Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

They Said It:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time or war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.  In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short . . . .

The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them.  And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement . . . .

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, 1651.



As you may or may not know, a little over two weeks ago, Tom Perkins a founder of the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture-capital firm, wrote a letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, in which he complained about the current hostility in this country directed at “the rich.”  Specifically, he put it this way:

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent.  There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them.  We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay.  We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking.  Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

This was, as should be obvious, an extremely poor choice of analogy on Perkins’ part.  Comparing anything to the Holocaust and, by extension, anyone to the Nazis is rhetorically lazy.  Such analogies demean and diminish the chilling wickedness of the Nazi atrocities, even as they call into question the seriousness and sincerity of those who make the comparison.

For his trouble, Perkins was roundly and relentlessly mocked for his descent into melodrama.  The left-leaning media and political commentators had a great deal of fun at his expense, mocking the “poor, little rich kid” who was foolish enough to whine about how hard it is to be a billionaire in America.  Even his own firm, the aforementioned Kleiner Perkins, tweeted a statement distancing itself from its co-founder, declaring that “Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years.  We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree.”

For our part, we find the entire incident fascinating.  And not just for the usual reasons.  Yes, the billionaire crying about how mean people are to him is comedy gold.  And so, for that matter, is the Left’s response, which, in part, confirms Perkins’ sense that many on that side of the debate do, in fact, hate him and his ilk, and, in greater part, undercuts the Left’s insult/rhetorical device of choice for the last six or seven decades.  It’s hard – though as we will surely see, not impossible – to keep a straight face while calling those who vote against increased funding for food stamps “Nazis,” after insisting relentlessly that any Nazi comparisons are grossly inappropriate.

Beyond the yucks, though, there is a serious concern about the state of our politics that is integral to Perkins’ complaint.  Does our politics dehumanize or scapegoat certain individuals?  If so, how does it do so?  And more to the point, what are the long-term implications of all this?  In short, setting aside his foolishness with respect to the Nazis, is there any truth in what Tom Perkins wrote?  And should we care?

Not everyone, of course, thought that Perkins was entirely out of line with his charges or with his comparison.  Among those who defended him and did so assertively was Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, who took to the pages of the same Wall Street Journal to suggest that perhaps Perkins was on to something.  She wrote the following:

But is there something to be said for his comparison — not of Germany and the United States, of course, but of the politics at work in the two situations?  The place to begin is at the starting point: with the rise of anti-Semitism, modernity’s most successful and least understood political movement . . . .

These were some of its typical ploys: Are you unemployed?  The Jews have your jobs.  Is your family mired in poverty?  The Rothschilds have your money.  Do you feel more insecure in the city than you did on the land?  The Jews are trapping you in factories and charging you exorbitant rents.

Anti-Semitism accused Jews of undermining Christian authority and corrupting the German legal system, the arts and the press . . . .

The parallel that Tom Perkins drew in his letter was especially irksome to his respondents on the left, many of whom are supporters of President Obama’s sallies against Wall Street and the “one percent.”  These critics might profitably consult Robert Wistrich, today’s leading historian of anti-Semitism.  His “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (2012) documents the often profound anti-Semitism that has affected socialists and leftists from Karl Marx to today’s anti-Israel movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions.  It was Marx who said, “The bill of exchange is the Jew’s actual god,” putting a Jewish face on capitalism and accusing both Judaism and capitalism of converting man and nature into “alienable and saleable objects.”

Herein lies one structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich.”  The ranks of those harping on “unfairly” high earners include figures in American political life at all levels who have been entrusted with the care of our open society; in channeling blame for today’s deep-rooted and seemingly intractable problems toward the beneficiaries of that society’s competitive freedoms, they are playing with fire.

This is, essentially, The Politics of Ideology 101.  The Germans chose the Jews to “scapegoat.”  The majority “in group” focused all of its negative attention on the minority “out group,” blaming it for all of the country’s woes and using it as a tool to provide cohesion and unity of purpose among the majority.  This is a strategy as old as human civilization and as thoroughly tested.  And it’s a strategy countless others had used against the Jews before.  As Ms. Wisse notes, “though the origins of modern anti-Semitism may be traced to Germany, anti-Semitism itself remains sui generis and cannot be simply conflated with either Germany or Hitler . . . . Features of anti-Semitism are present in other political movements, on the left fully as much the right.”

But this leaves us with a problem.  Jews had, indeed, been the scapegoat before, in countless other situations and countless other places.  They had even been subjected to wholesale and wanton slaughter before, as thousands had been murdered in the Russian Pogroms.  So what made the Nazis different?  What was it that pushed the Nazis to the Final Solution?

