NPR’s Planet Money went to the 2020 American Economic Association conference in San Diego where they asked economists, “what is the most useful idea in economics?” David Autor appears near the end of the episode (minute 16:00) to talk about the lump-of-labor fallacy. Almost exactly 87 years earlier, on January 18, 1933, Arthur Dahlberg appeared before a Senate subcommittee to give testimony on the thirty-hour work week bill. The lump-of-labor fallacy would be a useful idea indeed if it would show economists how little they have learned and how much they have forgotten in the intervening 87 years.
In his Planet Money interview, Autor rehearses the standard refrain about there not being a “finite” amount of work to be done so we are not in danger of running out of jobs. Then he introduces the caveat that although we will not run out of jobs, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to worry about — some people will end up in worse jobs than they previously had or would have had. Autor’s remedy for this is to develop policy that will improve people’s skills so they qualify for better jobs or raise the productivity in personal service jobs so they pay more.
Eighty-seven years earlier, Dahlberg also disagreed with the idea that machines create technological unemployment. He also saw that the new jobs created by technological change would be different than the old ones. But Dahlberg carried his analysis several steps further than Autor. In Dahlberg’s view many of the new jobs would differ from those they replaced in that the demand for their products or services would not be spontaneous but would need to be artificially induced by, for example, advertising.
Autor acknowledges something similar when he mentions that a hundred years ago 70 percent of consumer spending was on necessities compared to only around 40 percent now. But Dahlberg raised the issue that wages are determined by bargaining and the shift away from spontaneously-demanded goods and services undermines labor’s relative bargaining power, resulting in a smaller labor share of income. Recipients of capital income may spend their larger share either on personal consumption or investment but eventually they will want to “cash in” on that investment. Spending on new investment will decline faster than spending on consumption rises. Dahlberg thus invoked the business cycle as the “slow-moving effect” of the introduction of labor-saving technology.
According to a report, Global Waves of Debt, pre-published by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:
Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.
A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise.
We hear from time to time that “the world is not zero sum.” Rarely is that dictum explained in other than mystical terms (e.g. “supply creates its own demand,” “human wants are insatiable,” etc.). The explanation, however, is simple: debt. Without debt there would be no “economic growth.”
Debt finances growth; growth services debt. And they all lived happily ever after. But some debt takes “riskier forms.” Hyman Minsky wrote about the first of those four debt waves in “The Bubble in the Price of Baseball Cards.” In that paper Minsky addressed the price of baseball cards, the Latin American debt crisis, the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese real estate and equity booms of the ’80s, and “[o]ne of the puzzles of the 1980s… the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump.”
What the rise in Trump’s wealth had in common with the Latin American debt crisis was that they both were predicated on a precarious differential between real interest rates and increases in asset values that could change very suddenly with an increase in the former or a decrease in the latter.
One of Minsky’s best shots was a drive-by — relating the regional increase in real estate prices to “rapid increase in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham.” That Drexel Burnham “success” was, of course, transitory and involved fraud. The inference was that Trump’s financial success, too, was ultimately — at least indirectly — fraudulent.
John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “bezzle” for the amount by which total wealth is inflated by embezzlement in the period before the embezzlement is discovered:
At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in—or more precisely not in—the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle.
Any large quantity of debt includes an inventory of embezzlement. A certain amount of it will never be paid back. Some was never intended to be repaid. As the debt increases relative to income, the proportion of prospective embezzlement also increases.
Aside from the headline news about a July 26 phone call, I learned four big things from the impeachment inquiry hearing this morning. First, the specific corruption surrounding Burisma Holidings had to do with self dealing by company founder Mykola Vladislavovich Zlochevsky — issuing oil and gas licences to his own company when he was Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources. In other words, Zlochevsky did exactly what Donald J. Trump attempted to do with his Doral Golf Club and the G7 summit.
The second thing I learned is that President Trump was nursing a grudge against Ukraine because some Ukrainian politicians said some nasty things about him after he made a comment about letting Russia have Crimea. That’s why he felt Ukraine “owed” him. The third thing is that the Ukraine shit made fanfall just about exactly the time that Trump was extemporizing about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama. Who knew Trump could multi-task?
