Thursday, April 13, 2017

Egypt's Oligarchs in Dubious Battle

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Harsh as the government of Abdel Fattah Sisi continues to be it has suffered some significant setbacks at the hands of the judiciary, the religious establishment and the parliament.  This is so despite its tens of thousands of political prisoners and severe repression of civil society associations committed to defend free expression and the rule of law as well as its more obvious political opponents. Each individual defeat can be explained as the result of a combination of idiosyncratic factors, but the growing list suggests reconsideration of our understanding of the regime as simply an authoritarian state. 

These conflicts are worth attention because these institutions have been so closely identified with the creation of the current regime.  Many trial judges enthusiastically supported the new regime and issued guilty verdicts against a wide swath of opponents of the coup who were frequently labeled terrorists.  In hundreds of cases defendants were sentenced to death and in thousands of others they were given long prison terms.  The chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court served as interim president.  Leading religious figures, including the head of the Azhar, associated themselves with the ouster of former president Muhammad Morsi and with Sisi himself.  The parliament, elected in 2016 under the constitution that replaced the one written during the Morsi era, is widely viewed as a docile, rubber stamp.  It affirmed most of the decrees Sisi issued during the year and a half in which Egypt had no legislative body whatsoever.  Parliament was to some degree the creature of the intelligence agencies which influenced the election process. To the extent that it represents anyone at all, it represents the interests of powerful local elites who were threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi presidency.  The religious establishment, notably the head of the Azhar but including past and present officials, opposed the Morsi government and publically provided support to the coup in the days leading up to it and in the formation of the government afterwards. 

There is a widespread presumption that each of these institutions is subservient to and directly controlled by the president.  This may not be the case.  It may, in fact, be the case the Sisi presides over an elite coalition whose internal disputes and conflicts make its members difficult, if subordinate, partners in the current regime.  It is convenient to think of each of these institutions as completely under the control of the armed forces, President Sisi, and the security forces.  They are certainly not independent or unaffected by the army, the president, or the intelligence agencies, but they also have independent reasons to support the current regime and on occasion to dissent from its policies.  Examining those moments of dissent is revealing of the contours of the Egyptian state and politics today.

Contemporary political science has a dichotomous understanding of political regimes: democratic or authoritarian.   Although there are various “flavors” of each type, when political scientists speak of the types of governments there are they invariably are interested in how political officials are chosen.  Speaking of democracy it is common to point out that more than free elections are required and to propose a list of individual freedoms that democracies must protect if they are to be considered real.  Political science describes dictatorships in a variety of flavors which themselves are largely devised to explain how public officials are chosen or choose themselves. 

Interesting as this is and useful as it may be for American policy makers and pundits, it is different and possibly far less sophisticated than the political analysis of political regimes that dominated much European political thinking for hundreds of years when there were no democracies and most executives were ruling monarchs.   During the centuries in which early modern Europe was made, almost no states were (in our contemporary sense) democratic nor was democracy generally conceived as either a viable or a valuable form of political organization.  Until very recent times, when critics of autocratic rule thought about how socially prominent, politically powerful, and wealthy groups could temper the power of centralizing rulers they rarely mentioned democracy and they paid little if any attention to the rights of the lower classes, women, or religious minorities.  They thought in terms of aristocracies, oligarchies, or mixed governments in which elites shared power.

Egypt is by no means a democracy and the government does not shrink from savage violence.  We can understand it better if we think of it as an oligarchy composed of a coalition of interests and institutions.   We can ask ourselves when their interests (both material and institutional) are aligned or at cross-purposes.  Doing so casts light on contemporary Egyptian politics and it also casts light on why Egypt, in the wake of the Arab Spring, has turned out to be a very different place than Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Libya.  This is not to say that Egypt today is in a better place than its neighbors or even a particularly good place, only that it is worth trying to understand how it is different.
 
The regime is not unstable and the president will usually get his way, but occasionally some actors manage to outmaneuver the president. They do so at least partly to keep their own institutional power intact as well as for more direct reasons of interest.   The Egyptian parliament, the Azhar and the judiciary are closely aligned with the presidency but they also have significantly more autonomy than at any time in the last 60 years with the obvious exception of the brief period between January 2011 and July 2013 when one repressive regime ended and another began. 

Among the most recent and perhaps important defeats of the president came with an attempt to cede arguably Egyptian territory to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,  with the attempted passage of a law regulating the civil service, and most recently with the attempt to eliminate men’s right to divorce their wives verbally.  In each case the government’s position has faced some significant popular opposition but also ultimately was rejected by the judiciary, the legislature, and the religious establishment respectively.  Each of these challenges to presidential authority occurred openly.  The fate of the islands and divorce remain open but the government made at least some concessions on the civil service law.
           
            Defense of the nation’s borders is a constitutive element of modern nationalism.  National sovereignty over national territory has mobilized Egyptians for more than a hundred years.  British troops did not completely leave the country until 1954 and Israeli troops occupied the Sinai Peninsula in 1956 and again between 1967 and 1982.   Between 2011 and 2013 there were rumors that President Morsi planned to give Sinai to the Palestinians so that they could withdraw from Gaza and create a state.  During those same years Egyptian army officers also frequently warned of plans to divide the country into separate statelets. Unfounded and ridiculous as these rumors were, they served to intensify a sense of existential threat and the fragility of national sovereignty. 

The failure of the armed forces to prevent the creation of a sovereign Israel in Palestine in 1948 was a proximate reason for the military seizure of power in 1952.  The army’s defeat in 1967 was a deeply-felt national catastrophe weakening the Nasser regime. President Sadat carefully nurtured the image of the 1973 war as a military victory to enhance his legitimacy as did President Mubarak after Sadat’s assassination.  Even intellectuals highly critical of the Nasserist regime and its repression have expressed fears that integration into the global economy could threaten national sovereignty.