The answer to this question is not exactly clear.  The best explanation to date, though, comes from the inimitable Hanna Arendt, who, in her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, answered precisely this question.  Germany’s Jews, you see, were not your typical scapegoat, your average “out-group.”  Europe’s Jews had been remarkably successful, thus breeding fear and respect.  But those sentiments were largely based on past accomplishments rather than current capacity to effect social disruption.  Hitler and his Nazis railed against the Jewish conspiracy, even as the Jews were less and less capable politically of managing events openly, much less furtively.  Hitler, in short, picked a foe whom he could make appear powerful, but who was, in fact, the opposite.  And this, in turn, bred envy and resentment, which quickly and violently replaced fear and respect.  Or as Arendt herself put it:

According to Tocqueville, the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes.  As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected.  When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.  In other words, neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible- “function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it” should be tolerated.

Anti-semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.  When Hitler came to power, the German banks were already almost judenrein (and it was here that Jews had held key positions for more than a hundred years) and German Jewry as a whole, after a long steady growth in social status and numbers, was declining so rapidly that statisticians predicted its disappearance in a few decades.  Statistics, it is true, do not necessarily point to real historical processes; yet it is note-worthy that to a statistician Nazi persecution and extermination could look like a senseless acceleration of a process which would probably have come about in any case . . . .

Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together.

Given this, it’s hard to see what has ol’ Tom Perkins feeling so glum.  By contrast to Germany’s Jews, “the rich” in this country are your standard, run-of-the-mill scapegoat.  Indeed, they are THE standard run-of-the-mill scapegoat.  They are the target of populists everywhere and at all times.  And rarely do they suffer more than a few sharp words for their trouble.

We would argue, in fact, that in Obama’s America, the “Progressive” America about which Perkins frets, the rich have very little to fear and are as unlike the Germany’s Jews as any minority of the population could be.  Obama’s economy, his entire societal vision, depends heavily on the compliance and the cooperation of the so-called rich.  They may be the targets of his rhetoric, but they are also the targets of his gratitude and affection.  The rich have always been powerful; in many ways, it goes with the turf.  But they are inordinately powerful in Obama’s America, in which their collusion with government is the key to keeping the whole economic mirage viable.

What this means, then, is that Perkins is, at least in his expressed fears, mistaken.  There will be no “Progressive” Kristallnacht.  There is no reason for any of the “1%” to fear anything more a little bit of name-calling.  Or at least there’s no reason for them to fear any intentional act of malice on the part of the progressives and their populist supporters.

As you might have guessed, though, the highlighted word above – intentional – suggests that there may be something more to this question, another variable to consider.

The process of “scapegoating” involves a sub-process that is known as “dehumanization.”  Dehumanization as it is generally understood and as it is classically applied to the politics of ideology and the process of scapegoating is the opposite of anthropomorphism.  In the latter, less than human objects (animal, plants, inanimate bodies) are given human characteristics.  In the former, people – those in the “out-group” – are stripped of those characteristics that make them human; they are denigrated to the point where they are perceived to be “animals” or other lesser creatures and are therefore “not human” and not deserving of basic human rights.  The members of the out-group are alleged to lack higher-level intelligence, appropriate emotions, the capacity for moral behavior, etc.  The Jews, for example, were considered not men, but monsters, sub-human creatures lacking souls, who killed Christians, who abducted Christian children and used their blood to make bread (the very definition of “blood libel.”)  Captured Africans were considered to be less than human, to be unable to think on a human level, and thus were little more than mere “chattel,” suitable for nothing other than servitude.  In this way, slavery, anti-Semitism, common discrimination, and a whole host of other evils have been rationalized and justified.  If the “victim” is not human, after all, then how can he possibly be a victim?

In the psychological literature, this is referred to as “animalistic” dehumanization, for obvious reasons.  But it is not the only form of dehumanization, only the best known.

The other principal form of dehumanization is what has come to be known of late as “mechanistic dehumanization.”  As with animalistic dehumanization, mechanistic dehumanization is a process by which human characteristics are denied to a specific subset of people, only in the mechanistic case, the members of the target population are likened to machines, to automatons.  These targets too are denied their basic humanity, but in a way that makes them more efficient, more calculating, less emotional than normal humans.

It should go without saying, of course, that not everyone views mechanistic dehumanization with the same antipathy as they do animalistic dehumanization.  And indeed, in some cases, some cultures, some organizational structures, mechanistic dehumanization is an acceptable, if not encouraged, process.