The fourth thing I learned is the big one. There was not one quid pro quo but two. One involved Zelensky, the other Putin. That’s the significance of the timing of the Trump-Zelensky phone call — the day after Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony was a dud. Humiliating Zelensky by forcing him to make a public announcement of a politically-motivated investigation of Biden-Burisma-2016 would hand to Putin his reward — a weakened negotiating partner — for the favor of having helped put Trump in the White House. The art of the deal, indeed.
The real question is: will robots burn down your house and kill your grandchildren? Let’s imagine that all those self-driving trucks and the computers needed to guide them will run on electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Will the robots in the truck factories and the robots in the computer factories also run on wind and sunshine? How about the robots in the wind turbine factories and the solar panel factories and so one ad infinitum? I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…
Let’s assume that it is feasible to phase out all current fossil fuel consumption by 2050 and replace it with renewable, zero-carbon energy. Does that mean it is equally feasible to provide the additional energy needed to run all those job-stealing robots? Or to put the question in proper context, would it be feasible to do it without an uncorruptable, omniscient global central planning authority?
The hitch in all this robot speculation is a little paradox known as Jevons paradox conjoined at the hip, so to speak, with it’s counterpart, “Say’s Law.” The former paradox says that greater fuel efficiency leads to more fuel consumption, the latter paradox tells us that labor-saving machines create more jobs than they destroy. Here are two inseparable positive feedback loops that together generate an incongruous outcome. “Yes the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” Or lots of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or a monthly $1,000 payment to every adult “so that we can build a trickle-up economy,” Choose your poison.
There is, they say, “a certain quantity of work to be done.” Who says that? Good question. In the beginning, it was the political economists — even proto political economists — who said it. But around 1870 economists realized that the maxim conflicted with other things they had in mind so instead of professing it they began to condemn it and to attribute the idea to others — to Luddites, Malthusians or Lump-of-Laborers. The idea that a people could always do more work was just too great a temptation. In principle, the amount of work that could be done is infinite! The robots will not replace us! The robots will not replace us!
What this job-stealing robot debate is really all about is an economics version of theodicy. “Why does evil exist if God, the creator, is omnipotent, omniscient and good?” This theological question is echoed in the puzzle about poverty in the midst of plenty and in Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees,” where private vices promote public virtues. If it seems like robots are stealing your job, have faith, all is for some ultimate purpose in this best of all possible worlds, as Candide’s tutor Dr. Pangloss would assure him.
Taking the Panglossian philosophy into account, it becomes clear that both Andrew Yang and Paul Krugman are on the same page. They are just reading different paragraphs. Although they disagree on what the solution is, they agree that there is a solution and it doesn’t really require a fundamental change in the way we think about limits to the “certain quantity of work to be done.”
The Hurricane/Picture of Dorian Gray: A Perfect Moral Storm in Three Texts
Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital:
The temporal aspect is particularly striking,’ writes philosopher Stephen Gardiner, who has done perhaps more than anyone to foreground it, in A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change: it catches us in a bind. Given that global warming is ‘seriously backloaded’ (every moment experiencing a higher temperature posted from the past) and ‘substantially deferred’ (the cumulative effects of current emissions arriving in the future), a warped ethical structure arises. The person who harms others by burning fossil fuels cannot even potentially encounter his victims, because they do not yet exist. Living in the here and now, he reaps all the benefits from the combustion but few of the injuries, which will be suffered by people who are not around and cannot voice their opposition. Each generation, reasons Gardiner, thus faces a perverse incentive to ‘pass the buck’ to the next, which also profits from its own fossil fuel combustion while dodging the pain from it, and so on, in a vicious cycle of infliction of harm.
James P. Kossin, “A global slowdown of tropical-cyclone translation speed”:
As the Earth’s atmosphere warms, the atmospheric circulation changes. These changes vary by region and time of year, but there is evidence that anthropogenic warming causes a general weakening of summertime tropical circulation.
In his newly published Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, Giorgos Kallis challenges what has become the conventional perversion of Robert Malthus’s economic argument. Far from being a “prophet of doom” predicting the inevitable overshoot by population growth of food supplies, Malthus was an advocate of industrial progress as the antidote to a providential discrepancy between the tendency of humans to reproduce and the capacity of the land to feed them. The theodicy of Malthus’s position was explicit and undisguised: “Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity.”