Egyptian writers have, on occasion, expressed popular fears about tyranny, corruption, and existential threats to the nation.  Sometimes these expressions have been humorous and sometimes nightmarish.  Gamal Al-Ghitani is known in the US and Europe, to the extent that he is known at all, as the author of the short novel Zayni Barakat.  It first appeared in Arabic as a magazine serial in 1971 and in 1974 as a single volume.  Its English translation, introduced with a foreword by Edward Said, provided a much wider audience with access to a story of how a police state works.  El-Ghitani set his account of authoritarian excess in early 16th century Mamluk Egypt.  Other accounts of the Nasserist state by authors like Naguib Mahfouz such as Karnak Café were set in the historical present.  While they detailed the ethical and physical destruction such government produced they did not portend the collapse of the state.  By setting his novel just as the Ottoman conquest of Egypt occurred, El-Ghitani seemed to suggest that authoritarianism had deep historical roots as a strategy for governance but that it also created a government that could be fatally unresponsive to external challenge.

              By the time of his death in 2015 El-Ghitani had long ceased to be an insurgent figure in Arabic literature or the Egyptian literary establishment, but his early work remains a useful touchstone. The recent decision by the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court voiding a treaty that would have ceded two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia makes it worth revisiting his 1978 story, “What Happened to the Land of the Valley” written when Israeli troops occupied the Sinai Peninsula and Israeli settlers built towns along the northeast coast.

            “No one knew when it began,” Ghitani opens his story, but voices were raised against allowing foreigners to own land even then.  Elements of irony abound when we learn that initial purchases include not only apartments and small stores but even pavement.   A dystopian global market drives foreigners who can no longer afford housing in London, Paris, and Sidney to buy more and more property in Cairo and its environs.  When they have purchased the entire country the new owners attempt to evict the inhabitants.  The eviction is thwarted by the discovery of an acre in Upper Egypt which remains out of their possession.  In a dramatic but uncertain conclusion thousands of Egyptian men, women, and children link arms to protect the acre from being flooded as the alien purchases open dams and dikes to flood the single crucial acre of sovereignty that remains.

            When it was announced in early 2016 that the Egyptian government planned to cede control over Tiran and Sanafir, two islands between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egyptians were stunned.  The  Saudi government claimed that Egypt had occupied the islands in the mid-20th century at its request to protect them from Israel.  Egypt was not ceding territory; it was simply returning islands mid-way between the Saudi and Egyptian mainlands to their original sovereign.   

            The government never gave a clear reason for the transfer and popular and elite suspicions blossomed that the regime was exchanging the national territory for billions of dollars of aid it had already received from the Saudis.  These concerns are not new.  The billionaire Saudi investor and prince Walid Bin Talal was forced to relinquish an agricultural project in Upper Egypt in the early months of the 2011 uprising due to widespread concerns about corruption and undue influence over the Mubarak government.

            It is not surprising that intellectuals, activists, and ordinary citizens quickly moved to stop the transfer.  Public demonstrations occurred despite a ban that has frequently been enforced with murderous violence.  Khalid Ali, an attorney and leftist opposition candidate for president in 2012, initiated legal action.   Within weeks historians, legal scholars, and others identified decrees, maps, and legislation showing that that the islands were subject to Egyptian control in the late 19th century.  If so the islands would have been Egyptian well before the Saudi state came into existence.   This matters because the government cannot, under the existing constitution, alienate Egyptian territory.  The government’s initial explanation of the transfer of the islands was that it resulted from delineating the Egyptian-Saudi maritime boundary.  The argument for border delineation made the transfer an administrative decision rather than a legislative act.  Just for this reason the ultimate arbiter of the legality of the transfer was the High Administrative Court rather than the Supreme Constitutional Court.  The court determined that the evidence put the transfer outside the administrative power of the executive authority.  It could only be accomplished by a legislative act regarding the sovereignty of the state.

            The generally compliant legislature has not voted either to transfer the islands or to grant the president the right to do so.  This is not the first time the legislature has been recalcitrant to government initiatives.  In January 2016 the legislature, reviewing laws promulgated before it was seated, rejected President Sisi’s civil service law by a vote of 336 to 150.  The law, a revision of the pre-existing law on the civil service, aimed to make it easier to discipline workers and to fire them as well as to cut the growth of wages paid them.  It was unpopular with civil service employees and their unions and led to public protests that, although illegal, were not dispersed with the kind violence deployed against political protests.

            A revised civil service law was enacted at the end of 2016.  The new law provided greater financial incentives to government employees than the original proposal and was clearly a defeat for Sisi.  Egyptian analysts differ over why the legislature opposed Sisi on this issue.  Some have argued that the police played a significant role in electing the current parliament and that the conflict over the civil service law reflects a continuing conflict between the police establishment and the military.  Another possibility is that Sisi’s decree in July 2015 that the 75% of the seats in the parliament would be individual candidacies and only 20% party lists has had unforeseen consequences.  Individual seats strengthen the candidacies of wealthy businessmen and influential families whose interests are not wholly dependent on the regime.  Consequently the creation of the majority “For the Love of Egypt” list by the late military intelligence officer, Sameh Seif El-Yazal, did not or could not re-create the kind of pliant partisan apparatus that former president Mubarak had with the National Democratic party.  Weakening the legislature may, in fact, have weakened executive control over the legislators.  Lastly, the choice of the issue over which the legislature confronted the executive is meaningful.  Over the last 20 years employment in state-owned industry has markedly declined as privatization and market-oriented policies have dramatically decreased the size of state-owned industry.  Civil service employment has decreased but remains large.  As an example of what this means, in 2010, government statistics indicated that just over 12% of Egyptians were employed in manufacturing which is increasingly in private ownership and almost 9% were employed in education which remains largely a public function and almost another 8% were employed in either the civil or defense administrations. 

Fifty years ago the laws governing civil servants affected only a small, relatively secure portion of the workforce.  As the work of Egypt’s Nobel prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz recounts, these employees may have been subject to chicanery and mis-treatment by their superiors but their positions were nevertheless largely understood as desirable.  The Egyptian public service has grown larger and wages, especially at the lower levels, have become increasingly hard to live on while service rendered the public has become increasingly poor in quality.  Less secure tenure not only eliminates one of the important perquisites of the positions but is widely understood to make employees even more subject to the whims of supervisors.  

