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Overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has long been the “forgotten war” in American memory. Apart from a few notable exceptions, American historians have predominantly accepted the standard propaganda that the Communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK) was singularly responsible for provoking the war by invading the Southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and carried out myriad atrocities, justifying U.S. action. Mainstream analysts and commentators similarly devour Washington’s line that North Korea today is a threat to humanity which should be contained and its leaders overthrown.
Bruce Cumings’ book The Korean War: A History shatters these conceptions and shows in vivid detail that the Korean War was among the most misguided, unjust and murderous wars fought by the United States in its history, displaying many of the features of the Vietnam War that aroused mass public protest. Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, writes: “Here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam – gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally…untrained GIs fighting a war their generals barely understood, fragging of officers….press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism.” The most disturbing element was the unrestrained air power that was used to destroy large portions of 18 of 22 major North Korean cities, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American and ROK soldiers which exceeded that of the DPRK by at least fifty percent. Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray is quoted as stating: “I saw destruction and horrible things committed by American forces….Everything which moved in North Korea is a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots, who, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot targets which moved.”
Drawing on material from his magisterial two-volume history, The Origins of the Korean War, Cumings demonstrates that the Korean War began not in 1950 but during the period of U.S. military occupation of the South from 1945-1948, which was a product of America’s imperial ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. After World War II, American policy elites were committed to extending the American informal empire and presiding over an integrated global economic order driven by free-markets and trade. The Far-East was seen as a region of vital strategic significance, with Korea envisioned as a repository of raw materials and surplus markets for Japan, the “super-domino” in the containment strategy, which the United States was committed to reconstructing in order to keep it in the Western orbit. In January 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall scribbled a note to Dean Acheson that said, “Please have plan drafted of policy to organize a definite government of So. Korea and connect up (sic) its economy with that of Japan.” In order to achieve this objective, the United States divided the country at the 38th parallel (a line which had no historic justification), occupied the south and put in power the conservative nationalist Syngman Rhee, supporting his campaign of repression against the left.
An Office of Strategic Services (OSS) liaison who had spent over 35 years in exile, Rhee lacked a popular base and relied on former Japanese colonial collaborators, setting off alarm bells in the DPRK, which was run by Kim Il-Sung, a principal guerrilla leader of the anti-Japanese resistance. Rhee’s unwillingness to promote basic land reform and support for fascistic youth groups ignited a widespread revolt spearheaded by members of people’s committees, who organized democratic governance and social reform at the local level. American policy was especially influential in building up the paramilitary capabilities of the Korean National Police (KNP) consisting of many Japanese collaborators who worked with the youth groups in hunting down leftists. The U.S. also established the ROK Army, which grew out of police constabulary units headed by Colonel James M. Hausman, a contemporary of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale.
With support from U.S. counter-intelligence, the ROKA and KNP killed an estimated 100,000 South Koreans in counter-insurgency campaigns before 1950. The worst of the violence took place in Kwangju, capital of the rebellious South Cholla province, and in the southern island of Cheju-do, where U.S. backed forces burned houses, tortured en masse and, writes Cumings, killed anywhere from 30-60,000 people (1/6 of the population), driving thousands more into exile. One government report of the period noted “frustrated by not knowing the identity of these elusive men [guerrillas], the police in some cases carried out indiscriminate warfare against entire villages.” Cumings wonders if Americans living today who served in the campaigns were ever able to “connect the dots between the indigenous organs of self-government that Koreans fashioned in the aftermath of four decades of brutal colonial rule, and the peasants armed with the tools of their trade, being cut down like rice shoots by the same treacherous Koreans who had served the Japanese?”
The North-South war, which began on June 25 1950 when Kim’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel, was equally as brutal as the civil war in the south. While the New York Times likened the northern armies to “barbarian hordes and invading locusts reminiscent of Ghengis Khan” and the Nazi blitzkrieg, new archival evidence and the findings of the South Korean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation show that the torturing and shooting of POW’s was carried out more systematically by the South and that the KNP liquidated the prisons in the aftermath of the DPRK invasion and shot thousands of people in the back of the head, including women and children. Driven by an acute racism, U.S. troops were also notorious for their cruelty and carried out numerous civilian massacres while showering the countryside with napalm. Much like in Vietnam, many soldiers were left to wonder why if South and North Koreans were identical “North Koreans fight like tigers and South Koreans run like sheep.”
These comments underscore for Cumings how Americans were ignorant of the political dynamic underlying the fratricidal war and its connection to the past half century of Japanese colonial rule. As he writes: “it did not dawn on Americans that anti-colonial fighters might have something to fight about.” Characterized in American propaganda as a Soviet puppet and stooge, Kim Il-Sung presided over a nationalist revolutionary government, which whatever its flaws, promised autonomy from foreign colonialism and tutledge, and still does today. While harsh and oppressive, the DPRK never was Stalinist or totalitarian and land reform programs were less violent than in China and North Vietnam. Cumings likens the current regime to a modern form of monarchy that draws on neo-Confucianism and other historical traditions in Korean politics. Instead of adopting orientalist stereotypes, he argues, Westerners would be best to try and understand the country on its own terms, including how many of its policies have been designed out of fear of another invasion by the United States and by the threat of renewed domination by Japan. American bellicosity in this latter respect and “axis of evil” rhetoric has done nothing but harm.