At the core of the misinterpretation of Malthus is his famous comparison between the tendency for population to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4. 8. 16…) but for subsistence to increase at only an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…). Much of subsequent debate focused on the validity and/or logical consistency of this comparison rather than the conclusions it was intended to support.
What Malthus was trying to show, however, was not that population inevitably will outrun subsistence but that the presumed tendency of population to outrun subsistence constitutes an incentive to industry unless that incentive is blunted by public assistance. For his part, Malthus was remarkably sanguine about the controversy generated by such a rash assertion:
It has been said that I have written a quarto volume to prove, that population increases in a geometrical, and food in an arithmetical ratio; but this is not quite true. The first of these propositions I considered as proved the moment the American increase was related, and the second proposition as soon as it was enunciated. The chief object of my work was to enquire, what effects those laws, which I considered as established in the first six pages, had produced, and were likely to produce, on society; a subject not very readily exhausted.
Defenders of Malthus argue that he meant those propositions only as tendencies, which he subsequently qualified by talking about the actual checks that occur on population. However, the rest of his discussion of “a subject not very readily exhausted” is predicated on the truth of ever-present threat of scarcity presumably demonstrated by those propositions. The logical inconsistency of comparing a constrained tendency of increase in food with an unconstrained one for population can’t be readily dismissed.
Classical political economy readily incorporated the drift of Malthus’s scarcity argument into it’s theory of wages, setting aside quibbles about geometrical and arithmetical tendencies. This is the notorious wages-fund doctrine used to argue for the futility of collective action to raise wages. The defunct doctrine is what underlies the unshakable conviction of “Econ 101” devotees that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.
One of the circumstances that no doubt focused a good deal of anxiety on over-population was the emergence of “neo-Malthusianism” in the early 19th century. Neo-Malthusianism is a bit of a misnomer to the extent that it offered a solution to the population problem that Malthus himself expressly rejected as immoral and improper — namely contraception. In Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population (1822), Francis Place directly addressed what “Mr. Malthus seems to shrink from discussing…” Actually, Malthus didn’t shrink from discussing contraception, he rejected it unequivocally:
I have never adverted to the check suggested by Condorcet without the most marked disapprobation. Indeed I should always particularly reprobate any artificial and unnatural modes of checking population, both on account of their immorality and their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to industry.
Nancy Folbre gives a brilliant account of this mostly unheralded episode in Chapter 8, “Self-love, Triumphant” of Sex, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas. Folbre points out that a year after Place published his Illustrations, he followed up with illegal and “obscene” handbills titled, “To the Married of Both Sexes,” in which he described a method of birth control. Seventeen-year old John Stuart Mill was arrested for distributing one of those handbills.
By the late 1860s, “Malthusianism” had become the discrete euphemism used to refer to advocacy of those “odious doctrines” and “monstrous propositions” that sheltered “under the phrase ‘limiting the number of children born…'”
So, why was Malthus wrong and why should environmentalists care? To begin with, Kallis points out that Malthus equated happiness with exponential population growth. “‘The happiness of a country,’ Malthus writes, ‘depends upon the degree in which the yearly increase in food approaches to the yearly increase of an unrestricted population.'”
Secondly, Malthus’s formula proclaimed a principle of scarcity as a law of nature. In this view, scarcity is inevitable because human desires are unlimited. As Kallis says, this is the “conception of nature that lies at the heart of modern economics and, to an extent, environmentalism.” Malthus was thus not a prophet of doom, but of perpetual growth — growth of production to feed an ever growing population.
Many environmentalists, Kallis argues, have largely adopted the neo-Malthusian side of the coin. Mid-20th century neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich raised the specter of an apocalyptic “Population Bomb.” Garrett Hardin advocated lifeboat ethics and coercive restriction on population. Hardin occupied the margin where environmentalist neo-Malthusianism shaded over into political white nationalism.
Neo-Malthusianism concedes the scarcity principal that is central to Malthus and to modern growth economics. Kallis offers an analysis that views scarcity as an artifact of a particular historical culture rather than as a law of nature. As a counter-example to the modern culture of insatiable consumption and growth, Kallis posits the ancient Greeks as cultivating limits as a path to self-awareness and fulfillment. This is not to say that the remedy for climate change is for everyone to suddenly adopt ancient Greek traditions and rituals. It is only to show that Malthus’s logically flawed model of geometric and arithmetic progression doesn’t have to be the only game in town.
