The detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba hangs over the United States and now the Obama administration like a cloud of acid rain. In recent months hunger strikes once again have brought the injustice of the camp, the inhumane treatment of its inhabitants, and the indefinite detention of its inmates to the attention of the world. The camp is now an indelible blot on the United States, both on our reputation abroad, as well as upon our self-image as a land of constitutional republicanism. Above all it is a meaningful challenge to our self-respect.
Most of the 779 people that Wikipedia says were brought to Guantanamo were never charged with a crime. Of the fewer than 200 who remain, some no doubt are terrorists and criminals; others, equally as clearly, were unjustly captured, imprisoned, tortured. They are now being held outside rules of law and in violation of our legal and constitutional traditions of freedom. No doubt there are inconvenient questions about what to do with these men. But they are men under our collective care and they are owed more than being kept like animals in pens in purgatory.
President Obama has announced once again his decision to close the camp. We wish him the courage to do what is right. At this moment, it is worth recalling the case of Mohammed Jawad, the first Guantanamo detainee to testify under oath and to a military commission about being tortured by his American captors. Last month there was a dramatic reading of statements made by Jawad's lawyer, David Frakt, juxtaposed with statements made by the case's lead prosecutor, Darrel Vandeveld who left the military in order to help free Jawad. The reading was held at the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature. In their statements, both men use the language of Constitutionality to suggest that, by torturing detainees such as Jawad, "America," as Frakt puts it, "lost a little of its greatness."
Here is what Vandeveld, a lifelong military man, writes of his choice to testify in favor of Jawad:
In 2007, I volunteered to prosecute detainees at Guantanamo in the U.S. military commissions. I was assigned as the lead prosecutor in several cases, including the case of Mohammed Jawad, a young man from Afghanistan. While I was a prosecutor, David Frakt helped me to find and expose gross human rights abuses of Mohammed and other detainees by the U.S. government. In September 2008, I became convinced that the prosecution of Mohammed was unjust and that the military commissions were grossly flawed. I requested to be relieved and reassigned to other duties. After stepping down from the prosecution, I worked with David Frakt to expose detainee abuse, to secure Mohammed’s release and bring about much-needed reforms to the U.S. military commissions.
Vandeveld served 24 years in the army, winning a bronze star for valor in Iraq. After his service he went to law school and became a military lawyer. His decision to ask to be relieved from his prosecution duties was, he writes, simply doing his duty: “I did it because I believe in truth, justice, the rule of law, and our common humanity. I did it for Mohammed Jawad, I did it because it was my duty, and I did it for us all.”
As the debate about closing Guantanamo heats up, this is a good time to acquaint oneself with the case of Mohammed Jawad. The transcript from the staged discussion between David Frakt and Darrel Vandeveld is a good place to begin. We are all indebted to The Mantle for publishing it. It is your weekend read.
No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.
—Hannah Arendt, “On Violence.”
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines in the midst of the United States’ defeat in Vietnam. Her argument was that as long as robot soldiers were a thing of the future, brute violence and force like that unleashed by the United States would always succumb to collective power, of the kind exhibited by the Vietcong. Hers was, at least in part, a hopeful voice, praising the impotence of violence in the face of power.
To read Arendt’s lines today, amidst the rise of drone warfare, alters the valence of her remarks. Drones are increasingly prototypes and even embodiments of the “robot soldiers” that Arendt worried would dehumanize war and elevate violence over power. If we draw out the consequences from Arendt’s logic, then drone soldiers might displace the traditional limits that politics places on violence; drones, in other words, make possible unprecedented levels of unlimited violence.
The rise of drones matters, Arendt suggests, in ways that are not currently being seen. Her worry has little to do with assassination, the concern of most opponents of drones today. Nor is she specifically concerned with surveillance. Instead, against those, like General Stanley McChrystal, who argue that drones are simply new tools in an old activity of war, Arendt’s warning is that drones and robot soldiers may change the very dynamic of war and politics.
To see how drones change the calculus of violence in politics, we need to understand Arendt’s thesis about the traditional political superiority of power over violence. The priority of power over violence is based on the idea that power is “inherent in the very existence of political communities.” Power, Arendt writes, “corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.” It “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” All government, and this is central to Arendt’s thesis, needs power in order to act.
This need for popular support is true even for totalitarian governments, which also depend on the power of people—at least a select group of them like the secret police and their informers—continuing to act together. It is thus a myth that totalitarian rule can exist without the support of the people. Whether in Nazi Germany or contemporary Syria, totalitarian or tyrannical governments still are predicated on power that comes from support of key segments of the population.
