Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship.Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship. (Photo by Dan Addison)

Recent changes announced by social media giant Facebook have roiled the media community and raised questions about privacy. The company’s updates include a higher level of news feed priority for posts made by friends and family and testing for new end-to-end encryption software inside its messenger service.

As Facebook now boasts more than a billion users worldwide, both of these updates are likely to impact the way the world communicates. Prior to the company’s news-feed algorithm change, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of American adults regularly read news content through Facebook.

UVA Today sat down with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of these changes and the evolving role of Facebook in the world. Naturally, the conversation first aired on Facebook Live.

Excerpts from the conversation and the full video are available below.

Q. What is the change to Facebook’s News Feed?

A. Facebook has announced a different emphasis within its news feed. Now of course, your news feed is much more than news. It’s all of those links and photos and videos that your friends are posting and all of the sites that you’re following. So that could be an interesting combination of your cousin, your coworker, the New York Times and Fox News all streaming through.

A couple of years ago, the folks that run Facebook recognized that Facebook was quickly becoming the leading news source for many millions of Americans, and considering that they have 1.6 billion users around the world, and it’s growing fast, there was a real concern that Facebook should take that responsibility seriously. So one of the things that Facebook did was cut a deal with a number of publishers to be able to load up their content directly from Facebook servers, rather than just link to an original content server. That provided more dependable loading, especially of video, but also faster loading, especially through mobile.

But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of rolled back on that. They haven’t removed the partnership program that serves up all that content in a quick form, but they’ve made it very clear that their algorithms that generate your news feed will be weighted much more heavily to what your friends are linking to, liking and commenting on, and what you’ve told Facebook over the years you’re interested in.

This has a couple of ramifications. One, it sort of downgrades the project of bringing legitimate news into the forefront by default, but it also makes sure that we are more likely to be rewarded with materials that we’ve already expressed an interest in. We’re much more likely to see material from publications and our friends we reward with links and likes. We’re much more likely to see material linked by friends with whom we have had comment conversations.

This can generate something that we call a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the problem he identified has only gotten worse since it came out. Facebook is a prime example of that because Facebook is in the business of giving you reasons to feel good about being on Facebook. Facebook’s incentives are designed to keep you engaged.

Q. How will this change the experience for publishers?

A. The change or the announcement of the change came about because a number of former Facebook employees told stories about how Facebook had guided their decisions to privilege certain things in news feeds that seemed to diminish the content and arguments of conservative media.

Well, Facebook didn’t want that reputation, obviously. Facebook would rather not be mixed up or labeled as a champion of liberal causes over conservative causes in the U.S. That means that Facebook is still going to privilege certain producers of media – those producers of media that have signed contracts with Facebook. The Guardian is one, the New York Times is another. There are dozens of others. Those are still going to be privileged in Facebook’s algorithm, and among the news sources you encounter, you’re more likely to see those news sources than those that have not engaged in a explicit contract with Facebook. So Facebook is making editorial decisions based on their self-interest more than anything, and not necessarily on any sort of political ideology.

Q. You wrote “The Googlization of Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we progressed to the “Facebookization” of everything?

A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the Facebookization of everything – and that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would make an argument that if you look at five companies that don’t even seem to do the same thing – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re actually competing in a long game, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has nothing to do with your phone, nothing to do with your computer and nothing to do with the Internet as we know it.

They’re all competing to earn our trust and manage the data flows that they think will soon run through every aspect of our lives – through our watches, through our eyeglasses, through our cars, through our refrigerators, our toasters and our thermostats. So you see companies – all five of these companies from Amazon to Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple – are all putting out products and services meant to establish ubiquitous data connections, whether it’s the Apple Watch or the Google self-driving car or whether it’s that weird obelisk that Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you can talk to or use to play music and things. These are all part of what I call the “operating system of our lives.”

Facebook is interesting because it’s part of that race. Facebook, like those other companies, is trying to be the company that ultimately manages our lives, in every possible way.

We often hear a phrase called the “Internet of things.” I think that’s a misnomer because what we’re talking about, first of all, is not like the Internet at all. It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. Secondly, it’s not about things. It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.

So the fact that Facebook is constantly tracking your location, is constantly encouraging you to be in conversation with your friends through it – at every bus stop and subway stop, at every traffic light, even though you’re not supposed to – is a sign that they are doing their best to plug you in constantly. That phenomenon, and it’s not just about Facebook alone, is something that’s really interesting.

Q. What are the implications of that for society?

A. The implications of the emergence of an operating system of our lives are pretty severe. First of all, consider that we will consistently be outsourcing decision-making like “Turn left or turn right?,” “What kind of orange juice to buy?” and “What kind of washing detergent to buy?” All of these decisions will be guided by, if not determined by, contracts that these data companies will be signing with consumer companies.

… We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. … Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.


Post-Capitalism Utopia Is a Bit of a Farce

Technology brings new ways of working, but what has really changed?

Photo Credit: Microsiervos / Flickr Creative Commons

One of Ireland’s thicker politicians recently made the rather bold claim that the country was in danger of becoming “a lawless utopia.” The ditzy comment spurred much head-scratching among the Irish, who tried fruitlessly to square her obvious negative intent with the image of a paradise on earth so wonderful even laws would be obsolete.

After all, most of us, it’s fair to say, would agree that a lawless utopia sounds like a pretty good thing. It’s just that it also sounds… how shall I put this…utopian? Unrealizable? Ultra-idealistic?

Nonetheless, the recent paperback edition of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by British journalist Paul Mason got me thinking about lawless utopia again. The book itself was something of a disappointment, with the author offering up such morsels of wisdom as “understand the limits of human willpower” and “attack the problem from all angles,” apparently in ignorance of the fact that you can get this kind of sage advice for free on social media now, alongside perennial favorites like “follow your dreams” and “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” In fact, Postcapitalism reads like one long buzzy LinkedIn post, a collection of a hundred inspirational anecdotes, none of them leading anywhere much.

This created an atmosphere of such utter boredom while reading that the high points for me consisted in a mention of one economist named Slutsky and another named Cockshott (sadly, the constraints of time and space prevented them from ever producing a mutual paper).

But these failings notwithstanding, Mason’s main premise, that information technology will bring with it profound new ways of work and perhaps a new economy—a post-capitalist economy if you will—is an interesting one. Unlike so many others on the political left—and Mason is definitely and unapologetically on the left—he has grasped that a return to the glory days of widespread union membership and workplace solidarity is impossible. People simply do not live and work in the rooted communities of the past—they are more disaggregated, hopping from job to job and city to city, working on contract, freelance or as self-employed “entrepreneurs” of the digital age. At the same time, the scarcity model of economic understanding is at least partially unraveling, with social enterprise and the sharing economy blurring, as the author puts it, the distinction between work and play.

Unfortunately, the insights end there. While Mason views the “networked individual” plugged in to the online community as key to the future, recognizing that not only will we change technology, but that it will change us, he does not pursue this line of philosophy to any particular conclusion. Instead, he uses the final chapter of his book to offer up such simple recipes for change as “nationalize the central bank,” “switch off the neoliberal privatization machine” and “liberate the 1 percent” because “[t]hey become poorer and therefore happier. Because it’s tough being rich.” Naively hopeful doesn’t begin to describe this. Even Jesus went in for a bit more of the carrot and stick when he declared that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

That being said, the idea of economic decentralization is a big one, something we’ve all been vaguely eyeballing for a while now, with a mix of tingling anticipation and anxious trepidation.

