Monday, July 8, 2013

A Review of George Scialabba's "For the Republic": Part One

I was going to start this review with a brief meditation on the nature of book reviewing as an art-form-- just a paragraph or two-- but that turned into a rambling and semi-coherent post in its own right before I ever got around to talking about Mr. Scialabba, so I will not attempt to make any clever general observations at the outset today but plunge directly into the matter at hand.  But just to show that I'm not blind to the irony of ruthlessly mocking the art of book reviewing the night before writing a review myself, let me just announce that this one is not above any of the flaws of the genre I described in the previous post.  In the four-part scheme I laid out there, Scialabba's book is in the "good books written for a moral purpose" sector, and accordingly, this review will be of the "I wish I had written this book and describing it is as close as I can come to doing so" type.

George Scialabba is an independent public intellectual, perhaps the only one left in America, who has been freed to write what he really thinks by his willingness to accept a day job in a non-literary and non-academic field.  Mind over money is an admirable idea, but the truth is that financial concerns determine more of the typical writer's worldview and instinctive identifications than it is comfortable to admit.  This is not because people cynically lick the hand that feeds them, but because whatever human values they realize in their lives are likely made possible by their source of financial support.  They therefore identify emotionally with this source and its unique way of life and grow to understand its reasons and rationalizations better than they could those of any others.  The only true way to achieve intellectual freedom, therefore, is to seek employment among people who have no interest in literary matters.  

This is a curious standard of freedom, but it is better than the standard of the writer who thinks he is free because he pays his way by his writing.  As D.H. Lawrence once put it "Living on our income is strolling grandly outside the prison / in terror lest you have to go in."  Scialabba's willingness to not work at a magazine full-time or in an English or philosophy department means that he is freed on the one hand of having to descend to hack work or of being "provocative" and "deliciously irreverent" to pay the bills, like the late Christopher Hitchens, and on the other that he isn't beholden to academic regimes of political correctness.  This has made Scialabba unusually impervious to various fads and shibboleths of the left and the right-- identity politics, Neoconservatism, the Euston Manifesto, cultural relativism, austerity, the War on Terror-- the list goes on.

For the Republic (Pressed Wafer, 2013) is an excellent showcase of its author's unrivaled sanity and independence of mind.  That doesn't mean it's flawless, or that I necessarily agree with everything Scialabba has to say, even though all of it may be the product of a genuinely free intellect.  Nor is the book a major departure from What Are Intellectuals Good For?  The essays and reviews it collects range across the same chronological period, roughly, as those collected in that volume, and flesh out subjects already addressed there more than they break completely new ground.  This is forgivable, however, since those subjects include most of the fundamental dilemmas facing modern humanity, including, in no particular order: industrial democracy, redistribution and the welfare state, foreign policy, the vast disparities of wealth and development around the world, cultural modernism vs. traditionalism, the nature and purposes of education, and the philosophical foundations of ethics and the nature of reality.  And he does all this without pedantry, or even footnotes.  In reviewing a book of this sort it is no good to try to chew it all in one go, but to break it first into more manageable pieces.  This review will therefore come out in installments, rather than all at once, and will be divided by theme.  Perhaps Ajay and I can discuss the themes as they appear, symposium-style, if he is interested in doing so.

I.  Economic Democracy, Welfare, and Redistribution

Scialabba stands firmly in the radical democratic tradition of the American left, though he has a healthy respect for individual rights and liberal institutions as a necessary check on majoritarian decision-making.  He does not make "the people" into a virtuous abstraction or a source of infallible wisdom. Rather, in the tradition of Rorty, Dewey, James and others, he views the realization of a materially just society in the United States as a matter of pursuing the logic of our liberal democracy to its necessary conclusions, rather than inventing new intellectual traditions out of whole-cloth, or importing Continental ones tinged with totalitarianism.  He thinks the obvious moves to make in this direction are to ground our electoral system more firmly in the principle of "one person/one vote," which would entail doing away with the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering.  More radically, he thinks the democratic principle should be extended to the economic sphere, and that decision-making in a given industry should be carried out not (or not exclusively) by shareholders in corporations, but by employees, who are just as equipped to employ managers as the former.  I am in complete agreement with Scialabba on all of this.  Bosses and executives do important and difficult work for which not everyone is equipped.  Industrial democracy would not eliminate their function, but would make their decisions more accountable to the people they most directly affect.  I'm not even sure most executives wouldn't welcome the shift of power, as shareholders are probably less aware than most employees of the real constraints under which businesses operate and are thus less likely to sympathize with the imperfect decisions of managers.  Employees would also be more likely to identify with the fate of the enterprise which puts food on their table than shareholders who buy low and cash out high.

