Moshe Lewin – The Soviet Century

The Soviet Century

Moshe LewinThe Soviet Century (Verso 2005)

Moshe Lewin was one of the great historians of the former Soviet Union writing in English.  He actually lived in the Soviet Union for a time, working on a collective farm and later in the Soviet Army, eventually ending up in the West in academic positions.  His breakthrough book in the late 1960s was the superb Lenin’s Last Struggle (first published in French), which here he confirms was on the right track but which formerly secret documents now show did not go far enough in establishing how much Lenin despised Stalin and his political ambitions.  What separates Lewin from so many other English-language historians is that he approaches the Soviet government, and its attempts to realize the “communist hypothesis” (Alain Badiou‘s term), in a sympathetic yet critical light.  Mostly that takes the form of accepting the original Bolshevik objective in founding the USSR, together with rather commonplace statistical measures and evaluations against the government’s own internal objectives, and asking how well the government operated against those sorts of metrics, in context, without dwelling on the insentience that Bolshevik objectives were and are normatively wrong.  As Lewin puts it near the end of this book:

“Reflection on the USSR has been marred — and still is — by two frequent errors . . . .  The first is to take anti-communism for a study of the Soviet Union.  The second — a consequence of the first — consists in ‘Stalinizing’ the whole Soviet phenomenon, as if it had been one giant gulag from beginning to end.

“Anti-communism (and its offshoots) is not historical scholarship: it is ideology masquerading as such.”

To that end, Lewin occasionally reminds readers how anti-communist detractors are often quick to criticize the Soviet Union while at the same time overlooking similar if not worse occurrences in other countries.  Such a decontextualized approach he likens to propaganda.

Lewin does not resort to hagiography or fawning praise for the former Soviet Union.  He does hew pretty close to the Lenin/Trotsky analysis of the new nation’s prospects for becoming socialist (which in turn drew from various non-Bolshevik commentators of the day), describing Stalinism as “agrarian despotism” that rebuilt many aspects of the failed tsarist system, and the post-Stalin period as “bureaucratic absolutism”.  As Lenin and Trotsky both believed that it would take a long time and much effort to actually reach socialism, Lewin looks back and finds that socialist objectives were never achieved (though such conclusions can be taken too far, suggesting an impossible purity).  But he is ready to credit many advances in industrialization, literacy and education, feminism, science, life expectancy, and so on, plus a critical role in the defeat of Nazism.  He laments how some scholars have omitted the decline in many of these measures after the fall of the Soviet Union — he likens the immediate post-Soviet economy to a “mafia” capitalism, something that he suggests materialized in part because there was already a kind of privatization of the commons underway in the late Soviet era proper.

The book is not a chronological history, but rather is more of a collection of essays on various topics.  This fits in the category of reflective history, cutting across subspecies of universal, pragmatic, critical and fragmentary methodologies, following Hegel‘s taxonomy in Reason in History.  What emerges here is a useful portrait of the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of the state, and how those elements rose and fell, and engaged in internal fields of struggle with other social elements.  The segments on Stalinism make for difficult reading, given the gruesome nature of arbitrary persecutions that involved massive waves of executions and institutionalized slavery via the gulag system.  And yet, Lewin admirably traces the both the rise and fall of Stalinism, and some of its lingering effects.

