Posts Tagged ‘history’


Yesterday, Bernie Sanders made the case that democratic socialism is a thoroughly American tradition, best exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Peter Dreier recently made a similar argument:

Because the word “socialism” has been demonized, few Americans call themselves socialists or even social democrats. But public opinion polls — including the Pew Research Center, Hart Research Associates and The New York Times/CBS — show that a vast majority of Americans agree with what Sanders actually stands for.

For example, 74% think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that “our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;” 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers’ rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

On those matters — both broad principles and specific policy prescriptions — Sanders is in sync with the vast majority of Americans. There’s a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans’ frustrations with the status quo. That’s what American socialists have been doing for over a century. Indeed, socialism is as American as apple pie.

Dreier’s examples of U.S. socialists include “some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Eugene V. Debs, and Gloria Steinem.”

Let me add a few others, off the top of my head, from various walks of life and eras of U.S. history: Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ed Asner, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Jay Gould, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Harry Belafonte, Edward Bellamy, Ron Dellums, John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Meridel Le Sueur, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Robert Dale Owen, Upton Sinclair, and so on.

There have also been many socialist mayors in the United States—including, of course, Sanders himself.

(now all together)

(now all together)

You’d think, if you’re going to write about the inhumane effects of robots on our daily lives, you’d at also acknowledge the long, rich history of human movements and thinking about machinery and other technological developments since at least the nineteenth century.

But that’s not what we get from Simon Chandler [ht: ja] who deplores the new artificial intelligence and robotic technologies being developed by a wide range of companies, from Toyota to Amazon. Why? Because they threaten to reduce human autonomy:

With artificial intelligence suggesting to people what to consume, when to turn the heating down, when to get out of bed, and when to do anything else, people will find themselves becoming ever more regularized and automated in their behavior. Regardless of the fact that AI is characterized by its ability to adapt, to learn from how its putative user reacts, it can adapt only so far (especially in its present form) and can perform only so many actions. This means that any person who allows AI into their home will have to adapt to its behavior; will have to begin conforming to their robot helper’s way of doing things, to its rhythms, schedules and choices. As such, they will become more formalized and systematized, losing much of their spontaneity, impulsiveness and autonomy in the process.

Because of this increased tendency toward repetition and inflexibility, the AI or robot assistant will make its “master” more repetitive and inflexible. Its master will come to divide her time and spend her day according to algorithms which, no matter how advanced, are still nowhere near as complex as the human brain. Therefore, with growing frequency, she may be reduced to a mere function of these algorithms, pressured into acting in accordance with her android butler, into adopting the stereotype it foists on her.

Because these AIs would be the product of single R&D centers, such as the Toyota Research Institute, this influence of robots on human behavior will also represent a general homogenizing and centralizing of said behavior. Instead of being the result of innumerable interactions with hundreds of people and with her own community, the AI user’s psychology and personality will be molded to a greater extent by Toyota, Google or Facebook, particularly if this user becomes more socially isolated and more reliant on robotic aids.

What Chandler seems not to understand is that technologies, once invented, take on a life of their own—or, at least, a certain degree of autonomy. And we have lots of examples of people reacting to and thinking about the consequences of those technologies, as they become relatively (and, perhaps these days, increasingly) autonomous.

I’m thinking, for example, of the machine-breaking Luddites who, as both Eric Hobsbawm and Thomas Pynchon explain, were not hostile to machines as such, but using a technique of trade unionism (when labor unions barely existed): “as a means both of putting pressure on employers and of ensuring the essential solidarity of the workers.”

There’s also Marx, who (especially in Part 4 of volume 1 of Capital) wrote a great deal about machinery—as a way of increasing relative surplus-value, in terms of its sweeping-away of handcraft workers, as a means of employing women and children, as weapons against the revolts of the working-class, and much more.

And, of course, building on and extending Marx’s analysis, Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation or Work in the Twentieth Century (pdf): on the role of scientific management as the “displacement of labor as the subjective element of the labor process and its transformation into an object” and the role of machines which “has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor.”