This post is a sequel to my earlier Goats and Dogs, Eco-Fascism and Liberal Taboos. I am thinking of re-working the two parts into a comprehensive whole but in the meanwhile will leave it to the reader to discover or disregard the linkages between them.
When remembered at all, Edward Abbey is mostly thought of as an environmentalist and anarchist but there is no gainsaying the racism and xenophobia on display in his 1983 essay, “Immigration and Liberal Taboos.” The opinion piece was originally solicited by the New York Times, which ultimately declined to publish it — or to pay him the customary kill fee. It was subsequently rejected by Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Mother Jones and Playboy before finally being published in the Phoenix New Times as “The Closing Door Policy.”
Various white nationalist blogs applaud what they view as Abbey’s foresightedness and forthrightness regarding immigration, presumably oblivious to how those views relate to his ideas about wealth inequality, industrial development and authoritarianism. Conversely, Abbey fans on the left who seek to insulate his nature writing from the taint of his anti-immigrant bigotry ignore the way in which, as Michael Potts put it, “a xenophobic and racist image of the immigrant as pollution… map[s] cultural and ethnic prejudices on to an idealised landscape.” (Dumping Grounds: Donald Trump, Edward Abbey and the Immigrant as Pollution) Abbey’s admirers on both the right and the left thus resort either to blinkers or lame apologetic to redeem him for their political preferences.
My interpretation is that Abbey was a curmudgeon and contrarian whose intended target was liberal hypocrisy. Immigrants were merely “collateral damage” of his colorful diatribes. In the pursuit of being provocative, though, he revealed more than he bargained for about his prejudices. It is precisely this flawed complexity, though, that makes Abbey’s writing a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the dire social hieroglyphics of our time. Presumably, Abbey did not think of himself as racist. He was indignant when accused of racism. But the institutions of the society he grew up in transmit racism in their DNA.
Over a time span of forty-four years, Kenneth Burke wrote a series of four essays beginning with “Waste — or the Future of Prosperity,” published in 1930, and concluding with “Why Satire, With a Plan for Writing One” in 1974. Between those two bookends were “Recipe for Prosperity: ‘Borrow. Buy. Waste. Want.,'” in 1956 and “Towards Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision,” in 1971. Burke made explicit the affinity between the four essays in each successive iteration with repeated reference to the first essay:
Recipe for Prosperity: “Some years ago, in fact just before the stock-market crash of ’29, 1 wrote an article entitled “Waste or the Future of Prosperity.” It was a burlesque, done along the lines of Veblen’s ingeniously ironic formula, “conspicuous consumption,” as used in his Theory of the Leisure Class.”
Towards Helhaven: “Years ago I published a satire closely akin to the theme of my present “Helhaven” vision. It was called “Waste—or the Future of Prosperity.” The general slant was that, although there is a limit to the amount that people can use, there’s no limit to the amount that people can waste.”
Why Satire: “A rudimentary version of my satire was written just before the market crash of 1929, and published after. Done under the obvious influence of Thorstein Veblen, it was called “Waste—or the Future of Prosperity” (The New Republic 58). It was a perversely rational response to a time when the principle of “planned obsolescence” was already becoming a major factor in the engineering and merchandising of commodities manufactured for the mass market.”
In “Toward Helhaven,” Burke presented the satire of the “Culture-Bubble on the Moon,” the haven to which the .01% would flee to escape the polluted hell they had created on the earth.
For a happy ending, then, envision an apocalyptic development whereby technology could of itself procure, for a fortunate few, an ultimate technological release from the very distresses with which that very technology now burdens us.
Not incidental to Burke’s technological paradise would be a “Super-Lookout” for observing those “scurvy anthropoid leftovers that might still somehow contrive to go on hatching their doubtless degenerate and misshapen broods back there among those seven filthy seas”:
…a kind of chapel, bare except for some small but powerful telescopes of a special competence. And on the wall, in ecclesiastical lettering, there will be these fundamental words from the Summa Theologica: “And the blessed in Heaven shall look upon the sufferings of the damned, that they may love their blessedness the more.”
Of course Bezos claims that his vision will preserve earth as a pristine residential zone, with only light industry. Of course! Bezos, however, doesn’t have a track record for that kind of long run prediction. Burke did. His 1930 burlesque was proven prophetic by the time of his 1956 reassessment.