One of the greatest tragedies of the Korean War, which was a major watershed in the growth of the American overseas network of military bases and put the country on the path of a permanent war economy, is that it is still ongoing. After all the bloodshed and destruction, the artificial division still endures as do many of the stereotypes and caricatures of the northern enemy in the United States. The one positive development over the last 25 years was the reemergence of a pro-democracy movement in the ROK (receiving minimal support from the United States) and establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has enabled many South Koreans to come to terms with their losses. While old enmities are starting to breakdown in the ROK and a more progressive leadership has taken charge, the United States remains locked in a 1950s, McCarthyite time-warp, exemplified in CNN’s ever present warning of the “new North Korean threat.” Failing to learn anything from history, Americans are currently replicating their Korean experience in Iraq where, as Cumings writes, “without forethought, due consideration or self knowledge, the United States barged into a political, social and cultural thicket without knowing what it was doing and now finds that it cannot get out.”
Cumings has written a powerful book which serves to refute many historical myths and distortions in the United States about the Korean War. He shows in lucid detail the vicious character of America’s strategic allies and the barbaric and genocidal nature of the air and ground wars. In spite of the manipulations of Washington and to a far lesser extent the Soviet Union, Koreans were ultimately most decisive in shaping the conflict. And one day, with hope, they will come up with their own solution to the mess which liberal heroes Truman and Acheson helped to create.
SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
Titles of books warning of threats to American higher education often sound apocalyptic, from Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit (1990), to Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1995), to Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul (2006). Ellen Schrecker’s new book fits right in.
Schrecker, a noted scholar of McCarthyism, starts by defining academic freedom and tracing its evolution since the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 “Declaration of Principles.” This works well until she hits the 1960s, when her penchant for seeing villains only on the right gets the best of her.
“To what extent the disorders of the 1960s can be considered violations of academic freedom remains an open question,” Schrecker says. Really? When she characterizes gun-toting activists at Cornell as seeking merely to “emphasize their concern” about campus issues, and glides by the implications of students’ demands at places like San Francisco State that academic credentials be set aside when hiring faculty, she reveals a serious analytical blind spot.
Once past the ‘60s and the subsequent “culture wars,” however, Schrecker’s perspective is more clear-eyed, particularly when describing the problems posed by “corporatization” and “casualization” of the university’s teaching force. Universities’ increasingly relentless pursuit of federal and private funding (to say nothing of patent-based profits) poses subtle but unmistakable threats to academic freedom and to the effective pursuit of research breakthroughs in many fields. Priorities are skewed; faculty deemed insufficiently entrepreneurial are skewered. The Golden Rule? “The one with the gold makes the rules.”
Faculty are increasingly vulnerable as teachers, too. Two-thirds of college courses are taught by adjuncts, paid by the course, with no prospect of tenure, no time for their own research, and no enduring commitment to the schools where they teach. Students and parents appear not to notice.
In the epilogue, Schrecker worries that “Perhaps I paint too grim a picture. Perhaps the current crisis will finally rouse the nation’s faculties to put aside their internal divisions and…restore the intellectual vitality of American higher education and renew its democratic mission.” She shouldn’t hold her breath. Expecting professors to rally their colleagues (much less the public, which often sees academic freedom as a perk for the self-indulgent) against the market-model university and the forces that drive it is, to put it gently, unrealistic. Even--perhaps especially--in the Great Recession, the market mentality is reshaping institutions and driving individual careers. Perhaps that apocalyptic title is appropriate after all.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
Is the South -- still -- a place apart? Thirty years ago, in Place Over Time, Carl Degler argued for the persistence of a distinctive regional identity notwithstanding the successive waves of modernity that followed the"New South" of the post-Civil War era. Earlier in this decade, in Still Fighting the Civil War, David Goldfield argued that many Southerners insisted on seeing themselves as apart from the of the Union. Meanwhile, an array of scholars from Bruce Schulman to Michael Lind see recent American history as essentially a process of Southernization. In this ably written synthetic account of the region, veteran University of Georgia professor James C. Cobb shows how all these views can be seen as credible in a narrative trajectory that moves from that of a backward, isolated region to an assertive national presence. But for Cobb, the region and the nation have always been deeply intertwined.
The first half of The South and America moves at a brisk pace, describing the quickening effect of the Second World War on the region, the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, and the emergence of a steady -- and increasingly sophisticated -- strategy of resistance to it. We meet a familiar gallery of characters, from Gunnar Myrdal to Emmett Till, and a political spectrum that runs from the daring novels of Lilian Smith to the whites who said of their returning veterans,"Our heroes didn't die in Europe to give Negroes the right to marry our wives." (Those Negroes, for their part, had their own ideas about what they were fighting for.)
Cobb pays particular attention to the economic dimensions of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath. He notes that the business community was anxious lest segregationist intransigence interfere with commerce, and that this concern played a factor in the willingness of many whites to accept, though not embrace, what was ultimately seen as an inevitable move toward racial integration. It did not take long, however, for corporate leaders to conclude that the new status quo was not only acceptable, but necessary for the maintenance of a low-wage, low-regulation economic climate. A full-throated liberal, Cobb is insistent -- and convincing -- in tracing a persistent double standard on the part of white Southerners, who disproportionately benefit from federal spending while remaining reluctant to tax themselves, and warning about the corrosive effects of welfare for the poor while distributing lots of pork to the rich. This hypocrisy is not unique to the South, but notably widespread there.
The second half of The South and America takes more a thematic approach, covering cultural, gender, and racial history. What this part of the book lacks in cohesion it makes up for in useful segmentation. It is also notably up to date, covering topics like controversies over the Confederate flag, gay rights, and the growing Latino presence in the region. Cobb occasionally betrays his generational roots (he's much better on pop music of the fifties than later, for example, omitting what would seem to be a necessary discussion of soul music, though OutKast does make a cameo). But there's plenty of grist for an undergraduate mill here. Cobb also shows a sharp eye for the resonant detail. It's moving for example, to learn that while supporters of the vicious segregationist U.S. Senator James Eastland could not raise the funds for his portrait to hang in the U.S. Capitol, the once obscure Fanny Lou Hamer is rightly lionized as one of the true heroes of American history (there's a Bronx high school named for her a few miles away from where this review has been written, where her legacy -- and the social inequality that made her labors necessary -- live on).
