January 2, 2008: Did Bob Reich Assassinate Tony Judt's Cat?: I was surprised to read:
'Supercapitalism': An Exchange: Tony Judt: I am surprised that Robert Reich resents my "use" of his book for the expression of some general thoughts on its topic. Taken for itself, after all, Supercapitalism would have merited at best a short notice. However, Reich's letter is welcome all the same. It helpfully reasserts the book's argument; and by its resort to invective—"jeremiad," "screeds," "emotionally gratifying," "capitalist hobgoblins," etc.—-his letter offers an instructive insight into Reich's own thought processes... his critics (me, on this occasion) are dismissed as "denigrators" of economic growth, enemies of capitalist globalization who pave the way for nativism: in short, prole-worshipping nostalgics.... If the Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley really thinks that we can improve upon the "cacophony" that passes for public debate with talk of "citizen values" and "leaders who inspire us" and that anything else is "brainless neo-Ludditism," then he is himself a depressing illustration of the problem he purports to address.
This visual evidence of derangement surprised me, because I remembered Tony Judt's Postwar as being rather good--and his books on the post-WWII French intellectuals, Sartre and his circle, as being excellent. And I, at least, quite liked Supercapitalism. Clearly I am going to have to go back and read Judt's review of Reich...
This simply will not do.
Tony Judt attacks what he calls Bob Reich for what he calls his "framing assumption"--the conflict between human-as-member-of-market-society and human-as-member-of-political-society:
The Wrecking Ball of Innovation - The New York Review of Books: Reich's framing assumption: that our interests as "investors" and "consumers" have triumphed over our capacity to act as "citizens."... [W]hy would we or our representatives choose suddenly, in Reich's terms, to act as disinterested "citizens" rather than the self-seeking "consumers" or "investors" we have become?... Reich's way of cataloging human behavior-—as though our affinities and preferences ("consumer," "investor," "citizen") can be partitioned and pigeon-holed into noncommunicating boxes--is not convincing...
And then Judt picks up that same framing assumption and runs all the way down the field with it:
The Wrecking Ball of Innovation - The New York Review of Books: The market requires norms, habits, and "sentiments" external to itself to hold it together, to ensure the very political stability that capitalism needs in order to thrive. But it also tends to corrode those same practices and sentiments. This much has long been clear.... [The market] cannot reproduce the noncommercial institutions and relations--of cohesion, trust, custom, restraint, obligation, morality, authority—-that it inherited and which the pursuit of individual economic self-interest tends to undermine rather than reinforce.... [T]he relationship between capitalism and democracy (or capitalism and political freedom) should not be taken for granted.... [M]odern democracies... need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage... the idea of a society held together by pecuniary interests alone is, in Mill's words, "essentially repulsive." A civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose.... The danger today is that, having devalued public action, we are no longer clear just what does bind us together...
With all respect to Professor Judt, this simply will not do. One simply cannot reverse field so completely within four pages, and expect one's readers not to notice.
There are other oddities in Judt's review too.
Here one cannot help but smell more than a whiff of Jean-Paul Sartre's declaration that it was good to cover up the crimes of Stalin lest the workers lose heart and stop believing in Communism:
The twentieth-century state in its "soul-engineering" guise has surely left a bad taste.... But in reducing (and implicitly discrediting) the state... we have also devalued those goods and services that represent the collectivity and its shared purposes.... And this carries a very considerable risk...
Here one cannot help but smell more than a whiff of the feckless upper-class Greenwich Village dweller sneering at those workers in Shanghai who think that they might like to have air conditioning:
[C]ontemporary economic writers often tend to the reductive: "In the long run," three respected economists write, "only one economic statistic really matters: the growth of productivity." And today's dogma-—like other dogmas of the recent past-—is indifferent to those aspects of human existence not readily subsumed into its own terms of reference.... Is [economic] growth a self-evident good? Whether contemporary wealth creation and efficiency-induced productivity growth actually deliver the benefits they proclaim—-opportunity, upward mobility, happiness, well-being, affluence, security-—is perhaps more of an open question than we are disposed to acknowledge. What if growth increased social resentments rather than alleviating them?...
