Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Dwell in Possibilities. The New Year's a Blank Page.

Its already half past noon on the first day of the New Year and I'm tingling with the possibilities and procrastinating the shit out of it.  I started the morning by beginning to read "The Strange Death of Liberal England (1910-1914) and it is absolutely my new favorite old book of all time.  Here is the author's description of Mr. Asquith, then Prime Minister, contemplating the recent death of his King, (ETA thanks to sharp eyed readers) Edward VII,  while staring at Halley's Comet, Comet, Comet (damn you, Smut Clyde).

"A character from one of Voltaire's tragedies would have done justice to this...situation...but neither Mr. Asquith's temperament nor his rather stolid figure had any business to monopolize so pregnant a scene.  He has recorded it in one lightless sentence in his "Fifty Years of British Parliament," and one can imagine his face, faintly illuminated in the twilight, a bland and weary face, in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a stand-still.  A touch of flamboyance (sic) in the long white hair, a hint of fantasy at the corners of the mouth gave this face a certain incongruity, as though a passage of correct and scholarly prose had been set up in too fanciful a type.  Mr. Asquith was essentially a prosaic character."

Or take this description of Liberalism itself:

"Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained--and who could doubt it?--a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions.  It was solid and sensible and just a little mysterious; and though one could not exactly gambol with such a weight on one's shoulders, it permitted one to walk in a dignified manner and even to execute from time to time those eccentric little steps which are so necessary to the health of Englishmen." 

I also especially like his almost biological and organic approach to English Politics, which is especially striking in comparison to the more engineering and structural approaches you see in US political theory.  Naturally one reads the current book in the light of one's own preoccupations--the topic of the first section is the war between the Lords and the Commons, the Conservative party (spanning both Lords and Commons) and the Liberals (largely in the Commons) for control of the government and the right to raise taxes and conduct business.  I see the current struggle between the Republican Party (reactionaries, cultural conservatives, nationalists and jingoists and religious and sexual bigots) vs the Democratic Party (variously and quaveringly socially liberal and fiscally conservative) especially over the ACA and its passage and implementation.  But here's how the author describes the political world generally:

"The soil of the eighteenth century was very rich.  Far beneath its surface the struggles of history, long dead, worked their powerful chemistry: here were the corpses of feudalism and absolutism, in various stages of decay; here were the ashes of heretics, the blood of rebels, the nourishing mineral relics of ignorance and patriotism.  There was scarcely an institution, political or social, which did not flourish in this earth and grow fat; and particularly was this true of the House of Lords..."

I love the vision of the political realm as a burgeoning, seething, cemetery in which new ideas and growths push up from the hidden, but not forgotten, corpses of the past.  For one thing its so lush and filled with images of sensual decay and rebirth.  For another, it reminds one that in politics as in psychology there is always the danger of the return of the repressed or the revolt of the unconcious against the conscious.  At any rate it is a necessary corrective to the pure, cold, corporate model used to explain American politics.  The author of "The Strange Death" does not imagine any Schoolhouse Rock version of "How a Bill Gets Passed." (Here I'm going to make a bit of a jump but reading the first few chapters of TSDOLE really is pretty jaw dropping.*)

How do we get from the seething sepulchres of British politics to the whited sepulchers of US  politics? It must be some process of wilful forgetting.  But you see it all the time.  In analyzing why the House voted this way, or why the Senate is reactionary and unrepresentative, we are given dry as dust analyses of voting patterns and demographics and committee forms.  But this leads the unwary reader or political novice to think that you pop your representatives and their votes in one end of a cold black box and the legislation pops out the other end.  Thats not what is really happening in the political world--its a lot closer to two (or more) competing farmers cultivating some kind of biological product in their home sewage treatment plants, hoping that from the mixture of compost, gases, and luck something good will pop out that will please the buyer every two years. This fundamental misunderstanding: the mechanistic versus the biological viewpoint, leads to constant disapointment on the left and right.**

  This is why, on the left, you have such a raging fury at the Democrats for being unable to pass a perfect, leftist, ACA bill and now you have Booman furious that the Democrats "didn't fight hard enough" for the Unemployment Insurance extension when he thinks they had "the most leverage" during the budget agreement.   Booman says:

On the political front, I note that Harry Reid intends to make the first order of business on Monday an effort to extend unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million people who just lost that benefit on Saturday. His fellow senator from Nevada, Dean Heller, is co-sponsoring the legislation along with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI).
However, there is little reason to believe that the House will agree to an extension, and they certainly won't agree to one unless it is offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The best time to extend benefits was when the Murray-Ryan budget negotiations were underway, because the Republican leadership and most of their appropriators were desperate for a deal. The White House doesn't think a deal was attainable that included an extension, and that may be true. But, for me, that just makes it less likely that an extension can be achieved now.
Personally, I think the truth is more that the White House wasn't willing to risk losing what they got out of the deal by insisting on an extension, and they figure that they can use it as an effective political issue. I got a bit of a brushback on that, by I don't care if it strikes some folks on Pennsylvania Avenue as an offensive suggestion. I think they made a calculation, and the long-term unemployed were left to the mercy of the House Republicans.

