CP Snow On ‘The Rich And The Poor’

In 1959, while delivering his soon-to-be-infamous Rede Lectures on ‘The Two Cultures‘ at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow–in the third section, titled ‘The Rich and the Poor’–said,

[T]he people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day. On the world scale this is the gap between the rich and the poor….Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on. [C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Classics, pp. 42]

Well, well, what extraordinary, almost touching, optimism.

Sir Charles did not understand, or care to, perhaps, the extraordinary pertinacity of the rich, those in power, their capacity to manipulate political and economic systems, their almost total control of consciousness and imagination, their ability to promulgate the central principles of the ideology that drives the economic inequality of this world to ever higher levels. (Snow was certainly correct that the world would not remain ‘half rich and half poor’ – that fraction, an always inaccurate one, tilts more now in the direction of the one percent–ninety-nine percent formulation made famous by Occupy Wall Street.)

Snow was also, as many commentators pointed out at the time in critical responses to his lectures, in the grip of an untenable optimism about the ameliorating effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions on both the world of nature and man: as their effects would spread, bringing in their wake material prosperity and intellectual enlightenment, old social and political structures would give way. But science and technology can comfortably co-exist with reactionary politics; they can be easily deployed to prop up repressive regimes; they can be just as easily used to prop up economic and political injustice as not. There is ample evidence for these propositions in the behavior of modern governments, who for instance, deploy the most sophisticated tools of electronic surveillance to keep their citizens under watch, acquiescent and obedient. And automation, that great savior of human labor, which was supposed to make our lives less ‘nasty and brutish’ might instead, when it takes root in such unequal societies, put all workers out to pasture.

But let us allow ourselves to be captured by the hope shown in Snow’s lectures that such radical inequality as was on display in 1959 and thereafter, cannot be a stable state of affairs. Then we might still anticipate that at some point in the future, armed with–among other tools–the right scientific and technical spanners to throw into the wheels of the political and economic juggernaut that runs over them, the poor will finally rise up.

Ogling the Antics of the Rich and the Stockholm Syndrome

The New York Times’ Room For Debate features the following question today:

Several Academy Award contenders like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” glorify white-collar criminals and scammers, and many reality TV shows embrace the wealthy, too. A new series, “#RichKids of Beverly Hills,” is the latest example of our enthusiasm for “ogling the filthy rich.”

Why are we so obsessed with watching the antics of the 1 percent?

Here are the blurbed versions of the respondents’ answers.

Alyssa Rosenberg, ‘writer’:

When rich people we actually envy turn out to be criminals, the idea that wealth is inherently corrupting helps take the sting out of our envy.

Farnoosh Torabi, ‘personal finance expert’:

With reality TV, I fear some viewers are falsely making the connection between the materialism and trivial plot lines and what it really means to be and act wealthy.

Evette Dionne, ‘cultural critic’:

The average black woman can live vicariously through the housewives of Atlanta, basketball wives of Miami and hip-hop lovers of New York

Bruce E. Levine, ‘psychologist’:

While many of us believe in honest work, we also see that wealth is mostly acquired via hustles and scams, and so we relate to stories that validate our experience.

Not that the New York Times asked, but here is my response.

Ninety-nine percenters watching the one-percent, even if they happen to be misbehaving, seems to have a Stockholm Syndrome flavor to it. As Wikipedia helpfully informs us,

[H]ostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them….the bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be a threat.

Ogling the antics of the aggressor is certainly one way to edify oneself about the values on display and to perhaps even imbibe them successfully.  It also enables a defensive distancing from one’s own actual station in life, to forget about its often depressing particulars.  (This is the basis of the ‘vicarious living’ answer provided above.) The roots of the often reflexive hostility toward unions, who seem to be committed to reducing the distance between the two classes, may be found here; far better to disdain them and identify with the aggressor instead.

Most importantly, all too many of the ninety-nine percent are still convinced that membership in the one percent club, thanks to their successful promulgation of their class-favoring ideologies, remains an aspirational and achievable goal for them. They continue to believe in upward mobility, despite all evidence to the contrary; they continue to believe the ‘system’ works as advertised; they continue to watch advertisements for their supposed future lives, hoping that they will learn, by careful observation, how they will be expected to behave once they get there.