Even if all government is predicated on some power, governments also employ violence—but that violence is held in check by political limits. As a government loses its popular support, it finds itself tempted to “substitute violence for power.” The problem is that when governments give in to the temptation to use violence to shore up slackening of popular power, their use of violence diminishes further their power and results in impotence. The more violence a government needs to rely upon, the less power it has at its disposal. There is thus a political limit on how much violence any government can employ before it brings about the loss of its own power.
As much as she respects the claims for power over violence, Arendt is clear-eyed about the damage violence can wield. In a direct confrontation between power and violence, violence will win—at least in the short term. Arendt writes that if Gandhi’s “enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance” had met a different enemy—a Stalin or Bashar al-Assad instead of a Churchill or Mubarek—“the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” Sheer violence can bring victory. But the price for such a triumph is high, not only for the losers, but also for the victors.
We see this exemplified in Middle East over the last few years. In those countries like Bahrain and Syria where governments did not shy from unlimited violence to repress popular revolts, the governments have maintained themselves and the Arab Spring has turned into a long and frigid winter. Assad has been able to maintain power; but his power is irreparably diminished. In the end, there is a limit to the viability and effectiveness of relying on mere violence at the expense of power. This is even more true in a constitutional democracy, where support of the people is a political necessity.
As confident as Arendt is that violence is limited in politics by the need for power, she worries that the coming age of “robot soldiers” might bring about the end of the political advantage power has over violence. Robot soldiers can be controlled absent of consent or political support. With the push of a button or a simple command, a tyrant or totalitarian ruler can exert nearly unlimited violence and destruction, even without the support a massive secret police or a network of informers. Drones threaten the time-immemorial dependence of even the most lonely tyrant on others who will support him and do his bidding.
Of course drones must be built, programmed, and maintained. No tyrant is fully autonomous. Yet building, programming, and maintaining machinery are fundamentally different jobs than arresting and killing dissenters. It is far easier for programmers and electricians to justify doing their jobs in a powerless yet violent state than for soldiers and secret agents to justify theirs.
In a drone-led war, men will rarely need to go into action as soldiers. That is of course one reputed advantage of drones, that they make war less dangerous and more technically predictable. But it also means that as modern warfare becomes safer and more humane, it also excludes without human soldiers and risks stripping war of its human and active character. This helps to explain an enigmatic passage of Arendt’s in The Human Condition, where she offers modern war as an example of when action “loses its specific character” as human action and “becomes one form of achievement among others.” The degradation of human action in modern war, she writes,
happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed ‘mere talk,’ simply one more means toward the end….
Arendt is here thinking of the anonymity of the modern soldier epitomized by the monuments to the unknown soldiers—the mute mass of humanity who fight and die without the “still existing need for glorification” that makes war a human instead of a merely mechanical activity.
Her modern warfare in its inhumanity and technological capacity abandons the togetherness that has traditionally made war a prime example of human political togetherness.
In the technological advances of modern warfare that made war so awful and so mechanical, Arendt actually found a glimmer of hope: that war’s rabid violence was compensated by neither political advantage nor personal glory. In On Revolution, she dared hope that the fact that technology had reached the stage “where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use” might lead to a “disappearance of war from the scene of politics….” It was possible, she thought, that the threat of total war and total destruction that accompanies war in the modern era might actually lead to the disappearance of war.
Clearly such a hope has not come to pass. One reason for the continuation of war, however, is that the horrors of war are made ever more palatable and silent—at least to the victors—by the use of technology that exerts violence without the need for political power and participation. The drone wars of the early 21st century are in this respect notable for the unprecedented silence that accompanies violence. Since U.S. soldiers are rarely injured or killed and since the strikes are classified and the damage remote, we have indeed entered an era where we can fight wars absent the speech, glory, and “human togetherness” that has traditionally marked both the comradeship of soldiers and the patriotic sacrifice of a nation at war. It is in this extraordinary capacity of mute violence to substitute for power in which we can glimpse both the promise and the peril of drones.
For too long now high school has been a waste of time for too many people. I always remind my students that Georg Friedrich Hegel developed his lectures on the Philosophy of Right as a course for a German Gymnasium, the equivalent of high school in the United States. Most American high schools have long abandoned the idea of offering challenging courses that demand students think and engage with the world and the history of ideas. Our brightest students are too often bored, confirmed in their intelligence, but rarely pushed. This is especially true of our public high schools in our poorest neighborhoods.
One of the most heartening trends in response to this tragedy is the idea of early college. Bard College has been a leader in the early college movement, now embraced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.