That parliament defended its own constituency is by no means an indication of its support for freedom of expression, liberalism, or support for any greater principle of good governance or democracy.  Parliament has stripped two members of their seats in the last year.  The first, Tawfiq Okasha, was ousted by a majority for having had contacts with the Israeli embassy without first gaining parliamentary approval.  The second, Mohammad Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late President Anwar el-Sadat, was ousted recently for his attempt to prevent passage of extremely restrictive legislation governing the work of non-governmental organizations and his disclosure of wasteful spending on parliament itself. 

Last, the regime has felt disaffection from the religious establishment including the public expression of discontent by Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb.  The Azhar is often described as a thousand-year old university and the most respected global institution of Sunni Islam.  The Azhar does comprise an old and significant set of institutions for religious instruction where many of the officials who oversee Egypt’s mosques are trained.  It also provides formal and informal opinions (fatwas) for government and private individuals about the religious character of their actions.  Speaking of the Azhar can also refer to the modern university with faculties of medicine, politics and literature or the primary-secondary school system with more than a million students.  The “Azhar” comprises a broad array of educational and religious institutions.  Like the government educational bureaucracy and the court system, reaches deeply into Egyptian society.  Like the army and the bureaucracy the Azhar has not been well or deeply studied, not least because it does not welcome external scrutiny.  A poignant account of the life of a fictional Azhari graduate is to be found in Abderrahman Sharqawi’s 1952 novel “Al-Ard” (This Egyptian Earth):  a graduate finds himself morally at odds with a government official who steals land from peasants but also finds himself trapped by his own economic insecurity in acquiescing in the theft. 

In 2016 the government proposed a change in the law governing divorce in ways consistent with what many analysts have referred to as “state feminism”.  Over the last 60 years Egyptian governments have occasionally attempted to use the law to shift the balance of social power toward women.   These have generally enhanced the bargaining power of women in family law but without empowering independent civil associations of women.  In Egypt Muslim men can divorce their wives at will.  Divorce for men is what scholars call performative because saying the words “I divorce you” three times ends a marriage.  The act of speaking the words constitutes the divorce which need not be communicated to the wife or registered with the state.  Women can initiate proceedings to obtain a divorce but, unlike men, they cannot unilaterally end a marriage.  Sissi proposed that verbal divorce be annulled to be replaced by a formal meeting with a religious official.   His stated concern is both that there are too many divorces and divorce is increasingly common.   Forcing the process into an administrative process might diminish their number if only insofar as it becomes more expensive, more cumbersome, and more public. 

Tayyeb publicly opposed this measure which was unpopular with many of the Azhari ulama and especially the governing council.  The proposed change may very well disadvantage men to some degree and it is at odds with received practice and understanding of family law as subordinate to Islamic norms.  Because the constitution mandates that Islamic legal principles provide the basis of Egyptian legislation there is tension between institutions that claim authority to interpret what constitutes Islamic law or legal principles.  These debates have become more acute as two constitutions were written, ratified and approved in referenda in the past four years. 

This may appear to be a rather marginal issue on which to oppose Sissi and his government, but it indicates some important disagreement between the Azhari elite and Sissi’s proclaimed project of reforming Islam.  There are good reasons for insisting that verbal divorces be registered—not least fairness to women who are divorced without knowing it.  There are also reasons why members of the Senior Scholars Council which, in the wake of the tumult of the last few years, now wields significant authority again might reject such a proposal.  Azhar has gained both autonomy and a secure constitutional role in the wake of the uprising.  Where the head of the Azhar (the shaykh) was formerly chosen by the head of state, he is now chosen by the Senior Scholar’s Council and the constitution guarantees that the institution will receive government support.   Azhar’s leaders have every reason to protect it against any encroachment. 

Overall, the bench, the officers’ corps, the legislature and the religious establishment supported the coup and the creation of the current government.   This is in contradistinction to the 1952 coup, frequently taken as the model and progenitor of Egypt’s current constellation of institutions.  In 1952 large sections of the religious establishment and the free professions (from which the legislative elite was largely drawn) opposed the seizure of power by army officers and the Free Officers spent years subordinating the civilian elite to their control.   Nasser spent years in frequent, and frequently unsuccessful, attempts to create a single ruling party.  The ultimate success of Hosny Mubarak in creating the National Democratic party provided him with a means to transfer authority away from the army and, he seems to have hoped, ultimately to his son.  The decision not to encourage a single majority party forecloses a possible repetition of that move but may have strengthened the concern of legislators to retain some independent influence over their electoral fate.

The civil administration has grown larger and far more important in Egyptian political and economic life than it was in 1952 even if it is arguably often over-staffed, less expert and inefficient.  As the Egyptian political scientist Ashraf el-Sherif noted several years ago, many of the bureaucratic institutions and ministries have become more autonomous since the uprising.  This may have begun during the long stasis of the late Mubarak era but it progressed with some rapidity after the uprising.  Institutional autonomy is reinforced by the increased personalization of positions including inheritance.  The children of officers become officers; the children of judges become judges; the children of legislators become legislators.  The mechanisms may be subtly different in each case but they also reinforce the need and the ability to retain some institutional independence if only to ensure that the children can inherit the positions and authority of the fathers.   In several well-publicized cases institutional closure has gone even further so that branches of the judiciary have refused to allow law school graduates deemed socially inferior to enter service. 

Egypt is not a democracy nor is it a liberal political order.  It may, however, be a mixed political system in which a powerful president is both sustained by and sometimes opposed by other powerful institutions that seek to retain as much autonomy as they can.  The set of political institutions that have emerged since the coup are more stable than many people think and can probably survive a transition to a new political leader.  To forestall such a transition Sisi will have to ensure the legislature and judiciary both agree to constitutional amendments.  But it will take more than simply amending the clause limiting the president to two terms in office.  It will also require amending the clause that forbids amending the limitation itself.  If there is indeed any desire among legislators and the judiciary to preserve their independence that latter clause is one they will have to hold dear. 