Central to Burke’s futurist satire, as he emphasized several time, was Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. Familiarity with Veblen’s theory and “his ingeniously ironic formula, ‘conspicuous consumption'” would enhance understanding of Burke’s satire.
It is not easy to give a quick overview of Veblen’s book and theory. For starters, his “ironic formula” of “conspicuous consumption” is not meant to be ironic. Although composed in a satirical tone, The Theory of the Leisure Class is not a satire. Readers may find the sustained, exaggeratedly-elevated tone of the book grating, which may well be intentional.
Reading backward from the last chapter, “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture” reveals that the “theory” of the title has a dual reference. The very notion of theory is itself imbued with class privilege, prestige, parasitism and obscurantism. To have the leisure to criticize the nature of class society is already to be implicated in the perpetuation of class hierarchies. There is no escaping from the labyrinth of language that has evolved to vindicate the right of the mighty.
Or, at least, there is no leisurely escape to be achieved by reading about it. One must do the work.
Veblen left a clue in the last chapter when he discusses the role of the priest or shaman as mediator between the “inscrutable powers that move in the external world” and the “common run of unrestricted humanity.” Science enters as a token of priestly prowess:
…as commonly happens with mediators between the vulgar and their masters, whether the masters be natural or preternatural, he found it expedient to have the means at hand tangibly to impress upon the vulgar the fact that these inscrutable powers would do what he might ask of them. Hence, presently, a knowledge of certain natural processes which could be turned to account for spectacular effect, together with some sleight of hand, came to be an integral part of priestly lore.
To illustrate his point, Veblen presented the “typical case” of the Norwegian peasants who “have instinctively formulated their sense of the superior erudition of… even so late a scholar in divinity as Grundtvig, in terms of the Black Art.” Norwegian peasants is self-referential; the Danish minister, N. F. S. Grundtvig, was a major influence on Veblen, particularly on his concept of language. In effect, Veblen was warning the reader that his prose was exemplary of the “sympathetic magic” performed by the theorist — “a by-product of the priestly vicarious leisure class.”
The core of Veblen’s theory is presented in the “Introductory” chapter one and the first six paragraphs of chapter two, “Pecuniary Emulation.” The following thirteen chapters elaborate the implications of that theory with the final chapter “deconstructing” the pretense of theory existing outside of the social strictures that have given birth to it. Veblen’s speculation about the origins of a “leisure class” and of ownership is outlined in two brief passages from chapter two:
The early differentiation out of which the distinction between a leisure and a working class arises is a division maintained between men’s and women’s work in the lower stages of barbarism. Likewise the earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community. …
The ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian stages of culture, apparently with the seizure of female captives. The original reason for the seizure and appropriation of women seems to have been their usefulness as trophies.
From that inauspicious beginning things only get more complicated and ingrained through emulation until ultimately even “enlightenment.” ritually clothed in its atavistic cap and gown, comes to the aid of subjugation and social domination. Emulation, invidious comparisons and distinctions, conspicuous and vicarious leisure, consumption and waste accumulate as habits in an accustomed way of life. But first of all emulation, which brings us back to the theme of Burke’s essays: waste as the basis of continued “prosperity”:
With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper. In an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation; and this, so far as regards the Western civilized communities of the present, is virtually equivalent to saying that it expresses itself in some form of conspicuous waste. The need of conspicuous waste, therefore, stands ready to absorb any increase in the community’s industrial efficiency or output of goods, after the most elementary physical wants have been provided for.
Two other aspects of Veblen’s theory indicate its usefulness for understanding our current predicament of regression: the central role played by subjugation of women, previously mentioned, and by the glorification of arms. Veblen stressed repeatedly the symbolic importance of arms to leisure class values:
Under this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honour, the taking of life — the killing of formidable competitors, whether brute or human — is honourable in the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer’s prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act. Arms are honourable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the fields, becomes a honorific employment.
So, those offices which are by right the proper employment of the leisure class are noble; such as government, fighting, hunting, the care of arms and accoutrements, and the like — in short, those which may be classed as ostensibly predatory employments.
It is noticeable, for instance, that even very mild-mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking.
Kenneth Burke may have predicted Jeff Bezos’s moon colony dream 48 years ago but Thorstein Veblen predicted the 21st century GOP platform 120 years ago.