More recently, we have plenty of other sources, such as AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs by the Pew Research Center. What is interesting about the report, which starts from the premise that automation and intelligent digital agents will permeate vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, is that almost half (48 percent) of the technological experts who responded to the survey

envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Finally, there’s Jacobin magazine’s special issue, “Ours to Master,” in which the various authors see new technologies both as today’s instruments of employer control and as the preconditions for a post-scarcity society. As Peter Frase explains,

The mainstream discourse tends toward the facile view that technology is a thing that one can be for or against; perhaps something that can be used in an ethical or unethical way. But technology in the labor process, just like capital, is not a thing but a social relation. Technologies are developed and introduced in the context of the battle between capital and labor, and they encode the victories, losses, and compromises of those struggles. When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified “technology,” it is to the benefit of the bosses.

I hope readers will find the links to these various sources useful.

My only point is that we can do much better than the humanist discussion of the inevitable engagement of humans with their uncontrollable creations (as in Chandler’s case) by examining the consequences and reactions (within specific and quite different capitalist and noncapitalist contexts) of the relatively autonomous technologies that are being invented today—a complex, contradictory process that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.


The American Economic Association was, in the beginning, a radical organization—founded in 1885, according to Marshall I. Steinbaum and Bernard A. Weisberger, by “Richard Ely, an avowedly Christian Heidelberg-trained professor at Johns Hopkins with a calling to make economics a friend of the working man.” Now, of course, it is anything but radical.

What happened?

Steinbaum and Weisberger’s analysis is that

University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. . .

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

Perhaps the causes of the transformation in U.S. economics during the first Gilded Age help explain why academic unfreedom in economics is so prevalent now, in the second Gilded Age.

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Capitalism, as readers well know, hasn’t been doing very well in recent years.* And, of course, every time capitalism falters or makes promises it can’t deliver, alternative ideas—such as socialism—get a hearing. It happened, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century (when the French Revolution wasn’t able to deliver on the promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité), the middle of the nineteenth century (when workers protested the ravages of the Industrial Revolution), the early part of the twentieth century (when union leader Eugene Debs, as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America, won almost a million votes), the 1930s (when the Great Depression forced millions of workers onto the unemployed lines), and during the 1960s (when students and many others criticized the military-industrial-academic complex).

If Jonathan Chait is right, it’s happening again. According to him, socialists in Obama-era America

consider the political process fundamentally corrupted by large corporations and harbor suspicions of any policy that relies on, or makes peace with, the profit motive. This idea forms a through-line connecting the left’s objections against the major items of Obama’s agenda. Socialists deemed his health-care reforms deeply disappointing, because they relied on private insurance companies and failed to create a public option to compete with them. They criticized his Wall Street reforms for regulating the big banks rather than breaking them up. And they judged a failure the cap-and-trade law he tried to pass in 2009 and 2010, which compromised too much with energy companies and relied too heavily on market forces. Obama likes to boast that his policies have enabled the private sector to thrive; socialists consider this an inherent problem.

Bernie Sanders is, of course, the standard-bearer of this new discussion of socialism, a term that until recently was simply not allowed in “polite” (i.e., mainstream) political and economic discourse in the United States. But there it is—and, for the first time in a very long time, Americans are being to get a sense that (a) socialism has a very long and rich lineage (which is as old as capitalism itself), (b) in many countries around the world, socialist critics of capitalism are accepted participants in academic and public debate (and, in many cases, have their own political parties), and (c) there are many different approaches to and definitions of socialism (some seeking to regulate and mitigate the negative effects of the excesses of capitalism, others involving a much sharper break from capitalism).

In any case, socialism seems to no longer have the same scary connotations it has had in recent decades and, of course, in many other periods of U.S. history.