There is an enlightening segment tracing the careers of various post-Stalin politburo members (i.e., the top leaders).  Lewin shines in some of these portraits, drawing on a host of memoirs from these figures and the people working around them, as well as from reports made public only decades later.  He skips past many of these politicians as hapless fools, and focuses only on those with wits about them.  Khrushchev is the first of them.  He was a kind of country-bumpkin of sorts, who did numerous admirable things leavened with politically naive mistakes.  It was Khrushchev who dismantled the gulag system and instituted reforms of the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB that operated the gulags) and the state’s dependence on the economics of gulag slave labor.  And yet, he was ousted and the incoming Brezhnev regime was neo-Stalinist in some respects, setting the stage for overall decline based on a tendency to corruption (including, in Stalinist style, blaming all mistakes on the lower rungs but taking all credit at the top) and ineffectiveness (epitomized by surrounding the general secretary with mostly dumb, non-threatening, and self-interested loyalists).  For comparative purposes, the Khrushchev era offers useful examples for how the dismantling of corrupt and discriminatory policing structures in other countries, like the United States, might proceed, and the challenges those efforts will face during the inevitable pushback by those invested in the status quo.  Andropov is the most interesting figure chronicled (I admit to being unfamiliar with him until this book).  A former head of the KGB, he was well-informed about the unvarnished facts of the state’s decline and inefficiency, and encouraged free communication in his office, thereby developing new theories and rapport with officials who reported to him.  This is surprising, in that he was seen as part of the conservative Brezhnev block and headed the KGB — although he was a liberalizer when it came to internal political repression via the KGB.  Although Andropov died too quickly to achieve anything of significance once he assumed the position of general secretary, Lewin ponders what a vaguely Leninist but quite radical restructuring of the state under Andropov might have accomplished to avoid the entire state’s collapse a decade later (mostly likely a sort of New Economic Policy [NEP] part two).

Another memorable passage is Lewin’s takedown of the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  He says, “Solzhenitsyn considered himself the depository of higher values inherited from Russia’s distant past[,] *** [a] fine writer, but politically inept and with a highly inflated sense of his own importance . . . .”  He considered him a dubious source of information on the gulag system, quoting extensively Vladimir Lakshin, of the literary magazine Novyi Mir, an outspoken contemporary Soviet critic of Solzhenitsyn.  Lewin also suggests that Solzhenitsyn was a bit of a fraud in the way he criticized the gulag system after it was essentially dismantled, without ever explicitly noting that the gulag system was already a relic of the past.  He sees Solzhenitsyn as finding notoriety principally via anti-communists who didn’t question his underlying anti-democratic impulses.  These are biting criticisms, and worth reading for anyone who might otherwise rely on Solzhenitsyn.

Lewin is a fine writer and historian, drawing mostly from secondary sources with a scrupulous eye for their shortcomings and biases.  This is still “eat your vegetables” sort of reading, though well worth it in terms of revealing a lot of information that was previously secret during the Soviet era and most certainly presenting a view of the former Soviet Union not regularly taught (or even suggested) in Western schools.  It would have been nice had Lewin included a few more topics, such as more about the arts, and some sort of discussion about ecology (in a country whose government basically destroyed the Aral Sea).  But no matter.  Historians have a tough task, in that mere collections of isolated facts serve no purpose, and meaningful histories tend to require the application of theory from sociology, political science, and even, in the case of sketches of important personages, psychoanalysis.  Lewin proves adept in many of those areas, even if he occasionally stumbles by suggesting that it is possible for historical analysis to step outside of ideology and be “objective”.

Scott Walker – Tilt


Scott WalkerTilt Fontana 526 859-2 (1995)

Scott Walker’s later career has been enigmatic, to say the least.  He got his start singing light pop, and ended up in one of the first successful UK “boy band” rock acts, The Walker Brothers.  But friction over Scott’s obviously superior vocal abilities led to the band splitting up after just a few years.  His solo career burned brightly at first, but his finest work just didn’t meet with enough commercial success, and he drifted into country-pop terrain for a time, then reunited with The Walker Brothers.  Something unusual happened on the group’s post-reunion Nite Flights album, though.  Walker unveiled new, dark, menacing and genre-defying compositions like “The Electrician” and “Fat Mama Kick.”  He released one solo album, Climate of Hunter, in the early 1980s, but, despite an aborted effort with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, nothing further that decade.  By the early 1990s, he had started writing numerous new songs for a new album project finally released in 1995, Tilt.  Commenting on this paucity of output, he said, “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture.”

While some of Walker’s earlier works hint at the general contours of Tilt, the album is unique in a way few albums are.  Walker takes pop/rock song structures, strips away some of the most typical features of “rock” music, like a syncopated beat, then adds in industrial noises, obscure orchestration and quasi-operatic singing.  This was partly about taking elements of “high” and “low” culture that don’t typically appear together, and coming up with a hybrid that finds its feet not in fully synthesizing the disparate elements, but holding them in a kind of part synthesis and part oppositional juxtaposition.  This naturally leans toward the counterculture, in that pure “highbrow” arts admit nothing from outside their exclusive remit, save for the occasional “exoticism” or a tactical renormalization of an outside threat.  There are some musical precedents for this kind of approach in the most general sense, namely Nico‘s striking The Marble Index, which took gothic Euro-classical music and merged it with urban folk.  But Walker’s precise musical coordinates are different, and lean on obscure yet decidedly non-mainstream politics — they are overt, yet oblique enough to avoid easy identification with precise political currents.  He also developed a penchant for making his listeners stop and ask, “What?” are least once or twice per album.