By this point, the discourse on the place of the South, in the broadest sense of that phrase, is vast. Indeed, Cobb has spent the better part of a lifetime mastering it. The South and America is a useful place for the neophyte to begin.
SOURCE: U.S Intellectual History (Blog) ()
[Andrew Hartman teaches at Illinois State University.]
“Keep arguing.” James Livingston, 2010
Professor Livingston needn’t worry. His new book will keep people arguing. For The World Turned Inside Out is nothing if not maddeningly counterintuitive. Some of my friends and colleagues who have read it inform me that they agree with nothing in it. Of course, these same friends and colleagues also tell me they have never agreed with a single word Livingston has written. And yet, they keep reading. And they keep arguing.
In his first major contribution to intellectual history, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1994), Livingston argued against historians who made the Populists out to be history’s tragic, if fallen heroes, celebrated for their resistance to the corporate order. In contrast, Livingston marveled at the material surpluses offered by the new corporate order and, furthermore, contended that the emergence of corporations merited intellectual innovation in the eyes of pragmatists, especially John Dewey. “In the narrative form of pragmatism,” Livingston wrote, “the decline of proprietary capitalism loses its pathos, and the triumph of corporate capitalism appears as the first act of an unfinished comedy, not the residue of tragedy” (1994; xvi). Livingston thus inverted the historical trajectory posited by Christopher Lasch in his 1991 The True and Only Heaven: whereas Lasch understood “progress” to be mere ideological cover for the bureaucratic and technocratic constraints of the corporate order, Livingston pointed to the newfound freedoms made possible by that order. Unfortunately for us all, Lasch died in 1994, unable to respond to Livingston’s provocations.
In his next significant book, Pragmatism and Feminism: Rethinking the Politics of American History (2001), Livingston contended that the intellectual revolutions otherwise known as pragmatism and feminism were very similar in structure, largely because both were made possible by consumer capitalism’s obliteration of older bourgeois restraints. In opposition to most feminist theorists, especially those who framed their ideas in the Marxist tradition, Livingston theorized that feminism not only worked well alongside consumer capitalism, but that the latter created a context that allowed for the former. He wrote: “So if the cause (in both senses) of modern feminism is the extrication of women from an exclusive preoccupation with domestic roles—a process that both presupposes paid employment and permits the detachment of female sexuality from familial objects or reproductive functions—and if modern feminism is by definition a cross-class social movement because it claims to speak for all women, it would seem to follow that the necessary condition of modern feminism is the rise of corporate capitalism” (2001; 176). Somewhat ironically, Marxist theorist Nancy Fraser recently came around to this view, not to celebrate consumer capitalism, as Livingston, but rather, to critique second-wave feminism.
And now, in The World Turned Inside Out (2010), Livingston makes a whole series of counterintuitive claims that serve as an intellectual defense of consumer capitalism and the corporate order. Here are a few of his central points that should keep us arguing:
1. The left won the culture wars, and in fact, most political struggles since the 1960s.
2. Postmodernism and poststructuralism are American inventions, prefigured by pragmatism and other American intellectual revolutions.
3. Mass consumer culture (television, film, music) anticipated even the most radical forms of postmodern thinking, such as deconstruction.
4. All of these developments were good, and happened despite Livingston’s recognition that a spike in economic inequality caused the financial crisis of 2008.
This review will focus on Livingston’s first point, that the left has been largely victorious, since, more than the others, it will likely engender the most cognitive dissonance in those who lived through the past thirty years, when even the eight-year interruption to conservative rule, in the form of the Clinton administration, needs to be qualified by such pesky facts as Ross Perot, NAFTA, and Welfare Reform.
“The cultural and intellectual revolution that changed North America and the world after 1975,” Livingston writes, “was so successful—it was so formative, causative, and measurable—that we can take it for granted, and then look past it, to the point where some of us even argue that conservatism took over American thought and culture after 1980” (2010; xiii). At first glance, it seems Livingston is making an argument similar to that made by historian David Courtwright in his new book, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America. Courtwright shows that where the cultural right failed, the economic right succeeded; where the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition fell short in turning back the tides of secularism, the American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce achieved lower taxes and fewer regulations. Courtwright’s thesis is that contemporary American life is dominated by both cultural and economic libertarianism, the twin legacies of the boomer generation. Like Courtwright, Livingston accentuates the cultural effects of “the fabled 1960s,” arguing “that the tendencies and sensibilities we associate with that moment decisively shaped intellectual agendas and cultural practices… in the 1980s and 1990s” (2010; xv).
But unlike Courtwright, Livingston thinks conservatives failed in the economic arena as well. In other words, the Reagan Revolution was not very revolutionary, at least, not in the sense we are accustomed to thinking about it. Livingston offers up as evidence the ineluctable growth of government, even its redistributive arm, which for him includes the military, a redistributive agency for the poor. Livingston says that an “unspoken socialism” became an entrenched national consensus, as transfer payments—“income received by households and individuals for which no contribution to current output of goods or services has been required”—“were the fastest-growing component of income in the late twentieth century, amounting, by 1999, to 20 percent of all labor income” (19). This is compelling stuff, though it requires a mild suspension of disbelief, since, in this instance, Livingston ignores that transfer payments likely increased in response to the loss of millions of well-paying unionized jobs. To this extent, deindustrialization better describes recent U.S. political economy than does socialism, and the growth of transfer payments should be understood as necessary to political stability in the face of growing inequality. At a more basic level, the fact of growing inequality calls into question the premise that the left is winning the national political battle. By what political spectrum does a society with a victorious left equate to an increasingly unequal one?