On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr sent a letter to Congress, summarizing the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The most telling section, quoted directly from Mueller’s report, read:
“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
That one sentence should end a roughly 33-month national ordeal (the first Russiagate stories date back to July 2016) in which the public was encouraged, both by officials and the press, to believe Donald Trump was a compromised foreign agent.
“That one sentence” unexpurgated:
Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through the Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.
William S. Lind’s cultural Marxism conspiracy theory boils down to the claim that in his essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse “called for tolerance for all ideas and viewpoints coming from the left and intolerance of all ideas and viewpoints coming from the right” and that college administrators and professors have put Marcuse’s proposal into practice in the form of “Political Correctness.”
Marcuse did indeed make a statement that seemed to propose exactly that: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.” The problem with taking the proposition literally, however, is that on the very first page of his essay, Marcuse had already dismissed it with the awareness that,”no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice.” The proposition, he added, was intended “to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.”
Approximately 6,000 words of dense verbiage intervene between Marcuse’s discounting of the proposition and his restating it in stark, attention-getting terms. The casual reader could be forgiven for having forgotten the initial disclaimer along the way. What is implausible, though, is that college administrators and professors would have collectively adopted the formula as gospel while expressly ignoring the caveats. In fact, in a 1968 postscript to his 1965 essay, Marcuse indicated that his proposition had encountered “virulent denunciations” which he attempted to counter with a restatement of its rationale and acknowledgement that the practice he called liberating tolerance “already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve.”
Marcuse’s postscript apologia is hardly more convincing than his original essay. The problem, in my view, is that Marcuse attempted to illustrate a terminological paradox with a “counter-paradox.” His diagnosis — that “tolerance” in an administrated state rife with propaganda is not all it is cracked up to be — was apt. But he clumsily succumbed to the temptation to offer a prescription. And since he realized that there is no pat solution, he offered a pseudo-cure instead, in the form of a facile “thought experiment.”
It may well be that the crude, simplistic slogan of “intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left” would have appealed to student radicals in the 1960s, in which case, Marcuse’s popularity would have been due more to incomprehension than to affirmation. But among his peers, even in the Frankfurt School, there was no such luck. Correspondence between Marcuse and Theodor Adorno from 1969 show Marcuse’s defensiveness in response to Adorno’s tense disapproval of his “undialectical” activist sympathies:
You know me well enough to know that I reject the unmediated translation of theory into praxis just as emphatically as you do. But…
Like you, I believe it is irresponsible to sit at one’s writing desk advocating activities to people who are fully prepared to let their heads be bashed in for the cause. But…
Meanwhile, Max Horkheimer “too has joined the chorus of my attackers” while Habermas was publicly warning against “left fascism.” By the early 1970s, Marcuse’s brief moment of notoriety was rapidly fading.
Marcuse’s paradoxical fable of “liberating tolerance” (and intolerance) was not even the most pernicious part of his “Repressive Tolerance” essay. The same social conditions that make “tolerance” abstract and spurious, Marcuse argued, also “render the critique of such tolerance abstract and academic, and the proposition that the balance between tolerance toward the Right and toward the Left would have to be radically redressed in order to restore the liberating function of tolerance becomes only an unrealistic speculation.” So, there you have it, folks! Herbie has been giving you the jive and now he’s telling you it’s all jive. What, oh what… is to be done?
Indeed, such a redressing seems to be tantamount to the establishment of a “right of resistance” to the point of subversion. There is not, there cannot be any such right for any group or individual against a constitutional government sustained by a majority of the population. But I believe that there is a “natural right” of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate.
Andreas Baader invoked this “natural right of resistance” at his 1968 trial for arson, with the outcome that he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for political vandalism that caused no injuries and relatively modest property damage. So much for Marcuse’s objection to sitting “at one’s writing desk advocating activities to people who are fully prepared to let their heads be bashed in for the cause.”
Closely reading Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” essay gives me a new insight into what Lind is doing with his cultural Marxism hoax. Lind has appropriated Marcuse’s theme of there being a regime of repressive tolerance but has inverted its origin and attributed it to Marcuse’s “liberating tolerance.” Marcuse’s “mental space,” “unrealistic speculation” or petitio principii that “already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve” is recycled by Lind as the actual persecution endured by conservative students under the imagined regime of “cultural Marxism.”