If there is any great, lasting achievement here, it is that Walker reconfigures the relationship between singing and musical accompaniment in nominally pop/rock music.  The lyrics are non-linear, often cycling and vamping on brief phrases and sounds that mutate slowly, and they convey almost cinematic scenes, the contours of which are only hinted at.  His goal, he stated in an interview is for his singing to be “not too emotional and not too deadpan.”  The sonic accompaniment adds mood, and moves almost in loose parallel with the vocals, never really seeming like an integral part of the vocals in a harmonic or melodic sense, but linked to the lyrics to expand upon their meaning.  The result is something uncommonly dense.

The opener, “Farmer in the City: Remembering Pasolini” is dedicated to the late Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini.  The next song, “The Cockfighter,” includes bits of text lifted from the transcripts of the trials of Queen Caroline in 1820 (in English Parliament) and Nazi administrator Adolph Eichmann in 1961 (in Israel).  One was about a bill of attainder, a legislative act declaring a particularly person guilty of some crime and punishing them that took on the characteristics of a legislative “trial”, and the other an ex post facto trial, criminalizing conduct after it was conducted.  What commonalities these trials share is murky in Walker’s invocation, though both were constitutionally banned in the United States.  And how cockfighting relates to those trials is anyone’s guess, though it is a gruesome “sport” banned almost everywhere—it is also the title of a 1974 Monte Hellman film.  “Bolivia ’95” deals with the South American country that grew turbulent when national industries were being privatized.  Walker called the title track a “black Country music song.”  What do all these disparate things mean pulled together on one album?  What exactly.  It represents the new opacity and mystification of daily lie under modernity.  There is a part of all this a bit like Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, or Goethe‘s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, or The Renunciants, in which the very diffuseness and difficulty of piecing together meaning is itself the focus.

In an interview more than a decade after the release of Tilt, promoting his next album, Walker said, “Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of. I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope people get that. If you’re not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn’t be there.”  He cites Kafka as an influence, who used to laugh when reading his writing to friends.

“Bouncer See Bouncer…” introduces a device he would revisit on later albums (as with a bell on “Herod 2014” from Soused).  A repeating sound, not made by a conventional musical instrument, but sounding like a broken metal hinge banging together, chimes throughout the song.  It continues largely independent of everything else happening in the song.

Tilt has held up as one of Walker’s finest full-length albums.  It doesn’t make for casual listening, exactly.  But there is a mocking sarcasm beneath the dark and morbid exterior of these songs.  Tilt remains something rarely imitated, excepting perhaps Walker’s later albums.



Tomorrowland (2015)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Brad Bird

Main Cast: Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, George Clooney

What is worthy about Tomorrowland is that it starts out as a typical young-adult exceptionalism fantasy, draws in a few action scenes, an unusual blend of futurist and quasi-steampunk elements, and a standard vision of a technocratic utopia, then gets around to critiquing all that.  Basically, the premise is that around the turn of the nineteenth century a group of scientists created a utopian society called “Tomorrowland” in another dimension, freed from all the bureaucracy of the “real world.”  Frank Walker (George Clooney) lived there as a child, but was exiled and now lives as a recluse on Earth.  A robot friend of his Athena () then recruits a teenage girl (Britt Robertson) to help him get back to Tomorrowland and fix the thing he built that led to his exile.  But, what is most intriguing are two things.  First, when the trio does arrive in Tomorrowland, they discover that the problem is not really about science and engineering (by “fixing” the device that Walker had built), but about politics, and dislodging the essentially corrupt leader in Tomorrowland David Nix (Hugh Laurie) who knew all along — unlike Walker (?) — how the device was destroying Earth.  Basically, the trio realize that people are stupid, but, unlike Laurie’s character, don’t feel that widespread human stupidity justifies allowing the destruction of humanity on Earth.  And in that process, they basically stage a violent coup — though the film does not explicitly emphasize this aspect of political revolution, it does happen.  Then, with the old regime toppled, Walker sets up a program to recruit new people to Tomorrowland, and in a speech he acknowledges that toppling the old regime was the easy part and what comes next, actually building a better utopia, is the hard part.  While the film shows this next phase in a very cursory way, and avoids the sort of difficult theoretical aspects of describing how that hard work should proceed, it at least realistically suggests where the hard work must take place.  This is a film for young people, and is rather light entertainment, but at the same time the film’s message is a good one (basically Leninist).