The history of political thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is also the history of what can be called the victory of scientific materialism, i.e. the belief that all that can be known is that which can be known through science.  From Marx and especially Engels with their claims of “scientific socialism,” to Comte’s Positivism and his belief in the possibility of scientifically ordering the affairs of man, the era was rife with the fantasy that science and scientific principles could not only control the natural environment but the political environment as well.

In much of the Western world, the most successful manifestation of this scientific materialism was the conception of scientific administration, the belief that government’s functions can and should be managed in a rational manner, harnessing the authority of science and the knowledge of experts, and utilizing the benefits of division of labor.  This rule of the “experts” was largely labeled “technocracy” in Europe and “public administration” in America.  And in both cases, it depended entirely on the presence of a large, rational, and impersonal bureaucracy, designed in principle to eliminate bias, emotion, and prejudice in the administration of government.  Max Weber described the benefits of bureaucracy – particularly from the scientific materialist perspective – as follows:

From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.  It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.  It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it.   It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.

What this means in practice, then, is that a bureaucracy adheres to specific tenets, which Weber outlined in his “ideal type.”  And chief among these is the principle of detachment, which is to say an obligation that both the bureaucracy and individual bureaucrats remain personally indifferent to their task and its clients.  Again, as Weber put it:

When fully developed, bureaucracy stands . . . under the principle of sine ira ac studio (without scorn and bias).  Its specific nature which is welcomed by capitalism develops the more perfectly the more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.  This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue.

As you can see, the “scientific administration” embraced in the West, and especially by the Left in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only accepted, but encouraged the mechanistic dehumanization of the administrators in question, the bureaucrats and their bureaucracy.  Only by losing themselves in the spirit of the bureau, only by becoming what Weber calls “cogs in the machine,” could bureaucrats serve their designed function and promulgate the favored administration by experts.

As Weber notes, there are immeasurable benefits to this sort of mechanistic dehumanization in the context of bureaucratic administration.  But there are also immeasurable detriments as well.

Interestingly, perhaps the best known and widest read expert on these detriments is the very same Hannah Arendt, who in her later work addressed this second form of dehumanization in great detail, spelling out the unspeakable dangers that lurk in the bureaucratic apparatus and in the mind of the bureaucrat himself.

In her Reflections on Violence, Arendt noted the effect of bureaucratization on government.  She also acknowledged that, in the end, this effect leads nowhere good.  Specifically, she wrote:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man — of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.  Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done . . . .

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence.  In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

In her far better known and far more controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt addressed the ultimate end of the mechanistic dehumanization created by the adoption of a belief in the “scientific” – and therefore unerring – nature of bureaucratic administration.  Bureaucrats, who want nothing more than to be part of the team, to be one of those cogs in the machine, tend, by and large, to follow their directives, even, in many cases, if those directives are utterly depraved.  This, Arendt famously wrote, is the “banality of evil.”  It is not monsters and devils who carry out monstrous and devilish acts, but mere functionaries.  To wit:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.  From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together . . . .

Of course it is important to the political and social sciences that the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Now, we should make a couple of quick points before continuing.  First, Arendt has been roundly criticized for a great many things, but mostly for what people believe to be her absolution of Eichmann.  We don’t really have much to say about that aspect of Arendt’s work, although many people whom we respect have said a great deal.  In any case, though, it is clear that a case can be made that she was too hard on the German Jews and too soft on the functionaries like Eichmann, who were responsible for sending countless men, women, and children to their deaths.  Eichmann was, contra Arendt, a monster.  He was in fact a vile and aggressive anti-Semite who took pride not just in being a good bureaucrat but in the effect that his actions had, namely the slaughter of the Jews.

At the same time, we don’t think that this necessarily alters the point that’s relevant to our discussion.  Arendt’s argument that mechanistic dehumanization permits, even compels, bureaucratic functionaries to give themselves over to the organization and to “follow orders,” even when those orders are suspect, still carries great weight.  Indeed, we’d argue that the nature of the Nazi crimes, as compared to the “crimes” of corrupt bureaucracies more generally, actually makes hers a stronger, more potent argument.

If it is true that the Final Solution required not just functionaries, but utterly depraved and monstrous functionaries, given its depraved and monstrous ends, then it stands to reason that less depraved and monstrous ends would be less likely to require depraved and monstrous functionaries.  In most cases then, the dehumanization of the bureaucracy would be enough to compel said bureaucracy to carry out the state’s orders, regardless of the propriety of those orders.

