The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.

General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

The initial reaction to the hiring of General David Petraeus to teach at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College was one of astonishment at the salary–$150k for one semester–offered; this has since devolved into looking askance at the source of the funds and an inquiry into whether such expenditure was the best possible for a public university that is always struggling to make ends meet. (For a full round-up, please check Corey Robin‘s posts on this subject.). And since the course description for Petraeus’ course has been made available much skepticism has been directed at what seems like an exceedingly skimpy course, at best a generic international relations elective.

Petraeus is not teaching a specialized seminar for graduate students, or faculty, or anything like that. He is teaching sixteen undergraduates a senior year special topics elective. Presumably, his salary is a function of what CUNY perceives his worth to be, based on his experience and education. The weekly rate for Petraeus is not unheard of when it comes paying very accomplished academics; for instance, last year, the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, as part of its Hess Scholar in Residence program, brought Sean Wilentz, the distinguished Princeton historian to the Brooklyn College campus for a  week; the amount paid to him–from the Hess Foundation–worked out to about the same rate as paid to Petraeus. But in that one week, Wilentz attended half-a-dozen faculty panels, some undergraduate classes and three working luncheons, and delivered a talk. In sharp contrast Petraeus will teach his regular class, once a week, just like any other adjunct would. (I presume he will have a TA, unlike adjuncts.)

With that in mind, here are some alternative scenarios for CUNY to ascertain what its market pricing for highly skilled and experienced teachers might be. Bear in mind we know nothing about Petraeus’ teaching abilities; he is just a highly educated and experienced military man.  So, what would CUNY pay for a distinguished academic , the winner of the highest honor in his or field, to teach a class in their special domain?

Consider the following examples:

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry to teach Concepts in Nanochemistry

A Nobel Prize winner in Physics to teach a Quantum Mechanics seminar

A Nobel Prize winner in Economics to teach Special Topics in Microeconomics

A Nobel Prize winner in Literature to teach Creative Writing: Advanced Techniques

A Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine to teach Recent Advances in Genetics

A Fields Medal winner to teach Advanced Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields

An Academy Award winning director to teach and direct a film in co-operation with Film Studies majors.

Would CUNY pay any of these 150,000 dollars to teach the class specified? Remember that CUNY does not have, like some other universities in the US, Nobel Prize winners in its ranks. If it was to secure the services of such a luminary, it would almost certainly hold it out as an attraction for its ‘best’ students–as it seems to be doing in the case of this Honors College seminar. My guess is that if CUNY was feeling generous, it would pay the folks above $20,000.  Maybe.

So, why the special treatment for Petraeus? As I said yesterday in my last post on this subject, it’s because bringing Petraeus, a powerful member of the governmental-military-corporate complex, to CUNY, will open the doors for folks in CUNY administration to get close to cushy consulting gigs in Washington DC, with the Pentagon, with the military, with all those folks in industry that Petraeus is, as we speak, networking with right now. They will have Petraeus here for a semester, and that is plenty of time to give him a copy of their CVs over a cup of coffee or dinner. Once he goes back to his regular tramping of the corridors of power, he will be able to take care of those who took care of him.

So, it bears repeating: this hiring decision has nothing to do with the students at CUNY; it has everything to do with folks in power taking care of each other.

CUNY Board of Trustees and General Petraeus: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The ‘General David Petraeus is teaching at CUNY for a ludicrous amount’ scandal has been brewing for a while now. To catch up on its all its salacious, rage-provoking details, you could do worse than check out Corey Robin‘s coverage. In brief: cash-strapped urban public university invites retired US military figure to teach one course for an astronomical salary–the funding source for which remains dubious. This is the same university whose infrastructure is in disrepair, which cannot adequately fund research conducted by its faculty members, nor keep tuition for its students from rising every year. (To add final insult to injury, check out the poorly-written, skimpy course description of the Petraeus dropping, er, offering.)