Jodi Dean – The Limits of the Web in an Age of Communicative Capitalism

Link to a video of a lecture by Jodi Dean:

“The Limits of the Web in an Age of Communicative Capitalism”

Bonus quote:

“In communicative capitalism, capitalist productivity derives from its expropriation and exploitation of communicative processes.


“If we are honest, we have to admit that there is actually no such thing as social media. Digital media is class media. Networked communication does not eliminate hierarchy, as we believed, in entrenches it as it uses our own choices against us.


“Dispossession, rather than happening all at once, is an ongoing process. No one will deny the ongoingness of data dispossession. Sometimes it is blatant: the announcement that our call will be monitored for quality assurance, the injunctions to approve Apple’s privacy changes again or the necessity of renewing passwords and credit card information. Sometimes the ongoingness is more subtle; in maps, GPS signals, video surveillance, and the RFID tags on and in items we purchase. And sometimes the ongoingness is completely beyond our grasp, as when datasets are combined and mined so as to give states and corporations actionable data for producing products, patterns, and policies based on knowing things about our interrelations one to another that we do not know ourselves. Here the currents of lives as they are lived are frozen into infinitely separable, countable, and combinatory data-points.

“Approached in terms of class struggle, big data looks like further escalation of capital’s war against labor.”

“Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle”


Bonus links: C.T. Kurien, “The Market Economy: Theory, Ideology and Reality” and Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform and “The Power Of Selling Out: Your Customers As Political Capital” and Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism and Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex and Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks and The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance and Victor Pickard, “Net Neutrality Is Just the Beginning” and “The Collapse of Media and What You Can Do About It” (this article discusses the “breaking” of a self-described “exclusive” story in January 2015 that was for the most part already suggested in When Google Met Wikileaks published in September 2014, though this story was certainly fleshed out further by the later report; this also was used as a plot point in the film Jason Bourne)

Jeffrey Reiman – …And the Poor Get Prison

...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice

Jeffrey Reiman…And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice (Allyn and Bacon, 1996)

Jeffrey Reiman’s …And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice is a 1996 edition of a book first published in 1979 and republished in revised editions through the eleventh edition in 2016 (most under the title The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice).  Paul Leighton became a co-author on later editions.  The book is intended primarily for use as a textbook for college-level criminal justice coursework.  But it remains readable for general audiences as well.  This review addresses an edition now over twenty years old, and does not compare either newer or older editions.

In short, this book presents an outstanding critique of the ideology behind American criminal justice, concluding that the system and its institutions are biased against the poor.  What is most commendable about the book is that it is structured in a logical and coherent way, it provides citations and evidence for every one of its arguments, and it responds to typical counter-arguments.  In other words, rather than a polemic that simply asserts its thesis without testing it, or attempting to side-step normative moral and political judgments by hiding behind technocratic language, the book attempts to ground and defend its positions in an explicitly materialist way.  While it would be fair to say that not every individual argument in the book is well-taken, be it due to outdated or incomplete statistical information or something else, the overwhelming majority of what is presented is supported by both coherent theory and some type of empirical data.

The normative positions taken by Reiman are ultimately defended on moral terms, rather than on a “mistaken facts” basis.  In other words, he does not fall back on the weak justification that things would change if only people knew what the facts really were.  The saying from the total quality improvement discipline, that every system is perfectly designed for the results it currently achieves, fits perfectly into Reiman’s analysis.  Indeed, he mentions teaching a class in which he asked his students a question: how would they design a criminal justice system so that it “would maintain and encourage a stable and visible ‘class’ of criminals.”  The students indicated that it would look pretty much like the current American criminal justice system.