Here one cannot help but note that Judt simply has not done his homework--simply did not follow the news in the 1990s--does not realize that Reich was, inside the Clinton administration, an opponent of the 1996 welfare reform--and so does not realize what he is doing as he attacks Reich using the exact same arguments Reich deployed to try to convince Clinton to veto the welfare reform bill:
Take the case of welfare reform—-in which Reich himself was very active, both as Bill Clinton's labor secretary and as the author many years ago of a proposal to replace public welfare with grants to businesses that hire the unemployed.... Universal rights and need-based provisions were replaced with a system of "work-enabling" incentives and rewards: the proclaimed goal of getting people "off" welfare accompanied a belief that the outcome would be both morally exemplary and economically efficient. But what looks like sensible economic policy carries an implicit civic cost. One of the fundamental objectives of the twentieth-century welfare state was to make full citizens of everyone.... The outcome would be a more cohesive society, with no category of person excluded or less "deserving." But the new, "discretionary" approach makes an individual's claim upon the collectivity once again contingent on good conduct.... [M]odern welfare reform thus returns us to the spirit of England's New Poor Law of 1834, which introduced the principle of least eligibility, whereby relief for the unemployed and indigent was to be inferior in quality and quantity to the lowest prevailing wages and conditions of employment. And above all, welfare reform reopens a distinction between active (or "deserving") citizens and others: those who, for whatever reason, are excluded from the active workforce. To be sure, the old universal welfare systems were not market-friendly. But that was the point...
And there is the piece I quoted before: Judt's final sneer:
I am surprised that Robert Reich resents my "use" of his book for the expression of some general thoughts on its topic. Taken for itself, after all, Supercapitalism would have merited at best a short notice. However, Reich's letter is welcome all the same. It helpfully reasserts the book's argument; and by its resort to invective... offers an instructive insight into Reich's own thought processes... his critics (me, on this occasion) are dismissed as "denigrators" of economic growth, enemies of capitalist globalization who pave the way for nativism: in short, prole-worshipping nostalgics.... If the Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley really thinks that we can improve upon the "cacophony" that passes for public debate with talk of "citizen values" and "leaders who inspire us" and that anything else is "brainless neo-Ludditism," then he is himself a depressing illustration of the problem he purports to address.
One cannot help but ask: what in hell is going on here? Reich is making a social democratic argment that one would think Judt would approve of--indeed, as Colin Danby comments:
The funny part is both of them want some sort of revamped social democracy -- if you tried to write down their programs in positive terms I doubt you'd find much difference. Their spat may be due to their choice of different rhetorical foils.
Judt is always smart but his review suffers ontological drift: it initially seems to argue against neoliberalism as an ideology or interpretive frame (e.g. deploring a "master narrative" and lamenting "our newfound worship of productivity and the market" on the middle of 24) but then by the middle of page 26 he's assuming that this is not a frame but a good description of the reality of the world, which then needs repair. There's loose talk about "market optimization" and "the market requires..." and the kind of conflation of capital and markets that tells you someone is working on a deductive and indeed substantially metaphorical level when they talk about economic phenomena.
I'd argue that both Reich and Judt overplay the coherence and force of this neoliberal/market/capitalist juggernaut-thing, and both do so to play rhetorical games about lamenting its destructiveness -- Judt's concluding section about fear and threat is as loose and sweeping as the Reich account that he mockingly glosses at the start of his review.
So what is going on here? The narcissism of small differences? The failure of Reich to cite Judt's Postwar in Supercapitalism? Envy by a mere Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University of a Professor of Public Policy here at Berkeley who gets to enjoy our much better weather?
I think I know what is going on here. Let's look at the first paragraph of Judt's review:
Supercapitalism is Robert Reich's account of the way we live now. Its story is familiar, its diagnosis superficial. But there are two reasons for paying attention to it. The author was President Clinton's first secretary of labor. Reich emphasizes this connection, adding that "the Clinton administration—-of which I am proud to have been a part--was one of the most pro-business administrations in American history." Indeed, this is a decidedly "Clintonesque" book, its shortcomings perhaps a foretaste of what to expect (and not expect) from another Clinton presidency. And Reich's subject--economic life in today's advanced capitalist economy and the price we are paying for it in the political and civic health of democracies--is important and even urgent, though the "fixes" that he proposes are unconvincing...
It is unclear why Tony Judt hates Clinton so much--Bill Clinton was, I think, (except for that big problem with the zipper) the best president America has had since Truman (or maybe Eisenhower), and the most liberal president America has had since LBJ. But hate Bill Clinton Tony Judt does. And that, I think, is the source of the energy behind his massive misreading of Reich.