A few years ago, I attended a CUNY Board of Trustees meeting. (I have attempted, in the past, on this blog, to provide some background on these worthies.) During the meeting, the subject of the generous pay packages for CUNY top administrators, which were in sharp contrast to the meager raises then being offered to CUNY faculty, came up. The faculty union representative pointed out the impropriety of sharply increasing salaries for adminstrators at a time when faculty were not even being paid cost-of-living increases. Benno Schmidt, now Chair of the Board of Trustees, and possibly Chair back then as well, spoke up sharply: ‘The faculty needs to learn that in order to get good work done at the university, you need to pay good money. If they think that’s expensive, they’ll find out just how expensive it is to not pay good money’. (This outburst was followed by an anti-union rant by the notorious Jeffrey Weisenfeld, which was met with much head-nodding by those seated around the table.)

I’ve never forgotten that meeting or that statement. There was no way to efface the memory of the belligerent, pompous expression on Schmidt’s face, simultaneously suffused with the smug satisfaction of the worst kind of sanctimonious hybrid: the businessman-priest.  There, in that attitude, that defiance, that anger at the union representative who had dared speak up, was encapsulated a great deal.

Higher education is a cash cow; there’s gold in them thar hills. University administrators know this, which is why, in recent times, they have swelled their ranks and their salaries at the expense of everyone else in the business. All those MOOC companies lining up to get the fat online education contracts from soon to be privatized public universities–once the greatest advertisement in the world for public education–know this. And like any other sector of the American economy the educational one showcases economic inequality: students, adjuncts, faculty all make do with very little, while the ‘management’ gets richer and richer.

And most importantly, this management class takes care of its own. They ensure generous retirement packages for each other and when they see a brother looking for a new gig, especially after a scandalous hiccup or two, like Petraeus, they run to help. Besides, the backscratching will go the other way too. After all, won’t Petraeus, down the line, take care of, somehow or the other, his new buddies on the CUNY Board of Trustees too? Connections to the halls of power, perhaps some consulting at the Pentagon or the CIA, down the line?

CUNY administrators and the members of the Board of Trustees aren’t just doing this to raise the university’s profile; they are doing this because they are good networkers.

Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?

Last year, as OWS kicked off, and as New York’s Finest (and later California’s) began their usual heavy-handed crackdown on any dissent that might threaten the ruling classes, I was struck by the absurdity of it all. Once again, the plutocratic class had found a sub-class of workers–underpaid and overworked–who ostensibly should have been in sympathy with protesters of those economic and political realities that conspired to keep them in a state of perpetual economic and political subjugation, and had them do the dirty work of repressing them. Once again, a comfortable protective barrier had been built around the privileged enclaves of the rich and fatuous, manned and patrolled by those whose best interests lay in dismantling it. The best and most enduring political parlor trick was on display again, and it didn’t seem to have lost its effectiveness over the years.

No matter how long one theorizes about it, to see the game in action, to see its visceral absurdity on display is something else. There they are, the working class sons and daughters of working class men and women, clubbing, gassing, and shooting (rubber bullets at UC-Riverside, anyone?) those that have taken up cudgels on their behalf, those whose struggles, if successful, would ensure the clubbers, shooters, and gassers would be politically and economically empowered, and perhaps be able to ensure a better life for their future generations. Five months after OWS kicked off, five months after discourse about economic inequality has bubbled up in possibly more prominent spaces and forums than ever before, there is no sign America’s currently serving police have shown any inclination to hear, pay attention, and possibly join, a political struggle in their best interests.

Tragedy, farce, or some combination thereof, I think.

Last October, when I joined several thousand others in marching through Wall Street and its surrounding confines, I would often yell out to the wary and skeptical New York City policemen that stood close by, “What was your last contract like?” or “You should be marching with us” or “Wall Street won’t stand up for you” and so on. I’m not sure if any policemen heard me or cared. But that’s no way to be heard, of course. The need for communication with the police, for outreach directed at them, for the discourse surrounding OWS to be funneled directly at the police, written somehow, in a form that makes it relevant to their lived realities is greater than ever.

In a recent interview with 3AM, Brian Leiter said,

An important strategic question for the Occupy movement concerns the police. The police are, themselves, members of the 99%, indeed the 99.9%. Police labor unions remain strong, despite a three-decade long campaign against labor unions in the United States. As unionized workers, the interests of police lie with the Occupy Movement, not the plutocrats. On the day the police refuse to clear “Occupy” protesters from their sites, that will be the day the game is up for the plutocracy in America. It would behoove the Occupy activists, indeed any opponents of the plutocracy, to remember this.

This is close to being as absolutely and totally correct as any contemporary political statement could be.