us lacking political capacity
Clive Crook writing in The Financial Times:
Political capacity is the real key, and here is where I would question the administration’s judgment. The prospects for Mr Obama’s agenda depend on his ability to marshal political capital and spend it wisely. In the simplest terms, he needs to stay as popular as he can for as long as possible. Once his approval ratings slide – and they show the first signs of doing so – he is sunk. This is why the “overload” critique is so significant: not because it is correct on the merits but because it is plausible and bipartisan and will erode his standing with the electorate.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really understood this mirage called “political capital” or its real relevance to actual political praxis (at least I’ve never seen a concise practical definition of the term), but here of all places I find it remarkably low-ball compared to the enormity of the tasks facing the country. In fairness, I’m one of these goofballs who doesn’t think presidential candidates ought to have Health Care proposals and the like as it reinforces the notion that it’s The Executive’s job to somehow shape (that specifically) legislative policy in this country.
Regardless, I agree with Mr. Crook that “political capacity” is the real key. leave the Clive train however at the “political capital is the primary means by which to marshal political capacity” stop.
Let me suggest an alternative mechanism. What if the political capacity tracks veer off into far darker trajectory then Crook’s analysis suggests? What if the problem is structural and at the heart of the entire politico-railroad system itself? Simply, what if what we are seeing is the slow burn of the US governmental order to really achieve anything of value (Democrat or Republican, with and without a President with high approval ratings/political capital?).
When The Executive Branch (Treasury Dept. and all) can’t stop an AIG from continuing to play the incestuous circle jerk money game it’s been playing for years now that caused this problem in the first place, what else are we to think? When Mr. Political Capital himself has to grandstand, when bipartisan (uh oh time) anger is the order of the day, what else is this for those with eyes to see and ears to hear but the Emperor and his retinue shouting in public sans apparel?
Here I come back to Philip Bobbitt’s analysis of politics evolving past the nation-state to what he calls the market-state:
At the heart of his analysis is the concept of the ‘market state’, the millennial successor to the nation state. He explains: ‘You can see it here in Britain – when states go from reliance on law and regulation, so characteristic of the nation state, to deregulating not only industries, but also women’s reproduction. When states move from conscription to an all-volunteer force to raise armies; in the UK you saw this development in the policy of top-up fees for college tuition. You see it in America with welfare reform when we go from direct transfers, and workmen’s compensation, to providing skills to enter the labour market. In all of these instances you are seeing the beginnings of a change in which the state says, “Give us power and we will maximise your opportunity. What you do with it – that’s up to you. We will not assure you equality, and we will not assure you steadily improving security, but the total wealth of the society will be maximised.”’
We are moving, in other words, to a new global constitutional order without fully realising it.
By a nation-state Bobbitt means not only a certain kind of territorial integrity with a national government but also a common social history, a sense of common shared values, and specific policies (e.g. Social Security) meant to enact politically that sense of shared history and shared future.
For Bobbitt this legal-political-military-technological mode of formation came into being strongly in the later 19th century. Prior to the nation-state, you had what Bobbitt calls state-nations (e.g. Articles of Confederation Order, Colonies, early US republic). In the US you see this shift with the rise of The West, the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s reshaping of the Constitutional Order (“no outs” for anybody) and the trans-continental Railroad. In Canada it comes through the (roughly contemporaneous) move towards formalized Confederation. The nation-state, defined by Weber as “monopoly of the means of violence within one’s boundaries”, really came into its own in the early-mid 20th century with the more formed nation-states (The West and the Soviets) expanding their reach across the planet–usually with disastrous consequences by drawing nation-states on maps for prior than nation-state political realities.
But even then Bobbitt says, at its height of the nation-state power, the downward slope was visible. De-colonization led to a mass re-population/migration of human beings from the formerly colonized world to the previously colonizing world. This mass of immigrants with different histories, different generational sense–which in the West is really built around WWI, Great Depression, and WWII–undid some of the social glue holding that previous nation-state identity together. [This last thread is not an anti-immigrant rant].
Obama ran in some ways as a throwback to nation-statehood. He repeatedly evokes The Civil Rights movement, Lincoln, The New Deal, the Fight against Communism, as well as his reference to a new generation (his so-called Joshua Generation) who like ones before have a special historical calling to fulfill.
But what we have seen to date is a structural inability to respond to the financial issues of the day. I mean really–is anyone with half a brain really surprised by AIG’s actions? Is Obama whatever he says (potentially to the contrary) in public honestly taken aback? Frankly I think it’s worse if he’s not lying to us and faking anger because that would suggest he actually didn’t see this coming (which would open up a whole other can of worms).
In other words, per Bobbitt’s predictions, markets dominate national governments. In other words, nation-states are crumbling under pressure from above.** This problem isn’t relegated to the US alone by any stretch. Somehow I doubt China’s ruling class, whose economic policy is a variation of the earlier US industrialization policy of the 18th/19th centuries, will be able to hold back this flood. When Alexander Hamilton initiated the US protectionist policy (like the French and British before him) he was doing so in an era of far less technological speed and permeability/transparency across the globe. Likewise the EU is in real trouble as its unwieldy bureaucracy is behind the curve on responding to this enormous market downturn.
A real danger it seems to me is that the financial implosion accelerates at such a rate that Bobbitt’s market-state does not yet have time to ground itself, to get it’s legs, and yet has done enough damage to the nation-state framework such that it (nation-state) is undermined and crumbling. In that scenario, some other None of the Above Option comes into play which could be very difficult to maneuver through. The market-state is predicated on increasing maximum/absolute total wealth in the society (even if not equitably distributed), but what if the market-state can not deliver on even that minimum requirement?
I’ve written before about some potential ideas/frames for a market-state age (e.g. Commons and Legal Frame for Long War), but this recent set of events suggests to me a need to think more deeply about the processes of governance in the 21st century. As a seemingly minor (but actually quite serious) example is this article on the software capacities (or lack thereof) of the White House.
** As to pressures from below, that sap the strength and effectiveness of nation-states, see the rise of criminal gangs, insurgents, terrorists, resistance fighters (whatever term you prefer) and their ability to defeat large scale armies over the long haul.