In his science-fiction books, Scottish author Iain M. Banks created one of the most spectacular utopias of all time, a society not far off the one Mason seems to be pointing to. This society, known simply as the Culture, was inhabited by what one could term “networked individuals” who live in a perpetual state of awe-inspiring abundance, without central government and free to live life on whatever terms they choose. More to the point, when Banks began writing his Culture novels (the first was published in 1987) few people had cellphones or home computers of any description. Yet Banks envisaged a culture (or Culture) in which all citizens had the potential to connect to each other and to the collective knowledge of their entire society at any given time. It is this connectivity to each other and to the communal knowledge base that Mason also sees as pivotal for the new post-capitalist economy.

At the time of Banks’ death in 2013, smartphones and Wikipedia had ensured that society had come a long way toward looking like the civilization he had foreseen, although it was still lacking a few things on the Culture, and not just the space travel and three-legged aliens. We may be pretty much networked like a utopia, but we do not enjoy either the equality or freedom of one.

So, how to get from the point of transition Mason senses to something more like the wonderland described by Banks?

The key, I believe, lies in creating mechanisms for decentralization while still maintaining quality control. We have seen a certain decentralization of knowledge, as Mason points out, but we need to follow this up with decentralization in other areas of life. Technology is key here, but unlike Mason, I have difficulty in believing that such change is inevitable or that it will occur spontaneously.

Another recent paperback, Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin offers an instructive example. Prior to reading, I had been worried that Digital Gold would be a slog of technical details that would force into my mind the unholy knowledge of how Bitcoin actually works. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly easy, and genuinely interesting read.

Although—spoiler alert—the author does tell you how Bitcoin works, the emphasis of the book is on why a digital currency was dreamed up in the first place and the ups and downs of trying to make it a success.

Early Bitcoin collaborators foresaw the coming end of cold, hard cash, and went to some efforts to create a digital equivalent that would allow for anonymous transactions. However, Bitcoin’s political potential went much further than cash replacement. Its manner of production—by harnessing computing power—placed it beyond the control of central banks and governments. Taken to its logical conclusion, this allows money to become a shared resource, instead of something that can be manipulated by a small number of individuals deciding on monetary policy in the form of interest rates, quantitative easing (printing more money) and the like. Bitcoin, when used as creator Satoshi Nakamoto intended, has this decentralization embedded into the very technology—the collective, not the individual, is in charge. When one thinks of the way the LIBOR rate, that is the interest rate banks charge each other, was manipulated in the run up to the 2008 crash, or how credit rating agencies handed out triple-A ratings to what would later become junk bonds, it is all too obvious that our highly centralized financial system has some serious weak points that could potentially be addressed through decentralization, provided that such a system could be adequately secured. The prospects may look at bit dim with Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht sentenced to life without parole for running a drug trading forum that utilized Bitcoin and Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange owner Mark Karpeles under investigation for embezzlement, but digital cash has taken its share of highs and lows before, and implementation is never a linear process.

Another mode of possible decentralization runs through the media, with products like Twitter allowing users to bypass the centralized output of CNN, Fox News, and the like. New forms of journalism like the Backfeed Magazine are working to use similar algorithms to Bitcoin to harness the hivemind in adjudging the value of journalism and rewarding risk-takers who make major contributions. The idea is to put it all out there, but curate top stories based not on shallow feedback like views or comments but perceptions of value added. In other words, say good-bye to clickbait. It’s freedom to the highest common denominator, not the lowest, for a change.

In similar fashion, decentralized decision-making has received a massive boost through online technology that allows large groups of people to debate and decide on political issues collectively in a way that logistics would make impossible in the “real” physical world. Let’s face it, no utopia can really be lawless—even Banks’ Culture had its methods of norm enforcement—but mass digital decision-making—something that is already entirely possible—lets those laws be in the interests of the majority instead of the so-called elites.

While those elites are hardly likely to disempower themselves, however often Paul Mason may try to sell them on the benefits of the simple life, it is still possible to harness technology in ways that work against them. The same breakthroughs that enable NSA spying also allow average people to work together like never before, bypassing traditional hierarchies. Mason and the Bitcoin collaborators—and even that dumb Irish lady—are right about one thing: however dark things may look, this is, at least, an interesting time to be alive. The hoverboard may have been a disappointment—notable, indeed, for its complete lack of hovering—but I still have hopes of driving a flying carsomeday. I’d just rather not be flying it over an endless slum.

And therein lies the thorny issue of knitting together technological and societal progress. I highly doubt that even marginal positive changes to our society will be induced purely via the wonderful ways of technology, which has the ability both to centralize and de-centralize, to empower and enslave, and is thus, unto itself, a double-edged sword. However, I remain hopeful that, given some of the emerging tools, we don’t need to be constrained by superficial ideas of what a decent future could look like. The Jetsons may have left us all with a lingering feeling that flying car stage represented the pinnacle of societal achievement, but life’s a bit more complicated. What we really need to focus on is how we can leverage some of these technological developments to shift traditional power balances. Concrete actions rather than wishful predictions are called for. That is a tall order, but there are some promising options for radical change out there, and it we play our cards right, the future needn’t be dismal; compared to our current situation, it may even feel a little bit like utopia.

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology and has lectured in International Law at Trinity College, Dublin and National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She is also legal correspondent for Russia Today.

How Unchecked Capitalism and Massive Inequality Made America the Bully Nation

A guide to the systemic origins of America’s bully culture.

Photo Credit: Micha /

The following is an excerpt from the new book Bully Nation by Charles Derber & Yale R. Magrass (University Press of Kansas, 2016):

On October 1, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Burger King franchise in Ferndale, Michigan, near Detroit, had bullied a part-time worker, Claudette Wilson, by sending her home two hours early for not positioning pickles correctly on her burgers. As Judge Arthur J. Anchan put it, the company illegally sent Wilson home for failing to “put pickles on her sandwiches in perfect squares.”

Such absurd but intimidating and humiliating bullying of a very low-paid worker was retaliation aimed at intimidating Wilson from continuing her efforts to organize low-wage Burger King workers. A few days earlier, she had stopped at the store to ask workers coming off their shifts to fill out a questionnaire about their wages. A manager had written her up for violating the store’s “loitering and solicitation” policy, something that Judge Anchan also said was “protected activity” and thus illegal. Wilson said she had not done the pickles quite perfectly because of her anger about the earlier unfair treatment.

The story gets bigger because Wilson was one of several workers, including Romell Frazier, who were members of a group called D15, part of the Fast Food Forward Network trying to unionize Michigan Burger Kings. Wilson’s “pickle problem” was really part of a larger and more serious pickle faced by the workers. The Michigan Burger King franchisee was systematically going after workers who were part of D15 and threatening them with sanctions, including firing.