Livingston is on firmer ground when he limits the scope of his analysis to the culture wars. On this battleground, the left did much better, even if, again, Livingston overplays his hand. It is beyond doubt that the United States is now more tolerant than it was sixty years ago, when many more forms of discrimination were still legal, and that this tolerance led to conservative frustration in the culture wars. “Whatever the issue—whether sexuality, gay rights, reproduction, education, women’s rights, racial equity, equal opportunity, affirmative action, or freedom of expression—the domestic debate was… always lost by the so-called cultural conservatives who kept citing ‘family values.’” The key to Livingston’s point here lies in the recent history of the university, for, as he writes, “the New Left of the 1960s grew up and got jobs in all the right places, especially, but not only, in higher education” (20). In accentuating the importance of higher education, and in claiming that the left controls the “commanding heights” of the university, Livingston is rehashing conservative culture war contentions, most famously argued by Lynne Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and Allan Bloom. But whereas these right-wingers lamented left-wing academic hegemony, Livingston brags about it.
Livingston is certainly correct in asserting the centrality of the university to American society: the university credential system has become the principal gateway to the professional world, a sorting mechanism for white-collar hierarchy. The numbers tell the story: in 1960, there were about 3.5 million Americans enrolled in universities; by 1970, this number had more than doubled to around 7.5 million, as the size of faculties grew proportionally. Livingston nicely relates this demographic explosion on the nation’s college campuses to the culture wars, or to what he generally describes as the “debates about the promise of American life.” “By the 1970s,” Livingston writes, “the principal residence of that promise was widely assumed to be the new ‘meritocracy’ enabled by universal access to higher education” (21). To this extent, class resentment aimed at intellectuals—and tropes about “political correctness”—made sense, in a misplaced sort of way, since intellectuals indeed held the levers to any given individual’s future economic stability. Similarly, Eric Hobsbawm recently related the growing importance of a university education to the redirection of class animosity against “toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us.” But whereas Hobsbawm detects false consciousness in this rhetorical arrangement, Livingston, rather, implies there is truth in such charges since, by his estimation, the left did indeed control the university, the culture, and thus, the postindustrial, postmodern political system.
If Livingston is correct to place the university at the center of American cultural politics, he is mistaken to assert that the left controls the university. Of course cultural leftists gained positions of power in departments of English, American Studies, and to a lesser degree, history, sociology, and political science. But so what? This fact needs to be weighed against the ever-decreasing percentage of students who major in the disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences. What does it mean that leftists occupy English departments when the largest and fastest growing major is business? Furthermore, I am genuinely curious as to how Livingston would respond to the research conducted by Marc Bousquet and others that details how universities are increasingly organized as profit-making institutions that slash labor costs by replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts and graduate students. Reorganizing the university along the lines of a corporation that offers a product to consumers—to students and their tuition-paying parents—has lessened the impact of the university as a creator of culture, at least, of the type of culture I would call leftist.
Another less noticeable yet no less significant problem with Livingston’s postulation that the left won the culture wars is that he unintentionally repeats the vital centrist theory of American history: those who disagreed with the American consensus— whether it be the Cold War liberal consensus of the 1950s, or the postmodern cultural consensus of the 1990s—stand in the way of progress and, as such, deserve scorn and condescension. Just as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. labeled both communists and right-wing isolationists dangerous reactionaries in 1949, Livingston implies that both modernist Marxists like Fredric Jameson and traditionalist conservatives like Robert Bork were atavistic remnants of a culture that had passed them by. While silly Marxists like Jameson persisted in anachronistically prioritizing material conditions over language, crazy conservatives like Bork made wild arguments about how the 1960s enshrined the radical individualism of the Declaration of Independence. Livingston ignores that both responses to the postmodern condition were no less innovative than, say, deconstruction. Take Bork, for instance. While his argument was undoubtedly strange coming from a notorious conservative figure, especially given its anti-American implications, it was also, paradoxically, straight out of the book of Nietzsche (though Nietzsche looked nihilism much more squarely in the face, and dated its modern beginnings to Christ not Jefferson).
One of Livingston’s problems is that he does not take conservatism very seriously. Following Roger Kimball, he claims that the culture wars were largely an “intramural sport on the left” (53). From my view, it goes without saying that conservatives were also deeply engaged in the culture wars. Think about Mississippi evangelical Donald Wildmon and his organization, the American Family Association, which coordinated protests against Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Also remember that it was the American Legion and other conservative veteran’s groups that derailed the Smithsonian’s proposed Enola Gay exhibit. The list goes on. Even in academia, where the “intramural sport on the left” characterization is most accurate, conservative culture warriors had their say, made evident by the critical and commercial success of such conservative missives as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, and Lynne Cheney’s non-ironically titled, Telling the Truth. Livingston mentions these thinkers only to brush them aside, and to conflate their worldview with anti-postmodernist thinkers such as Alan Sokol, the physicist who wrote a hoax article in 1996 for the journal Social Text to prove the bankruptcy of the entire postmodern project. Livingston writes of Sokol: “Like Mrs. Cheney, he believed in a fixed external reality governed by scientifically proven laws of motion and… he believed the academic Left had lost its way when it made the linguistic turn and decided, following Charles Peirce’s semiotic lead, that ‘matter is effete mind’” (51).
