November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Primary Primer/Politics

Primer to the Primaries —

and beyond … 

By Jim Palombo
Politics Editor 

It’s not a secret that the Republicans are struggling, and it appears Mitt Romney will not be able to bring home the bacon for the GOP. Said another way, and given the variables on the table, it seems a safe bet that Obama will continue to lead the country for another four years. But no matter the outcome, “toward what end?” and “in what context?” are obvious questions in regards to our country’s future. With that in mind, this article is meant to take a look at some political-economic-social elements (ideological principles if you will) that are pertinent to answering these questions – elements that are no doubt important, yet ones that seem clouded in the public eye. In short, and encouraged by people who have requested that I do so, what follows is a ‘primer’ as to what should be taken into consideration as the primaries heat-up, and what should also be left for thought once the dust has settled.

To obtain the best grasp of the following concerns, it is suggested that you imagine their presence amid the highly charged struggles of the civil rights movement. This was a time when the country was coming to grips with the freedom and prosperity vibrating in post-world war America and the call for equality in light of those same variables. Among other things, the movement pitted the natures of Conservative and Liberal agendas, and also opened the door for considerations that lay outside both those frames. So put the picture of those struggles in your mind as you continue to read. And in doing so, you might also notice that some of the sensations you feel are similar to what you might be feeling as you look out at the problems facing our American experiment today. With Liberals, Conservatives and their mixes all promising answers, and Occupy and Tea Party efforts in full force, the complexities of competing economic and political strategies are, as they were fifty years ago, clearly at our doorstep.

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How the Conservative and Liberal views unfold (Ideological considerations):

Democracy – A government by the people, via free elections and formal rights and privileges, with the supreme power vested in the citizens.

Capitalism – An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and developed proportionate to supply and demand and the accumulation and re-distribution of profits in a free market.

Conservatives/Republicans and Liberals/Democrats both subscribe to these definitions in the context of Consensus theory – a theory that generally implies that people have common goals, interests and beliefs and have come together accordingly. This is how, at least in theory, we, the public, generally perceive things working. However, the two parties split over their interpretation of how the political and economic frames play themselves out in society, particularly in terms of concerns related to social issues.

For Conservatives the logic goes like this. Consistent with the definitions provided above, we live in a democracy and the economic system is based on free market principles. This means that in terms of the political, democratic process, our leaders are elected by an open vote format, and they are to represent the interests of the people. Issues like equality, justice, fairness, etc. should be managed accordingly, as well as the concerns related to administering matters of state – matters concerning the military, taxes, infrastructure, etc. In terms of the economic, traditional capitalist process, this should be left to its own devices, with limited interference from government involvement, taxes and regulation. In this way, the market can be free to create more jobs, more opportunities and more prosperity for the general public. In this sense, any competition that flows from the system is healthy, enabling the society to prosper, while giving individuals the opportunity to succeed accordingly. For Conservatives, this translates into more incentives for business/job development, again with limitations on business taxation and development. And as there is little problem with the match of democracy (what a great system) and the free-market (another great system), both can be seen as complimenting each other in terms of government-economy interaction. In this sense of a “great match” social problems, which Conservatives agree do occur, are primarily due to individuals who cannot assimilate to the way things work. In other words, some individuals are simply skewed in terms of their reasoning abilities, especially in understanding that hard work in terms of employment, education, and family function are all at the heart of prosperity.

As I happen to be a criminologist, I tend to think that criminality provides a great example in reflecting on the nature of political/economic views and social concerns. For Conservatives then, criminals represent individuals who make poor choices, who do not or cannot internalize the merits of living in a free and opportunity-available society. This is due to poor judgment skills (why wouldn’t they choose to go to work for example), and/or to the need for some moral/spiritual/religious awakening (perhaps their faith needs to be strengthened), and/or to some psychological and/or biological malfunction (maybe they are just wired poorly.) In the case of the first, the behavior should be altered by requisite forms of ‘swift, certain and severe’ risk-reward punishment,  in terms of the second case, more faith-moral related counseling may be necessary, and for the third, some form of psycho-bio drug or medical procedures that may reduce anti-social behavior could be the remedy. These, with some forms of mix or match modifications, are generally the approaches to address criminality. And it should also be noted that this is also the same logic applied to those who are poor or without work or without education – they choose to put themselves in these conditions via poor judgment, etc. Therefore, overall public policy formulas in terms of addressing social concerns are generally pointed at providing self-help initiatives to motivate people toward working themselves out of their circumstance. (In the case of criminals, keep in mind that the most adequate response to criminality lies in styles of punishment that will be harsh enough to deter future criminality and encourage going to work in the alternative. This “being tough” has resulted in a strict criminal justice system, with more prisons and more prisoners being held for longer periods of time. An important aside to this point, is that as more criminals are deemed to have individual problems, more emphasis – and funding – will be placed on psychological and biological influences, versus sociological/environmental ones. This of course will have an impact on the education and research efforts of those who participate/work in the criminal justice arena – which has a corresponding relationship to what happens with the focus of various disciplines at the post-secondary level of study. And remember that these academic ‘connections’ hold consistent with other social concerns tied to unemployment, under-education, etc.)