Jurists and legislators are now faced with a new challenge: President Sisi’s decision to invoke a state of emergency in the wake of the bombing of churches in Tanta and Alexandria.  There is not much reason to think that the legislature will refuse Sisi’s requests to extend the state of emergency.  It will be easy as well for legislators of limited horizons to cooperate against a judiciary that is widely perceived as self-interested, illiberal, and cruel.  The decline of an oligarchy nourished in the long years of Hosni Mubarak and that flowered in the wake of his collapse will not mean democracy.  Could it, however, lead to something worse than the present?



             

           

           

           

           

           

Monday, February 20, 2017

Leninism in the Time of Trump

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No one knows just why Steve Bannon, then an obscure media figure and now President Trump’s special adviser, would have walked up to Ronald Radosh at a dinner party in 2014 and told him “I’m a Leninist.”   Even Radosh, who once upon a time was a Leninist, doesn’t know.  Nor has anyone, in fact, been able to confirm Radosh’s assertion including Steve Bannon who claims not even to remember the meeting let alone what he might have said.  Let’s assume, however, since Bannon hasn’t denied the story or claimed that it’s “fake news” that it happened.  What, we might ask, would a former naval officer and employee at Goldman Sachs who grew up in a working class home in Norfolk, Virginia have possibly meant by saying he was a Leninist?
         This anecdote has occasionally been glossed with reference to Vladimir Lenin’s tract, “The State and Revolution,” a work neither Bannon nor Radosh mention.  Bannon may only have had a sophomoric desire to shock a neoconservative intellectual whose political background is well known.   Or, in a colossal mis-reading of the Russian revolution, he may think of himself as a system-destroying revolutionary.
Odd as it may seem, however, we have much to learn by considering how Bannon, or indeed many contemporary Republican voters and Tea Party activists, might read what Lenin wrote in the months before the November 7 coup in Saint Petersburg brought him to power.  Lenin’s pamphlet has little relevance to Soviet governance, but it may have been and may remain far more useful as a guide to American practice.  My aim here is not to write about what Lenin really meant and whether Leninism betrayed Lenin or the Russian revolution.  It is to consider the themes of “The State and Revolution” as they might be read by right-wing radical American activists. “The State and Revolution” is far more concerned with bureaucracy, regulation and the political power of expertise than it is with class structures, dialectical materialism, or the role of a vanguard party.  It may be the least Leninist thing Lenin ever wrote.
      The contemporary bureaucratic and regulatory structures that most Americans know and that the Tea Party generally abhors are just about 100 years old in this country.  In France and Germany they are somewhat older.  American academics tend to focus on the German scholar Max Weber as the earliest and most important student of bureaucratic structures but at the turn of the twentieth century there were eminent scholars around the world who noticed the sudden emergence of bureaucracy and state regulation as new methods of governance.  As Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound noticed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, administrative law—the law of the bureaucracy—was so new in the US that it was almost unstudied in law schools.   
        It is not surprising that Karl Marx paid relatively little attention to the state because in the country that most affected his view of the world and that he saw as the most advanced, England, the administrative state was relatively unimportant.  Despite the existence of a theoretically strong parliament, government in the United Kingdom of the late 19th century, although the most advanced industrial and capitalist country in the world, still existed primarily as a set of highly local practices.  Marx’s view of socialism was largely colored by his concern that labor be joyful and that governance be, in essence, amateur.  It is instructive that Marx saw the state as a committee rather than as a set of administrative and regulatory structures.  Marx understood that the state employed coercion, but neither the Rhineland nor England—the two societies that most strongly shaped his understanding of capitalism and government—had powerful bureaucracies during his lifetime.
Lenin was heir to mid-19th century debates about the nature of society and the state.  During his study of law at the University of Kazan in the 1880’s, the first Tsarist experiments in creating codified law were still being implemented and the peasantry, the vast majority of Russia’s inhabitants, lived with almost no contact with the new legal structures, their courts, or their administrative edicts.  Unlike his near contemporaries, Weber and Pound, Lenin had a significant impact on the creation of modern political structures.  Not least of these was his insistence that political parties be made up of disciplined professionals who carried particular discourses and practices (the party “line”) into society.  Lenin’s invention was thus of a party that ultimately allowed the state to organize and agitate society rather than being a mechanism for the projection of social and civic interests into government.
On the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, Lenin briefly looked back at earlier utopian debates on the ultimate goal of the socialist movement and discussed one of Marx’s old and only briefly elaborated themes: the withering away of the state.  It was far easier in Marx’s day to imagine the progressive disappearance of still weakly bureaucratized governing structures than it would be in the aftermath of the mobilization for total war that occurred for the generations that lived from 1914 until 1945.  Lenin fully grasped that when Marx proposed the necessity of smashing what he called the bureaucratic-military machine his words only applied to France and the situation of French revolutionaries in 1871 during the year of the Paris Commune.  England then, and by extension the United States, lacked both a military clique and an extensive bureaucracy.  Consequently Lenin wrote, in Britain, it was possible to imagine a people’s revolution (his words) without the need to destroy the already existing machinery of the state. 
It was not difficult for Lenin, in the chaotic Russian summer of 1917, to assert that both the bureaucracy and the standing army were “parasites” on the body of bourgeois society.   Relying on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune and on the assumption that by 1917 Russian revolutionaries as well as those in England and the US would need to smash the state, Lenin considered what would replace it, or more accurately just who would replace the state. 
Despite the association of Lenin’s name with the pervasive and rigid bureaucracy of the Soviet state and its highly privileged elite—the so-called nomenklatura—he foresaw a very different outcome than the self-proclaimed leaders of twentieth century totalitarianism.  “All citizens,” Lenin wrote in State and Revolution, “are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers.”  With rising levels of literacy and numeracy, Lenin predicted that “all members of society, or at least the vast majority, have learned to administer the state themselves, have taken over the work into their own hands….from this moment the need for government of any kind begins to disappear altogether.” 
            Whatever similarities exist between the bureaucracies in the fascist and communist states in the 1930s, the utopian ideal proposed by Lenin is distinctly different than that of contemporary fascist leaders.  Both Hitler and Mussolini considered the state a tool to be seized and used.  Hitler in Mein Kampf and Mussolini in “The Doctrine of Fascism” saw the state as an instrument for social order and cohesion. It might be necessary to purge state officials (an idea with which Stalin agreed) and it might be necessary to develop new and more hideous instruments of coercion and murder.  Eliminating the state, even as an ideal, was alien to their thinking and to their movements as it was for Lenin when he finally acquired state power and even more so when he was succeeded by Stalin.
Eliminating the state solves one of the most acute problems of government as a socially autonomous institution. Political thinkers from Plato to Madison, to Foucault and Hobbes, all wondered who governs the governors.  More specifically what prevents those with administrative authority from using it on their own behalf?  There are many different answers and Lenin was not reluctant to propose, at least in theory, his own: 