Frazier, for example, had talked up a union and had spoken about striking to his fellow workers. A manager told him that “if he was talking about striking again, he’d soon be picking up his paycheck,” a clear threat intended to bully any workers who were engaged in organizing others. The company claimed that it had the right to prohibit workers from talking about unionizing on the job, but such activity is actually “protected, concerted activity” under the law. It’s against the law to punish any workers for discussing unionizing or other forms of organizing. And as Judge Anchan underscored in his decision, the workplace is the “particularly appropriate place” for such talk and distribution of material because it’s “the one place where employees clearly share common interests”; further, he said, “this is particularly true in the instant case where some of the workers are lower paid individuals who commute to work via bus.”

The pickle gets even bigger because the incident took place during a nationwide organizing campaign for fast-food workers. D15 and the Fast Food Organizing Network were partly funded by the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The union was a leading supporter of the grassroots organizing spreading like a prairie fire among workers not only at Burger King but also at McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other fast-food chains. As the workers organized for unions and a higher minimum wage, the big companies were striking back. The threats and retaliation aimed at workers such as Wilson and Frazier might be called “capital bullying”—a type of bullying that is built into the DNA of corporate capitalism and that occurs at workplaces everyday, much like the pervasive bullying happening daily in schoolyards.

Capital Bullying: Capitalism, Competition, and Winners versus Losers—How the Rich Bully the Poor

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

We refer to the bullying against workers such as Wilson and Frazier, whether pertaining to something as small as Wilson’s pickle bullying or as big as being fired en masse, as capital bullying, meaning bullying inherent to Western and especially American capitalism. We must move from the micropsychological to the macrosocietal paradigm to discuss capitalism as a bullying system. Only a macroanalysis can analyze capital bullying and help create structural changes to reduce it, a deeply destructive type of bullying carried out mainly by corporations. The bullying problem at Burger King and all the big fast-food firms is not a result of the personal psychological problems of the managers; rather, it is something that is systemically dictated and enacted no matter what the psychology of management.

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities. They are not discussed in the academic bullying literature, but they are directly or indirectly responsible for much of the bullying we see in American schoolyards and among both kids and adults.

In many cases, corporate institutional bullying should not be viewed as personal bullying because the managers involved, though they are threatening and harming workers, are being required to act as agents of the company. As individuals, they may not deliberately be seeking to humiliate or harm their workers. Such “decent” or “nice” managers may cut wages or fire workers, but in doing so, they are carrying out institutional imperatives and orders rather than fulfilling personal motives to dominate, intimidate, and humiliate.

The greatest early critic of capitalism, Karl Marx, firmly believed that unequal power is inherent in capitalist systems—and that this creates power hierarchies and market structures that require institutional bullying.

Capitalism puts ownership of capital into the hands of one small group—the “capitalist class,” often dubbed“ the 1%” today. Most of the rest of the population is part of a huge underpaid working class or a growing poverty-stricken and jobless group, with no or very little capital or power. Marx argued that this unequal class power is the essential capitalist ingredient for profit, enabling capitalists—and specifically their corporations—to bully workers into accepting the wages and working conditions dictated by the owners. Put another way, workers have to accept their inferior position, a hallmark of bullying on which the entire system depends.

Thomas Piketty, in his blockbuster best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has spread public awareness of capitalism as an inequality machine. In his book, Piketty presents data about the distribution of capital ownership in more than twenty countries over the last three centuries. He finds that capitalism, with only one exception in the last 300 years, has created wide, sustained, and often extreme inequalities of both income and wealth. Piketty argues that this does not reflect markets gone wrong; rather, it is the way capitalist markets are designed to work.

Piketty is very explicit about this: “Specifically, it is important to note that [inequality] has nothing to do with any market imperfection. Quite the contrary: the more perfect the capital market (in the economist’s sense), the more likely” that inequality will be created and grow. There are no self-correcting market mechanisms to limit inequality, he argues, but only political interventions that are difficult to achieve. “It is possible,” he says,“to imagine public institutions and policies that would counter the effects of this implacable logic: for instance, a progressive global tax on capital. . . . It is unfortunately likely that actual responses to the problem—including various nationalist responses—will in practice be far more modest and less effective.”

Put simply, inequality in wealth and power is baked into capitalist systems, and it is fundamental to structural and institutional bullying. But why does this inequality lead capitalists to bully workers and the poor—and also other groups, such as consumers, and even other capitalists? The answer has less to do with the psychology of executives than with the structure of the capitalist marketplace.

Capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system in which all capitalists— whether corporations or individual entrepreneurs—have no choice but to compete furiously. Karl Marx argued that capitalists who do not compete with the ferocity of sharks, going for the kill, will be destroyed by rivals who are committed to the economic battlefield and to winning at all costs. This is an economic version of militarism, and it also mirrors the ethic of the schoolyard bully—dominate or die.

This systemic competition incentivizes even so-called nice or “socially responsible” capitalists to bully workers, consumers, and fellow capitalists. Corporations that do not bully workers—by paying low wages, breaking unions, and constantly harassing those who seek to challenge the power of the companies—will typically be at a competitive disadvantage compared to those that do; this is because the bullying leads to high corporate profits, as in McDonald’s and other fast-food giants, and thus attracts more capital from the financial markets. Investors follow the money, just as sharks follow blood in the water. Corporations that do not bleed their workers by cutting wages and benefits—and intimidating those who challenge their degradation—will tend to see reduced profits and lose out to their competitors in the capital markets. A failure to bully workers into accepting low wages and the loss of other benefits also reduces profits, since increases in wages and benefits are drains on profit. This is a structural reality faced by all capitalists, whatever their personality, and it demonstrates the need to move from a psychological paradigm to one focusing on structural imperatives.

The same logic leads capitalists to compete intensely even with giant rivals in the 1%. The system will not be kind to competitors who are unwilling to threaten, undermine, and destroy their rivals; they are vulnerable to being put out of business. This results in bullying within the capitalist class; it is, we show, both similar to and different from the cross-class bullying of workers that is class warfare. In both cases, the strong must defeat competitive rivals, and they can win only by devouring the weak.

Structural competition in the marketplace encourages other types of capitalist bullying, including bullying of the unemployed, of consumers, and of politicians. These bullying relations, too, are structurally dictated by the marketplace. As on the bully schoolyard, nice guys finish last.

Before moving forward, we must illustrate the generic way in which competition in most capitalist societies leads to the rich (the winners) bullying the poor (the losers). This is particularly true in the United States, where the competition is harsh and the ideology of winners and losers conveyed in a particularly bullying discourse. At least since the nineteenth century, American capitalists have seen the competitive process as a form of social Darwinism, in which the strong overcome the weak and the best triumph. Thus, the rich deserve all their wealth and blessings, whereas the poor deserve their low station and misery. Since the market is seen as a Darwinian selection process, it is only natural and good that the rich—those who have proved their worth—assume control over the society as a whole. The system will not function unless the poor learn that they deserve their fate; workers must be bullied until they embrace this Darwinian view that they are inferior and deserve their fate.