Movies about the rich and the famous are indoctrination manuals; they derive their diligent audiences from these sorts of reasons.

Herbert Marcuse on the Unity of Theory and Practice

In Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press, Boston, 1972), as part of his critical take on the New LeftHerbert Marcuse writes:

The pertification of Marxian theory violates the very principle the New Left proclaims: the unity of theory and practice. A theory which has not caught up with the practice of capitalism cannot possibly guide the practice aiming at the abolition of capitalism. The reduction of Marxian theory to solid “structures” divorces the theory from reality and gives it an abstract, remote, “scientific” character which facilitates its dogmatic ritualization. In a sense, all theory is abstract: its conceptual dissociation from the given reality is a precondition for understanding and changing reality. Theory is furthermore necessarily abstract by virtue of the fact that it comprehends a totality of conditions and tendencies, in Marxian theory; a historical totality. Thus, it can never decide on a particular practice–for example, whether or not certain buildings should be occupied or attacked–but it can (and ought to) evaluate the prospects of particular actions within the given totality, namely, whether a situation prevails where such occupations and attacks are indicated. The unity of theory and practice is never immediate. The given social reality, not yet mastered by the forces of change, demands the adaptation of strategy to the objective conditions–prerequisite for changing the latter. A non-revolutionary situation is essentially different from a pre- or revolutionary situation. Only a theoretical analysis can define and distinguish the prevailing situation and its potential. The given reality is there, in its own right and power–the soil on which theory develops, and yet the object, “the other of theory” which, in the process of change, continues to determine theory.

Well. That’s quite a mouthful, but still a pretty wise one, despite being written back in 1972.

Here, Marcuse deftly defuses some of the standard rhetoric against theory in favor of an exclusive focus on praxis, and shows instead, how political practice uninformed by a suitably rigorous theory is fundamentally undermined. Furthermore, he dismisses the claim that the abstraction of theory is a handicap; instead, it is a feature necessary for its applicability and use. That abstraction is what enables its generality and ability to inform a variety of practical strategies; an insufficiently abstract theory is worse than useless; it may be dangerous in provoking misguided and wasteful action. Lastly, theory plays a vital role in development of a ‘non-revolutionary situation’ into a ‘pre- or revolutionary situation’, precisely because it enables the recognition of those features that make it ripe for such movement and ‘progress’.

Almost anyone that has engaged in any form of sustained political activism has entered into disputes about the relationship of theory and practice; these in their worst moments, devolve into a species of crippling sectarian warfare. Marcuse’s calming note above is not unique; the unity of theory and practice is perhaps just as often preached as it is debated. Still, as a concise summation of its central principles, it bears rereading by all those engaged in the struggles where it is most required.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

Camden Can’t Afford Its Police and Its Union Any More

Today’s blog post has little ‘analysis’; all I need do is point. Perfect storms should be ‘admired’ from a distance. When I’m done, let the chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ ring out, loud and proud.

So, let us get started. Here is a little piece of news: Camden, NJ has decided to disband its police department:

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.

These one hundred and twenty-seven additional, cheaper officers will now presumably make a significant difference in fighting crime in a city reckoned the most dangerous in America. (Did I mention it was also the poorest?) Before their arrival, things had reached a point where

[T]he police in Camden — population 77,000 — are already so overloaded they no longer respond to property crimes or car accidents that do not involve injuries.

There are few tears being shed for the police department in Camden because:

[M]any residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe….When police officers arrested a person suspected of dealing drugs in a house on a narrow street in North Camden last year, residents set upon their cars and freed the prisoner.

Camden’s move is part of a trend:

The new effort follows a push by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to encourage cities and towns to regionalize government services. They maintain that in a new era of government austerity, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services, especially with a new law prohibiting communities from raising property taxes more than 2 percent a year.

The police union’s contract terms are seen as the problem:

[O]fficers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol. Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000. In 2009, as the economy was putting a freeze on municipal budgets even in well-off communities, the police here secured a pay increase of 3.75 percent. And liberal sick time and family-leave policies have created an unusually high absentee rate: every day, nearly 30 percent of the force does not show up.