The return of socialism helps explain why, for example, some (such as Emma Caterine) argue that Bernie Sanders’s socialism not only is not really socialism, but is actually dangerous to real socialism. To which I can only respond, really, Rosa Luxemburg is the socialist truth you want to invoke in 2015 in the United States, where no social democratic much less communist party even exists? But still, notwithstanding sectarian bickering, the issue of socialism is on the table.

The return of socialism may also explain why Deirdre McCloskey (pdf) [ht: ja], who prides herself on listening to and engaging the rhetoric of others, finds it necessary to be so dismissive of Marx (who, in her words, was “mistaken on almost every point of economics and of history”) and, especially, of the “followers of Marx” (who, again in her words, “have seldom adhered” to the principle of engaging in continuous conversation, “and less so now it seems than once”).

It’s a shame, really, because in my view McCloskey might have something to offer to the renewed discussion of socialism, precisely because of her concern with rhetoric, postmodern epistemology, and the history of capitalism. But, unfortunately, she disqualifies herself precisely because of her dismissiveness (“Marxists have not cracked a serious book in economics published after 1867 or 1885 or 1894”?!) and her unwillingness to cite even a single Marxist economist or economics text of the past decade (the best she can do is attempt to prove how wrong historian Eric Mielants is in his 2008 book, The Origins of Capitalism and the “Rise of the West”). It seems she’s simply thrown herself down the Austrian/libertarian rabbit hole.

Fortunately, in the months (and, perhaps, years) ahead, as the campaign within the Democratic Party develops, and as the capitalist recovery continues to be so one-sided (and, even on its own terms, to threaten a new Armaggedon), the context seems once again ripe for socialism to be taken up as a way both of criticizing the ravages of contemporary capitalism and of exploring real alternatives to the ongoing crises.

As Chait observes, “Even in the face of likely defeat, Sanders has brought new life to an old tradition.”**

*And, to read Paul Mason, might not be doing well in the days and months ahead.

**And, as Harold Meyerson explains, if Sanders does lose, his campaign “has to morph into an enduring left-wing movement.”

This formidable task requires, first, that Sanders’s legions understand the unique historic opportunity that their coming together presents: That their victory in all probability won’t be putting Bernie in the White House, but creating a surging and enduring left. That, in turn, requires them to give as much thought to forming or joining autonomous post-campaign organizations, and envisioning post-campaign mobilizations, as they now do to advancing Sanders’s candidacy. Indeed, they need to start forming such organizations today, while they are together campaigning for Sanders, and in the process even reach out to other progressives who may not be for Sanders. These endeavors can’t and shouldn’t be undertaken by the Sanders campaign itself. They fall exclusively to the volunteers. . .

Is this difficult? And how. Is this necessary? Totally.


The New York Times has mapped the percentage of the U.S. population that still, two years into Obamacare, remains without health insurance.

The remaining uninsured are primarily in the South and the Southwest. They tend to be poor. They tend to live in Republican-leaning states. The rates of people without insurance in the Northeast and the upper Midwest have fallen into the single digits since the Affordable Care Act’s main provisions kicked in. But in many parts of the country, obtaining health insurance is still a problem for many Americans.

Here, for comparison, are some additional maps—starting with slave and free states in 1860, rates of poverty in 2011, and red and blue states in 2014:





Readers may remember the voiceover (quoting a 31 March 1557 letter from French colonial commander Villegagnon to Calvin) at the beginning of Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s film How Tasty was My Little Frenchmen:

The country is deserted and uncultivated, there are no houses, no roofs, nor any country accommodations. On the contrary, there is much unfriendly and savage company, lacking in courtesy and humanity. So very different from us in their habits and education. With no religion and no knowledge of truth, virtue, justice or injustice, true animals in human bodies.

And, Ayn Rand [ht: ja] later added (during a talk she gave at West Point in 1974): no property rights.