Liberals on the other hand, while working under the same umbrella of consensus theory as well as the essences of democracy and capitalist/free enterprise frames, present a different logic.  For them, the economic system and the nature of competition can create some disparities, especially as access to opportunities in the system can sometimes be unequal. In short, the match of democracy and the economic system is not as perfect as Conservatives might suggest. Therefore, social problems like poverty, unemployment, under-education and crime should be viewed to a large extent as systematic rather than simply a manifestation of individual irresponsibility. Social problems therefore become a societal concern, which in turn means that the government, particularly one operating under democratic principles, should help in reconciling these type ‘systematic’ problems – creating programs/projects to help those left in less fortunate social circumstances. In essence, this would provide disadvantaged individuals with better opportunities in terms of housing, education, employment, etc. so they can better compete. This approach, again deemed appropriate in a fortunate and democratic society like the U.S., generally translates into more government sponsored programs, bigger government and the higher taxes that support both. (And as the liberal logic does not speak to committing totally to market answers in terms of work and opportunity – some regulation and even taxes may be in order – this too may reflect on the size/responsibility of the government.)

Here again, criminality provides a great example. Liberals were the proponents of rehabilitation, with the idea that those who commit crimes do so more out of their disadvantaged social situation than any individual shortcoming. This led to a totally different approach in terms of the philosophy of the criminal justice system and the players involved; essentially trying to ‘help’ criminals with more use of community corrections (versus prison), probation, vocational programs, counseling, etc. As with Conservative logic, this approach also had a corresponding effect on the education and research efforts – think again of what this means in terms of the academic, discipline focus within the post-secondary arena, especially as juxtaposed to the Conservative agenda. In short form, consider the differences between sociological/environmental/urban references and biological, bio-psychological considerations in terms of motivations for criminal behavior.)

So, with these differences in mind, and trying to set aside the personal racist sentiments that were occurring, lets again imagine these views unfolding within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Conservatives would be seeing those in the minority and poor class as a group of people who simply could not assimilate to the essence of the free-market, democratic system. Providing them with rights and opportunities beyond those of the rest of society, especially via taxes and/or government involvement was simply off the mark of getting the people to understand the discipline, morality and hard work connected to being a responsible citizen. There was no need to move beyond what existed, this would create a system of dependency and in doing so speak to a society that was addressing equality in the wrong fashion. The fact was that people in the U.S. had the freedom to be equal – they just had to work for it.

Liberals, in support of the arguments inherent in the Civil Rights Movement that discrimination on both institutional and individual levels could no longer be tolerated, saw the provision of rights and opportunities as necessary in addressing the social concerns at hand. In addition to this, liberals argued that the free-market, as it had proven, could not on its own address the growing inequality in terms of employment/work/jobs. This meant that legislative strategies like affirmative action and quota systems had to be put into place to ensure legitimate responses to the unequal conditions, that program policies like the War on Poverty had to be implemented to lift people out of the poor social conditions that existed, and that legal considerations, particularly those at the Supreme Court level, would have to reflect the overall intent of civil rights accordingly. (Don’t forget about the significance of Supreme Court rulings and the endorsement of political views. There is no more clear an example than what happened in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and what might be considered the ‘liberal interpretation’ of Constitutional mandates related to “search and seizure” concerns as well the rights extended to those who were incarcerated. )

So the battle between these opposing parties was joined. Keep in mind that the battle also encompassed the sentiments of racism that had grown in the country, sentiments that, perhaps unfairly, connected mostly to the Conservative view. This extended from the fact that their logic implied/supported not only individual shortcomings in terms of success/achievement, but also the notion that keeping things as they were rather than altering the nature of opportunity was the way to continue. This was as compared to the Liberal view whose logic implied/supported the integration of opportunity in terms of the movement that would affect both the circumstance and station of minorities. (Coincidentally, the Liberal view also drew in those Conservatives who felt a connection to the collective crisis of the depression – and the resulting New Deal, as well as a connection to the collective ‘patriotism’ fueled by the WWII effort – a “we are all in this together” type sentiment.)