This view emerged in early American Puritanism, where competitive success was seen as a sign of God’s grace. The winners proved themselves a higher order of being, entitled to deference and special power and status. Competitive failure in the markets was, to the Puritans, a sign of being damned, in this life and the next. The degree of loss was a measure of the degree of worthlessness; it justified the winners treating the losers as drags on the social order who had to be controlled and kept in their place. Workers who didn’t accept their inferiority as losers would be bullied until they did so. This sense of inferiority is a “hidden injury of class, the enduring trauma of capital bullying.” This ancient Puritan view has survived in various forms to the present day, with the wealthy winners seeing their success as a sign of virtue—and seeing the poor as losers whose nature is inferior and parasitic. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney made his famous comment about makers and takers, expressing perfectly his view that the poor were parasites leeching off the wealth created by capitalists like himself. He claimed that 47 percent of Americans were takers, thus condemning much of the population to the status of dependent moochers on the body politic. The implication was not hard to fathom: people in Romney’s class would have to take charge of society and take control of the takers, through political and sometimes coercive means, in order to maintain a prosperous and virtuous social order. They had to bully the takers to embrace the view that the makers deserved to be in power and legitimately claimed their wealth.

This is, of course, a bullying view of society, in which the winners of capitalist competition must assume control over the losers to preserve social well-being. To offer help to the losers—through welfare or other social benefits—is to divert resources to the undeserving and encourage their dependency and parasitism. Politically, this leads to austerity policies that are designed to be punitive to the poor and maintain the “natural” and “fair” unequal order that the competitive selective process has established. All people deserve their positions in the hierarchy, and those who question this primal assumption must be bullied into accepting their inferiority. Austerity has become the contemporary policy most clearly symbolizing capitalist bullying, in which the worthy rich threaten and withhold benefits from the unworthy masses, who in turn recognize their own inferiority.

This bullying perspective was articulated lucidly by the writer Ayn Rand, who turned it into a broad philosophy about the morality of capitalism. Rand divided the population into the strong and the weak, the worthy and the unworthy, the productive or “creative” and the moochers. The virtue of capitalism was that the free, competitive market provided a sure way of distinguishing these two orders of people, and it ensured that the worthy would triumph over the unworthy, the makers over the takers. To intervene and seek to reverse that order by helping the losers was immoral and would lead to social decline. Society thrived only when it allowed—indeed forced—the strong to dominate the weak in the Darwinian world, structured and managed through the market.

Rand is useful because she so clearly described the bullying philosophy and practices that govern US capitalism and its basic social Darwinism. The idea that the strong must dominate the weak is central to the schoolyard bully. The bully is strong and a winner and therefore entitled to control the weak, who are seen as sissies, cowards, and losers. The weak must accept the definition of themselves as inferior. The bullies in school essentially enforce their own austerity on the out-crowd—the loser kids deserve the humiliation, injury, and ostracism administered by the winner kids in the in-crowd.

Bullying for Profit: Robber Barons Show How to Bully Workers and Make a Mint

In 1892, one of the most famous American strikes took place at a Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie had been known as one of the less ruthless tycoons of the era, but when the union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, organized a strike at the Homestead plant to increase wages, Carnegie decided to break their will and destroy the union for good. Before things were over, workers were threatened and attacked, and some were even killed; proud workers who asserted their right to earn a living wage and enjoy basic American rights were ruthlessly bullied into submission and defeat. The Homestead tragedy is an iconic symbol of capitalist bullying, whereby, in the name of property rights, profits, and prosperity, employers threaten and harm workers who seek a degree of workplace power and decent wages.

As early as 1889, the union had effectively taken over the plant and established work rules to limit management’s absolute power to control every detail of the work. A series of negotiations ensued, and Carnegie, who had nominally accepted unions, decided enough was enough. He instructed his man on the scene, Henry Clay Frick, to lock out the workers. Frick sealed the plant, built a high barbed wire fence, installed cannons capable of spraying boiling liquid, and turned the site into an armed camp.

On July 20, 1892, the Strike Committee resisted the intense bullying pressure that Carnegie and Frick imposed, issuing this defiant proclamation:

“It is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union; that it is our duty as American citizens to resist by every legal and ordinary means the unconstitutional, anarchic and revolutionary policy of the Carnegie Company, which seems to evince a contempt [for] public and private interests and a disdain [for] the public conscience (commemorated on a plaque at the pumphouse of the plant).”

Such open resistance by the bullied was unacceptable. Frick responded by calling in the Pinkerton guards, an armed private security service that would attack the striking workers while helping bring in new, nonunion employees. Fighting broke out when workers refused to leave, and several of them were shot dead. As the fighting continued over the next few days, the union tried to defuse the situation, but Carnegie and Frick were not ready to concede anything. They turned to Pennsylvania’s governor, Robert E. Pattison, a politician who had been elected as part of the Carnegie political machine and was in no mood to tolerate workers confronting his corporate patron. The governor immediately ordered 4,000 soldiers to surround the plant—and within a day, the strikers were dispersed. Some of them were bayoneted to death by state militiamen.

The strike ended, and the plant reopened with nonunion workers. The union collapsed. The consequences were disastrous for workers across America. In the next several years, Carnegie and his fellow robber barons destroyed unions at steel and other plants across the country. By 1900, there was no unionized steel plant left in Pennsylvania, and the labor movement was effectively destroyed.

Homestead is a symbol of the capital bullying that has kept workers weak and intimidated up to the present day. Carnegie called himself a pacifist and had been seen, as noted earlier, as the most compassionate of the robber barons. He had given hundreds of millions of dollars (billions in today’s money) to build public schools and libraries, and he so opposed the expansion of the American militaristic empire that he offered to pay $20 million to “free” the Philippines. But the crisis at Homestead proved that wages and profits require a bullying system that keeps workers disorganized and submissive, with military force being used when necessary. This is true whatever the personality of the managers, with Carnegie exemplifying a “benign” capitalist pulled by the imperatives of market competition into bullying. The regime change of the New Deal led to a peak of about 36 percent of US workers being organized in unions, yet the Reagan revolution decades later resurrected the work Carnegie and the other robber barons began; as of 2014, some 94 percent of private sector workers had no union.

The minimum wage workers at Burger King and other fast-food companies, as well as at huge businesses such as Walmart, are struggling to create a new labor movement to help prevent the return of Gilded Age conditions. They are beginning to see that without the countervailing power of unions, corporate bullying—keeping wages low and workers submissive— will never end and that American workers will be like the bullied weak kids in the schoolyard. Corporate employment in capitalist societies creates latent or active bullying against all employees, including unionized ones. To work in America is to inevitably experience substantial structural bullying, and those on the lower end of the totem pole suffer the most and yet somehow must learn to view it as a fair situation—much like the kids who are far down on the totem pole of power and “coolness” in school.

Reproduced with permission of the University Press of Kansas, Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society by Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass.


Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are authors of the just-published book, Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society.