“When all have learned to administer and actually do independently administer social production, independently keep accounts and exercise control over parasites…escape from this popular accounting and control will inevitably become so incredibly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe accounting (for the armed workers are practical men and not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that the necessity of observing…the rules of the community will very soon become a habit.”

      European socialists and revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century strongly opposed the use of violence against minorities and Lenin was no exception.  Nevertheless the independent action of armed workers against government officials is close to lynch law which was usually justified by asserting that the competent government officials were derelict in their duty.  One place where armed workers possessed the capacity to threaten officials was the United States and especially the American South, where tradition, statute, and constitutional law (the Second Amendment) sanctioned white violence against black citizens accused but not convicted to criminal acts.   Lynching was never promoted as a substitute for the judicial system but it was frequently excused as the direct action of an emotionally mobilized community.  
       Those who defended lynching recognized that it undermined the state.  Benjamin Tillman participated in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876 which was one of a long chain of events in which armed insurrection overthrew the Reconstruction government.  He later served as state governor and US Senator.  Speaking of lynching to the legislature in 1895 he argued that in a government dominated by white supremacists, whites had no reason to resort to lynching.   Yet, as Tillman knew lynching often required not only a mob but the collusion of state officials who (to paraphrase Lenin) undertook to obey the rules of the community as a habit.
       A far more common use of arbitrary authority in the South occurred in voter registration.  The states of the Old Confederacy after Reconstruction never legislatively denied African-Americans the franchise directly.  Much as they might have wanted to, white politicians understood that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution precluded such a direct assault.  Instead they created literacy and administrative requirements that gave voter registrars significant leeway in determining who could vote and how to validate ballots.  The administrative mechanism they created was therefore quite distant from what Weber or Pound might have expected.  Registrars and other officials therefore had both the incentive and the authority to eliminate the influence of large sections of the population on government.  In many Southern states ultimately more white than black voters were disenfranchised.  The broad democracy that Reconstruction was supposed to plant in the south withered.
        Whatever Steve Bannon’s views on race, ethnicity, religion and gender, however, he’s no Ben Tillman at least in public.  Any listener to recordings of his somewhat rambling talks available on the internet can attest that his speech is devoid of racial slurs or ethnic epithets.  That listener can also attest to Bannon’s view that he believes in the superiority of Western civilization and the culture of Christian religiosity without necessarily showing any great familiarity with either.  Compared to the rants of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman or “The Great White Chief” James Vardaman of Mississippi, Bannon is a mild-mannered politician.  But again neither Tillman or Vardaman would have described themselves as Leninists who hoped for the destruction either of the elite or the state.  Where Bannon’s vision is reminiscent of Lenin’s is when he reassures his audience that their values—rather than the actual laws—ought to be what animates government. 
        Donald Trump has no desire for the state to vanish.  Someone must keep track of deeds, clean the streets, patrol the borders, and prosecute violent crime.   Beyond those tasks, however, Trump and much of the leadership of the Republican party question the need for the regulatory and social service bureaucracy of the contemporary state.  Trump and the Republican majority in Congress are in agreement to dispense, as far as possible, with these institutions of the state.  Many of Trump’s appointments, notably Betsy DeVos at Education and Ben Carson at Housing, have little experience either with large bureaucratic institutions or with the substance of the policy disputes they must address.  They also both prefer private and for-profit solutions to public and governmental ones.  They will therefore be neither inclined nor able to ensure that their agencies function well either in society or in the conflict for funds, influence, and the president’s attention.  It is unlikely they will defend their agencies vigorously against threats of dissolution such as bills recently introduced into Congress to dissolve the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency. 
Someone must also defend the rights of owners of private property.  Trump exhibits greater ambivalence about government property.  During Cliven Bundy’s April 2014 armed stand-off with Bureau of Land Management employees over grazing rights in Nevada, Trump acknowledged respect for Bundy.  He also recognized that government would collapse if everyone did what Bundy was doing. While not exactly Lenin’s concept of armed workers enforcing their will on bureaucrats, Bundy’s action was remarkably close. 
Bundy’s armed actions posed a problem for Trump but not primarily because it was armed.  Trump does not support transferring Federal land to state governments.  As a real estate developer who has frequently benefited from it, he supports the right of government to take private land with compensation (eminent domain).  Many Trump voters are closer to Bundy’s way of thinking.  Thus, Trump proposed a solution to the crisis in which Bundy negotiated his way out of the standoff and his unpaid arrears to the government.  In 2016, Bundy’s son, Ammon, took over the Malheur Federal wildlife refuge. Trump asserted that if he were President he would end the occupation by calling the leaders and asking them to stand down and bring their complaints to him.  Gerald DeLemus, co-chair of the New Hampshire Veterans for Trump Committee, saw the armed take-over of Federal offices in a different light. He flew to Malheur to join the protest where he was arrested.
Although they intervened with arms against government officials, Bundy father and son are not Leninists.  They descend from a long tradition of the use of armed force against officials by farmers that began western Pennsylvania with the whiskey rebellion of 1791.   This armed protest, like later ones, sought to change government policy by preventing officials from carrying it out.  Limiting the power of the government to tax and regulate was the issue, not the destruction of the state.
So, too, neither Trump nor Bannon seek the end of the state although they both, like paleo-conservatives and neo-liberals, seek to roll back the administrative state.  What is different and what Bannon may have recognized in “State and Revolution” if he ever read it is a two-fold idea.  The first is simply that armed protest—of a kind that is almost impossible to imagine outside a constitution that guarantees the right of private citizens to bear arms—plays an extremely disruptive role with the institutions of the modern state.  The second is that increasing the discretion of police officers to enforce law can enhance the ability of an executive to accomplish popular but formally unconstitutional goals.
This suggests a different way to understand Trump’s executive orders and especially his most recent conflict with the Ninth Circuit.  That these orders are poorly written and that Trump had little understanding of their content or how they would be received by the courts is clear.    Neither Steve Bannon nor Donald Trump has a legal education and the President reads little and certainly not closely.   Something of an argument has developed about whether the poorly drafted orders are the result of incompetence or some extraordinarily diabolic cleverness.  I suggest a third possibility: the executive orders are not primarily meant as legal documents.  They are messages conveying to officials such as immigration officers at the border or police in the field that, rather than being strictly commanded to engage in extreme vetting, they have been given extreme latitude to enforce the law. 
If Steve Bannon really bounced up to Ronald Radosh and provocatively announced that he was a Leninist, he didn’t mean destroying the bureaucracy.  He meant transforming it from an organization bound by law into one inhabited by a million little Trumps.



