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good fences get rid of neighbors..., 2005-03-27 15:35:18 | Main | niether fading nor spiralling..., 2005-03-28 15:21:12

summing up the progressive era:

So I finally finished a book, instead of just mincing apart one after the other looking for the good bits. I'm more interested in international relations generally, but for a book on domestic political economy it kept me awake at night pondering its fantastically dry accounts of turn-of-the-century analogs to K-Street lobbiests (businessmen used to do it the old fashioned way, by harassing politicians themselves) and their lofty adventures with a wide assortment of petty businessman-turned-bureaucrat.

The monograph pretty much begins with Theo Roosevelt's appointment of the first head of the Bureau of Corporations, James R. Garfield, son of the late and for some reason my highschool crush President Garfield, a pro-business conservative who brought no particular skills or experience to the position aside a good backhand, and ends with Wilson's creation of the Federal Trade Commission and appointment of Edward N. Hurley as its first vice-chair, who, replacing Joe Davies as the chairman, said in 1916 of his own skills and experience:

I am glad to meet with a body of businessmen like you gentlemen, and I will plead guilty on the start by saying that I do not know anything about the law, and that applies to the Clayton Act and to the Federal Trade Commission act. In my position on the Federal Trade Commission I am there as a business man. I do not mind telling you that when I was offered the place I told the President that all I knew was business, that I knew nothing about the new laws nor the old ones, and that I would apply the force that I might have in the interest of business. I have been there since the sixteenth of March last year, and I think that the business men of the country will bear me out when I say that I try to work wholly in the interest of business.

The Clayton Act - ostensibly a modification of the vague Sherman Anti-Trust Act so that it might mean something intelligeble - is occasionally celebrated for the lines "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Nothing contained in the anti-trust laws shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor organizations." Kolko writes:

Unionists wished an outright declaration that the antitrust laws did not apply to unions at all, and efforts by serveral members of the House Committee on the Judiciary to obtain such a clause failed. Changes in the wording of the Clayton Bill applying to unions were made, but as historians have commonly agreed, the Clayton Bill did not free unions from prosecution under the antitrust laws. Despite intensive pressure by organized labor, Wilson regarded all eforts to have labor excluded from the law as class legislation, and the final bill, notwithstanding the embarrassed attempt of Gompers to find some concession in it to justify six years of support for the Democrats, was also hailed by antilabor elements.

Subsiquent litigation weakened the Clayon Bill's labor provisions, and laws explicitly allowing judicial injunction eventually curbed the conservative labor movement altogether. This is perhaps a good example - a better one might be the illegal detention and torture of industrial democrats - of the kind of alternatives Kolko reluctantly concludes were not possible during the Progressive Era:

The question remains: Could the American political experience, and the nature of our economic institutions, have been radically different than they are today? It is possible to answer affirmatively, although only in a hypothetical, unreal manner, for there was nothing inevitable or predetermined in the peculiar character given to industrialism in America. And, abstractly regarding all of the extraneous and artificial measures that provided shape and direction to American political and economic life, and their ultimate class function, it would be possible to make a case for a positive reply to the question. Yet ultimately the answer must be a reluctant "No."

There can be no alternatives so long as none are seriously proposed, and to propose a relevant measure of fundamental opposition one must understand what is going on in society, and the relationship of present actions to desired goals. To have been successful, a movement of fundamental change would have had to develop a specific diagnosis of existing social dynamics and, in particular, the variable nature and consequences of political intervention in the economy. It would have, in short, required a set of operating premises radically different than any that were formulated in the Progressive Era or later.

Populism rejected, on the whole, the values of business even as it was unable to articulate a viable alterantive. Intellectually it left a vacuum, and, more important, the movement was dead by 1900.

The Socialist Party suffered from the fetishistic belief in the necessity of centralization that has characterized all socialist groups that interpreted Marx too literally, and it had a totally inaccurate estimate of the nature of progressivism, eventually losing most of its followers to the Democrats.

