Martin, Malcolm and America

From Brandon Terry’s long review of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph:

. . . The extent to which King’s vision of justice exceeded the horizons of American nationalism is still perhaps the least appreciated element of his public philosophy.

For those used to seeing King situated in a progressive story of American liberalism, it can be surprising to learn that as early as the 1950s, he considered Black freedom struggles to be part of the wave of anti-imperialist revolt in Africa and Asia. “The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from every form of oppression,” he proclaimed, “springs from the same profound longing for freedom that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world.” He strongly identified with anticolonial liberation movements, meeting veterans of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India in 1959 and traveling to Ghana for Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration in 1960. Like many leftist figures navigating cold war politics, however, King’s criticisms of American foreign policy could often seem restrained, couched in the obligatory tropes of anticommunism or paeans to pacifism.

It was Vietnam that served as the inflection point for King’s radicalization on matters of global justice, but Joseph helps underscore Malcolm’s underappreciated influence on this shift. Malcolm was a prescient critic of the war from the outset, eviscerating its premises with a moral clarity that eluded most commentators, who were gaslighted by lies that US troops were acting as noncombatant “advisers” in Southeast Asia. “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality,” Malcolm warned, charging that the war was a “criminal” act made palatable by racism and deception.

Malcolm’s antiwar critique and denunciation of the draft as “the most hypocritical governmental half-truth that has ever been invented since the world was the world” found its most important supporters among the student organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first civil rights group to dissent from the war and the draft. How, Malcolm asked, could one accept being drafted to fight on behalf of a supposed democracy, only to return home concerned about how you “can get a right to register and vote without being murdered”?

King, whose political ties to Lyndon Johnson and mainstream liberals made him more tentative in speaking out against the war, became openly critical of the administration after young activists pressed him on the hypocrisy of preaching nonviolence at home while remaining quiet about militarism abroad. Against the private advice and public chastisement of some of his closest advisers, he denounced both the war and the systemic injustices revealed or intensified by the effort to fight it. The war, he charged, represented a threat to free speech and legitimate dissent, and it bred cynicism concerning both the use of violence and the rights of nonwhite peoples for self-rule. Further, he charged the war effort with the “cruel manipulation of the poor,” lamenting its unethical waste of vital resources as well as how it sent

the black young men who had been crippled by our society…8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

In our era of perpetual warfare, with its boomerang effects on domestic liberties and civic trust, such insights remain unheeded.

The questions both men were converging on concerned the worth of citizenship in a society riven by economic domination, racial hierarchy, and belligerent militarism: What, if any, allegiance or sacrifice could such a society demand? The ideal of “radical black citizenship,” which Joseph most closely associates with King, contends that full, equal citizenship for African-Americans requires not just the formal recognition of equal rights but also the fair value of those rights. This means not only the ability to act on them as any other citizen might, but also the inability of a privileged class of citizens to unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the least powerful.

In Why We Can’t Wait (1964), for example, King wrote that “Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public, but they must also be absorbed into our economic system in such a manner that they can afford to exercise that right.” As Joseph reminds us, his conception of civic equality extended to things like “a good job, living wage, decent housing, quality education, health care, and nourishment.” Or as King put it in 1967, true freedom in an affluent society cannot mean the “freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover [our] heads.”

. . . King’s view of the world that he hoped mass protest would bring into being went far beyond Malcolm’s populist appeals to the “downtrodden masses” left behind by civil rights legislation. For King, equal civic standing, at least in an ostensible democracy, also means that each of us participates in decision-making, determining the contours of our common life together through deliberation. Indeed, one of his principal arguments concerning the evil of segregation was its assault on freedom. Segregation, King said, imposes undue “restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue.” Segregation destroys the vital human capacity to authentically “deliberate, decide, and respond” by imposing restrictions on when and where we may enter.

If democratic citizenship is to be free and equal, it must uproot habits, power arrangements, and resource distributions that leave us subject to the arbitrary impositions of others in the most vital domains of life. As Joseph notes, such demands extended to capitalism itself and partly explain King’s skepticism toward its basis in “cut-throat competition and selfish ambition.” In 1967, for instance, he wrote that “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning,” we must overcome the “contemporary tendency in our society” to “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.”

. . . Malcolm’s criticisms of so-called integrationism never adequately grappled with the leftist tenor of King’s views, which could be better described as “reconstructionist” rather than “integrationist.” For King, authentic integration was “meaningless without the mutual sharing of power.” Kingian integration would involve the widespread redistribution of assets and real democratic participation in economic and political decision-making instead of allowing municipal borders, the dictates of private profit, and existing measures of “merit” to unfairly disadvantage the life chances of so many Americans.

