Questionable questions

Why is fomenting fear and hate so politically effective? Perhaps because blaming others makes us feel better about ourselves. Populist politics plays a role similar to religion in both the psyches of the oppressed and the rhetoric of the oppressors. It explains why our world is the way it is and imbues oppression with legitimacy.

It is tempting therefore to denounce all religion and all populism. But what if, in fact, one or the other is necessary? What if, without them, we are left with nihilism and power unconstrained by any values? Then, the question becomes how to turn religion or populism against oppression.


The Agony of Power, by Baudrilliard

“Terror is like a rumor: self-prophesying, self-realizing. Once it moves to the other side, and grows more violent than violence, it becomes an autonomous form without origin — like Evil itself.

“It is irrepressible as well, because every form of ‘vigilance’ aggravates the specter of terror. It is the paradox of every principle of precaution, and this principle has now been raised to the level of a global governing strategy. Security is quietly taking hold as a ‘white terror’ draining the system of its Western values: freedom, democracy, human rights. This is the diabolical trap laid by the terrorists, forcing ‘democracies’ to sabotage themselves ‘progressively.'”

The fig leaf of progress

The apparent progress in liberal democracies disguises the bare truth of power: that the social order is based inextricably on exploitation – of nature, of workers, of women, of people who are other. It would be false to say there has been no progress. The guilty secret is not that progress is a delusion but that it has been made possible by the exploited, by those who benefit least from it. An exploited underclass, as well as exploited natural resources, have been the sine qua non of progress. Gains have occurred not in spite of the persistence of this underclass, but because of, on the backs of, the exploited.

Take, for example, women: they perform most of the labor of social and biological reproduction, yet this has been treated as a duty that is its own reward, rather than as the backbone of our economy and a sector of that economy in which women can choose to labor or not. Take, for example, nature: industry consumes the environment on which we all depend without consulting or compensating us. Take, for example, low-wage workers, whether in the US or abroad: making only enough money, having only enough time, to keep coming back for more low-wage work, often at multiple jobs, where they perform the rest of the labor of social and biological reproduction, of which they enjoy the fruits to a lesser degree than the employer class. And consider how American wealth has been amassed by systemic violence: conquest of Native Americans, the pillaging and divvying of their land; kidnapping and enslaving Africans, separating and enslaving their descendants; waging war to establish lines of production and markets of consumption.

That is not to say that local victories such as health care that covers contraception, halting an oil pipeline, or a $15 minimum wage would be illusory because they do not reform the entire system. The illusion would be to draw from these victories a conclusion that liberal democracies tend to grow in prosperity and civil equality over time. In fact, our social order tends toward concentration of power and wealth in the few. 

But the many can act as a constraint on this tendency to the extent they are organized to do so. The victories or concessions won through these checks make the hierarchy just humane enough to stave off widespread unrest, and provide just enough hope of better, more inclusive progress in the future to stave off widespread resignation. Although these concessions leave the underlying structure in place, they are worth pursuing on behalf of the exploited so long as we do not become complacent.

We must view these local victories not as evidence that the system is working, but as successful attacks on the system; they are chinks in the armor of the system; they are glimpses of what we are fighting for; they are hope — but they do not mean that the world is becoming a better place thanks to the ineluctable advance of liberal democracy. True progress must be measured not by the miserly trickle of gains calculated to stave off rebellion, but by reforming the structure of the liberal order itself. True progress must be global: a universal living wage, for example; a global climate treaty. Global capitalism requires global regulation.



He’ll do

Gorsuch’s previously expressed views suggest that, given the chance, he would outlaw abortion, which would please Trump’s base, and weaken the regulatory state in favor of business, which would please Bannon and the alt-right.

In the Hobby Lobby case, Gorsuch endorsed a corporation’s right to religious liberty and to use that liberty to deprive its employees of federally required health coverage, specifically contraceptives. He has also written extensively on the “inviolability of life” in the context of assisted suicide and euthanasia, with portentous implications for abortion.

But most importantly for the libertarian agenda of Trump and Bannon, Gorsuch has questioned Chevron deference, the principle that federal agencies are relatively free to implement their interpretations of the law enabling them to act.  Without Chevron deference, the effectiveness of an agency such as the EPA or OSHA, can be easily hamstrung with lawsuit after lawsuit reviewing its authority.

Gorsuch’s role is functionary. It is not a matter of his independence from politics, a sine qua non of the rule of law. Perhaps he would do the right thing if given the opportunity to rule against Trump in a clear case. But his pre-existing views fit a profile. Trump and Bannon are willing to risk the unlikely chance that the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to judge, or the enforcement power to stop, presidential abuse of power — in order to seize much more likely opportunities for both patriarchy and plutocracy to triumph.