"a society based upon individual autonomy, to be achieved through policies of government that by act or omission enhance the specific, tangible material well-being of individual people, by creating or protecting conditions of life that enhance vigor and morale. These include education, fair wages, wholesome food and water, and reasonable hope for one's children"
But in the academic analyses of political theory, it's the would be scientific abstractions and asserted intentions - even less often realized than under democracy - that rule the analysis. Our academic habits lead us to look past the carnage that governments do to something that is deemed to be more important in judging them. I think in that oversight there is a lot to be learned about the limited value of academic theory as compared to real life and practical politics. I proposed that real liberalism, that real democracy is characterized by its rejection of murder, by war, intention, neglect or mere indifference or it is not democracy in any meaningful way. A real democracy would include real and effective measures to prevent industrial murder of individuals through pollution, selling dangerous, poisoned and infected drugs and anything else which leads to death by profit.
Marilynne Robinson's third option outlined by her in the words above seems to be to be a far better description of the polar opposite of fascism and Marxism. If it were to be turned into a formula, I would add the word "equality" to it because without equality the equations will always tip to the side with more power and more money, though it is clear that equality is a given in her statement. The line of political identity should be based, first and always, on whether the results are of more people standing alive and well in an environment that can sustain life or people dying in misery in a depleted, poisoned, destroyed environment that risks extinction. Both fascism and Marxism, as practiced, are on an extreme opposite end of that from the best results of democracy. The line shouldn't be thought of as a segment ending at any status quo which has ever existed or which has been imagined by academic scribblers but of a progressive movement in the direction of equality, well being, of the moral obligation to respect the inherent rights of all people and the well being of the environment, which will be a challenge enough to match human abilities to partially achieve it.
The great question in the United States in 2013 is the extent to which Barack Obama and the congress will save our endangered democracy, our great liberal tradition of movement towards Marilynne Robinson's formulation of good government, and, in fact, the very basis of human life on our planet. The signs aren't good. Barack Obama has appointed a series of treasury and economic officials and an Attorney General whose every impulse is to the protection and promotion of oligarchy. His choices in replacing Geithner and Summers have confirmed suspicions that is what he intended to do. His continued support for Eric Holder and his Department of Justice, encode Holder's reluctance to challenge the enormous banks and the enormous fortune which are becoming the de facto government of the United States, to an extent they haven't since the most corrupt periods of our history.
The austerity which is presented by Barack Obama, as well as the majority in the congress and by the media, as the only obvious course in an economy in which a tiny but growing number of billionaires confiscate the largest, by far, percentage of the wealth produced by labor, amassing insanely huge fortunes in legalized theft on a scale that would make the ancient Roman super rich envious. There is no austerity at the top, that is left for the overwhelming majority of The People. To a great extent this has been accomplished through transferring jobs to foreign populations living under despotic governments, without real political rights or the ability to organize to demand their rights. Free trade has produced the dream of all aristocrats, the ability to amass wealth without having to have to deal with the laborers who produce that wealth. The mass of the American people are superfluous to the huge banks except as needed to bail them out when their plunder has been excessively undisciplined. The spectacle of nearly complete housing developments being torn down, never lived in, of houses repossessed to be resold at a loss or to be allowed to rot unoccupied, is a good example of the perversion of an oligarchic economy funded by the government with taxes payed by people whose ability to pay is diminished by the economic system they live under. Whatever relief that the government has provided to the destitute and those just above them is what the allegedly liberal government in office proposes to put on the chopping block in order to rescue the situation.
Barack Obama's economic policies are more like those of the opponents of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal than they have been any other Democratic president since Cleveland during the gilded age. He doesn't seem to be able to imagine really disturbing the tranquility of the super rich, the mega banks, the academic and media mouthpieces that they fund or the legal hacks who they have funded. In the fifth year of his presidency, for him to put the legacies of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson on the cutting table while presiding over the continued enrichment of the already obscenely filthy rich, made legally impune by the disinclination of his Attorney General to prosecute, leads one to suspect he doesn't intend to do anything but participate in the destruction of that American political option that Robinson points out.
Marilynne Robinson cites Lincoln's famous statement of a black woman's absolutely equal right to the bread that she earns by her own hand. A fuller quote will show that it was an extremely radical statement for his day, while one with troubling content for us:
Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.
In a statement, in answer to one of the typical assertions of racism, an accusation that he wanted to "mix the races" by asserting their equality, he begins by asserting agreement, stating that black women were "in some respects" "certainly not my equal." He did that, plainly, to diffuse what would have been a politically untenable idea in the 1850s, interracial marriage. Any discomfort we have to his assertion of inequality is due to our quite different thinking and a changed world. But Lincoln then turned the tables to say that in the crucial matter under discussion, economic justice, she was absolutely equal to all others by virtue of her having produced wealth.