Livingston lumps Fredric Jameson together with the Sokols and Cheneys of the world, as equally conservative, even reactionary. But Livingston does not analyze Jameson’s work in any depth. This is unfortunate, because had he done so, he might have found a way to reconcile the contradictory claim that the left was winning the political struggle in spite of increasing inequality. Or not, which is perhaps the point. Livingston is correct that Jameson eschewed postmodern trends and continued to categorize reality and perception differently, particularly in his famous 1984 New Left Review essay, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” On the one hand, Jameson scoffed at the idea that social classes had disappeared in real terms, made evident by the “ever greater quantities of structurally unemployable subjects.” On the other, he understood why the perception that class no longer mattered resonated in a postmodern context, inasmuch as the new forms of capitalist organization had “flung workers in archaic factories out of work, displaced new kinds of industry to unexpected parts of the world, and recruited work forces different from the traditional ones in a variety of features, from gender to skill and nationality…” In this way, by bracketing off reality from perception, Jameson was pretty convincing, to me at least, in explaining the link between postmodern epistemologies and what he considered “pure” capitalist economic policies.
Livingston is absolutely right that there is no return from pragmatism, which he argues anticipated deconstruction at every level. Pragmatism (and deconstruction) endowed human beings with a history. In other words, pragmatism (and deconstruction) was a theoretical move that explained how humans could not have preceded the first attempt to understand humans, through the social use of language or signs. Livingston writes: “These propositions become downright threatening when you realize that they drive nails into the coffin of the modern individual… For it suggests that individuals are not somehow prior to any social contract or political community or linguistic convention… and that language is not the transparent medium of the truth-seeking capacity we call reason” (43). This is intoxicating stuff. But it still does not explain inequality, nor help us overcome it. For Jameson, such postmodern epistemologies made Sartre’s existentialist version of Marxism a tempting if flawed resolution. In the fanciful world of the postmodern, where political identities, like gender, were as fluid as performance, Jameson seemed to suggest that inventing a new leftist political subject, a necessary precondition of liberation from capital, would have been no less fanciful. Such a suggestion, however, did not create a way out of the postmodern condition so much as represent the hopelessness of the left. To me, Livingston’s book also represents such hopelessness in that, even in the so-called left-wing victory, inequality reigns supreme (not to mention war!)
This review only touches the surface of The World Turned Upside Down. The book includes several chapters on popular culture, one on American empire, and an appendix dedicated to analyzing the recent financial collapse. All of it is grist for the mill. Readers will find Livingston’s takes on mainstream films like Blade Runner and Robocop, “perhaps the two best movies of the 1980s” (61), alongside B-movies like the disgusting I Spit on Your Grave (recently remade!), equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Readers will either love or hate Livingston’s scatological exploration of South Park. Either way, if you pick up this book, you will not be bored. And you certainly will not stop arguing.
James Livingston's Response
[James Livingston is a history professor at Rutgers University]
My thanks to Andrew Hartman for his thoughtful, provocative, even persuasive review of my recent book. I’m almost ready to recant. To my ears, the review is pitch-perfect because it exemplifies exactly the leftist positions I’ve been trying to put in question for many years, but it never offers them on faith, as self-evident truths. By the same token, it never dismisses my arguments with the righteous anger of the true believer.
Hartman and I disagree, of course, but my purpose here is not to demonstrate that I’m right and he’s wrong. For the time being, I don’t care who wins the argument. My purpose is to suggest that our disagreements are worth much more attention than they now get on the academic Left and in the larger culture. When they get the attention they deserve, I’ll start caring about the winner.
Let me begin with the usual quibbles, and then turn to the crucial questions Hartman raises—the questions of socialism, Marxism, and inequality. As usual in venues seemingly removed from the immediate demands of political action, these questions boil down to the very practical one Lenin asked in 1903: What is to be done?
Hartman twice declares that my arguments are “counter-intuitive,” maybe even maddeningly so. I have to ask, whose intuition? Or rather, whose assumptions am I challenging, and how did they get so deeply embedded in academic locutions that to retrieve and examine them is to embarrass everybody in the room? Hartman seems to think that Christopher Lasch is the only cultural/intellectual historian who would disagree with my skepticism about Populism and my comedic rendition of corporate capitalism. The fact is that every important historian writing in this genre, from Casey Blake and Robert Westbrook to Jackson Lears and James Kloppenberg, agrees with Lasch and disagrees with me (just like Hartman himself).
You will find some uneasy acceptance of my arguments in English departments—where the political and psychological stakes are less because debate about the canon is commonplace—but not in History departments. In the latter, the “dominant culture” among Americanists is still determined by the progressive historiographical legacy founded by Turner, Beard, and Parrington, then renovated by Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, Lawrence Goodwyn, Philip Scranton, Herbert Gutman, David Montgomery, Richard Bensel, Gretchen Ritter, Elizabeth Sanders, the list is endless—through which the defeat of the Populists, the fall of the house of labor, and the triumph of corporate capitalism are uniformly narrated as tragedy (notice that the two great counter-progressive historians, Richard Hofstadter and William Appleman Williams, are missing from the list). In this sense, my arguments aren’t counter-intuitive; instead, they’re up against the kind of received wisdom that has strong institutional grounding and formidable intellectual weight.
So when Hartman says “Livingston makes a whole series of counter-intuitive claims that serve as a defense of consumer capitalism and the corporate order,” he’s restating, with thoroughly enjoyable exasperation, what is obvious to Americanists in History departments: anybody who departs from the progressive narrative of the tragedy residing in the triumph of corporate capitalism is beyond the pale, off the reservation, at the margin, and probably on the run, professionally speaking.