I watched Hillary Clinton’s forces swipe Nevada: This is what the media’s not telling you

Bernie’s forces were justifiably outraged over arbitrary rule changes and a chairwoman determined to ignore them

I watched Hillary Clinton's forces swipe Nevada: This is what the media's not telling youHillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 19, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/David Becker)

It probably wasn’t the best time for me to go to Vegas. My beloved father had just died the week before, and I was feeling hazy and vulnerable, prone to weeping at the slightest provocation. Grief made me feel like I had no skin and no brain; grief had turned me into a cloud, and I was in that floaty state when I got on the plane with my husband—a state delegate headed to the Nevada Democratic Convention—and our 6-year-old son. I wasn’t sure what would happen once we got to Vegas, whether all the lights and bells would hammer me back into my body, or whether I would drift even further away from myself, hover like the cigarette smoke over the casino floor.

I had wanted to be a delegate, myself, but knew I was going to be out of town during the county convention in April, so I didn’t put my hat in the ring at the February caucus, where I had served as a precinct captain for Bernie. It was my first election season in Nevada, my first caucus, and the whole process seemed wild to me, taking what was normally such a private experience—voting quietly in an individual booth—and turning it into a political game of Red Rover, people taking sides in a room, trying to sway folks to come over to their side, their candidate; it was a civil game in our precinct, but I could see how easily things could turn nasty. I was grateful my husband had volunteered himself to be a county delegate, and was excited when he got the email that he was chosen to be a state delegate, as well. Nevada has a strange three-tier system—Hillary had won a majority at the February caucus, but more Bernie delegates showed up at the county caucus, negating Hillary’s win, so the race for delegates at the state convention promised to be a tight one. I looked forward to seeing the process in action; I never expected that process would become so chaotic and surreal, although I had become used to surreal of late.

We arrived late Friday night and all around me, women were dressed to the nines and looking miserable. My heart broke for them. I wanted to know their stories; why were they so unhappy? The weight of crumbling expectations seemed to fill the smoky air. I found myself sending little silent affirmations to all these sad, fancy women—You are beautiful, I beamed to them. It will be okay. Perhaps I was channeling my dad, who always did whatever he could to make people feel better about themselves.

The convention started out well the next morning. Everyone seemed excited to be there—people were decked out in their Bernie and Hillary gear, smiling, passing out buttons, bustling about. I signed a petition to bring solar energy incentives back to Nevada, feeling happy that my son could witness this whole process, witness democracy in action. He and I found a place to sit on the floor on the side of the room as my husband took his seat in the Washoe County Bernie section near the front of the hall. The chairwoman, Roberta Lange, gave a rousing welcome, reminding all of us that we were there to defeat Trump and his misogyny, his xenophobia, his hate, his lies. The room felt unified, energized, cheering as a group; I felt inspired, felt yes, we can do this together.

It wasn’t long before things took a turn. At 9:30, a full half hour before registration closed, Lange read the results of ballots that had been passed out to early arriving conventioneers regarding temporary rules for the convention, rules which would discount the results of the county convention (the second tier of the caucus process, where Bernie had won more delegates), rules which would require that all votes at the convention be decided by voice alone, and which ruled that the decision of the chairperson would be final. These temporary rules had passed with flying colors, which did not sit well with the Bernie delegates, many of whom had not been given ballots. Suddenly half the people of the room were on their feet, shouting “No!!!!” My son and I jumped to our feet as well, added our voices to the chorus. It felt good, all those voices of resistance vibrating through my body. I started to feel less like a cloud. I felt myself drop back into my body, surrounded by all these bodies yelling “No!”, feeling alive inside my skin.

Then people began to chant “Recount” and my son and I joined this call, too, throats aching, adrenaline coursing. Lange took the temporary rules to a voice vote. A hearty round of “Aye”s rose up from the Hillary side of the room, but when it was time for the “Nay” vote, the response was so loud, I felt it shake my every cell, felt it alter my heartbeat. The room was explosive with “Nay”s, roaring with it, and yet Lange decided in favor of the “Aye”s, which only set off more yelling. I thought about my dad, how once when I was a kid, I wanted to do something and my sister didn’t, and he said “If someone says no, you need to listen.” Lange definitely didn’t listen to all the “no”s in the room.

At some point, my son was overwhelmed by the noise, so we went back to our hotel room, where he wanted to play “ship take over,” a game that involved jumping from one bed to the other. I was grateful for the relative quiet and peace, but really wanted to be back in the convention hall, where it felt like a different kind of takeover was taking place. There is no excuse whatsoever for the vile and violent threats Lange has received following the convention—I hate that she is receiving these threats, and condemn them with every fiber of my being—but it is clear that she ignored true democratic process throughout the day and should be taken to task in a civil, political, way.

From reports from my husband and other conventioneers, and from my own firsthand experience as my son and I wandered in and out of the hall as the day progressed, it appeared that Lange didn’t listen to much of anything the Bernie delegates had to say; she appeared not to count the votes from that side of the room; she ejected dozens of Bernie delegates who didn’t have a chance to defend their eligibility, and who, if they were allowed to stay, would have given Bernie more delegates than Hillary; she didn’t allow for a “minority report”; she cut off microphones when people challenged her.

When I read news stories about what happened that day, I don’t recognize much of what is being reported—while there was plenty of chaos, I witnessed no violence (nor did my husband or anyone else I knew at the convention). Bernie supporters were not trying to change the rules, as some journalists reported: they were justifiably outraged when the chairperson changed the rules without a majority vote, and then more outraged when, later, after a motion for a delegate recount, she shut the whole convention down with a pound of the gavel and threatened arrest to anyone who stayed in the room. So many of the news reports of the convention feel like gaslighting in that regard—stories trying to make it sound as if the Bernie delegates were a bunch of crazy nutjobs, when all they wanted was to be heard and counted.

I am not a Bernie or Bust-er—I will vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination—but I know many Bernie supporters who would have voted for Hillary changed their minds after what they experienced that day, and my husband said that even though he’ll vote for Hillary if she becomes the nominee, it will be hard for him to do so after what happened at the convention. At a time when Democrats should be banding together to defeat the most dangerous candidate I can imagine, we are imploding, ourselves, which is terrifying. I only hope we can pull ourselves together as a party before November.

The day after the convention, my family wandered around Vegas in a bit of a daze, both from grief and from disbelief about what had happened the day before. I saw more sad, dolled up, women; I sent them more love. We let ourselves have some fun; we won stuffed animals at Circus Circus (including a purple octopus I wore on my shoulder the rest of the day—might as well keep the surreality going), we ate lots of good food, we watched fountains dance, we went to the aquarium and gaped at sharks and glowing blue moon jellies. After the death of a loved one, at least for me, every little detail seems desperately important and at the same time, somehow nothing seems to matter. I stood before those jellyfish for a long time and felt myself drift back into a cloud-like state, but it was okay. Peaceful, especially after a day witnessing so much disunity. The jellies were there with me, and for a moment, we were all blue and we were all floating together.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the Bellwether Prize winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. Her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, will be published next year

Naked Politics: Sanders, Clinton and How to Win When You’re Losing

Wednesday, 18 May 2016 00:00

By William Rivers Pitt, Truthout | Op-Ed

Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, campaign at a rally in Louisville, Ky., May 3, 2016. Sanders has been campaigning heavily in the state ahead of its May 17 primary vote. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, campaign at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, May 3, 2016. Sanders had been campaigning heavily in the state ahead of its May 17 primary vote. (Photo: Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)

First, the bare facts: Hillary Clinton won Kentucky by 1,923 votes as of the most recent accounting — MSNBC is calling her the “Assumed Winner,” a new term in the campaign coverage lexicon — and Bernie Sanders won Oregon by close to 10 points with no assumptions involved.