As noted at the outset, as the Conservative “right” and Liberal “left” battle ensued, there was another view/paradigm on the table amid the Civil Rights struggle – one that suggested that both Conservative and Liberals were not getting to the root of the problems facing the country. This was known as the ‘radical approach’ which involved elements that were, despite having legitimate reference in terms of past political, economic and social concerns (think of the union movement amid early 20th century industrialization), rather foreign to American ideological understanding. Primarily developed by Karl Marx as the Industrial Revolution unfolded and adopted in countries across the world the analysis still appeared shrouded in an enemy’s cloak.  So let’s turn to that approach, keeping in mind its analytic import in both Civil Right and contemporary movement times.


How the “alternative view” unfolds:

A critical analysis of capitalism – As alluded to this approach finds its significance primarily from what is seen as a major flaw in both Conservative and Liberal analyses –  not referencing the difficulties/problems inherent in the nature of capitalism. In other words, it is proposed that neither Conservative nor Liberals adequately address social problems because they don’t/won’t address the true nature of capitalism – which can only happen by applying this critique. This “oversight” becomes more significant as the problems, on both national and international levels, are more intricately tied to our capitalist identity than to democracy.  With this in mind, the critical analysis develops along these general lines.

Contrary to Consensus Theory generally supported by Conservatives and Liberals (society sharing mutual beliefs and interests), there is Conflict Theory. This basically states that society is an arena in which struggles over scarce commodities take place. These commodities include natural resources as well as material and human goods, and power and influence will dictate control over those resources. In this light, every society is made up of different classes and interest groups and the most powerful, the “haves” will be represented in government and positions of authority. These powerful people will act in their own self interest, trying at all times to improve or at least preserve their positions.

The ‘have-nots’, those primarily without power, will end up trying to defend themselves against this power. This is in face of the fact that the economics and wealth of the system are controlled by the “haves” while the political arena/government promotes and protects the interests of the “haves.” Given these unbalanced circumstances, social problems will always exist, and the “haves” will only deal with them out of necessity – to placate or keep docile the “have-nots” who may be essential in maintaining the order within the existing system.

The Radical View: Growing out of this logic, radicals state that the U.S. represents a conflict-oriented capitalist system, not a democracy. It is an economic system that survives off the proliferation of profit, and profit development is primary to all else, including human development. In short, it is a system that will eventually consume the sum of its parts. Those with the most profit/capital (the ‘haves”) control and influence the government and use it to protect and increase their interests. Social problems are inherent in a capitalist system and won’t/can’t be resolved, simply by the nature of this profit motive, as well as the system’s competitive essence.  In other words, avenues to success will be limited and/or restricted, leaving significant numbers of the population out of the ‘means to success’ equation. Moreover, as success goals themselves are highly extolled, there will result a certain stress put on different members of society, a stress which in itself can be socially problematic and result in, as an example, a high incidence of deviant behavior. Radicals also argue that capitalists can come to actually capitalize on social problems – for example using people in socially problematic areas as surplus labor, a marginal work force that can be used to keep other workers in place and profits up. This may even translate into exporting jobs to foreign markets, especially if this “move” reflects on profit margin. In terms of the U.S., radicals argue that all this takes place while using the guise of democracy to misdirect public concern and/or to keep the general population in order. Among other things, this results in confusion, contradiction and a state of ‘normlessness’ as people try to explain and work at social problems referencing democratic ideals, when in reality capitalism is the practice that helps fuel many of the problems in the first place.

There are a variety of other considerations that radical raise within this critique of capitalism. There are concerns that reference the development of a dual labor force, one for the more advantaged, another for the less advantaged. Following this logic, radicals also point to the dual educational tracks, the private and more sophisticated public post-secondary universities to service the “mores”, the lesser public ones and community colleges to service the others. Additionally, they posit that there are dual forms of justice, one for the rich (which often eliminates involvement in the criminal justice system and also creates advantages in civil proceedings) and the other for the not-so-rich. It is also argued that the existence of this ‘justice duality’ helps fuel a criminal justice system that does not have justice at its core (some argue it is more aptly named the criminal “response” system) but more the management of a poor, marginally employed/educated class. Moreover, this happens while creating a criminal justice industrial complex that promotes jobs and profit in light (or shadow) of crime related problems. (Although Marx himself spent little time talking about crime, criminality, especially in the context of limited avenues of success and the illegitimate opportunity structures that develop accordingly, has become a significant part of this analysis.)