But I’m defending neither capitalism nor corporations. I’m claiming that what Hartman calls the corporate order is a complex social formation in which at least two modes of production—capitalism and socialism—coexist and interpenetrate, each challenging but also invigorating the other. This claim is an empirical proposition to be tested by reference to the historical record, not dismissed on ideological grounds, as if socialism is recognizable only when it abolishes the garish colors of consumer capitalism and dons the drab insignia of the totalitarian state. This claim is also a way of contesting the notion of American “exceptionalism,” and thus insisting that socialism is not a foreign import—in other words, it’s not a barbarian host that grows somewhere beyond the perimeters of capitalism, then invades and obliterates the earlier, decadent mode of production. It grows and develops from within the older organism itself, and not always in the beautiful forms and dimensions we’d like to measure (a grotesque example of this ugly process is the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer military, an institution that has resolutely enacted the social goals of the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and yes, the so-called second wave of feminism).
For what it’s worth, I’m an old-fashioned socialist who has studied the Soviet variation on the theme of communism and the American variation on the theme of capitalism. I figure I’m still on the Left because I can say that capitalism underwrites freedom only insofar as the regulation and socialization of markets become the goals of both public policy and private associations; and that socialism underwrites democracy only insofar as markets become and remain indispensable devices in the allocation of resources. Capitalism is not reducible to free markets; socialism is not reducible to state command or elimination of markets. Socialism resides in and flows from markets; capitalism requires the regulation and reform of markets. In short: social democracy requires functional markets, and vice versa.*
Unlike Hartman, I don’t think that Marxism has any predictable political valence. I heard no irony when Alexandre Kojeve called himself a right-wing Marxist, and I see no shocking deviation when Eugene Genovese presents his admiration of the Southern Tradition, his fear of democracy, his distaste for finance capital, and his revulsion at consumerism in the same key of Marxism he once used to sing the praises of slave culture. You can be a Marxist, a conservative, and a critic of globalized corporate capitalism, all at once. As I suggested in the book, Fredric Jameson is all three, along with Frank Lentricchia and David Harvey. But in my usage, “conservative” is no more an epithet than is “liberal”—neither is the opposite or the enemy of what Hartman designates “the type of culture I would call leftist.”
In any event, Hartman is right. Yes, I should have taken Jameson’s version of post-modernism more seriously, if only because it treats cultural moments (in his case, realism, modernism, postmodernism) as I try to, as both harbingers and registers of changes in the capitalist mode of production since the early 19th century. But when Jameson (following Ernest Mandel) announces that “late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged,” I have to wonder how the very late Marx, the one who wrote Volume III of Capital, disappeared from their periodization of capitalism.
This “old mole,” this Marx, insisted that modern corporations and modern credit had combined to effect “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself,” thus paving the way for a new, “socialised mode of production” rather than what Mandel and Jameson call the “purest form of capital.” I followed the old mole’s lead in trying to assess the “unspoken socialism” that regulated both government spending and the political sensibilities of the American electorate at the end of the 20th century—in trying to say that socialism develops as an impure “political unconscious” in the most unlikely places, even in the absence of a subjectivity or a party or a movement that promotes it.**
But what is to be said and done about inequality? If the Left won the culture wars engendered by the conflicts of the 1960s, and if an “unspoken socialism” has reshaped party politics, why then the widening income gap between the super-rich and the fabled middle class, not to mention “the” working class and the poor who languish at the bottom of those quintiles? I’ve heard this question many times, as you might imagine. Thanks to Andrew Hartman’s sharpened formulation of it, I can give you some answers that will, I hope, become questions, as in hypotheses.
Of course I agree completely with Hartman’s summary of the issue: “the fact of growing inequality calls into question the premise that the left is winning the national political battle.” But then I’ve never claimed that the Left “was winning the political struggle in spite of increasing inequality,” as he characterizes my position. Again, all I’ve said is that the Left won the culture wars, and that an “unspoken socialism” has haunted the political imaginary of both Left and Right. In fact, in other venues I have argued that since the 1970s, the Right has used political means to block the cultural effects of the Left, mainly by exploiting the differences between state and federal jurisdictions, or by recourse to unprecedented judicial and extraordinary executive powers—in much the same way that, in the 1850s, the ruling race of the South used political means to block the remarkable cultural effects of anti-slavery movements at the North. (The more contemporary analogy would note the political means by which white supremacists blocked the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, leading toward the reinvention of the Republican Party, North and South, as the bulwark of the ancien regime.)
This is not mere casuistry: I’m not trying to dodge the bullet Hartman aims so well. I’m trying to say that cultural changes and electoral programs live in different time zones, and that’s a good thing. Cultural revolution—paradigm change—precedes and informs political innovation, or the result is a coup, not a revolution. The failure of the Right’s repeated attempts to use political measures as a brake on the Left’s cultural gains would suggest as much: like the embarrassed emperor, the “unitary executive” peddled by Bush, Cheney, Addington, and Yoo had no clothes, and will soon be retired to the nudist camp of history.
“It is beyond doubt that the United States is now more tolerant than it was sixty years ago,” Hartman admits, “when many more forms of discrimination were still legal.” So we agree that we inhabit a more egalitarian place—a type of culture I would call leftist—where minorities and women (not to mention everybody else) have more opportunities than they did just a generation ago. And yet we also agree that economic inequality has somehow increased. How is either—the agreement or the fact of the matter—even conceivable?