In the world of gambling, they call this a “push.” In short, Tuesday was a tie, though Clinton gained enough new delegates to snuggle up close to the finish line of nomination completion. Sanders has to run the table from here on out and win every contest in a staggering rout to gain the nomination, and that’s not going to happen. On the Republican side, Donald Trump won Oregon by 12 billion points against two guys who aren’t in the race anymore. He didn’t even bother to give a victory speech, but it’s gonna be great folks, trust me, it’s gonna be great.

Now to the hard part: context and consequences. Bernie Sanders is doomed in this contest. That sucks on a wide variety of levels. It sucks generationally because no presidential candidate since Robert Kennedy has done what Sanders has done these last months. He has inspired those who think politics is for old people and suckers to shed their cynicism and knock on doors, make phone calls to potential voters and believe they can actually make a difference in a profoundly bent political system. He has told the kind of truths about the state of this nation that are seldom heard, but are as necessary to this nation as penicillin is to the immune system when a lethal infection has taken root.

For his trouble, Sanders gets called a “thug” on live TV. I’ve been watching politically oriented television “news” programming with dreary regularity since Reagan was elected in 1980, and I’ve never seen anything like what I saw on Tuesday. MSNBC — the ha ha ha “liberal” news network — went to work on the Sanders campaign as if Bernie had shot Rachel Maddow’s dog in her front yard. It went on for hours. The crux of it centered around the mess that went down at the Nevada Democratic Convention this past weekend. The process of appointing delegates from the Nevada caucus was hijacked by Clinton surrogates in broad daylight, and some Sanders people flipped their lids. According to the Sanders campaign:

The chair of the convention announced that the convention rules passed on voice vote, when the vote was a clear no-vote. At the very least, the Chair should have allowed for a headcount.

The chair allowed its Credentials Committee to en mass rule that 64 delegates were ineligible without offering an opportunity for 58 of them to be heard. That decision enabled the Clinton campaign to end up with a 30-vote majority.

The chair refused to acknowledge any motions made from the floor or allow votes on them.

The chair refused to accept any petitions for amendments to the rules that were properly submitted.

Some idiots allegedly threw chairs (a disputed claim) and made threatening phone calls to the officials in charge of this farce after the deal went down, which was stupid and wrong. The very people trying to stand up for the Sanders campaign wound up stabbing their candidate under the fifth rib by giving the media fodder for slandering him, but they were justifiably pissed because it was a bag job under bright lights right there on the stage. MSNBC, which like most every other “news” network is drooling over the idea of a Trump v. Clinton contest, immediately went into battle mode as if the Sanders people had machine-gunned a home for lost kittens. BREAKING NEWS: Sanders Supporters Have Penchant For Violence; Officials Cower In Terror As Residents Flee. The media blitz went on for hours, and is ongoing as we speak.

It was remorseless, relentless “coverage” that entirely overshadowed what actually went down in Las Vegas. The Sanders campaign got jobbed by Clinton allies within the Nevada Democratic Party who didn’t even have the humility to do it out of sight; they stood at a podium and flipped the bird at a room filled with cameras and people who actually care about something beyond keeping their cushy sinecure within the Party. Some of those people freaked out and acted stupidly, but ask yourself: If you were in the room in 2000 when the Supreme Court decided to give the election to Bush, what would you have done? I might have thrown a chair, too.

Bernie Sanders, when confronted with accusations that his supporters were violent criminals, did not back down:

Within the last few days there have been a number of criticisms made against my campaign organization. Party leaders in Nevada, for example, claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence.’ That is nonsense. Our campaign has held giant rallies all across this country, including in high-crime areas, and there have been zero reports of violence. Our campaign of course believes in non-violent change and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals. But, when we speak of violence, I should add here that months ago, during the Nevada campaign, shots were fired into my campaign office in Nevada and apartment housing complex my campaign staff lived in was broken into and ransacked.

If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November, it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned. I am happy to say that has been the case at state conventions in Maine, Alaska, Colorado and Hawaii where good discussions were held and democratic decisions were reached. Unfortunately, that was not the case at the Nevada convention. At that convention the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.

MSNBC and the other networks took that “penchant for violence” quote from the Nevada Democratic Party and jumped on it like hungry dogs going after a soup bone. Constant, vivid, inexcusable violence at Trump rallies is good television. A few screwed Sanders supporters crashing the fence and being stupid? Armageddon, on the hour every hour, with “These Sanders supporters did this stuff, let’s ask a Clinton advocate what they think.” Sanders was omitted from the conversation. If no chairs had been (allegedly!) thrown, he wouldn’t have been part of the broadcast. The bias was that dramatically obvious.

Noam Chomsky has spoken for years and at length about the means by which entrenched power narrows the debate. “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient,” he said, “is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Bernie Sanders scares the hell out of the Establishment, and the manner in which its media mouthpieces cover this sham of an election in order to shove him and his supporters into the woods is as obvious as it is filthy. Sanders is being shamed for what went down in Las Vegas, but Vegas will tell you all you need to know about how easy it is to run the table when the fix is in.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

A philosophy professor muses about eliminating the right to vote


By Alexander Fangmann
7 May 2016

In a recently published opinion piece in the New York Times’ philosophy section, titled “Should Everybody Vote?” Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, aired the frustration of a substantial layer of intellectuals over what they see as the electorate’s failure to vote in a “reasonable” way. Society’s problems, Gutting and others believe, could be substantially fixed if only election outcomes were determined entirely by the “correct” ideas of properly educated people, that is, by people like themselves. In the course of what purports to be simply an overview of recent philosophical thinking about the right to vote, Gutting essentially offers a philosophical defense for its abolition.

Outside of his regular contributions to the Times and other publications as a “public intellectual,” Gutting’s particular academic specialty is in making philosophical irrationalism more comprehensible and acceptable within the philosophical circles that so far maintain a somewhat stronger connection to the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment than the milieu dominated by postmodernism and the Frankfurt School.

To that end, Gutting has written several historical overviews on French philosophy, Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960 andFrench Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, which have brought the thought of postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault to wider audiences. In regard to Foucault, Gutting has become an influential interpreter of his thought, and one of his most well-known popularizers, having written both Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason and Michel Foucault: A Very Short Introduction. Philosophically, Gutting is a pragmatist. He is indebted intellectually to Richard Rorty, whose work is a main focus of Gutting’s Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. However, unlike Rorty and many of the other figures he writes about, Gutting is not a postmodernist.

Gutting’s recent article from April 25 is written as though it were simply a philosophical examination of the claim that society should always try to increase voter participation. He starts off innocuously enough, noting that not voting can be a form of “protest against all the available candidates.” He gives lip service to the real state of American democracy, or rather its domination by a financial aristocracy, by referring to the Gilens and Page study which suggests that the US is an oligarchy.

