How Not To Mobilize People

Book reviews

ameican insecurity

American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction (2015)

It may be a jarring question to ask amidst Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Presidency, but why haven’t people been more politically active on issues of economic insecurity? After all, the public’s sense of economic insecurity has been growing at least since the 1980s, yet has rarely provoked mass political action like this. (I’ll return to Sanders in a moment.)

Adam Seth Levine, a professor at Cornell University, has published a solid work of political science addressing this question in “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.” His thesis is one of those ideas that is so compelling that as soon as you read it, you start to believe you already must have known this. But you didn’t.

Levine first demonstrates that people are less likely to donate money or time to causes related to economic insecurity issues (unemployment, retirement security, health care costs, rising college tuitions) than to other issues (such as gun control, abortion, or the federal deficit).

That’s the gist of the mystery, although it’s a little more complex than that. For one thing, and counter-intuitively, those whose personal lives are affected by the issue are less likely to act on it than those whose personal lives are not affected. For another, those who are part of the labor force (working or seeking work) are less likely to act than those who are outside of it (the retired, the disabled, students). Continue Reading


My Mojo Ain’t Working

Book reviews

american mojo

American Mojo: Lost and Found (2015)

Why is the U.S. middle class in economic decline and what can be done about it? These questions are given the attention they demand by Peter D. Kiernan in “American Mojo: Lost and Found,” but unfortunately the book is frustratingly incoherent.

Kiernan writes in an engaging, reportorial style and amasses lots of pertinent information from a multiplicity of sources. But I had the sense that he got lost in this sea of information and failed to find a compass to guide him through it. I did learn a few things, but came away without feeling any more illuminated on the problem than I had been before.

Part I, comprised of the first eight chapters, retells yet again the oft-told story of the rise of the U.S. middle class in the two decades following World War II and its decline from the 1970s into the present. In essence, the middle class rose because the U.S. was in a favorable economic position vis-à-vis other countries and declined as other countries became serious competitors.

That seems to be his central theme, or at least he says so in his introduction. But he also says the middle class rose due to “government interventions,” “a harmonic convergence of world events,” “a nationwide unity of vision,” “the driving force of its ambition and aspiration,” and “hard work.” Certainly there were multiple causes, but how are we to sort out the more important of these from the less important? (Or the outright spurious—“a nationwide unity of vision”?) Continue Reading


Acquiescence to Inequality

Book reviews

age of acquiescence

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015)

Why aren’t the majority of U.S. citizens rising up against their gradual (or not so gradual) impoverishment under the current economic system? That’s the question Steve Fraser sets out to answer in his book from early last year, “The Age of Acquiescence.”

It might look like an ill-timed question, given the surprising mass support for the Presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders later in the year. But the impoverishment has been going on nearly fifty years now—why did it take so long to get even this much of a response?

It is especially puzzling when compared to the continual public revolts of the analogous period of “the long nineteenth century,” spanning from the early 1800s into the 1930s. That was the time when what Marx called “primitive capital accumulation” took place here—early capitalists wringing wealth out of everyone else to amass it in larger and larger business organizations.

The history of that earlier period has been well documented, but I fear it has largely faded from the public imagination. We are taught that capitalist corporations grew at the expense of family farmers, self-employed artisans and small business owners because of the production efficiencies of the division of labor and new technologies, but that is a very incomplete picture. Continue Reading


Big Brother Is Here

Book reviews


Snowden (2015)

If you are looking for a brief and easy-to-read intro to the controversies surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, Ted Rall’s “Snowden” is an excellent choice. Sort of a Cliff’s Notes version with cartoon illustrations.

Rall is a widely published political cartoonist who has several other books to his credit. The only other one I’ve read is last year’s “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome Your As Honored Guests,” about Rall’s adventures as an unembedded journalist in the endless U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was funny, enlightening and provocative all at the same time.

But don’t expect much humor in “Snowden.” Rall treats the topic more seriously, perhaps because our role in Afghanistan is more tragically absurd than our government’s wholesale violation of constitutional rights.

Snowden, in case you don’t follow the news much, is a young guy in his early thirties who perpetrated the most massive leak of secret government documents in the entire history of the world. He is currently stuck in Russia, where he landed en route to hoped-for asylum in Ecuador, and is reportedly trying to negotiate a return to the U.S. that doesn’t involve life in prison.

Getting stuck in Russia wasn’t his only mistake. Snowden and his collaborators in the media, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, calculated that dribbling out the secrets a little at a time would be the best way to keep the story alive and thus the public’s attention. Instead the effect has been, ho hum, that’s old news now.

Which is unfortunate, because many people have the impression that the leaks only involved the government’s indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata and user information from social media. And think that somehow the government and social media companies have reformed their ways as a result of the leaks.

The situation is worse than that. Continue Reading


The Future Looks Green

Book reviews


Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Groups to the International Stage (2015)

“Green Parties, Green Future” provides a handy overview of the political parties of the global Green movement, their origins, current state, and future challenges. Informative and written in a straightforward, almost dry style, it’d make a good supplementary textbook for a college course. Educational for sure, but not exactly riveting reading.

The author, Per Gahrton of the Swedish Green Party, begins on a hopeful note. He cites Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén’s statement that each century gives birth to a political ideology that dominates the following century: 18th century classical liberalism dominated the politics of the 19th century, 19th century socialist ideas defined the 20th, and the Green worldview born of the 20th century will do the same in this century.

Unless we humans become extinct first. (He didn’t say that, I did.)

Although there are many historical precursors of environmental concern, the modern Green movement was born of the dual crises of growing awareness of the harmful effects of industrial economies and disillusionment with the radical politics of the 1960s. Many people felt that not only a new politics, but a new way of life was needed.

Out of this ferment came many familiar features of contemporary life: organic farming, natural health care, anti-consumerism, and environmental lobbying groups, among other things. One of those other things was the new Green political parties in diverse countries, a phenomenon not yet as successfully established as the former movements. The struggles, successes and failures of these parties are Gahrton’s central focus. Continue Reading