As Alex S. Vitale writes in a more recent book, The End of Policing, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”  Reiman recognizes this too.  In this edition of his book, he alludes to this problem.  His goal is not to outline a specific political problem merely to justify addressing it in a particular predetermined way, but rather to detail the set of interrelated problems that justify a significant political intervention of some sort the particulars of which are not fully determined.

Reiman establishes a few points that should, now at least, be considered incontrovertible:

“1. Society fails to protect people from the crimes they fear by refusing to alleviate the poverty that breeds them . . .

“2. The criminal justice system fails to protect people from the most serious dangers by failing to define the dangerous acts of those who are well off as crimes . . . and by failing to enforce the law vigorously against the well-to-do when they commit acts that are defined as crimes . . .

“3. By virtue of these and other failures, the criminal justice system succeeds in creating the image that crime is almost exclusively the work of the poor, an image that serves the interests of the powerful . . . .”

In the details, Reiman admirably explains how bias in upstream aspects of criminal justice are more damaging.  For instance, legislation that exempts the actions of the rich from the definition of “crime” means that the rich never enter the criminal justice system in the first place, and sentencing fairness is therefore irrelevant to them.  While bias in downstream events like sentencing do matter, by that stage most of the rich have been filtered out of the system.  A key point here is prosecutorial discretion.  Reiman notes how it remains an opaque process rife with opportunities for bias that have been restricted in other areas.

There are a few flaws in this edition.  For instance, Reiman argues that his “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory is not a “conspiracy theory”.  But this is somewhat a strawman argument, with Reiman applying an unduly narrow criminal law definition of “conspiracy”.  It also overlooks a similar sort of middle-ground position like the “propaganda model” of mass media put forward by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which emphasizes the reinforcement and reproduction of an ideological system while also suggesting causal intent, or the psychoanalytic concept of denial/disavowal/Verleugnung, in which denying something that affects an individual is actually a way of affirming what he or she is apparently denying.  Indeed, Reiman’s focus on the criminal justice system as such means he only discusses mass media complicity in passing, which seems like too little treatment.  Additionally, Reiman makes a conservative argument about gun control that is contrary (i.e., non-materialist) to his other arguments, and counterfactual.  More recent evidence suggests that banning firearms will not reduce murder or suicide, directly contradicting Reiman’s claims.  And lastly, Reiman concludes the book with some suggestions to make the criminal justice system minimally morally defensible.  What is interesting here is that Reiman abandons the materialistic critique that grounded the entire book to that point and instead justifies his policy recommendations based on an entirely different foundation, namely that of center-left liberalism.  He cites the likes of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.  While Reiman applies this approach because he seeks only to suggest the minimum necessary moral reforms, not the best possible reforms, his abrupt abandonment of a materialist philosophy renders the basis for these suggestions incompatible with his overall critique.  With the exception of of the “gun control” position, which is not defensible, everything else is sort of unobjectionable, even if it comes across as kind of arbitrary as presented.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book.  It makes an essential introduction to the operation of the American criminal justice system, and provides a durable critique of its most fundamental moral flaws.

Walter Benn Michaels on Neoliberalism

“Bhaskar Sunkara: Neoliberalism is often presented as a unified, homogenous ideology, but you differentiate between ‘left’ and ‘right’ neoliberalisms — what’s the difference and which one dominates American politics today?

Walter Benn Michaels: The differentiation between left and right neoliberalism doesn’t really undermine the way it which it is deeply unified in its commitment to competitive markets and to the state’s role in maintaining competitive markets. For me the distinction is that ‘left neoliberals’ are people who don’t understand themselves as neoliberals. They think that their commitments to anti-racism, to anti-sexism, to anti-homophobia constitute a critique of neoliberalism. But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things.