It soon becomes clear, though, that he is most interested in bemoaning what he sees as voter ignorance about candidates and issues, and speculating about what can be done to prevent these voters from having any further influence over elections. He writes:

Those who think everyone should vote also think that voting should be adequately informed about the candidates and issues. But there’s a tension here, since there’s considerable evidence from polling—not to mention just reading online comments about politics—that many people are poorly informed about candidates and issues. In “The Ethics of Voting,” the philosopher Jason Brennan has argued that such people have a duty not to vote. It’s unlikely that many of them would agree with that conclusion, but given a large number of poorly informed voters, we might consider dropping campaigns urging everyone to vote or even insisting that we all have a duty to vote. [1]

Gutting devotes the largest section of his essay to the provocative idea of an “enfranchisement lottery,” which would supposedly solve the problem of uninformed voters. This idea Gutting borrows from Claudio Lopez-Guerra, Associate Professor of Political Studies at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), who is currently serving as a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.

The idea behind the enfranchisement lottery, as elaborated in Lopez-Guerra’s book Democracy and Disenfranchisement: The Morality of Electoral Exclusions, is that instead of elections based on a popular vote of all citizens, elections could instead be decided by a randomly selected “jury.”

These jurors would be sequestered, then “educated” by teams of policy experts and forced to watch presentations and debates about the candidates. Only then would they be able to make their selections. The outcome of this process, being made by an electorate composed entirely of informed participants, would then avoid all of the supposed negative election outcomes resulting from an ignorant and apathetic population. According to Gutting,

The result would be voters informed to a level most us can only hope to achieve. We would need a fairly large jury—perhaps several thousand—to properly represent the nation’s diverse views and interests. Televising the proceedings would help ensure transparency. Since the jury was randomly chosen, its vote would very likely represent the outcome of an election in which we were all well-informed voters. [2]

The idea that such a process would lead to “better” electoral outcomes reveals a great deal about the theoretical assumptions and class positions of both Lopez-Guerra and Gutting. Most importantly, the idea that the problem with society is simply one of widespread ignorance, which can be cured by a concentrated dose of factual knowledge, is an ahistorical and idealist conception. In fact, it reproduces, though in a very vulgar form, certain conceptions of utopian theorists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They believed that enlightened monarchs who were educated and guided by impartial mentors, experts and, of course, philosophers, could overcome the ills of society. In reality, the exercise of political judgment and its transformation on a mass scale is a far more involved process than Gutting appears to admit, involving complex historically formed socioeconomic circumstances and interests.

This perspective was clearly understood and criticized by Karl Marx, in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in 1845. In the third thesis, he wrote:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one towers above society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionizing practice. [3]

Ignoring this insight, Gutting maintains that the problem with elections is that most voters have not been properly educated. The solution is therefore an idealized jury system which will create the circumstances for such an educated electorate. But the reality of social life is not nearly so simple.

Somewhat ironically, Gutting’s recourse to the concept of an impartial jury, standing entirely above society and evaluating “facts” with absolute impartiality, exposes the bankruptcy of his intellectualist schema. As every experienced attorney knows all too well, the selection of a jury is the most critical and contentious of processes. Whether in a civil or criminal case, the lawyers expend enormous time and effort in the process of examining the background, life experiences and, above all, professions and economic status of each potential juror. It is taken as a matter of course that the jurors’ response to the “facts of the case” will be influenced, both profoundly and subtly, by their classstatus. If this is the rule in every civil or criminal case, what would be involved in selecting a jury empaneled to determine the future of society?

If the proposal for the enfranchisement lottery were to be implemented, the project would soon be overwhelmed by conflicting views on how the electoral jury was to be selected, the instructions they were to receive, the evidence they were to examine, etc. How would these issues be decided? Would another pre-electoral panel be created to adjudicate such issues? Would not that preliminary panel be also overwhelmed by controversies relating to its selection, decision-making process, evidentiary rulings, etc.? Would not vast sums of money be spent by wealthy individuals and powerful corporations to influence and corrupt the process?

Which candidates and their policy teams would be allowed to present their views to the jury? Any that are interested, or just “viable” candidates, in the manner used frequently to bar parties outside of the Democrats and Republicans from presenting their views on television? How, and by whom, would the standards of electoral eligibility be determined?

And once the process actually gets underway, the assumption that experts and candidates would present unbiased information to the jurors is simply untenable, tantamount to an expectation that they abandon their class position.

One presumes Lopez-Guerra and Gutting expect that jurors will soberly evaluate candidates on the basis of their devotion to the “national interest.” But on what basis will the “national interest” be determined. What definition of “national interest” will be employed? How will it take into account the indisputable fact that the very concept of “national security” assumes the priority and legitimacy of “national state” interests?

In evaluating Gutting’s project, let us consider how the jury project would have worked out had it been applied in the election of 1860, when the “national interest” was defined in absolutely irreconcilable terms by the supporters and opponents of slavery. How would an “electoral jury” have decided between Lincoln, Douglas, Bell and Breckenridge? And, by the way, would slaves have been included on the jury?

Let us return to the issue of a poorly educated jury. Chad Flanders, reviewing López-Guerra’s book in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an online review journal co-edited by Gutting, notes quite correctly that disenfranchisement is not the only logical conclusion following from voter ignorance. The response that would be more in line with the historical expansion of the right to vote would be to ensure that everyone is educated enough to make an informed decision. Gutting paraphrases López-Guerra’s revealing response to this challenge, writing: “Ideally, we would provide everyone with the relevant knowledge, but that would be impractical, time-consuming and expensive.”

Gutting’s casual dismissal of mass education is of a piece with the profound shifts to the right over several decades by the formerly liberal intelligentsia. This petty-bourgeois layer is becoming convinced that workers can no longer be trusted to vote. In the event of a military coup or the imposition of dictatorial methods of rule, these figures could be counted on to provide their moral benediction and support.

This is not a farfetched. Back in 2012, Gutting published a piece with the title, “Should We Cancel the Election? (A Socratic Dialog),” an imagined dialog between himself and Socrates in which he has Socrates argue that the election should be canceled, on the grounds that the selection of leadership based on elections is a worse method than letting politicians and elites make the selections themselves. In the end he asks Socrates if he trusts politicians more than the people. Socrates responds,

Yes, I do. For all their failings, most politicians are reasonably sincere, honest, and much more intelligent and educated on the issues than their constituents. Very few of them come up to the standards I set, but once freed from the necessity of courting uninformed public opinion, most of them could do a creditable job of making decisions in the public interest. And remember, without elections, politicians would no longer need the vast amount of money that gives big donors so much influence. [4]

One would imagine that the real Socrates would not have argued so stupidly. Moreover, the wily old philosopher, who had plenty of experience in the rough and tumble of Athenian politics, would have hardly been so confident of the integrity of politicians. But Gutting is hardly Socrates. His claim that politicians, freed from the burdens of running elections, will be freed to do the “right thing,” is ahistorical nonsense. Gutting’s arguments are refuted simply by citing the decisions of the Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life. They need not court “uninformed public opinion.” How, then, does Gutting explain the Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case, Plessey v. Ferguson, Citizens United, or, let us add, Bush v. Gore? Why did Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor, Kennedy, and Rehnquist interpret the facts of the 2000 election in such a dishonest manner?