The New York Times has an excellent article on Bard’s newest Early College in Newark:
Across the country in communities like Newark, the early college high school model is being lauded as a way to provide low-income students with a road map to and through college. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of all high school graduates make it to a two- or four-year institution, but only 52 percent of low-income students do the same. Of poor students in four-year institutions, only 47 percent graduate within six years, compared with 58 percent of the general population.
Not surprisingly, the challenges are greatest for students whose parents did not attend any college: their graduation rate hovers around 40 percent. Early college high schools seek to rectify that, by merging high school and some college. Students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree, and some are set on the path to a four-year degree.
Educators and big-ticket donors have praised the schools for saving students money and time — most schools compress the academic experience into four years. Since 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided more than $40 million toward initiatives. The Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have also chipped in. President Obama is a proponent, giving a shout-out in his State of the Union address to P-Tech, a public-private partnership that pairs the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with I.B.M., which promises graduates a shot at a well-paying job.
There are now more than 400 early college high schools across the country — North Carolina has 76 of them — educating an estimated 100,000 students.
Bard, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is at the vanguard of the movement, with a president, Leon Botstein, who has long chastised the American high school system for its inefficiencies. More than 30 years ago, Bard took over Simon’s Rock, a private college for 11th graders and up in Great Barrington, Mass. In 2001, it opened an early college high school in Lower Manhattan, enormously popular with hyper-motivated New Yorkers, and in 2008 it started one in Queens that has become a magnet for the high-achieving offspring of Chinese, Polish and Bengali immigrants. Until now, Bard’s model has largely focused on elite students.
In Newark, Bard moved into a school building across from a tire shop and a bail bond business. Hanging outside is a cheerful red banner with the Bard name etched in white, as if to signal that new life is being breathed into the neighborhood.
“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
- Hannah Arendt, Thinking
In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t). There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall. The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it. There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction. Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use? Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine? What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not? There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.
The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether. I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason). Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult. But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought. Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.
One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time). The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself. A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.
If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.
There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself). But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work. Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.
Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can. That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation. When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.” In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought. We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.
It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility. On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power. On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved. It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).
What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live. Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it. Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us. If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse. This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond. In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself. When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap. And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.
Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers. Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible. When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task. It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.
Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory. Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”
What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?
There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics. In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process. In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.) There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples. Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.
Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list. The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains. We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism. We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls. Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement. Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote. In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence. Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.” Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed. Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time. Actors acting together with other actors generate power. Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force. Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty. Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance. In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.
For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world. Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance. In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.
African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?
These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.
Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.
I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.
In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”
With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.
This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).
Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.
Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.
John Cassidy over at the New Yorker has an excellent article that clarifies some of the basics about the debate over inequality. In Inequality 101, Cassidy reproduces a chart "Who Killed the Middle Class?" an article he published in 1995. The chart is fairly clear. It shows how from 1947-1973, the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor in the United States all saw their incomes rise at about the same levels. From 1973-1993, however, this equality disappeared. While the poor saw incomes decrease, and the middle-class stayed the same, the wealthy saw incomes rise, although not as much as earlier.
This chart is similar to the one I described in my Friday Post, The Way Forward. As I wrote there:
We see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy.
Since the 1990s, the rate of inequality in our society has skyrocketed, especially for the very highest earners in the 1% and even the .1%. Cassidy provides this chart as well to make this clear.
I will be speaking with John Cassidy on May 10 in New York City. The event is part of the Hannah Arendt Center NYC Lecture Series. You can learn more about the event and RSVP here, as seating is limited.
It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. We have been living in passive agreement with Churchill's witticism for half a century. But slowly, harrowingly, fatalistically, people around the world are giving up on democracy.
Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and Italy (well, it's Italy) are now both governed by unelected technocratic governments charged with carrying out austerity programs that democratically elected leaders would not or could not bring about.
According to Gillian Tett, the Financial Times columnist, "the situation calls for very firm, forward-looking action that is almost impossible in a rowdy democratic political system at the moment." Tett is not alone in seeing the failure of democratic leadership in crises and the inability of democratic politicians to allocate pain and sacrifice amongst their constituents.
We in the United States are showing a similar predilection to trade democracy for technocratic management. Michigan is at the forefront of this trend. Governor Rick Snyder has been aggressive in appointing emergency managers to take control of city finances. In Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities, the mayors and town councils have been fired and rendered obsolete, replaced by a manager appointed by the governor.
In New York, Nassau County is now under the rule of an "oversight board" that controls its budget and finances. In Michigan, financial managers have the power to void labor contracts, privatize public services, and dismiss elected officials. These managers serve at the will of the governor, but they have no set term.