Mary Frances Berry, the most prominent member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in its history among the best experts on civil rights as they really are in real life, wrote in 1980 about this and related passages to show how Lincoln advanced equality over the course of two of the most troubled decades of U.S. history.
Politicians in their speeches, writings, and actions must, as Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum recently stated, "strike the proper balance between a naive idealism and a craven pragmatism." Abraham Lincoln was a politician who understood that political action is compromise. But the highest calling of the expert—successful—politician is making compromise creative and not corruptive. It is proper that successful politicians have always wanted to be both popular and political. Being popular is easier; it is accomplished by telling audiences what they want to hear—something that touches a responsive chord because it is consonant with their own personal experiences and beliefs. Being political is more difficult. It requires telling people what the politician wants them to hear in a way that they will be inspired to think differently and more sensitively about things. As we consider Lincoln, the successful leader and politician, dealing with the civil rights of Negroes, let us ask two questions. How much did he tell people what they wanted to hear, and how much did he give them a new sense of direction? Did he strike a proper balance between idealism and pragmatism? I believe he did.
Since the matter is about politics, it is inevitably caught up in what was currently possible and achievable, the question is moving towards an ideal, not the impotent insistence on making it real immediately.
For the first years of the Obama administration it was still possible to suspect that he was trying to play some kind of chess game to move things forward, in the face of a Republican party, a Republican majority on the Supreme and other courts, and a corporate media which used the most primitive forms of racism to destroy him and his administration. It was possible to believe, even with Obama's obvious intellectual brilliance, that he was playing a weak hand in which he had to court and not alienate the very corporations and billionaires he could win over in order to make any progress at all. It has been a given since his election that his opponents would use racism as a tool to organize and to fight him, and they have. It was a given that they would use everything they threw down to impede and destroy President Carter and Clinton and even more.
As his first term continued, as he refused to use his position to force the Democratic Senate to move his own agenda, as his and Harry Reid's dithering left hundreds of bills the Democrats in the House passed to die, as he lost the House in 2010 and he faced an explicitly threatened, oligarchy financed, right wing insurrection, he continued on in the same way. Like Bill Clinton in 1996, Barack Obama's political luck in reelection was that Republicans put up an extremely bad candidate who a majority of voters rejected. Like his policies and appointments, the best thing that can be said for him was that the alternative was demonstrably worse on most issues, equally bad on others.
What Barack Obama and his administration has done so far isn't even adequate.
In order to save democracy, in order to save the middle class, in order to move things as entirely important as progress in halting global warming, more than what Barack Obama has done is necessary. His political gaming hasn't been to move things forward, when possible, it has been to move it to a slightly modified status quo. That new status quo will not allow even his signature achievement, a moderate, corporate friendly health care expansion, to remain as a good for the large majority of The People. As even Adam Smith acknowledged, private capital will always seek ways to extract money wherever they can. His health care system will be plundered as every other marginal attempt at reform has been in the absence of an effective countering force in government.
In all of this I see the erection of peculiarly American forms and, more importantly, cultural and intellectual thinking that are documented in Mother Country. That is why it is such an important essay, that is why it could not be allowed to become widely read. What the American oligarchy wishes to destroy, it, first, mocks, second prints a negative review of in the New York Times, thirdly merely marginalizes and ignores.
I have asked some of my friends who consume enormous amounts of British literature and its history and culture as presented by the BBC and others who export the stuff to America if they'd ever heard of the Poor Law or the New Poor Law mentioned in any of those. Not a single one of those educated Anglophiles, devoted to all that is British, had, that they could recall.
Since the provisions of the Poor Law were a massive presence in the life of most of those in England and then Britain, that omission is, in itself, extraordinarily important to understand. In that clear effort to ignore or forget a major atrocity in the history of one of the major world powers, to suppress mention of it, we see a model for the imposed ignorance of the American People since the introduction of TV.
One of the most fondly, frequently recycled stories in the American media is how ignorant Americans are of their government, the world, history, etc. Those media corporations were given rights under the Bill of Rights in exchange for them informing The People, the only legitimizing force behind government and, in fact, the very constitution, so they could make informed choices. To have them mock the ignorance of The People, something that is the result of them reneging on their part of the deal contained in the First Amendment, should be intolerable. It would certainly be an intolerable situation to real American style liberals, who would see that the real good, an informed people governing themselves, as at least as important as the corporate right. A real liberal would see press freedom as an inferior right granted to artificial corporations as opposed to the right of that informed people to self-government. But liberals have been duped out of valuing things of real value in favor of entertainment. I blame PBS, the BBC, and the other media corporations for that as much as I do overtly commercial networks. I certainly blame them for promoting the likes of Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, the members of the corrupt D.C. based media and the Anglophile propaganda that has contributed in the corruption of the American common consensus, such as it is, in their audiences.