 





Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Klankraftiness of Donald Trump



                  Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is revealing of more than trouble ahead for public education in the United States. Because she wants to turn much of public instruction private, it also reveals how profoundly the politics of white supremacy has changed since the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was a mainstream social movement and had broad political influence.  There is no better way to understand today’s Trump phenomenon than by comparing him with the Klan, but to do this we must rid ourselves of the idea that the early twentieth century Klan was identical to that of the mid-nineteenth century or the one of our day.

                  The Klan was re-founded in 1915 in the Deep South not long after the release of the popular movie, Birth of a Nation, which was itself based on an earlier novel The Klansman.  The expansion of the Klan relied on techniques now associated with multi-level marketing firms such as Amway as well as the synthesis of exotic rituals such as those earlier popularized by fraternal societies such as the Shriners. 

                  White supremacy has always been a basic element of Klan ideology or Klankraft as it was called with the organization. Despite its constant concern to avoid being labeled as an organization whose members took the law into their own hands, the Klan always employed violence as political terror and social discipline.  Between 1915 and 1928, however, the Klan was a broadly representative fraternal organization insofar as it mirrored the beliefs of many white native-born Protestants and insofar as it projected those beliefs into the political realm. 

                  Despite the initial association of the Klan with the Confederate states, in the 1920s it was an organization well beyond the South.  Seeking to understand the spread of the Klan, contemporary observers and later historians utilized the same causal links that have been deployed to explain the Trump vote in 2016: fear of labor market competition by immigrants, the transition to a new economy (more industrial) and new society (more urban), as well as changes in social mores about sex and intoxicants. 

                  There has been considerable scholarly debate about who joined the Klan in the 1920s.  A once dominant tendency was to believe that Klansmen were marginal members of society: uneducated and impoverished whites with a propensity to violence and profound ignorance about economic structures and politics.  In part this was simply a stereotype based on an esthetic that less attractive politics must be held by less attractive people.  In part it arose from the desire of middle-class and professional opponents of the Klan who held similar ideas to differentiate themselves and their social milieu from the organization.

Recent studies, employing internal Klan documents, have shown that the Klan in the 1920s was broadly representative of white society, but that its members were disproportionately drawn from semi-skilled labor and lower level civil servants.  Klan members were more likely to have had modest incomes and modest educations than to have been unskilled, illiterate, or well-off professionals with college degrees.  Klan members, to a greater degree than society at large, benefited from receiving education at a period in American history when most pre-baccalaureate instruction was provided by public schools.

A moment’s reflection dismisses the idea of the Klan in the 1920s as an organization of the impoverished and dispossessed.  Unlike the Klan ‘s first incarnation in 1868 as an avowedly terrorist group, the Klan’s revival in after World War I was the work of publicists and advertising agents working out the basic elements of multi-level marketing in the context of a fraternal organization.  Members paid the klecktoken or annual dues of $10 at a time when Henry Ford had made himself nationally famous by offering skilled assembly workers $5 a day, which was twice the normal daily wage for factory employees.  Members were also expected to buy their own robes, other paraphernalia, and printed literature.  Formal membership in the Klan was beyond the means of the impoverished and the economically insecure.  Paid organizers, the kleagles, retained $4 of every klecktoken they received.  Higher officials retained smaller amounts but from a larger pool.  By the mid-1920s the national Klan leadership often attained incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. 

Klan membership was restricted to white Protestant native-born men although the creation of the auxiliary Women’s KKK in 1923 opened up an avenue for women to participate.  The Klan is best known for the violence with which, especially in the South, it enforced white supremacy and suppressed any bids for political or economic equality by Black Americans.  The Klan also sought, through legal and extra-legal means, to affect American society in a variety of other areas: immigration, education, drugs, sexual relations, child support, and divorce.

Since the 1960s, Americans have thought of drugs in terms of marijuana and a handful of powerful stimulants and depressants such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and briefly LSD.  All of these are available through illegal markets.  The hard drugs are sufficiently available to create public health problems and they all contribute to the existence of an unregulated economy that engenders wealth and violence.  Recently many states have effectively legalized marijuana although Federal law continues to sanction its use.  For hundreds of years, however, Americans thought of alcohol as the most dangerous drug for its economic, social and moral effects on society.  In the latter 19th century increasingly effective movements sought to ban the production and consumption of alcohol and they were ultimately successful immediately after World War I with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the Volstead Act.