Tomorrow we may learn whether Detroit, Michigan's biggest and once proudest city, will also succumb to an emergency manager. The only alternative, it seems, is a consent decree with the State that will turn the city over to a manager jointly selected by the city and the state from a slate of candidates approved by the governor. The problem, once again, is that democratic governments have simply been unable to make the hard decisions needed. The result is that Detroit is bankrupt and in need of a state bailout and the state is treating Detroit like the spoiled child it is, just as the European Union treats Greece and Italy. Money will come, but only if the children agree to be treated like children.
I can only point out so many times that Wall Street bankers also acted like spoiled children, but they received their bailouts and undeserved bonuses without the demeaning financial oversight. Hypocrisy, however, is not an argument for or against such oversight, even if it does reveal that there are issues beyond simple economic calculation at play. In Europe, there are prejudices against the laziness of southern peoples, and here in the U.S. racial prejudices are no doubt active, as can be seen by one commentator's likening Detroit's citizens to addicts:
As those of us in surrounding communities watch the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Detroit, we really need to hope that this once great city can stop its decline, and begin to recover. But just like with an alcoholic, the city's so-called leaders must first admit they have a problem, and that they are unable to fix it on their own. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have reached that point yet. I guess a nice way of putting it would be to say that they are in denial.
Patronizing rhetoric aside, the basic problem is that the people of Detroit—like the people of Greece and Italy—are unwilling to govern themselves and are welcoming technocrats to take over that task. We witness once again how easily people will abandon democratic freedoms for the promise of a bailout. The current argument in Detroit is less about whether to give up self-government—a foregone conclusion—but how much money Detroit can extract in the deal for doing so.
The Romans had a provision in their law for the appointment of a dictator during emergencies, especially at war. A dictator, as Andreas Kalyvas reminds us, was not a tyrant. A dictator in Roman law was a 'temporary tyranny by consent' while a tyrant was a 'permanent dictator.' The Roman Republic recognized that crises required decisive action that a sprawling democracy was frequently unable to muster. The dictator was not illegal, but was a constitutionally approved office that was appointed for a set term, after which time power would revert back to the people. In other words, a dictator was a constitutionally regulated and democratically agreed upon safety valve for the failures of democracy.
Modern democracies have largely avoided such emergency powers, and for good reasons. It seems, however, that such resistance is fading. Will it be until we have no choice but to appoint an emergency financial manager to do the job we won't do for ourselves? But then again, who would appoint such a person?
For Hannah Arendt, this was and remains a crucial question. For human beings are political beings who actualize their freedom in public action with others. The entire premise of what Arendt once called the "dictatorial intervention" is to replace politics with the temporary tyranny of the educator. It is to admit our immaturity and call for a tyrant who will treat us as children. And yet that is, precisely, what it seems we want.
How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.
The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.
Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:
Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.
Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.
What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.
Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.
Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.
It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.
“[O]ur newest experiences and our most recent fears…[are] a matter of thought and thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – [This] seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Not thinking was, for Arendt, the increasingly dominant quality of the world in which we live. Thoughtlessness is the negative mirror image of what she called for as the only form of thinking appropriate to period of crisis (indeed, in a strict sense, perhaps to any time) – thinking “without a banister.”
Inherent in this conception is that in ages and at times like our own, when one must think without support, many, perhaps most, will not think, or rather will avoid thinking. They will thus be left without that voice of conscience – like Socrates' daimon who appears at moments of judgment and keeps Socrates from justifying, or even engaging in acts that are evil. Importantly, that something is “true,” means nothing by itself unless it is the subject of thinking.
One might consider here the thoughtlessness that reigned in the general reaction in the United States to the attacks of 9/11, 2001. The analogy was immediately drawn to Pearl Harbor. From this analogy it followed that our response should be analogous to that after Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda, unlike Japan, was not a nation-state. Furthermore this enemy was linked to an Axis of Evil against which one was to fight a “war on terror.” Osama Bin laden was Hitler or at least Tojo; Saddam Hussein another totalitarian, linked by an Axis of Evil to the other totalitarians. Yet one cannot fight against terror, only against an enemy – Carl Schmitt had warned of forgetting this.
The result of not thinking about what one has done – whether as a policy maker or a member of the population -- has been a war that has now gone on for ten years with neither goal nor end in sight. Thoughtlessness has consequences: people die as a result of thoughtlessness.
(I discovered similar thoughts in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters on pages 12-13 after writing this passage and modified my words, as hers are much better: I join others in mourning her passing).
Read Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 essay, "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man".