One way to understand the discrepancies is to understand that the supply-side revolution wasn’t a right-wing conspiracy or, as David Courtwright would have it, the unintended consequence of baby-boomers’ interest in their own bottom lines. In the 1970s, the catastrophe of “stagflation” allowed for new, radical, anti-Keynesian approaches to the causes of economic growth—but the bipartisan consensus that ensued invariably emphasized enhanced private investment as the cure for what ailed us. In other words, the liberals and the leftists collaborated with their counterparts on the Right because they could see no theoretical or practical alternatives: government spending and regulation seemed to have exhausted their once-salutary effects on economic growth. The liberals and the leftists didn’t just pitch in, they led the fight against regulation (usually by criticizing “big business” and citing anti-trust law as their warrant for “restoring competition”), and they didn’t just stand by as the Reaganauts rewrote the tax code—they believed that new incentives to private investment were in order, and they eagerly provided such incentives. They still believe, and they act accordingly, which is why tax breaks for “job creation” by private enterprise were the bulk of Obama’s stimulus plan.
So do the rest of us still believe, especially in incentives for those small businessmen who supposedly create most of the new jobs. When we talk about income redistribution, we say that it’s the right thing to do, not that it would be better for economic growth—we speak the abstract language of moral philosophy, not the hard-edged vernacular of immediate interest, we speak as if “ought” and “is” are still opposites. In the absence of a theory, a paradigm, a program, whatever, that would convincingly explain why private investment is unnecessary to fuel growth—and why consumer culture is better for us than the abstinent alternatives—we will continue to speak this clotted Kantian dialect, and we will have nothing to say about income inequality except that, well, it’s just not right.***
The other way to understand the discrepancies Hartman correctly cites would, then, be to criticize the academic Left for its studied ignorance of political economy, or to criticize the larger, more political Left for its inability to recover from what I call the pathos of productivity—from the idea that effort and reward (or work and income) must be aligned in a transparent relation, just as crime and punishment must be. I will, for diplomatic reasons, present my criticisms as questions.
In view of “deindustrialization,” why hasn’t the Left, however construed, said: “All right then, good-paying jobs are going elsewhere, but instead of demanding the repatriation of those jobs so that we can return to back-breaking but well-paying industrial labor, our position is, enough already with productivity—our position is, FUCK WORK”? Why hasn’t the Left said: “Our task is to figure out how to detach the receipt of income from the creation of value, in keeping with the old socialist criterion of need, ‘from each according’ and all that”? Why hasn’t the Left kept faith with its historic mission, which is not to put us back to work but to liberate us from alienated labor?
I have no good answers, not just now, not when Obama looks defeated. But, like the disagreements I have with Andrew Hartman, these questions are worth much more attention than they now get on the academic Left and in the larger culture.
*On the relation between markets, capitalism, and freedom, the place to begin or end is Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962), a jolly gloss on the stern lessons of F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944), a rigorous book that deserves better treatment than Glenn Beck can give it. My understanding of the relevant issues is based on Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944); Lawrence R. Klein, The Keynesian Revolution (1948); Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets (1977); and Irving Kristol (yes, him), Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978). On the relation between markets, socialism, and democracy, I’m drawing on Wlodzimierz Brus, Economics and Politics of Socialism (1961, trans. 1978), Istvan Friss, ed., Reform of the Economic Mechanism in Hungary (1969), Radoslav Selucky, Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe (1972), and Marxism, Socialism, Freedom (1978); and Martin J. Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country (1992).
** See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism (1990), pp. 35-37, 266-78, 301-26; and Karl Marx, Capital, 3 vols. (1867-1894, Kerr ed. 1909), 3: 451-57, 515-19, 549-56.
*** These are some of the problems I address in Attention Shoppers: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Souls, forthcoming from Basic/Perseus Books in 2011.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
Over the course of the past fifteen years, Stacy Schiff has emerged as one of the nation's most esteemed biographers. With France as a geographic crossroad, her subjects have ranged widely: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vera Nabokov (a portrait that won her the 2000 Pulitzer Prize), and Benjamin Franklin. But Schiff's latest book takes her far afield in time and place. It's an audacious move, and as such is a form of fidelity to the life she limns.
In a way, Schiff's body of work is less a set of individual lives than an extended exercise in different kinds of biographical problem-solving. Saint-Exupéry was a shrewd choice of subject in that he's both famous and little-known to the general reading public that is Schiff's chosen domain; Vera is a foray into the fascinating life lived in the shadow of a powerful mate. Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, is almost too well-known (an issue Schiff finessed by focusing on his diplomatic career). So is Cleopatra; but while the problem for Franklin is essentially one of too much documentation, that of Cleopatra is a matter of having so little.
But of course this is also an opportunity, because the ambiguities surrounding Cleopatra's life give a biographer lots of license for informed speculation, a stratagem Schiff seizes frequently and boldly. (Was Caesarion really Julius Caesar's biological child by Cleopatria? Schiff acknowledges this long-running controversy in a footnote, but considers the child his and moves on.) In an important sense, the facts are really beside the point anyway; if ever there were a case where the truth resides in legend, this would be it.
But living legends are moving things. So it is that Schiff gives us a Cleopatra for the third millennium. I was not surprised to learn that Angelina Jolie is already said to be involved in a possible film version of the book; I kept thinking of her while reading it (perhaps because of the evocative jacket). Schiff is insouciant in deploying anachronism for dramatic effect, whether in comparing Cleopatra's wealth to that of the most successful hedge fund manager in history, or by emphasizing her Hellenic heritage by asserting that she was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.