Mention Prohibition today and it conjures up quaint images of flappers and speakeasies or exchanges of gunfire between square-jawed federal agents and gangsters with ominously Italian names along with the easy admission that it was obviously a terrible policy.  Yet prohibition had long been a staple demand of American Protestant churches. The Klan, along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Organization and the Anti-Saloon League, also fought for it.  Like so many issues, Prohibition was not directly a matter of intolerance or prejudice but it sharpened opposition between immigrant groups and nativist whites.  For Jews and Catholics from southern and eastern Europe wine was a sacramental item as well as an item of cultural conviviality along with hard liquor.   The inability of the Federal and state governments to enforce Prohibition also gave the Klan license to enforce it by itself.  It did so with assaults on drinking establishments and, in parts of the South, with public whippings. 

                  If alcohol was one popular issue that deeply concerned the Klan, education was another.  It invariably supported the expansion of the public schools and frequently also supported higher taxes to enhance them.  From the Deep South to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast the Klan fought consistently to extend compulsory public education.  In Oregon in 1922 elected Klan officials passed a law requiring that all children between eight and sixteen attend public schools.  Progressive as this might seem, the aim of this and other similar legislation backed by the Klan was use the schools to shape the values and allegiances of American citizens.   As one Klan official put it in 1923, “the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan should be the vehicle for this Bible reading and instruction and that no atheist, infidel, skeptic or non-believer should be allowed to teach in the public schools.” 

                  The Klan’s opposition to the Catholic Church was rooted in beliefs that the culture and society of the US were uniquely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  The Klan viewed the massive immigration that characterized the US from the 1890 to 1920 and had brought large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the US (as well as Jews) as an existential threat.  The Catholic Church possessed a formidable institutional presence.  Its members owed allegiance to the Church and were enmeshed in an institutional framework that included schools, parishes, and charitable organizations.  Unlike the various Protestant sects that dominated the religious scene in the US, the Church had a well-organized hierarchy and could mobilize its primarily urban worshippers for elections.  Long before academics thought about the reproduction of culture, the Klan grasped the importance of controlling early education to affect the ties of citizens to the institutions of civil society and the state. 

                  The Klan viewed the religious threat to American society as the primary result of immigration.  The Klan viewed with concern the large number of Catholics who had entered the US in the preceding decades and especially that “a big percent of these immigrants are from the lowest strata of Italy, Poland, and other Roman Catholic countries.”  The Klan strongly supported immigration legislation that in 1924 ended the policy of nearly unlimited entry into the US in order, in its words, to “prevent the glutting of the American labor market and the Romanizing and mongrelizing of the citizenship of the United States.”

                  No one would deny that the Klan in the 1920s was committed to white supremacy, but this is popularly thought to be a nearly unconscious reflex.  For most white Americans, we are often told, being white was a background condition and whites were rarely aware that whiteness was itself a singular condition.  This is not how the Klan presented the relevant issue.  As noted above, the Klan undoubtedly saw white dominance as intimately connected with Protestantism and Protestantism they certainly believed to be under attack from Catholics and Jews. 

                  It can be difficult to separate the Klan’s racism with that of white society at large in the period between the two world wars.  The Klan was committed to maintaining the legal and economic separation and subjugation of African-Americans.  It held, as did many Americans in the era of “scientific racism”, that Blacks were an inferior group.  Criticism of the Klan at the time from those who believed equally in white supremacy was often based on concern that the Klan provoked violence both as a short-term policy and in order to spread fear among whites that would bring more recruits to the Klan.  Writing in 1922, Henry Fry discussed the Tulsa race riot the previous year in which whites killed some 300 Black people, destroyed property, and drove citizens into exile. Speaking of what was probably the worse pogrom in American history Fry, in his book The Modern Ku Klux Klan, noted that the Klan at no time rallied to support the maintenance of law and order despite its claims to be an organization committed to such goals.  Oklahoma, Fry pointed out, was a stronghold of the Klan.  Despite its state support for law and order, the Klan was a constant source of disorder both through its propaganda and through its mobilization of members for extra-legal and illegal activity.  Inciting and organizing popular violence while piously asserting that its commitment to legality was a hallmark of the Klan.

                  The Klan was, however, solicitous of the police and local law enforcement. It was here that the Klan, especially in the South but elsewhere as well, had its greatest impact on local government.  The Klan in the 1920s, even in the South, did not deploy the Confederate flag.  To the contrary, although it deplored what it called an over-reaching Federal government during Reconstruction, in the 1920s the Klan presented itself as a bastion of Americanism and a supporter of American institutions. 

                  In 2016 the Klan is no longer an organization of any importance in American politics, but the so-called Alt-Right and political currents that swirl in and around it such as the Tea Party and sections of the Republican party remain strongly motivated by the issues and policies that the Klan pioneered in the 1920s.  Trump himself sometimes articulates views very close to those of the Klan. Whether this is chance is far from clear.  Just because they were once common views among white Americans of his father’s generation means he likely heard them growing up.  That his father was arrested at a Klan demonstration in 1927 and may have been attracted to their nativist message and thus raised his son on it is also possible.

                  Trump is closest to evoking the Klan of the 1920s in his views on immigration.  Indeed Trump’s call for a moratorium on immigration sounds remarkably like a 1923 statement by a South Carolina Grand Dragon to restrict immigration for a decade while the US took “an inventory of human assets and liabilities” with its border.  His view of Mexicans resembles those of Klan quoted above. 

                  In the 1920s the Klan was concerned primarily with Jewish and Catholic immigration and secondarily with Japanese immigration.  Muslim immigration was insignificant and the Klan never mentioned it.  The prevailing infatuation with the Orient at the end of the 19th century may even have played some role in the Klan’s ritual meetings which, unlike cross burning, took place indoors.  Citizens of the “invisible empire” entered a separate space from the “alien” world of everyday America when the Klavern assembled.  The Klan constitution was officially known as the Kloran and the sergeant-at-arms was a Klaliff which may have been a portmanteau of bailiff and caliph. 

Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic animus, major themes of the klancraft of religion, were more than mere personal prejudice although they certainly included it.  The persistence of anti-Semitism in countries such as the US and Germany which had relatively tiny Jewish populations owes more to its role as a discourse of mobilization than as a lived experience for most people.   Modern anti-Semitism is a way of transforming economic grievances into ethnic ones.  As the German social democratic leader August Bebel once put it, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was more directly aimed at mobilizing sentiment against institutions that necessarily sought to expand pluralism and what we would today call “multi-culturalism” in American society.  Many Protestants perceived the Church as an enemy to their dominance of society and as recently as the 1960 presidential election it was possible to argue that John Kennedy would, if elected, take orders from the Pope about how to govern the US. 

                  Anti-Catholicism is no longer a main theme in American politics and anti-Semitism, while significant, has not been a primary motivating tool of the American right.  The religion most in the public eye today in American politics is Islam and Trump has echoed many themes of the older anti-Catholic discourse when he speaks of Islam.  This sounds peculiar because antagonism to Islam and to Arabs is often described as similar to anti-Semitism.  Considering the nature of the Klan’s antagonism to the Catholic Church (and indeed the history of conflating anxiety about Catholic and Muslim challenges to Protestant polities going back to the 16th century) it should be clear that much of what is called “Islamophobia” resembles anti-Catholic sentiment.  Muslims, like Catholics, are said to be incapable of integrating into the American political community: they are beholden to religious leaders outside our national territory; they are subordinate to a particular textual tradition; they have not experienced the Reformation; in addition to their religious incapacity to assimilate they are members of equally problematic ethnic groups; they seek to transform American institutions through subjecting them to alien religious norms.  These complaints are rarely if ever addressed to Jews in the United States but they have been commonly applied both to Muslims and Catholics.

                  What then of education?  If Trump spoke the fears of the Klan to a new generation of white Protestants (and of course to some other Americans as well) his embrace of Betsy DeVos shows how different our world is than that of the 1920s.  The struggles to integrate and secularize the public schools in the 1960s ended the dream that they could be used to create a citizenry steeped in white supremacy and Protestant religiosity.  Catholics increasingly turned to the public schools to educate their children as did Jews and school boards and local governments increasingly withdrew Bible reading from morning exercises.  Teaching became both a profession with a pluralist workforce and increasingly committed to cultural pluralism as a value. 

                  The rise of private schools as a safe space for the values of middle as well as upper class white Protestants grew in tandem with the integration of the public schools.  In the south, but less so in the north, the Klan existed in tension with an older, wealthier oligarchy frequently rooted in land ownership.  That oligarchy also believed in white supremacy and required cheap Black labor.  Conflicts between the Klan and the oligarchy frequently arose over education and the leasing of convict labor.   Because much of the prison population was Black, convict leasing threatened the wages of impoverished white workers.  Not until 1928, with the support of the Klan, did Alabama finally eliminate convict leasing.  It was the last state to do so.  Schools remained chronically underfunded, however, and the same literacy tests and poll taxes that prevent almost all African Americans from voting also limited white electoral participation.  The public schools were the only possible path for upward mobility.

The Klan hoped, with some success, to force all Americans into the public school system and also hoped, with some success, to control the curriculum. White supremacists and the political activists from the far right of the political spectrum can no longer hope to accomplish that.  Nor indeed do they, as did many of their predecessors, send their own children to public schools.  Whether today’s wealthy constitute an oligarchy is an open question, but the wealthiest Americans send their children to private schools and sponsor the privatization of public schools as an ideal.  Thus Betsy DeVos will play an important role in making education policy for the next several years. 

If white supremacists have turned against a public school system they can no longer control, the schools remain an important locus for political power.  They continue to shape citizens and provide many young Americans with whatever skills and human capital they can acquire as they seek to find employment.  Another way to look at the most recent election is to realize that although unions in the private sector have been largely eliminated those in the public sector remain potent economic and political actors.  In the 1920s many lower level civil servants were attracted to the Ku Klux Klan but that has ceased to be true.  Today public employees are divided into two main groups: those who deal with security and those who deal with human services.  There are about 1.3 million police in the US and about 3.1 million teachers.  Police unions appear to have endorsed Trump and teacher’s unions supported Clinton.  Transforming the public schools has an ideological purpose but it also will have political consequences.  Unions that are no longer primarily white and no longer have primarily white constituencies no longer benefit from the support of organizations, mainstream or extreme, that further white supremacy.  Privatizing schools will decrease organized support for public schools by teachers as well as among parents.  Strong support for the police will have the opposite effect. 

Although Americans at large and some supporters came to distrust the Klan as its leaders grew wealthy and engaged in egregious acts of self-aggrandizement one of the most important causes of the collapse of the Klan was the 1925 abduction of Madge Oberholtzer by Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson.  In a horrific incident that was once widely known but is now largely forgotten Stephenson kidnapped Oberholtzer and held her at his mansion where he raped her repeatedly. Stephenson released her after her attempt to escape him by committing suicide failed.  Stephenson returned Oberholtzer, bruised and bloodied, to her mother’s house.  Her death several weeks later was attributed to a combination of infected deep bites by Stephenson and kidney failure from the suicide attempt.  Stephenson was convicted of rape and second degree murder.

Stephenson’s conviction led tens of thousands of men to leave the Klan and, after being denied a parole, he provided evidence that led to the conviction of Indiana officials, including the governor, Ed Jackson, on bribery charges.  Within two years the Klan, which in 1924 had nearly a quarter of a million members, ceased to exist as an organized force in Indiana.

The leaders of the second Klan came to believe they could act with impunity, but the Madge Oberholtzer’s death and the subsequent revelations showed their limits.  Donald Trump is not D.C. Stephenson and it remains to be seen if his administration will show similar venality to Jackson’s.  Like the Klan, however, he has ridden a cresting wave of populist white supremacy, religious discrimination, anti-immigrant politics into office claiming to be the opponent of a financial oligarchy.  Trump’s use of social media to incite violence that he then claims to oppose resembles the Klancraft of the 1920s which was seriously concerned about the dissemination of their message and dealing with the public media.  The Klan is an insignificant organization today but its ideas, appeals, and base of support appears to live on.  Whether its weaknesses will prove to be Trump’s as well remains to be seen.