For Radicals then, in order to deal with the concerns of any society that has capitalism at its core the conflict producing system of capitalism has to be addressed. In the traditional Marxist view this means that the destruction of capitalism via revolution must happen. For others, change can occur via the evolution/education that flows from alterations within the mix of new, social-oriented socio-political-economic frames. What should then replace the capitalist system will be systems that promote human development/welfare as the primary focus of society over any profit motive – a change that would evidence a corresponding effect on the cultural instincts and motivations of both institutions and individuals in the society. The basic ideological frames proposed as alternatives to capitalism are:

Socialism – an ideological reference to the political, economic and social organization that advocates the vesting of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of resources/wealth/profit by and for the public. In this sense, the government acts with these interests in mind.

Communism – this should follow socialism, and generally means the development of a classless, stateless system with common ownership and administration of the means of production for the benefit of the entire community/population.

It is not hard to see that within these frames, social variables, like education, health, work, housing, etc. would become a focus in order to make sure that the welfare of the people and the notion of equality are at the center of any economic engine. (For a rather paradoxical parallel, think of our military and the social fabric evident on any military base that speaks to “collective welfare.”) This of course means that the re-distribution of wealth, based on the strength of the economy, would be of primary concern. In this way, social problems would be minimized and the energy for collective approaches to the problems would be the rule. (In terms of criminality, it would be expected that in this type society one would see lower rates of crime, particularly with general property offenses, and a corresponding lower level of incarceration. On that note, the overall criminal justice measures would be directed at education and health, with more diversion and/or community oriented programs in place to lessen the use of imprisonment.)

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Like with the Conservative and Liberal logics, more can be said about the ‘radical’ approach. In general contrast, Conservatives seem at times to be implying that the nature of capitalism fuels the “survival of the fittest.” Yet they continually relate to the essence of democracy which tends to refute/deflect this nature. (Radicals could argue, “Just tell the people clearly how things are!”) Liberals at times are pointing to the inequalities apparent in the system, but don’t seem to want to clearly express those inequalities in terms of the nature of capitalism. (Again, radicals could argue “Just let people know how things work!”)

As noted, these “radical points”, particularly when tucked into the overall analysis, seem to have relativity to what transpires in the U.S., especially as one considers the issues tied to the Civil Rights Movement as well as those connected to our current state of affairs. However, in this context, there are also pertinent concerns regarding the possible shortcomings of the approach. These include it appearing at times overly utopian, the potential for lack of creativity within a system that seems more pointed at conformity than individuality, the stagnating and bureaucratic and even dictatorial results that can flow from the radical approach and the apparent failure, particularly in Russia, of the ideology. These concerns, like the other aspects, certainly demand attention. And the power that now extends especially from China, as well as the other “Americas” and yes, even Europe, suggests that the attention on all fronts is most assuredly warranted. (In this light, it is fair to inquire which parts of which views might provide the best national and international approach to the issues and concerns facing the U.S. and the world today.)

In any case, it is hard to imagine that, as with the Conservative and Liberal logics, we would not be willing to pull in for closer examination what has been offered in the Radical context, especially if we are interested in giving ourselves the best chances of becoming a better and more understanding society. In this sense, it should become clear to us what all views represent, how they differ from one another and what each brings (or doesn’t bring) to analyses that can help us consider what has and will happen with our country.

And there is one last point that appears important to note. All of what is said about ideologies, and political and economic frames should be considered in light of what human beings bring to the table. In other words, it would seem necessary in any discussion of this type to consider what human nature (including its spiritual aspect – perhaps a topic for another piece) can/will contribute to any society’s balance of the interests and struggles that exist between ‘economic and social man.’ In short, human nature, particularly as we look throughout history, may only be capable of so much. Therefore to expect perfection in any system may simply be moving beyond the bounds of human capacity.

In closing, let’s re-consider the point that in order to best think about, understand, and talk about all the issues facing the U.S. , as well as the entire globe (remember, it is “globalization” time), one cannot escape the fact that we must be willing to entertain all the variables that are  available to us.  And this “primer” was presented as a step in that direction. Said another way,  it was presented to help in navigating the often unclear and choppy waters of the political exchanges of the day, hopefully providing some logic/insight to better measure what is and is not being said.  As always, your comments, thoughts and suggestions will be welcomed on any one of the considerations raised, and please don’t hesitate to ask your leaders, and those who aspire to be, questions accordingly. Certainly nothing bad can come from open and honest dialogue – particularly at this point in time, we owe ourselves at least that.

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Editor’s note:

The article above was shared at a discussion held February 16, at the Biblioteca’s Sala Quetzal in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The discussion,  “Considerations for better understanding our American Experiment”, was presented in relationship to the Occupy movement. For more on this material visit the Campaign for an Informed Citizenry website, and also my previous Ragazine articles.

— Jim Palombo