It's only natural, then, that this Cleopatra is a feminist icon: intelligent, powerful, and patriotic. She uses her sexuality, but she isn't defined by it. Faced with a difficult geopolitical situation, she navigates it not infallibly, but nevertheless with an acumen that has largely escaped previous writers -- who are, to Schiff's credit, often classical ones. But she's not one to defer to antiquity, and she's pointedly critical of Cleopatra's critics."Cicero had two modes: fawning and captious," she says, calling him a Roman John Adams. (Given Schiff's Francophile orientation, we can safely conclude the comparison is not flattering.) Plutarch"sniffs" that Cleopatra pretends to be in love with Mark Antony; Dio's account of her meeting with Octavian is"so cinematic as to be suspect, too purple even for a Hellenistic queen." (A somewhat odd criticism coming from Schiff, who is nothing if not colorful.) Some readers will no doubt be thrilled with such prose; others may be unsettled by the glee with which she settles sexist scores -- which, of course, will not make her unhappy. But it may not be an accident that none of the impressive accolades that accompany the book come from Egyptologists.
This Cleopatra is thoroughly contemporary in other ways as well. Schiff filters her material through a postmodern sensibility. Whether or not Cleopatra actually believes she's the incarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, playing the part certainly confers strategic advantages. A sense of indeterminacy shapes relationships in which the personal is political; as far as Julius Caesar is concerned,"Cleopatra was in many respects similar to her country: a shame to lose, a risk to conquer, a headache to govern." (The ironically allusive language here, which evokes"veni, vidi, vici," is one of the many ways Schiff shows herself to be a master prose stylist.) Even those parts of the book that are presumably meant to showcase the distance between the ancient world and ours, like those that talk at some length about the literally incestuous character of the Ptolemy dynasty of which Cleopatra was the culmination, exhibit a multiculturalist's hearty embrace of Difference.
It is ironic, then, that the truth apparently remains: in front of every great woman is a man -- or, in this case, two: Caesar and Mark Antony. At different points in the story it almost seems they're going to run away with the book. Partly this a function of the fact that Hellenistic Egypt was closer to a pawn than a queen in Roman geopolitics. And partly it's a function that most of the extant sources are Roman, not Egyptian, and as Schiff notes, echoing observers like Edward Said, the West has long been constructed as masculine, and the East as feminine. Sigh, one might plausibly conclude. It's still a man's world.
Early reviews of this book have hailed it as myth-shattering, as uncovering lost truths about Cleopatra. It is probably more accurate to see it as a feisty piece of mythography that resonates with the spirit of its time. As another Francophile once said,"the earth belongs to the living." And Cleopatra, whoever she was, is now -- amid the struggles and uncertainties of history that provide the indispensable ballast for myth -- ours to claim. Schiff has done so with gusto.
[Robert D. Parmet is professor of history at York College, The City University of New York]
The decline of the American labor movement to its present state, with fewer than ten percent of private employees affiliated with trade unions, is an undeniable reality. The reasons for its decline are many, including weaknesses within organized labor itself. In Restoring the Power of Unions, Julius G. Getman studies labor’s ailments and proposes cures. As he states, the book’s “basic concept” is “the need for organized labor to become a movement again.” Battered from many sides, labor, he argues, must rekindle its spirit, with strong participation by the rank-and-file as well as the leadership. In a highly detailed, meticulously researched volume, Getman explains how this feat might be accomplished.
The author, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Texas, discusses but does not dwell on the customary explanations, such as national politics, globalization and union corruption, to explain organized labor’s woes. In a concise chapter entitled, “The Downfall of Organized Labor,” Getman makes no mention of John McClellan or Richard Nixon, little of Ronald Reagan, and not much more of those of followed them in the presidency. Instead he provides a broad overview in which he cites the many factors responsible, including the failure of “most unions” since the 1960s “to give organizing the high priority that it required.” He is particularly critical of labor leaders whose poor sense of “solidarity” results in factional division at the expense of labor unity.
A case in point is the merger of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, with HERE, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. UNITE contributed a heritage consisting of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Bruce Raynor had been a hero of the textile workers’ fabled J. P. Stevens campaign in the South. More recently, he brought UNITE, of which he was president, into a marriage with HERE, to form UNITE HERE. UNITE had funds for organizing, and HERE, led by John Wilhelm, featured a substantial membership. Unfortunately, this marriage was a case of “Solidarity Rebuffed,” attributable in good part to Raynor, whose conduct, according to Getman, included, “vicious attacks . . . abuse of office [and] . . . mishandling of funds.” Under fire, Raynor departed to head a new union, Workers United, which soon merged with the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU). The rancor and instability that characterized his jockeying did little to advance the cause of unionism.
When the members of HERE had earlier mobilized “in solidarity” they won. Getman describes, for example, the campaigns to organize the clerical and technical workers at Yale University and negotiate a new contract between the Culinary Union and the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. These victories and others elsewhere demonstrated the value of solidarity and that organizing was “a complex process” that depended on “the effective mobilization of the membership and the application of relentless pressure on recalcitrant employers.” Moreover, they showed that unions must be “member-centered.” Union members, Getman states, must select their leaders, “feel that the union is theirs,” and believe that they can influence its “actions and priorities.”
Sometimes perseverance can overcome apparent failure. Getman discusses what happened to a local of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU), which 1n 1987-1988 went on a sixteen-month strike against the giant International Paper Company. Local 14 of UPIU, in Jay, Maine, employed “superb leadership, widespread grassroots involvement, and highly creative strategies.” The local did the right things to win, even gaining local media and national political support, but with the assistance of replacement workers, International Paper prevailed, and the strike was called off. However, the issues did not die, and the company encountered a public relations disaster over its use of the replacements, and a decade later the workers, now under the United Steelworkers, signed a satisfactory agreement.
The author spends much time on this dispute and others, but he is actually most intent on instructing unionists how to organize, strike, and avoid missteps such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which he notes would not protect the right to strike. Getman is a scholarly counsel, instructing workers on the fundamentals of organizing and maintaining effective unions, but also sadly describing the enormous obstacles that have driven organized labor downward for several decades.