics, but my experience goes back almost fifty years now. I have never wanted to run for office, I gave up on revolutions a long time ago, and I really wish that what is happening weren't happening. But one thing I learned from James Baldwin is that we don't have a right not to know what terrible things are happening to other people, and once we are possessed of that knowledge, we have a moral responsibility to deal with it. Otherwise, I would be spending my extra time, I don't know, maybe rereading Thucydides.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Prof, Thank you for yet another lucid post. You have a marvelous way of explaining complex ideas and situations that I highly admire.

Reading your post called to mind a recent episode of the BBC radio show "In Our Time" about Hannah Arendt. An important distinction for Arendt was between the civic and the social. To put it briefly and mildly, she was not a fan of the social. I would say a strong case can be made that we don't have much or even a civic sphere, any longer, and that (almost [virtually, to pun]) everything is social.

Arendt decried "the bureacratization of modern life, when we become alienated from the way we relate to one another and start relating to one another through systems" (as one of the guest professors said). I think Arendt was clearly right about this, and also that it has only become worse since she wrote.

This is a sweeping historical trend that I can only see continuing. I don't see a vigorous renewal of civic life on the horizon, so it seems we're stuck with bureaucracy. So we might as well use it for better rather than worse. I would have preferred Ellison to chair the DNC, but I won't abandon the Democrats until and if they fail in 2018 and (of course) in 2020.

(If the party can't get it's act together by then, our country will be well and truly fucked beyond repair, and I will have had the few sparks of hope that still remain utterly extinguished.)

Charles Pigden said...

I am glad, very glad that I am not an American, as if I were, I too would feel obliged to put on my overalls and buckle down to the shit-work of politics. My sympathies are totally with David, especially as I too am getting old.

SouthernPhilosopher said...

"Her behavior, viewed objectively and functionally, is little different from the behavior of an Army Captain bucking for Major or an Intern trying to get a Residency or a Law Associate angling for a Partnership or an Assistant Professor trying to get tenure." -- All of these are up or out jobs -- if you don't make the next rung on the ladder, you must leave by rule in a certain time period. Folks tend to remain as Registrar for years and years and years.