Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

Kirill Medvedev: “It’s No Good”

Kirill Medvedev’s poems are easy to get into. He explains situations, tells stories about people. You don’t mind listening and want to hear more. He’s contemplative and calm and reasonable, even when he’s making a wakeup call, dissing and dressing down, asking why things can’t be rearranged. The vocabulary isn’t hard. The figurative language is sparse. “I don’t like metaphors,” he says (74). The poems are slim, fat free, figureless. In some lines, he’s almost like a stand-up comic, in his delivery, his next move always a surprise. But the poems challenge in other ways. If you’re not laughing, you might be his subject, and the venue seems either oppressive or empty tonight. Medvedev’s concerns are the Man (government, politics, power), Work and Money (economics, business, family), and Free Time (culture – what we do when we get off work – trust, honesty, values). He puts those concerns into his poems, essays, and special pieces he calls “actions.”

It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions” includes selections of Kirill Medvedev’s writing from 2000 through 2012. Published in December 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse, you can get a copy as a giveaway incentive with a new print subscription to n+1. While Medvedev, like Faulkner’s Isaac, has renounced his copyright, the English translations from the Russian original are copyrighted by Keith Gessen, who provides an introduction, and several other translators. “It’s No Good” is an argument. What’s no good? The title is from Medvedev’s first book of poems. Gessen explains the Russian title, “Vsyo plokho,” can be translated into “Everything’s Bad.” Medvedev is talking about the predicament of a nascent generation, and poetry becomes the window through which everything can be thrown.

Poetry, for Medvedev, is “an authentic way of seeing, the degree of its expressiveness the only criterion by which you can determine its quality” (125). This would seem to be a good, and it is: “I am, of course, exaggerating,” he says. “I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of ‘it’s no good.’ It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases” (124). The problem, why everything might be bad, is that our contemporary predicament includes more than poetry. But to know what poetry is and what you are trying to make with it is not a bad predicament. It’s a good start to know

“…your own worth)
…to determine
THE CAPACITY
to see and accept yourself
as you are” (74-75).

And then what? “We need to do away with this false notion of ‘poetry as private activity'” (136).

Charles Bukowski is precursor to Medvedev’s poetic attitude. Medvedev translated Bukowski from English to Russian, but he knows he’s not Bukowski, nor does he want to be. Bukowski is rude and raw, cusses in his poems, drinks to excess, and is apolitical and not socially engaged. He’s an outsider, sits alone at the end of the bar, but when he talks, he’s clear. What Medvedev has in common with Bukowski is an absence of compromise, honesty (which means speaking clearly of your predicament, your situation, in a contemporary voice), and a disdain for the various fine clothes and perfumes that poems are sometimes made to wear:

“everything is
nothing, everything is
nothing, just the way it
started, I kiss statues
and the flies circle singing
rot, rot, rot” (Bukowski, from “Song of the Flies“).

Bukowski, a son of Los Angeles, grew up in good weather, but the Great Depression hit from without and from within. He grew up in a “house of horrors” (see “Ham on Rye“).

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State” (see Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner“). Yes, from mom’s syrupy womb, we all slip and fall into our father’s house, a country governed by an attitude, and if your father happens to be temperamental, poetry may be one of the few options available to escape his pincer plier grasp. “I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture” (122) Medvedev says (his italics), another difference between him and Bukowski, I thought, until I got to his definition of culture. Culture, for Medvedev, is connecting to the predicament of the weary. He speaks a kind of “Weary Blues,” as Langston Hughes wrote. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but there are problems with the renaissance. In the Dylan song “It’s All Good” (“Together Through Life” 2009), the phrase is used sarcastically. The phrase is a political speech, an aphoristic tip of the hat to the power of positive thinking folks, an advertisement for soap or cigarettes, Faulkner’s lament that the US has found no other place for the artist than to use his celebrity to sell something. The phrase it’s all good suggests art must remain a positive thing, to clean up everything bad. Art must not contribute to the bad. Medvedev’s title “It’s No Good” is an opposing viewpoint to the hollow socio-political phrase “It’s All Good”; or is it:

“so everything’s all right.
although, maybe the fact that
everything’s all right is the problem?
no, that’s not a problem.

or maybe it’s that when everything’s all right,
that just doesn’t sit well with me?
no, it sits well.

(then what the hell?)” (note: ellipsis in penultimate line is part of the poem, 213).

What’s a good poem in Medvedev’s view? You don’t hear Medvedev talking about craft. A good poem must be new (if what you’re into is craft, your poem is old at conception), and a good new poem must contemplate a new audience, one that didn’t exist prior to the poem. The poem draws a crowd (184). This may sound like a fad or pop art call-out, but it’s a great challenge to “light out for the territory ahead of all the rest,” as Huck said, to avoid the old ways of getting civilized. This is the reason Medvedev turned away from the traditional forms of writing, publishing, and hobnobbing in the literary world. Most of “It’s No Good” was published originally on his website following his renunciation of his copyright. He explains why he started a blog. And “It’s No Good” ends with selected poems originally published by Medvedev on his Facebook page. Imagine John Ashbery or Billy Collins starting to self-publish their poems on a Facebook page. Imagine the look on their literary agents’ faces. These guys have agents, but it should be noted that very few poets have agents, because there’s no money in poetry: a poet could craft a manned spaceship to Mars in a poem, solve the riddle of dark matter in a metaphor, steal the Pope’s hat in a trope – there would still be no money in his poetry. So why shouldn’t Ashbery and Collins earn a bit of dough with their poems? It’s all good.