The way I presented that argument, however, probably reveals the point at which Scialabba loses my sympathy-- that is, in the extent of the personal venom he reserves for the bourgeoisie, as when he calls for the "expropriation and disemboweling" of the super-rich (p. 45) or remarks that if Orwell were alive today he would wish to "hang the last capitalist in the entrails of the last commissar" (p. 130).  Obviously these are jokes, not policy platforms, but they leave a sour taste in my mouth.  My own biases, no doubt resulting from my own sources of support, lead me to be more uncomfortable with their imagery than your typical person might be, but I also think these jokes reflect an objectively undesirable tendency in Scialabba's writing-- not toward violence or sadism (these passages are outliers in that regard-- Scialabba in one essay describes himself as a "harmless schlub" (p. 245) which nicely conveys his essential gentleness and decency)-- but toward a particular Old Left canard-- namely, the belief that things like the Bolshevik revolution were good in themselves but fell victim to later corruptions at the hands of party cadres. In other words, the masses always have the right instincts in throwing off their shackles, but they have been betrayed in the past by their leaders, Lenin, Stalin, etc. out of professional cynicism.  This sort of thing, to whatever limited extent Scialabba still believes it (he seems to endorse it in his essay on Victor Serge but to reject it in his essay on I.F. Stone) reflects a failure to understand the real lesson of such revolutions, which is that destruction is not a prelude to creation.

I'm also surprised at times that Scialabba's obvious sympathy for worker's self-management and industrial democracy does not make him more skeptical of purely redistributionist and welfarist solutions to social problems.  I suspect what he would say to this is that of course ideally a guaranteed basic income and robust public institutions would come hand-in-hand with autonomous worker's collectives, but that in the meantime, we live in a world in which organized labor is in the doldrums and people still need to eat.  It is therefore the first refuge of scoundrels to suddenly proclaim that welfare programs and spending on social services create "dependence" and are bad for people's "dignity," as do many libertarians (who apparently think that starving in the streets or agreeing out of economic necessity to a labor contract which ensures you no protection from toxic fumes or workplace accidents or sexual harassment is more "dignified" than receiving a check from the government).  

This is all quite true, and Scialabba is correct in arguing that "cash without respect is better than respect without cash" (p. 78)-- if the latter is even possible.  However, given his other writings, he seems surprisingly deaf to his own words on other occasions when he addresses the dilemma posed by Richard Sennett in Corrosion of Character and elsewhere: that of whether "people in our society [can] express respect so as to reach out across the boundary of inequality?"  Scialabba writes: "Is this really such a difficult question?  Here are three wholly unoriginal suggestions [....]" (p. 78).  He goes on to list more equitable spending on public eduction, guaranteed access to quality health care, and progressive tax reform.  In short, a conventionally welfarist agenda.

Obviously, Scialabba doesn't need to think these three things are sufficient in order to regard them as necessary, but I would have expected him to be more alive, I suppose, to Sennett's concern with the spiritual malaise engendered by a class society-- partly because he seems so much more alive to it in his other essays and in the works collected, for instance, in What are Intellectuals Good For?.  I don't think that the feeling of constant belittlement and disrespect is the worst or the only injustice suffered by the poor, but it is certainly one of them, as Scialabba well knows.  And given that the poor are mortal like the rest of us, and have only this one life to lead, and given moreover that the sorts of comprehensive social legislation Scialabba and I (and Richard Sennett, no doubt) favor are not currently in the offing, we do need to think about how the poor can survive amidst our current institutions as spiritual and moral beings.  This is part of the message of Jesus or the Buddha or the Stoics-- a part of which radicals are justly suspicious.  To the radical, it seems quietist and defeatist to attempt to preserve the integrity and sanity of the inner self in the midst of evil or insane social conditions.  Suppose, however, as Howard Thurman put it, that you are the one with "his back to the wall."  Wouldn't you need not only plans for the distant future, but also something inside you to sustain you and to preserve your sense of dignity.  Wouldn't you need to know that "the kingdom of God is within you" or that the world is illusion and nothing which happens to your body can affect your true self, your universal self?  And far from seeing the modicum of self-respect you can salvage from such convictions as a barrier to social change, wouldn't you regard it instead as a necessary prerequisite?  Scialabba clearly finds these questions worthy of consideration and seems to address something like them elsewhere.  But they reflect precisely what Richard Sennett is driving at, as I understand it.


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