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Two Cheers for Revolution and Restoration…Three Cheers for Responsibility and Principles

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Last week, I expressed my concern that the barbaric incivility of the leader of what very well may become the formerly free world is being mirrored by his opponents with negative effects. Oppositional incivility, I fear, very well may alienate Trump’s ambivalent supporters, who could turn against him, as it undermines the prospects of positive change if and when he and his ilk are defeated. Nonetheless, I also recognized the need for resolute resistance to the normalization of the Trumpian political order. I know it must be subverted. When it comes to civility, I can offer only two cheers.

As we endure another week of Trumpian excesses, and as I read contributions to Public Seminar, I realize that this is part of a pattern with me that gets at the root of my appreciation of the beauty of the grayness of being, based as it is in my understanding of the social condition.

There is much that I have only two cheers for. Revolution and restoration comes to mind, as I read Elżbieta Matynia this week. Socialism and capitalism, as I read Jeff Isaac, and Facebook and more generally the web, as I read Claire Potter.

On the other hand, thinking with Max Weber  this lovely Friday morning in New York, I have a hearty three cheers for the ethics of responsibility and of principled action. But even then, as Weber well knew, they have to include self limitations. This, I have been thinking about as I read Siobhan Kattago and Alexandra Délano Alonso.

Matynia points out a paradox: “revolution” and “restoration” have floating relationships with democracy. Major revolutionary developments of our time involve the overturning of democratic principles and ideals, and restoration is not now focused on the tyrannical ancien regime, but on the democratic one. She has recent events in Poland on her mind, but is also looking at developments elsewhere, including closer to home, in the U.S.

There is a worldwide threat to liberal democracy, and therefore, its defense and restoration, despite all its flaws, is imperative. Matynia applauds Lech Wałęsa, an activist and former leader of Solidarity, and President of Poland, as he is again leading a Citizens Committee, a revival of another 40 years ago during the struggle for democracy against the Communist regime. Now, he is working to restore democratic achievements. “The initiative itself is an effort to create a collaborative space for the fragmented opposition,” as Leszek Budrewicz puts it here. He worries that this is being led by leaders of a generation whose time has passed, wondering “whether those bemedalled generals will be able to create a citizens’ army.” Yet Matynia is more hopeful, noting the irony: while Wałęsa was the leader of an anti-revolutionary revolution, the so called velvet self-limiting revolution, he now seeks to lead an anti-reactionary restoration, again an “un-radical” one.

Note: the old revolutionaries were successful for 30 years in their gray commitments, though now they face the true believing authoritarian nationalists who are seeking the revolutionary justice long forestalled. A glimpse of their fanaticism can be found in “David Stephenson’s” comments to Budrewicz and Matynia’s posts. Searching the web, I found “him” to be apparently a troll who seeks to denounce all who question Poland’s ruling party and its ideology.

The self-limiting velvet revolution was capable of “Looking in Both Directions,” the title of the recently released John Coltrane “Lost Album.” The velvet revolutionaries knew from personal experience that the outcome of revolutionary dreams yielded post-revolutionary nightmares, and they committed themselves to not repeat the recurring pattern. Isaac celebrates Coltrane’s ability to look in both directions in his music. Isaac, further, reflects on how this ability, musically, informs him personally, artistically and politically.

This ability of looking in both directions for me requires two cheers for both capitalism and socialism. I know that in order for there to be a just distribution of goods in society, goods have to be produced, but I know that the machine that produces such goods most powerfully, a power that Karl Marx noted and celebrated, also yields profound injustice and environmental degradation. The political challenge, it seems to me, is to tame the beast, not to kill it, and I note that truly democratic liberal democrats and democratic socialists, agree on this in general, only differing on specifics. This suggests that the kind of collaborative space that Wałęsa is seeking to create should be developed in the United States in the Democratic Party.

With two cheers for capitalism and socialism, I am optimistic. Those who offer three cheers worry me, especially as they are linked to the new authoritarians, whether they be Donald Trump or Nicolás Maduro. This is why I find the confusion of market fundamentalism with a sound modern economy problematic, both by its advocates and by those who lazily explain everything bad as being a consequence of neo-liberalism.

I also find myself offering two cheers for the web and for Facebook. I know that the web has empowered promising movements against tyranny, social injustice and racism: the Arab uprising, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, immediately come to mind. But I also know that these very movements have been stifled and repressed through the web. It seems likely that we must endure the Trump regime thanks to Russian hacking and Trump’s ingenious use of Twitter to rally resentment and confuse factual truth with tendentious fabrication.

Closer to my home as the publisher of Public Seminar, I note that until a few weeks ago, Facebook helped bring our work to our potential readers, but that it is no longer doing so reliably. We are up against its new algorithm, which favors mainstream publications and the exchange of cat videos and the like among small groups of friends and relatives. Apparently our attempt to link our contributors to their interested audience is, according to the Facebook powers, no longer meaningful. As Claire Potter observes in her “Purple Wednesday “column this week, along with like-minded publications offering deeper and less conventional reports, analysis and commentary, we are not reaching our public thanks to the decisions of a private corporation. She therefore suggests that the Senate question Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh about Facebook, observing that digital media are shaping our lives in profound ways, and that he should be probed on this.

There is nothing natural about private control over the social media. It should be criticized on liberal democratic and democratic socialist grounds, and further, on conservative and libertarian ones. It’s a question of law, to be sure, as Potter notes, but it is also a political question, one of the most pressing of our times. It is clear to me that some sort of public utility should replace Facebook.

While I can offer only two cheers for revolution, restoration, capitalism, socialism, and social media and the World Wide Web, three cheers are certainly called for when it comes to the ethics of thoughtful responsibility and principled commitment. As I highlighted in my opening, this was a matter of great concern to Max Weber in his classic lecture, “Politics as a Vocation.” But I have been thinking a great deal about this recently, especially when it comes to barbaric actions concerning asylum and migration.

Both Siobhan Kattago and Alexandra Délano Alonso underscore that the barbarism of the present moment is not confined to Donald Trump or his administration and the enabling legislators and judges. Not only is the state apparatus of the United States involved, but so is that of Mexico, as well as the states of the international order. Behind the most dramatic and reprehensible images of children separated from and lost to their parents is the enduring human suffering of global migration and a flawed international refugee regime (see here for Alex Alienikoff and Leah Zamore’s book on the topic). States and citizens must take responsibility, and the willing executioners of the policy as well as the decision-makers must be held responsible, along with innocent observers, such as ourselves. Moral blindness is a clear and pressing danger, especially as Delano reminds us “when the exhaustion of mobilization surpasses the fire of indignation, or when the small victories—like the fact that Trump suspended/repealed these measures—are deemed sufficient.”

Three cheers for the commitment to the principle of human dignity and thoughtful responsibility, even as we realize that taking responsibility and committing to principle involves fundamental tensions. This is a topic I will be exploring in my next post on the social condition.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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