Following the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court ruling that handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, and the refusal of the Democratic Party to fight the theft of the election, the World Socialist Web Site warned that there was no longer any significant constituency among the US ruling class for a defense of democratic rights. Since then, anti-voting-rights laws and methods of voter suppression have proliferated, as seen recently in the Supreme Court’supholding of North Carolina House Bill 589.

This rightward shift has now embraced the academy, with figures like Gutting offering up philosophical arguments which provide intellectual defense and cover to such anti-democratic efforts. Regardless of whether he set out to do so is entirely beside the point. The theoretical conceptions Gutting is toying with have serious political implications whose logic may lead much farther than he intends, rooted as they are in definite class positions and interests.

Gutting’s pragmatism, the product of a long and comfortable career in the academy which required only that he continuously keep shifting his views to correspond to the “common sense” or “humdrum” views that circulate there, has now intersected with crisis-ridden class society and the needs of the bourgeoisie. Following an unprecedented primary campaign that has resulted in the likely nomination of two of the most unpopular Democratic and Republican candidates in recent US history, Gutting may well find a receptive audience for his views among sections of the ruling class.

[1] Gary Gutting, “Should Everybody Vote?,” New York Times, April 25, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 2010), p. 83.

[4] Gary Gutting, “Should We Cancel the Election? (A Socratic Dialog),” New York Times, August 23, 2012.

Andrew Sullivan is in denial: America’s elites brought this on themselves

Trumpism isn’t a product of “too much democracy” but too much money in politics. Neoliberals can’t face the truth

Andrew Sullivan is in denial: America's elites brought this on themselves

I haven’t checked to see who in the chattering classes is oohing and ahhing over Andrew Sullivan’s yuuge (and yuugely read) anti-Trump jeremiad, “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic: And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” But I do know that, like Tony Blair’s equally magisterial rhetoric about the villains of 9/11, Sullivan’s slightly Tory-ish rhetoric (he grew up a British Catholic conservative) about Trump is pitched perfectly for its nervous, would-be upper-middle-class New York Magazine readers who probably swooned over the Royal Wedding and Downton Abbey and snarked at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park five years ago.

These readers include a few wavering Trumpsters, and Sullivan will make them think twice by blaming Trump’s rise on “too much democracy”—and not, as he should, on the kind of elitism that drives “the people” toward a mobocracy and then turns up its nose at them while pretending to keep its hands clean. While there are compelling half-truths about this right-wing populism in Sullivan’s argument, there are a few things dangerously wrong in it. Beyond just defeating Trump, strengthening the American republic against his successors will depend on correcting Sullivan’s misrepresentations about the role of money in elections and the role of Bernie Sanders in this one.

Sullivan edited several of my articles for The New Republic in the 1990s; his Daily Dish blog kindly referenced some of my writing elsewhere and I have no reason to accuse him of bad faith here. I’ve had my say about the tragedy of right-wing populism in my own yuuge essay on Trumpism and in the interview it prompted on NPR. I won’t repeat that here, but I do want to emphasize that, although I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton in November, neoliberal elites in her corner who not-very-secretly despair of democracy have lost the ability and credibility to govern even themselves, let alone the people they’ve actually helped to degrade and about whose desperation and myopia they’re now shaking their heads, just like Sullivan.

Whether out of cupidity or cowardice, the Democratic Party establishment and its enablers have done as much as Republicans to saddle Americans with arrangements that have produced Trumpism, with a regime of casino-like financing and predatory, degrading marketing that is illegitimate, unsustainable, delusional, and destructive in all the ways unfolding now before our eyes. Say what you will about the inevitability of disruptive globalization and technological revolution, our elites have been surfing these currents instead of navigating and even channeling them with anyone in mind but themselves. Their double tragedy is that now they’re paying the price in Trump.

Sullivan nevertheless claims, as these neoliberals do, that “the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultra-rich has been mostly a dud”—i.e. a non-factor. And he writes that, “Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise—and their facile conflation of that with corruption—is only playing into Trump’s hands.”

Not even half-right on both counts. Regarding campaign financing, has Sullivan forgotten that in 2008 Obama—who he says “was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet [and] blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist”—actually turned down public campaign financing in order to raise huge donations from elite neoliberals who adored him for perverse reasons that always push neoliberals toward conscience-easing gestures? I esteem Obama for reasons too numerous to mention, but a corrector of corrupt capitalism he was not, either in his 2008 fundraising or in his appointments of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers.

More important, Sullivan doesn’t mention that the ultra-rich, such as the Koch brothers, fund a lot more than presidential elections, with far darker consequences; even before Citizens United opened the floodgates for them, they were virtually writing laws that facilitate the illegitimate arrangements I’ve just mentioned. Their consultants draft bills for bought-and-paid-for state and federal legislators, sometimes literally sitting in committee rooms where the bills are finalized.

A few years ago, a propane deliveryman installing a new tank to replace an old rusted one told me the new one was really junk because the government had written substandard regulations on its size and composition. “Who do you think really wrote those regulations?” I asked. “Your own employer wrote them, through a national association of propane dealers.” A fleeting look of surprise and then understanding crossed his face. He’d probably been watching too much Fox News. But what had neoliberal Democrats done to prevent such corruption?

Sullivan is also wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders as a demagogic counterpart to Trump as he does at one point, for telling the truth about the Democratic establishment as well as the Republican. Yes, truth can be hard, and maybe one must be young and not-yet-fully bound up in the system to hear it fully. Even New York Magazine readers who fear Trump may not want to face the whole truth about their own unwitting but objective complicity in what spawned him—a complicity I explain in my essay about him. To suggest that telling the unpleasant truth about Clintonite corporatism plays into his hands is a truism in politics: Democratic socialists who told the truth about Stalinism were accused of strengthening McCarthyism, as perhaps they did. Should they have left it all to Senator Joe?

Clintonite neoliberalism won’t work any better than conservative Republicanism has done because both enable the go-go economic growth that grows inequality, destroying civic trust and hollowing out and hardening hearts. Nor will neoliberal diversity grace notes work. Clinton’s vows to break glass ceilings and curb racist and xenophobic policies are absolutely necessary to our society’s renewal, but they’re also insufficient: Breaking glass ceilings (cue Margaret Thatcher, Carly Fiorina, Marine Le Pen) doesn’t improve a building’s foundations and walls unless wholly different challenges are posed to the structure itself. Nothing in Clinton’s record proves she can or will work to curb the national-security mania, the militarist juggernaut and the predatory marketing and lending that have trapped us like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines that are pumping so much heartsickness and violence into our daily lives.

Trump is the terrifying consequence of what both party establishments have done to this country. Sanders is quite right to have steered clear of them, even while working with them strategically, as a mayor and in Congress. Even as a Democratic candidate, he has kept telling truths that Trump won’t tell about our national-security mania, militarist juggernaut, and predatory marketing and lending, which are dissolving our republican virtues and even sovereignty almost mindlessly instead of using whatever remains in the United States’ power to reconfigure these arrangements, in concert with others.


Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of “Liberal Racism” (1997) and “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York” (1990).