Urban blight; shrinking budgets; rampant crime; terrible police-community relations; Camden has it all. Yes, indeed, drastic action seems necessary and unions and their contracts seem like the right place to start. They always are.

As we move on, we should note that things weren’t always so bad economically:

Camden, in the shadow of Philadelphia’s glimmering towers, once had a thriving industrial base — a shipyard, Campbell Soup and RCA plants along the waterfront. About 60,000 jobs were lost when those companies moved or shifted them elsewhere.

Or even crime-wise:

Camden reorganized its Police Department in 2008 and had a lower homicide rate for two years. Then the recession forced layoffs, reducing the force by about 100 officers. [Links in original; one hundred, I believe, is twenty seven less than the one hundred and twenty seven to be added after this disbandment.]

 But I can’t imagine that any of that history has anything to do with the current crisis.

The NYPD and Israeli Police: Perfect Together

As my writings on this blog will show, I am not terribly fond of the New York City Police Department. Among other things, it is excessively militarized and has a very poor record on civil liberties. (I am not going to go into an exhaustive listing here, but a quick perusal of the link above should help the curious reader.) New York City residents are by now used to opening the morning newspaper and reading of yet another shenanigan, another abuse, another report on operational incompetence. Sometimes these are deadly, as today’s story about a bodega worker being shot dead by the Finest indicates. What is truly bizarre about this appalling record of general malfeasance is the contrast with the NYPD’s self-image: strutting, cock of the walk swaggering international terrorist fighters, keepers of the peace.  For one of the worst things about the aftermath of 9/11 has been the elevation of the NYPD to a fleet of Batmans in Blue. (And like Batman, they often find themselves ranged against those that might disturb the tranquility of the city’s banking operations.) As such, the NYPD thinks a great deal of itself. It aspires to be more than just a silly city police force; that’s for folks who aim low. No, it aspires to be an Interpol, FBI and Mossad rolled into one.

The latest story then, about the NYPD opening a ‘branch’ in Israel should come as no surprise, but it still manages to evoke wonder. Why is a ‘branch’ of a city’s local police force being opened in another part of the world? I think of banks, department stores, gyms and fast-food chains opening branches, but a police force? How does this improve New York City’s policing?

Unfortunately, I know the NYPD’s answer to that last question and it terrifies me. Presumably, they are there to ‘learn’, to ‘study local tactics,’ to share ‘methods and techniques for enforcing law and order.’ Unfortunately, their choice of locale and their partners in this enterprise are precisely the wrong ones for us citizens who will soon have to bear the brunt of this wondrous exchange of knowledge. Because if you want to co-operate with a police force, you might want to find one that is not associated with a nation that is engaged in illegal occupation, a business that, as an Israeli friend of mine once remarked, ‘is a national sickness, one that renders every national institution corrupt and complicit.’

Perhaps the NYPD will learn how to put up checkpoints, conduct grossly invasive searches–sorry, on that one, they will presumably teach the Israeli police a thing or two or three–and send themselves even further down the path of the militarization that they so obviously adore. Perhaps they will learn new interrogation techniques, especially refined and honed for dealing with a population viewed as the Other. The Black and Latino population of New York City trembles in anticipation; it’s bad enough to be Walking While Black in this city, but imagine what would happen if policing in this city induced a wholly new sensation for a select portion of this city’s population: What it feels like to be a Palestinian at a West Bank roadblock.

Letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould: Get Security off Students’ Backs!

The Executive Committee of the Brooklyn College Chapter of the Professional Staff Congress – CUNY (PSC-CUNY) has written to the President of Brooklyn College, Karen Gould, regarding the assaults on, and arrests of, CUNY students by CUNY Security at Brooklyn College on May 2nd. Please take the time to read the letter–reproduced below–in its entirety and help spread the word.

(For background, including links to videos, President Gould’s response, student letters, petition links please consult the Reclaim Brooklyn blog. As I’ve noted before on this blog, this kind of response by campus security is a classic piece of intimidation that always, without fail, succeeds in creating a hostile, combative, threatening atmosphere, and almost invariably results in students getting hurt. And as noted here before as well, the police continue to harass and abuse those that are ‘on their side.)