“One of the first major works of neoliberal economics by an American is Becker’s [The] Economics of Discrimination, which is designed precisely to show that in competitive economies you can’t afford to discriminate. Foucault sort of marks the beginning of neoliberalism in Europe with the horror at what the Nazi state did and the recognition that you can legitimize the state in a much more satisfactory manner by making it the guardian of competitive markets rather than the guardian of the German volk. And today’s orthodoxy is the idea that social justice consists above all in defense of property and the attack of discrimination. This is at the heart of neoliberalism and right-wing neoliberals understand this and left-wing neoliberals don’t.”

Let them Eat Diversity

Bonus link: Francisco Fortuño Bernier & Aaron Jaffe on Corporate Feminism

David Roediger – Class, Race, and Marxism

Class, Race and Marxism

David RoedigerClass, Race and Marxism (Verso 2017)

I found this book to be quite trivial.  It pulls together previous essays that Roediger has written with some new material, and focuses its attention on a selected history of pro- and anti-“identity politics” commentators, together with extensive personal anecdotes.  The book’s major fault is that its central premises are disingenuous.  Roediger claims in the introduction to have undertaken self-criticism.  But on close examination that is not exactly what he does.  Rather, he carefully frames his self-criticism in order to advance certain underlying ideological presuppositions, and to signal that he identifies with certain groups and not others.  He claims that he is investigating the need to engage in both theory and action.  Yet he ends up not really questioning his theoretical assumptions much, and dwells on action.  So, for instance, he opens the book with a mild critique of David Harvey, only to immediately signal that his disagreements with Harvey and a few others are really minor and constructive and that they are really on the same side — by which he means they can both support “identity politics” and craft/trade union social democracy.  He then mentions the anti-“identity politics” positions of Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr., dismissing them as “simplistic”, and, later in the book, also dismisses Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant and others’ views.  And yet, Roediger’s dismissal of these contrary positions actually reveals much more about his own simplistic frame of reference than it does to explicate the supposed flaws of these other thinkers.  For example, Roediger argues from the vantage point that craft/trade union advocacy is of crucial importance, that “Marxism” is about “class” identity rather than universalism, that such groups tend to have substantially consistent/homogeneous internal cohesion, and, crucially, that “ideology” is not an important framework.  Accordingly, his overview of the anti-“identity politics” position (which he clearly rejects) omits any discussion of many of the most prominent recent advocates of that position: Jodi Dean, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Sharon Smith, etc. While many of these other thinkers rely on psychoanalysis, it is psychonalisis of an entirely different sort than what Roediger occasionally relies on.  This is significant.  It is possible to disagree with Roediger’s flavor of “class” consciousness and on that basis alone arrive at a different balance of class and race (and gender, etc.) concerns.  Much of the book explores a history of what amount to “tactical” considerations, without digging into deeper philosophical and theoretical underpinnings.  While some of Roedinger’s statements ring true, I tend to think a better and more far-reaching formulation of the theory and action dialectic that Roediger professes to apply in this book is stated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for example.  Adolph Reed’s criticism of Roediger and his ilk (echoing Walter Benjamin), that they are part of “a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations[,]” seems spot on — hardly something “simplistic”.  This is evidenced by the extensive bloviating that Roediger puts forth about academic appointments and the trials and tribulations of various race-conscious academics seeking prestigious university positions.  This recalls “lean in” boardroom (neoliberal) feminism.  It all gets very tedious.  I was left feeling that Roediger is furthering a debate in what I consider a cul-de-sac of increasingly irrelevant non-Marxist discourse that panders to craft/trade unions, the university appointment system, and defeatist sentiments that the “communist hypothesis” must be tempered if not rejected. While no doubt, “identity politics” has become hegemonic in academic departments of late, Roediger too easily relies on that hegemony to proffer very superficial criticisms of anti-identity politics positions.  But, again, this is essentially a critique of the ideology that Roediger adopts, and Roediger is careful to bracket out ideology from his purview.  He also makes some dubious characterizations of fact.  For instance, in the introduction he claims that police unions actually have very little power.  This is borderline laughable.  Take for instance Minnesota, where in around 2011 the police union succeeded in having state law modified to shield them from disciplinary investigations by citizen boards.  When Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page released their widely publicized study of the impact of ordinary citizens and unions on government policy, they concluded that unions, as interest groups typically aligned with ordinary citizen interests, have very little influence.  These examples tend to show that police unions have considerably more influence than other types of unions, calling Roediger’s claim into doubt.  In spite of his claim to be self-critical, he spends these pages mostly trying to rally allies to fend off criticism from the likes of Reed, Benn Michaels, and a host of others he doesn’t bother to cite — something that is fundamentally populist rather than Marxist, and is not a problem unique to Roediger.  It is rather hard to see how this book is of any interest to anyone other than the “opposition” academics specifically mentioned, to the extent that they might wish to rebut specific claims Roediger makes.  Though this book is best ignored.