Booman thinks that the Democrats could have gotten a budget deal that included the UE but which didn't require "spending cuts elsewhere in the budget."  Now, he thinks, when  Reid and Obama basically shove the House up against the wall and demand a UE extension he thinks the House will have the stomach to "demand spending cuts elsewhere in the budget" i.e. offsets in the new budget. Worse--since this is merely a question of tactics--Booman thinks that the White House "made a calculation"   and left the "long-term unemployed to the mercy of the House Republicans."  So the White House chose a worse deal (Budget compromise, no more shut downs, partial end to the sequester) when Booman thinks they could have gotten all that and a bag of chips and this is evidence of some kind of cowardice.  But, of course, Booman has no reason to believe that the Republicans wouldn't have held firm and demanded "budget offsets" in order to include UE in the original budget deal.  And there is every reason to believe that they did, or would have, and that it was understood by the Dems that UE extension was both a bridge too far and, if I may mix my metaphors, an anvil to hang around their necks after the new year.

And that is precisely what the Democrats are doing. They are teeing up another confrontation over the UE expansion in which the lines are clearly drawn.  It may be true that the big money backers of the Republicans no longer feel the sense of urgency that they felt prior to the budget deal--but does that mean that there are no relevant political actors to be mobilized? Or that there is no long term utility to mobilizing those actors?  Booman thinks that the new "calculation" (Brrr! Evil!) will fail because there is now nothing that the Republicans want, as a party, that they can get through a UE extension.  But is that really true? Or is that, obviously, a failure of calculation or a different calculation?  This is just a new version of the "Green Lanternism" (this is in quotes in case my parents are reading) argument for Single Payer.

We are not going to get to a new nirvana of political perfection simply by the Democrats stepping in, again and again, to clean up the messes the Republicans leave in their wake.  At a certain point the voters have to step up to the plate. 1.3 million unemployed people being cut off insurance is not a Democratic plan.  Its not even the failure of Democratic plans.  It is what happens when a lot of political balls are in the air, and a lot of intransigent political actors answering their own needs.  The Democrats saved something in the negotiations from the wreckage of a dysfunctional partisan conflict which amounts to the total nullification of, and denial of, governance.  They lost something, too, or they may have.  Its like saying "if you'd put your money down on that hidden card it might have won you the game. I haven't seen the card, but it could have been the right one."  You just don't know that. Booman doesn't know that.  The only thing we do know is that the failure of a UE  is the obvious fruit of Republican hatred of workers.  If voters won't turn out to vote the Republican House out of existence there is not much the Democratic party can do to stave off the total destruction of the country.

I'm horrified by the cruelty and intransigence of the Republican party but I can't stop them from doing their worst--I don't know why Booman thinks anything short of accidental detonation of a neutron bomb can do so.  They are on a certain course and they are not going to be moved by pleas of humanity--only by threats of losing their seats.

*Basically: in 1909 England was drowning in debt.  The Liberals drew up a make or break "People's Budget" which was so terrifyingly progressive that most of them didn't want it (it included income taxes, liquor taxes, and a slew of new taxes on land and on mineral extraction).  However, they put it forward in order to dare the House of Lords, which had been vetoing legislation at an alarming rate, to try to veto (against all custom) a Budget Bill.  Does this sound at all familiar? They basically dared the House of Lords, as Harry Reid dared the Republicans on the filibuster, to cross the line.  When the House of Lords, against the advice of the Conservatives in the House, took the bait and vetoed the Budget bill, the government fell and the Liberals went back to the country to get a new Mandate.  Their "calculation" to use Booman's term, was that they would be returned with such a majority that they would be able to force through any new budget that they wanted.  In the event, they lost their majority and had to treat with the Irish members to get their support.  In other words: like any political calculation, it was a gamble.  But there's no other way to play politics. Every piece of legislation is crafted as a vote getting compromise, or as a bludgeon to smash your enemies. Only thirdly, in a divided government, is legislation purely about getting something done.  (If you want to hear how this amazing story of government by brinksmanship turns out you have to go ahead and read the book yourself. But I do want to add that given the fluidity of then British Government structures and laws relating to political organization the negotiations involved (among other things) the threat of Edward the VII (and later George V) diluting the House of Lords by appointing Liberal Peers.  Its as though Obama could have cowed the Senate Republicans by threatening to appoint 10 or 20 new Democratic Senators.

**You can fill in the blank yourself on right wing arguments for purity of essence and their rage at anything that smacks of compromise or interaction.  Their belief, which closely parallels that of the leftist critiques of Obama, is that if you have a majority (and every house member is considered to represent a majority) then majority rule means your will must be done.  Where "your will" isn't done there is no question but it is the result of cowardice or duplicity on the part of your representatives who were either not pure enough, or outright traitors to their professed beliefs.


  1. while staring at Halley's Comment

    It must have been a good one. I hope it won the Internets.

  2. Thank you, Smut Clyde. That made my day. Let me take the chance to ask you about the art work I saw up on your photo bucket? Fascinating and evocative. I've never seen anything like it. Did you originate the form?

  3. The GIF animations turn up at Riddled from time to time. I think Wound-man was one of the earlier ones. See also the 'Horses' tag.

    It grew out of a fascination with the migration and re-copying of imagery through Renaissance woodcuts and engravings (especially as illustrations in the encyclopedias and the monstrum compilations and the Emblemata tradition). Substance McGravitas explained how to collapse them into animated GIFs, and I was all "Oh joy, I can see something that no-one has ever seen before! (even if only through lack of interest".

  4. Its very, very, cool. And it is something that, with your Renaissance woodcuts and engravings, reveals something the viewer hadn't thought about before. I loved them. If you put up a link to them here I'll link them on the front page, if you'd like. I thought they were fascinating.

  5. You are very kind. I'll try consolidating the various annymations on a single site.

  6. There is now a kind of gallery of links at the bottom of the Riddled homepage.

  7. Nitpickery alert: the King whose death Asquith was contemplating was Eddie VII, not George. There won't be a George VII until/unless Billy and Kate's new sprog ascends the throne.