Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Political imagination alone is not enough

If I watched television -- which I don't, except for football -- I might try to watch Chris Hayes's MSNBC show, Up with Chris Hayes. This guy is smart and thoughtful. While I was reading his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, I was asked by co-workers, "Is that one worthwhile?" I said unequivocally "Yes!"

Nonetheless, I've waited over a month to write anything about this interesting volume here -- letting my reactions settle. I still think this book makes insightful observations about the country we live in and I'm grateful for them -- but I found Chris Hayes' prescriptions for dealing with the society he describes pathetically inadequate to the magnitude of the problems he lays out.

The problem defined by Hayes is that our society needs to believe that someone running the show knows what they are doing, is running it for the common good, and so deserves, if not to be followed, at least to be respected. But the elites running the country have largely ascended to their positions of prominence without demonstrating real merit; those elites did demonstrate pretty conclusively in the first decade of the the 21st century that they don't know what they are doing; and that their distance from the lives and experiences of the 99 percent is only getting more vast.

Here's Hayes on the failure of "meritocracy" to throw up responsible or credible leaders:

A meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous competitive selection process that ensures that performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot be simply made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures.

… the Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: "Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy."

That is, we got a George W. Bush, gifted with powerful forbears and not much else, elevated to a failed presidency. For Hayes, Bush was a symptom rather than the cause of the "fail decade" when establish authorities showed themselves to be hollow. He describes the kind of trouble this leaves us in:

The cascade of elite failure has discredited not only elites and our central institutions, but the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world. At the same time, the Internet has produced an unprecedented amount of information to sort through and radically expanded the arduous task of figuring out just whom to trust. …At exactly the moment we most need solid ground beneath our feet, we find ourselves adrift, transported into a sinister, bewildering dreamscape, in which the simple act of orienting ourselves is impossible.

Worse, we've had our noses rubbed in the fact we've been lied to by the people we might have wanted to trust:

Because revelations of systemic deception erode our most basic, default expectation of good faith, they play an outsize role in producing a crisis of authority. ….This was the defining experience of many Americans during the mid-1970s, the last period in which the nation suffered through a crisis of authority. … While the systemic deception around weapons of mass destruction [in 2003] comes closest to reproducing that same sensation in our own time, the Iraq debacle happened three decades after Watergate and Vietnam had already done a lot to rid people of their previous innocence about the American president and his war making powers. But the scandal in the Catholic Church is another story. To the devout, the lapsed, and even the non-Catholic observer, the depths of ruthlessness and depravity among church officials, as they covered up the crimes of the child predators in their ranks, induced a sickening vertigo that exceeded even Watergate's.

Living through this, we're ripe for more confusion and further deception. We resort to unrealistic nostrums to reduce the anxiety of living in a society we feel is reeling, out of kilter.

…People like bipartisanship not because they like the substance of what bipartisanship produces, but because it reduces the cognitive stress that partisan disagreement creates. If two sides are bitterly arguing over some major piece of public policy, this forces us to choose sides, and for those with weak mastery of the issue or tenuous connections to a specific worldview, it is easy to be stalked by the worry that you are choosing the wrong side: After all, there are a ton of people screaming in righteous indignation that the side you're on is about to destroy the country. Maybe they have a point. …

In an interview with Grist that builds off the book, Hayes applied his understanding of elite delusion to the current Republican presidential candidate.

The ethos of competition produces elites who feel persecuted — they are always looking up the ladder and never down, and all construct for themselves a story of their own overcoming, even when it’s manifestly ridiculous. Like Mitt Romney, who got up at a Republican presidential primary debate and said, “You know, I could have inherited the car company. But I struck out on my own — I went to Harvard Law, went to Harvard Business School.” This is genuinely felt — it’s not artifice.

Merit proves to be a difficult thing to define, so money becomes a very neat proxy for it. That’s a self-justifying way of seeing things — people make a lot of money, they must have merit, they must be smart and hard-working.

You have to like this kind of plain speaking -- and Hayes doesn't entirely exempt Barack Obama from his observation that elites are just drifting off in their own world from the rest of us.

Follow Hayes' train of thought far enough, and the logical end result of contempoarary systemic dysfunction is fascism. But Hayes doesn't go there. He sees hope in the emergence of social democratic governments such as that of Brazil in Latin American nations once far further sunk in oligarchy than ours.

And he looks to the disappointed, though comfortable, "creative class" --to "political imagination" -- to find avenues forward:

The good news is that in our own time, we have seen an explosion of institutional innovations. The common thread that runs through the most promising institutional innovations of this decade is, of course, the Internet. Nearly every single one of the most transformational new approaches to coordinating human interaction over the last ten years could not have happened without the Internet: the political organizing and fund-raising of MoveOn, blogs, and Obama for America, just to name a few. …The Internet plays a huge role in allowing people to self organize in non-hierarchical ways, but it's not a necessary precondition.

Even without the Internet, people can find new ways to come together. It is striking that both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street describe themselves, insistently, as leaderless. … If we are going to find our way out of the present crisis, we will need more of this kind of political imagination. We will need to imagine a different social order, to conceive of what more egalitarian institutions would. Our post meritocratic inequality is the defining feature of the social contract to which we are all a party. And the terms of that contract must be renegotiated on a society-wide level.

I love the Internet as much as anyone, but this vision is not how progressive change comes. And anti-hierarchical movements that refuse to develop coherent structures seem to me to lead to exhaustion more often than popular empowerment.

Major changes are made by people who have nothing left to lose and struggle for change anyway, often at great personal cost. These are people like those whose land and water are being trashed by fracking, like people who are losing their homes to rapacious banks, excluded workers like taxi drivers and hotel chambermaids who have nowhere to go but up, and the undocumented newcomers who clean our toilets and harvest our food. These folks carry most of the pain now and they will carry more in order to live better lives. Yes, people enjoying social privilege have to help, but ultimately it will be the determination of those who have no choice that can restore more equality. The struggle for equality generates its own novel expressions of political imagination -- that creativity is one of the by-products of the struggle, not its source.

All that said, Hayes skewers our present elite social system and for that, the book is a fine artifact of our unhappy time.

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