Not 1930s Germany, But 1820s Britain

Prof. Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, doesn’t see our former president as a political strongman, the harbinger of an American brand of fascism. He sees the Republican Party using the Constitution to hold the line against the majority’s desire for progress, and therefore truly conservative. From The New Yorker:

. . . Fascism called the young to the cause of novelty and creation. Today’s right is nothing like that. It is an artifact of the world’s most ancient and extant legal order, holding on to the Constitution, and the institutions it authorizes, for dear life. . . .

. . . Seeking to counter their waning position, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have come to depend upon three pillars of counter-majoritarian rule: the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. These institutions are not authoritarian or fascist—indeed, they are eminently constitutional—but they are antidemocratic. They are also mainstays of the right. In a remarkable statement, now forgotten, issued three days before January 6th, seven conservative members of the House warned their colleagues that [Republican] presidential candidates have

depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led [our party] to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.

The current moment is less reminiscent of the last days of Weimar than of Britain in the years before the Reform Act of 1832. With a scheme of representation dating back to the twelfth century, Parliament was the playground of grandees from rural and sparsely populated regions of the South. Growing cities in the Midlands and the North had no representation at all.

Standing atop this “aristocracy of mere locality,” in the words of the historian and Whig politician Thomas Macaulay, were the Tories. For six decades, virtually without interruption, they leveraged this Senate-like system of rotten boroughs to keep the Whigs out of power, enabling an increasingly isolated group of aristocrats and gentry to maintain their privileges. While “the natural growth of society went on” among the middle classes and in the cities, Macaulay said, “the artificial polity continued unchanged.”

Other features of this system will sound familiar. Polling places were few and far between; one of the leading items on the reform agenda was to increase their number. Electoral laws were so byzantine, and generated results so murky, that an army of well-paid lawyers was on the payroll for years, sorting out the returns and arguing over their validity. The “artificial polity” kept politics frozen in time, discouraging both parties from taking up vital economic questions of the day, and preventing new social forces and the partisan realignment that was eventually to come . . .

Still Waiting for Reconstruction

I’ve had a copy of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 for at least 20 years,  maybe 30, without starting to read it. Written by Eric Foner, it’s the standard history of the period after the Civil War during which the government theoretically tried to heal the South and integrate former slaves into the southern economy. I’ve never tried reading it because the failure of Reconstruction is too depressing. After fighting a terrible civil war, America had a chance to make significant progress and blew it.

Being a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, however, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s long biography of Grant and have finally reached the post-Civil War years. It looks like rough going ahead:

As the year progressed, Grant was drawn ever more deeply into the debate on Reconstruction. In early March 1865, the federal government had assumed responsibility for aiding freed slaves through the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Since it was set up as a War Department agency, drawing funds and staff from it, Grant was directly involved in its operations. The bureau’s mandate was to feed, clothe, and educate former slaves, providing them with medical supplies and legal protection and relocating them on more than 850,000 acres of land the federal government came to control during the war. . . .

Because southern slaves had inhabited a rural culture, the pivotal issue for their future was whether they could receive land from the federal government. With a plot of land, they had a chance for an independent life; if condemned to remain landless, they would be thrown back into servitude to the same plantation barons who had owned them. On August 16, [President Andrew] Johnson issued an order that allowed southern whites to recapture land confiscated from them during the war—a move that made him heroic to whites while dealing a crushing blow to black hopes. It forced freedmen to abandon the forty-acre plots they had started to work, turning the men into powerless sharecroppers, bound to land owned by whites. Within weeks, a white delegation from the former Confederacy rushed to the White House to express “sincere respect” for Johnson’s desire “to sustain Southern rights in the Union.”

By the end of 1865, so-called Black Codes began to forge a new caste system in the South, a segregated world where freed slaves worked as indentured servants, subject to arrest if they left jobs before their annual contracts expired. It was a cruel new form of bondage, establishing the foundations of the Jim Crow system that later ruled southern race relations. In South Carolina, blacks were confined by law to their plantations, forced to work from sunup to sundown. In Florida, blacks who showed “disrespect” to their bosses or rode in public conveyances reserved for whites could be whipped and pilloried. In Mississippi, it became a criminal offense for blacks to hunt or fish, heightening their dependence upon white employers. Thus, within six months of the end of the Civil War, there arose a broadly based retreat from many of the ideals that had motivated the northern war effort, reestablishing the status quo ante and white supremacy in the old Confederacy.

During the summer of 1865, President Johnson sent Carl Schurz, the Prussian-born journalist and Union general, to the South to report on the progress of Reconstruction. His forty-six-page report didn’t present the rosy view of a reconciled South that Johnson preferred. Instead he painted the white South as angry and defiant, still insisting that secession had been legitimate. His portrayal of freed blacks described them as languishing in wretched conditions of poverty, reinforced by Black Codes that trapped them in a new subservience.