Suja Thomas & David Lopez – Why Judges Routinely Dismiss Sexual Harassment Cases

Suja Thomas & David Lopez:

“Why Judges Routinely Dismiss Sexual Harassment Cases”


This article makes an excellent example of why nearly-correct commentary is dangerous.  While it is helpful that the authors cite a 2015 study about a divergence between decisions made by a judge (from the bench) as compared to those by juries, that argument boils down to drawing a line in the sand as to how much judicial decisions must match those of juries.  The authors clearly feel that juries agreeing with judges 75% of the time, in the study sample, is insufficient; they do not articular their minimum acceptable threshold: 80%? 90%? 99.999999999%?  And they side-step the issue of bias in juries — perhaps the views of bigoted juries should be curbed by judges?  Are juries selected in a way that is more fair than judicial selection (obviously, yes, though the article leaves the extent of that and limitations of jury selection unexplored).  The study is limited to situations in which appeals judges overturned a lower court judge (in other words, the study of divergence between judge and jury views is limited to a sample in which judges disagreed).

Anyway, turning to the main thrust of the article, it has some troubling features.  From a legal realist standpoint, it is clear that the authors are peddling a liberal “identity politics” platform, and are dredging around for facts that look like they support the authors’ preferred “identity politics” solutions.  What do I mean by that?  Well, for starters, the key to this article is its reference to “structural reasons”.  This is invoked as the proper explanatory frame for judicial bias in a very specific way:  the accusation is that judges are disproportionately white men, compared to the general population.  While avoiding explicitly saying it, the authors are suggesting that if judges were made up of a racially/gender/etc. diverse base, then the problems they discuss would disappear.  This is certainly better than the “implicit bias” framework.  But nonetheless this approach has been tested in other contexts, and it fails.  In particular, police departments have been exhorted to “diversify” for some time, and departments that have done so have not shown hoped-for reductions in discrimination.  This is because the “identity politics” frame overlooks the role of ideology.  Minorities can accede or succumb to hegemonic ideology, and thus act as collaborators in a biased system.  Elaine Brown in her book The Condemnation of Little B referred to this as “New Age Racism” in a similar context.   Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr. have been hamming this point home for at least a decade too.  Merely appointing more minorities to judgeships won’t solve the problem of a discriminatory ideology unless those judges are willing to challenge the hegemonic ideology.  They might, or they might not — although more racial/gender/etc. fairness in such judicial appointments would undoubtedly be a good thing.  The point is that the authors have offered an insufficient analysis.  Their version of a “structural” analysis is flabby.  To be sound, and come closer to being sufficient, it would need to take more account of power and something like ideology and class, though they do hint in that direction by saying that judges “may want higher positions in the judiciary or elsewhere, which can influence their decisions”, which is perhaps a passing reference to hierarchies of power, economic bases, and hegemonic ideology.  A much more probing set of questions was raised in another article questioning how alternative dispute resolution arose to stifle discrimination suits — though this other article was offered by an independent scholar.  Could it be that Suja Thomas and David Lopez themselves “may want higher positions in [academia] or elsewhere, which can influence their [theorizing]”, and therefore limit the scope of their criticism?  Social science is only valid if it is reflexive and its intellectual weapons are also turned on those who create and wield them.  Thomas and Lopez’ article does not seem to meet such a standard.  It masks an adherence to a hegemonic worldview premised on inequality behind seemingly benign and well-meaning advocacy for minor technocratic improvements, thereby depoliticizing the underlying struggle and reinforcing the ideology that sustains bigotry at its very roots.  In other words, a version of this quote by Frantz Fanon applies: “What matters is not so much the color of your skin [or, your gender] as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” (Black Skin, White Masks).