It’s not that Medvedev did not have status as a poet. He studied at the Moscow “Lit. Institute,” was published as a poet, journalist, and critic, is a translator, gave readings, but apparently, with regard to those things, “it’s no good.” Contemporary poets like Medvedev take risks, and there’s a certain kind of toughness required. Poetry is no good; it’s all good. Throughout “It’s No Good,” Medvedev talks about past Russian writers, imprisonments during the Soviet era, all sorts of harassment, the risks of failure and loss, and particularly the political engagement that often results in exile, censorship, or worse (Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, comes to mind; and in the US, the McCarthy years of blacklisting and the numbing that came from the naming of names), and Medvedev speaks clearly, eloquently, and with great empathy for oppressed individuals and peoples. And throughout all of this he emphasizes a perhaps obvious but powerful point: you don’t have to be a politician to participate in politics. This is why the anthologized poem is effete and a waste of Medvedev’s time and energy (198). One of Medvedev’s poems, titled “How’s This for a Poem?,” is made from the text of a press interview with a crane operator given after he was fired from his job for trying to help organize workers. Medvedev gets out the caps in the last stanza:

“BUT IT’S ALRIGHT life goes on
and as for me, given all the free time
Surgutneftegaz has accidentally presented me with,
I INTEND TO USE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY
TO FIGHT FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHTS – THEIR HUMAN
RIGHTS” (note: caps are part of the poem, 220).

“It’s No Good” doesn’t so much end as stop. Because it’s now today, and we are free once again to move about. Or are we? In the last section of the last poem a young widowed mother soothes her child to sleep in a working class nativity scene. She wants her child to grow strong to continue the fight. The fight for what? We’ve been through two decades of “It’s No Good,” witnessed, of course vicariously, the exploitations and losses, the external chaos that seems to galvanize the internal despair, wars and fights, and the competing interests of groups and individuals. That’s all a reader can do, witness vicariously, but a writer like Medvedev is both a reader and a person of action, a true poet, which for him means to influence change. But what if the child wants to “light out for the territory”? Can that right be subsumed too? But there is no territory that is not somehow enabled by connections, Medvedev would say. How should we act, behave, in a fatherless state – this is now Medvedev’s concern. Father Bear has finally wandered off for good, isn’t coming home anymore. We are free to move about, must move about.

And once up and moving about, then what? “No work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims,” Medvedev says. He carefully considers the values of pure art, straightforward utterance, the new sincerity (or the new emotionalism, which sounds like the breakout of memoir here in the US), and dismisses them all as avoidances, enablements, co-optations. Nor is art “a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all of society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality” (199-203, 237).

Joyce comes to mind, who at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has decided to leave his country and home and family:

“—Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning….

Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Joyce was on the run from two masters, the Church and imperial Britain (“Ulysses“), but while Joyce would have, in Medvedev’s view, influenced literature, he would not have influenced politics. He would not have made a difference in his reader’s lives. And what difference he did make might now seem a disaster given how buried and anthologized he’s become in the academy, how many lives have been lost to peer review, a country with a stingy father and stiff immigration laws. Again from the final poem in “It’s No Good”:

“…for the moment
the progressive labor activists have a higher political consciousness
than the intellectuals,
than the professors,
it’s just too bad there are so few of them” (271-272).

“It’s No Good” is full of history, past and present, stories and anecdotes, commentary, reports of daily events. It’s significantly more than a book of poems, more than mere literature. It’s a book to be read and re-read, a book that encourages reflection on one’s place and activity in the web. Gessen’s introduction and the many footnotes throughout are helpful, and there are many paths pointed out for further reading.

Kirill Medvedev, “It’s No Good.” (2012). Edited and introduced by Keith Gessen. Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. n+1 / Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #30. ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4.

30 Jul 2013: Interview with Kirill Medvedev at Boston Review
30 Sep 2013: “Kirill Medvedev’s Personable Provocations” at The New Yorker Blog

Is the Internet Making Journalism Better?

The polls have closed over at The Economist debate. At issue was the following motion: “This house believes that the internet is making journalism better, not worse.” And Nicholas Carr, of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” fame, instead of a concession speech, provides readers with a post on his Rough Notes blog containing a list of links to sources he used to help prepare his strategy. I’ve not finished perusing all of Carr’s references yet, but his post is obviously a valuable resource for students of the “stupid” and beyond debate. Read Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article in The Atlantic. Follow the debate at The Economist. Sift through Carr’s sources. Carr supports his claim that the effects of externalizing our central nervous system (as McLuhan put it) include negative neurological changes with what is considered by some (Jonah Lehrer) to be soft evidence.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.