Randian libertarianism has, of course, become increasingly popular in recent years (I certainly hear it from an increasing number of my students), in part because of the public profile of such devotees as Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul. I wonder if and how the fans of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead would defend Rand’s claim that the Europeans had a right to colonize the Americas. How would they defend not her egregious historical mistakes (of which there are many, including the fallacious assertion that Native Americans had no notion of property rights whatsoever), but the terms of Rand’s claim itself:

But now, as to the Indians, I don’t even care to discuss that kind of alleged complaints that they have against this country. I do believe with serious, scientific reasons the worst kind of movie that you have probably seen—worst from the Indian viewpoint—as to what they did to the white man.

I do not think that they have any right to live in a country merely because they were born here and acted and lived like savages. Americans didn’t conquer; Americans did not conquer that country. . .

If you are born in a magnificent country which you don’t know what to do with, you believe that it is a property right; it is not. And, since the Indians did not have any property rights—they didn’t have the concept of property; they didn’t even have a settled, society, they were predominantly nomadic tribes; they were a primitive tribal culture, if you want to call it that—if so, they didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.

It would be wrong to attack any country which does respect—or try, for that matter, to respect—individual rights, because if they do, you are an aggressor and you are morally wrong to attack them. But if a country does not protect rights—if a given tribe is the slave of its own tribal chief—why should you respect the rights they do not have?. . .

I will go further. Let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not. What was it that they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their right to keep part of the earth untouched, unused, and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves about.

Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights.


Stephanie Coontz has been working for a long time to shatter the myth that the traditional family was accurately portrayed in Leave it to Beaver.

Even for the short time such nuclear families reached their peak, as Mia Birdsong and Nicole Rodgers [ht: ja] explain, only 65 percent of American children were living in this type of “traditional” nuclear family unit (with a father employed and mother out of the labor force). Today, it’s just 22 percent.

There has been an explosion in the diversity of family structures in the U.S. over the last several decades, much of it the result of delayed and declining marriage rates and higher nonmarital birthrates. Forty-one percent of babies born in the U.S. today have parents who are not married, and among millennials, it’s over half.

The traditional family, which dominated for just over a decade, wasn’t replaced by one kind of family, but by many kinds of families. Unlike in the early ’60s, today, there is no single-family arrangement that encompasses the majority of children. More individuals live alone, there are more families with married parents who are both employed, more single-parent homes, children living with grandparents, children living with unmarried, cohabitating parents, and households composed of people who are not biologically related or legally bound. Family diversity is the new normal.

The problem, of course, is both liberals and conservatives retain a nostalgia for the Leave it to Beaver nuclear household, and overlook the many ways (from tax breaks to employment policies) that supposed norm is reinforced.

Even progressives often tacitly accept the logic that marriage and “keeping families together” is the best way to support the wellbeing of adults and children. But just beneath the surface, this is the same underlying “good old days” nostalgia used by conservatives. It’s the same logic that says that working women going to back into the home is a legitimate solution to the inaccessibly of affordable childcare.

The Left, for its part, has done a very poor job over the years of imagining alternative forms of householding, much less of supporting public policies that might support and enhance “family diversity.”

The evolution of family we are experiencing is a complex, sometimes confusing, but also beautiful thing. It means that despite all the policies, practices and social pressures supporting the nuclear family, people are continuing to create family in a variety of ways. It’s not always intentional, or without struggle and challenge, but it requires a creative spirit to navigate and bypass the myriad structures and institutions that get in one’s way. We have so much to learn from the wisdom and resourcefulness of those whose families have too long been thought of as broken, when really, they are sewn together by ingenuity and love against all kinds of odds.

That’s not to say all the forms of householding we’re seeing today are beautiful. They’re not. People still struggle to assemble various kinds of households, to raise children, and to get ahead in life. And some of the results are pretty ugly—with, as we know, many forms of spousal abuse and child neglect, inadequate opportunities, and a shredded or nonexistent safety net when it comes to helping both parents and children.

So, yes, people have long been pretty creative in terms of how they manage the task of setting up one or another kind of family householding—before and after Leave it to Beaver. And we can help them become even more creative, by relinquishing the nostalgia for the single household that never was and imagining and supporting the diversity of alternative households that can be.