Now here we are, more than 150 years later. Republicans have switched places with the Democrats and become the guarantors of white supremacy in the South. There are stories like “Georgia Republicans Are Going All-In on Voter Suppression” and “Why the Georgia [Republican Party’s] Voting Rollbacks Would Hit Black People Hard”. Why bother reading about Reconstruction when some of the same crap is happening now?

That Time the Chinese Communists Used a Few Words to Make Themselves Look Good

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t get as much publicity as it should. The people who run China’s government do horrible things. Prof. Perry Link is an expert on China and explains one way the party easily manipulated the rest of the world using the power of propaganda: 

Does the CCP’s Department of Propaganda (later renamed the Department of Publicity) lie? [Author and dissident] Su Xiaokang gently told me that the question is naïve. The CCP system, he explained, has an entirely different way of measuring the value of statements. Truth and falsity are incidental. A statement is valuable if its “social effects” are “good,” and the effects count as good if they support the power interests of the CCP. (For politically innocuous matters like weather reports or basketball scores, support of the party does not apply, but avoidance of harm to the party still does.) Hence a “good” statement might be true, half-true, or untrue—that is beside the point.

A tendency toward including truth does become relevant when someone judges that a statement will influence people more effectively if a bit of verisimilitude is supplied. But truth is never the first criterion, and in that sense neither is lying. American democracy’s headache with a president who lies is a fundamentally different problem from China’s living under the CCP’s propaganda apparatus, whose roots date from the 1940s and whose experts by now are very good at what they do.

Readers of the Western press, whether aware of it or not, have seen examples of that expertise. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international wing of the Xinhua News Agency instituted frequent use of the phrase “lifted from poverty.” This was what “China” (meaning the CCP) had done for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. The world’s media—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Kyodo News, the BBC, and many others—picked up the phrase, as did Western politicians on both the left and the right. The World Bank used it in official reports. Those words were, in short, highly successful in achieving the intended effect: the world came to believe that the CCP was doing great good.

A more transparent account of what it had done, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, is that it released its controls on the Chinese people so that, for the first time in decades, they could make money for themselves; hundreds of millions responded by working long hours at low wages without the protection of labor unions, workers’ compensation insurance, a free press, or independent courts; and, yes, they made great amounts of money, escaping poverty for themselves and simultaneously catapulting the CCP elite, who still rode high above them, to truly spectacular wealth.

In short, the word “lifted” [requires] analysis of who lifted whom. That question did not normally occur to people around the world who read the words “China lifted.” The grammar of such sentences, combined with the formula China = CCP, left no need for a question. Was this word-engineering deliberate? Anyone who doubts that it was should note that CCP media used the “China lifted” phrase in publications in English, French, German, and other foreign languages but not in Chinese-language media at home. That made good sense. What would happen if the CCP started telling the Chinese people that “we lifted you”? The people would know better. Both sides know better. To make such an assertion might generate unfortunate “social effects,” such as a greater number of demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, roadblocks, and other examples of what the Ministry of Public Security labels “masses incidents” and counts in the tens of thousands per year.

A Suggestion for Fixing America

Two professors writing for Foreign Policy see a way to simultaneously repair our country’s politics and economics (I’ve left out some of their analysis). Whether or not it succeeded, it wouldn’t hurt:

According to the Brookings Institution, Biden won 509 counties to [the other guy’s] 2,547—that’s over five times as many won by [the Republican]. But here’s the kicker. Biden’s counties constitute 71 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, [the loser’s] less than 30 percent. Surely we must somehow factor this into how we think about why people vote the way they do? How does growth, or the lack thereof, determine elections?

What we see in U.S. politics today is the death and dissolution of a particular social coalition that dominated politics and economics and underwrote social peace for three generations; call it the carbon coalition.

The carbon coalition was an encompassing political coalition, built on a set of agreements negotiated between 1932 and 1950, that distributed the income generated by the industrial economy among groups within society. In the auto and steel industries, the most dynamic of that era, United Auto Workers and General Motors signed the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, which tied pay to productivity. This created a path to prosperity for two generations of workers in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, to bring rural areas into the coalition, the urban middle class paid higher prices for food and accepted permanent agricultural subsidies so that farmers could enjoy higher incomes. These agreements drew together labor, business, and farmers; the North and the South; the Great Plains and the Great Lakes into one settlement. This broadly inclusive distributive coalition in turn softened the sectional and partisan divisions that had roiled U.S. politics almost continuously since the 1890s.