The two major political parties, as always, differed on politically unimportant and frequently contrived details, but both were firmly wedded to the status quo, and the workers were generally their captives or accomplices.

No socially or politically significant group tried to articulate an alternative means of organizing industrial technology in a fashion that permitted democratic control over centralized power, or participation in routine, much less crucial, decisions in the industrial process.

No party tried to develop a program that suggested democracy could be created only by continuous mass involvement in the decisions that affected their lives, if the concentration of actual power in the hands of an elite was to be avoided. In brief, the Progressive Era was characterized by a paucity of alternatives to the status quo, a vacuum that permitted political capitalism to direct the growth of industrialism in America, to shape its politics, to determine the ground rules for American civillization in the twentieth century, and to set the stage for what was to follow.

    --Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism. The Free Press, 1963.

It would be easy to call the conclusion to The Triumph of Conservatism relevant to the present state of America, were it not for a dirth of articulate and viable alternatives that are more or less resolutely ignored in the same old America by any "socially or politically significant group" that might otherwise gain to benefit from them. Presumably - self-knowledge being the beginning and end of assumption - I retreat to international news because there's more significant interest in the alternatives elsewhere, where I can watch my government squash them with its combat boots. What's sadder than that is watching it squash and then leave the boots behind.

I was channel surfing the news the other day and caught this bit from that Suze Orman lady, standard issue Oprah-selected Empowering Life-Advisor. She was fielding a question about so-called 'green' investment funds, and her response was, I thought, pretty absurd. The advice was to invest where you get the highest return irrespective of other considerations, and to salve the ole liberal conscience by giving to some fine cause of one's choice every month. Help entrench the cyclical nature of a destructive economy, more or less, by the most actively passive means possible. To actively seek to contribute to projects one recognizes as mostly evil and to balance that out with charitable giving does not, to me the athiest, seem on the balance good moral advice. Consider the negative impacts on local economies when such good intentions combined with ag subsidy programs that allow the land to go fallow and/or afford multinational corporations the opportunity to buy another nation's literal farms, or more generally just consider how bad we still are at delivering basic charity. It's bad enough being forced - not without passive recourse - to pay federal income taxes that are used by and large to subsidize negative economic "externialities" like said ag subsidies, war, pollution, and various other configurations of general pestilence.

Coincidentally I'm writing this just as CSPAN replays a rerun (3/22/05) of Jeffrey Sachs talking about his 'end of poverty' and the world bank millenium development goals, which suggests another segue: during the Q&A section he's almost become animated, "you could reform the currency system of Ethiopia up the whazoo, and investment isn't going to come". He's not interested in alternatives, he's interested in - I think honestly and coherently, unlike so many of his contemporaries (e.g. our dark master krugman the incoherent) - bringing them an imitation of what we already have. It's easy to nod in agreement to his negative assertions, only vaguely on the positive ones. We're all gonna die, so independent development would be (have been?) preferable in a lot of cases to his program for, more or less, assimiliation. Sustainable energy technology transfers from Europe to Asia and the US wouldn't be terrible policy, either, but if we want band-aids to cover this global disembowelment we'll need a second so-called progressive era, and quite a bit extra.

update: thanks to Carson for the link, his summary sort of asks for elaboration on Kolko's arguments that decentralization in various industries - particularly in banking - was already occuring (counter persistent narratives of merger movements and efficiancies of scale) and that big business interests were fighting to curb the competitive forces that drove said decentralization, as well as fears of an increasingly mobilized general population. On the international front there's an interesting discussion at crooked timber on Sachs, and I need to remind myself to pull Kolko's quotes regarding the conservation movement as regards the recent vote to open up ANWR to drilling and the original intent, which was more or less the kind of enclosure movement described in the previous post.

:: posted by buermann @ 2005-03-27 22:03:06 CST | link

      I think the enclosure movement finds its ultimate expression in the sterile seeds used for GM crops and granting intellectual property rights over nature.

    posted by Harry @ 2005-03-29 16:10:33 | link

    go ahead, express that vague notion

    your turing test:

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