This brings us, at long last, back to the questions raised by Tom Perkins with respect to the current American regime’s antipathy to suspect “out-groups.”  Above, we noted that it is unlikely that “the rich” would be targeted directly by the political regime, which is to say the electorate and its representatives.  Any animalistic dehumanization of the rich would make for fine rhetoric but would be, in practice, largely pointless.  The rich have too much power and are respected and admired, rather than loathed and resented.

That is not to say, however, that there is likewise nothing to fear from the administrative regime, which has been harnessed not just by this current progressive administration, but by the historical progressive ethic more broadly.  Ever since the IRS scandal broke last spring, we have argued that it is highly unlikely that Barack Obama or anyone in the White House was in any way involved in the targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups.  We have argued further that this fact makes the scandal all the more terrifying.  A bureaucracy so focused on its mission, so locked into the idea that it stands as the bulwark against anti-state forces that it needs no direction from above is, we think, a far more frightening notion than a handful of corrupt politicians.  One is the foundation of a totalitarian state.  The other is the status quo in a democracy – or any other government, for that matter.  One is cause for serious alarm.  The other is cause for investigation.

If you look at the scandals that have enveloped the Obama administration over the last year or so, you will see that nearly every one centers on a specific bureaucratic apparatus that is doing as it pleases to ensure its own survival and the survival of the state it fetishizes.  All of which is to say that the functionaries within the various bureaus – from the NSA to the IRS to the EPA – have given themselves over to their mission.  They have become the mere cogs in the machines that will attempt to detect terrorism regardless of the cost; or fight the anti-statists at every turn; or compel clean energy production, even if it means defaming, damaging, and eventually destroying the still-perfectly legal coal industry.

The other day, during the Super Bowl, Barack Obama told Bill O’Reilly that the IRS suffers from “not even a smidgen of corruption.”  He is, we’re afraid, absolutely right.  The IRS is not corrupt.  It is not out-of-control.  Indeed, it is behaving precisely as a bureaucracy should, in the eyes of the adherents of scientific administration.  The IRS, the NSA, the EPA, you name it.  They are all presently exemplifying the progressive ideal perfectly.

We have, over the last couple of years, spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the various theories about the social contract, and especially the versions offered by Locke and Rousseau.  It is worth remembering in this context, we think, that there is a third version as well, that offered by Thomas Hobbes, who saw the state of nature as violent and brutal and believed that men submitted to rule by a sovereign in order that the sovereign would provide protection from their fellow men.

In many ways, Hobbes’ version of the social contract fits perfectly with the progressive notion of the state.  Man, in his natural condition, is nasty and violent.  He is, by character, wicked and greedy and will always remain so without the state to subdue him.  There are, in contemporary society, countless groups of people – conservative freaks, oil companies, coal companies, people with funny sounding names – who are trying to hurt others.  And it is the state’s job to stop those people from succeeding.  Moreover, the state can do so impartially, and “scientifically,” through the use of professional public administration.

The only problem is that this professional administration is, by design, dehumanizing, and it therefore produces a bureaucratic structure that is both unresponsive to the individuals over whom it governs and largely overpowering in its pursuits, which it deems justified, even when those pursuits take a turn for the dubious.  The cogs just keep on turning . . . turning . . . turning, slowly and surely, pushing ever forward toward the “proper” end and the protection of men from the evildoers.

It is no coincidence, of course, that Hannah Arendt viewed the Hobbesian state as the precursor to tyranny, and rightly so:

Hobbes’s deep distrust of the whole Western tradition of political thought will not surprise us if we remember that he wanted nothing more nor less than the justification of Tyranny which, though it has occurred many times in Western history, has never been honored with a philosophical foundation.  That the Leviathan actually amounts to a permanent government of tyranny, Hobbes is proud to admit: “the name of Tyranny signifieth nothing more nor lesse than the name of Soveraignty . . . ; I think the toleration of a professed hatred of Tyranny, is a Toleration of hatred to Commonwealth in generall. . . .”

Taken together, all of this suggests that folks like Tom Perkins are right to feel uneasy.  They may not quite understand why they feel uneasy.  And certainly – if his letter is any indication – they cannot express the source and the nature of their unease.  But their anxiety is nevertheless understandable and justified.

The mechanistic dehumanization of the bureaucratic apparatus – which is, of course, the bureaucratic ideal – ensures that no politician need demand that iniquity be dispensed upon the out-group.  Iniquity will be dispensed regardless.  Slowly, carefully, routinely – banally – iniquity will be dispensed.

Such is the nature of the beast, the Leviathan.


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