. . . This political coalition was in fact entirely dependent on a particular growth model: an extremely fossil fuel-intensive agro-industrial economy.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the United States’ postwar economy was a massive machine that transformed oil, coal, and natural gas into income and food. Consider the following: In 1971, automobile production directly and indirectly provided 1 of every 6 jobs in the U.S. economy. Most of these jobs were unionized, or, if not, most workers enjoyed wages and benefits that spilled over from union agreements. Then add to these jobs others created by the interstate highway program, by the oil and gas industry, and by the retail sale of gasoline and the repair and maintenance of automobiles. And then throw in jobs in aviation, shipping, and agriculture, which became increasingly energy intensive due to the use of diesel-fueled equipment and through the use of natural gas to manufacture artificial fertilizer. Finally come jobs in plastics and petrochemicals.

The carbon coalition distributed the income generated by the carbon economy. Elections determined those distributions. That model is now dying and indeed, given climate change, must die. The politics it made possible are dying too.

The carbon economy has been in decline for decades, but the [political effects are only now becoming visible.

The center of economic dynamism and wealth generation in the United States now lies in knowledge-intensive (or at least high-value-added) industries, some of which, like pharmaceuticals, are research intensive and some of which, like various forms of media, are creative.

Although this knowledge economy is diverse, these activities share one overarching commonality: None require (much less depend on) fossil fuels. Indeed, their survival over the long haul depends on successfully switching out of carbon completely. Productivity in these activities doesn’t come from more energy and bigger machines applied to faster assembly lines but from improvements in our ability to manipulate, analyze, and monetize information.

The economy that drives U.S. GDP growth today is already post-carbon. And though many of its activities are energy intensive (server farms consume more than more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity use; financial services consume more electricity than any other industry in New York City), the energy they consume can come as readily from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas. This isn’t the case for the internal combustion engine, for the steel from which its constructed, and for the oil extraction, refining, and distribution systems that support it. Nor is it true for an ammonia plant or for cement or aviation. Farmers cannot substitute solar energy for artificial fertilizer.

The U.S. economy is thus now divided in two: a growing and potentially sustainable post-carbon economy that can adapt to the realities of climate change and a carbon economy in decline that is unsustainable. . . .

Americans no longer live in the same economy.  Rather, they live in two incompatible models of economic growth. Those who remain embedded in the carbon economy quite rationally want to defend and rejuvenate that model. In contrast, those who have found a spot in the post-carbon economy largely embrace the future. . . .

Today, the firms and sectors that make up each of the two growth models fund elections and determine the strategy of their parties.

The post-carbon coalition dominates the Democratic Party. This coalition brings together a West Coast variant composed of high-margin agriculture (think wine), Big Tech, entertainment, and digital and high-end services and an East Coast variant based largely on financial services. These post-carbonites embrace some variant of the Green New Deal, which identifies the climate crisis as the most critical issue the country faces and offers a coherent policy response.

The carbon economy coalition that dominates the Republican Party includes export agriculture, carbon extraction, refinement and production, steel and other declining traditional industrial sectors, as well as low-wage and low productivity services (think Walmart over Accenture). This fragment of the original carbon coalition remains committed to defending and rebooting the carbon economy; this is what “Make America Great Again” means. . . .

The United States’ two coalitions cannot be brought together. Indeed, they are existential threats to each other. And on a population scale, each electoral coalition has more or less the same number of potential voters. As a result, elections are decided by thin margins in a race to the death. . . .

For almost half of U.S. states, the Green New Deal, which is—sotto voce—at the center of Biden’s platform, spells the end of their existing strategies—think fracking, refining, plastics, mining, logging, and so on. And for the other half of the states that support the deal, scaling back its objectives to attract support from the carbon coalition threatens the post-carbon coastal communities. . . .

There is only one way to fix this mess. The post-carbon coalition has to bribe what’s left of [the carbon coalition] to make [a] transition. Non-coastal, largely Republican states must be the epicenter of the green transition and be the recipients of most of the investment. After all, they have the most assets to turn around and the most to lose if they are not compensated. If all they are offered is “you decarbonize/we keep the money,” then all they will give back is more [right-wing radicalism].

There are clear parallels in U.S. history, such as the massive bribe that the urban sector began paying to farmers in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and two generations of generous farm bills . . . thereafter. Yet the bribe this time must involve more than a subsidy; it requires exiting the carbon economy. For it to work, green investment must extend well beyond energy capture (solar and wind farms) and downstream into industries that are powered by alternatives. Massive investments in electric vehicle production, for instance, to support a rapid turnover of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet with U.S.-built cars and trucks, are required. . . .

Elections in the United States are not being fought over rival principles and certainly not over median voters. They are contested over which parts of the country will grow and how and who will pay for it. Recognizing this is the first step to fixing the deeper problem of the carbon transition for the good of all Americans.