Midterms 2014: Paying the Gold Price, and the Iron Price

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

In Game of Thrones, “the iron price” is a concept in the culture of the Ironborn. Paying the iron price means taking by the sword, rather than paying with coin. Thus, it is a primary aspect of the “Old Way”, the traditional lifestyle of the Ironborn. The opposite of the iron price is “the gold price,” which is considered shameful for a man to pay. And it is true that in some ways it’s more honorable to risk your life, sword to sword, than risk your hoard, moneybags to moneybags, and that the midterms were more about gold than iron.

But I’d like to connect “the iron price” to the well-known “Iron Law of Institutions,” explained here by A Tiny Revolution:

Democrats operate according to the Iron Law of Institutions. The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.

This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. If history shows anything, it’s that this cannot be changed. What can be done, sometimes, is to force the people running institutions to align their own interests with those of the institution itself and its members.

So what does this mean today? A lot of things, such as:

1. The voting booth is by no means the only place that Democrats care about what you do. In fact, from their perspective, by the time you get to the general election much of the game is over. …

2. If you want to motivate powerful Democrats, attempt to threaten their power within the party, not the well-being of the party overall. …

3. Any serious attempt to transform the Democratic party would include a conscious attempt to change its culture, into one that celebrates different people: organizers rather than elected officials and donors. ….

4. If you don’t believe the Democratic party is redeemable, don’t get your hopes up that another party would end up being much better. Any other party would also be subject to the Iron Law of Institutions. It thus would be quickly just as dreadful as the Democrats…unless people put in the same amount of work as would be required to clean out the Democrats’ Augean stables.

5. Generally speaking, don’t expect too much from political parties, and certainly don’t expect them to change much in less than a generation. And in any case, keep in mind much [not all!] of the power in society lies elsewhere.

So, by “pay the iron price” in the American political context, I mean point #2: “threatening the power of Democratic leaders in their party.” Clearly, Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu were willing to pay the iron price by challenging corrupt Democratic thug Andrew Cuomo; the Congressional Progressive Caucus, by contrast, is never willing. Nor is Elizabeth Warren, nor any other actual or potential Democratic candidate that I know of. Very, very few other Democrats are. To their credit, Tea Partiers are almost too willing, which is why the Republican regulars suppressed them this cycle; to his credit, Barack Obama was willing. Back in the day, Eugene McCarthy was willing.

(I’m a bit more hopeful about the possibilities for, er, change, than A Tiny Revolution, because parties have successfully re-invented themselves over time, often for ill but sometimes for good; look at what the Republican Party of Lincoln has become under Reagan or Bush; and look at what the Democratic Party of James Buchanan became under LBJ, or Clinton, or Obama.) [1]

As we move through other aspects of the 2014 midterms — rather than exciting, bloody massacres, more nerdly matters like ballot initiatives, voter suppression, and statehouse races — we’ll see opposition between the gold price and the iron price come up consistently.

Before moving on, though, I’d like to call attention to these two essential nuggets from our previous post on the midterms, “Red Wedding for Democrats.” First, commenter wbgonne turns the thesis of the post into an epigram:

Democrats would rather lose as neoliberals than win as economic populists

Second, this definition of neo-liberalism seems useful:

The essence of neo-liberalism is transforming public social relations into transactions — ideally involving rental extraction — because markets.

Note that both legacy parties support neo-liberalism defined in this sense[2]; that’s why it was possible for RomneyCare to morph seamlessly into ObamaCare, which is a morass and minefield of transactions and rental extraction (that being the social reality that underwrote the continuing ObamaCare “marketplace” website debacle, and also made it such a challenging development project).

At the Ballot Box

Let’s start with the ballot box, where the act of voting takes place. As is well known, Republicans — focused, as usual, on issues of sphincter control non-compliant “others” — have been making strenuous efforts to restrict access to the ballot box through strict voter ID requirements as a modern form of the old literacy tests; the putative justification is that people are going from polling place to polling place to vote multiple times, which a moment’s thought will show would be a remarkable inefficient way to steal an election.[3] For example:

Texas’s ID law, passed by Republicans in 2011, is the nation’s strictest. As Alkhafaji found out, it doesn’t allow student IDs, though it does allow concealed handgun permits. Texas has been able to point to just two cases since 2000 of in-person voter impersonation fraud of the kind that the ID requirement would prevent.

But the real question isn’t what the Republicans, bless their hearts, are doing; it’s what Democrats are doing. Or, rather, not doing. Democratic leaders are not:

  • Nationalizing the issue of voting rights
  • Challenging Republican voter suppression legislation in court, as a party, at all times
  • Introducing legislation, at the state or the Federal level, to roll back voter suppression legislation, as a party, at all times
  • Seeking to register voters, en masse, in off years (and you’d think that selling people insurance under ObamaCare would have provided an ideal opportunity to piggyback a voter registration system)

So, one can conclude only one thing: Since Democratic leaders don’t oppose these Republican efforts, they support them. No doubt that’s because those disenfranchised by Voter ID requirements tend to be not professional, more poor, older, and not white, and hence more likely to be injured by, and vote against, the neo-liberal policies that Democrats and Republicans alike support. In other words, voter suppression is a successful example of bipartisanship.

That said, let’s turn to the details of the election; I’ll give some resources on voting at the end. After all, there are only 732 days until election day, 2016, so we’d better read up!

Turnout Down

FiveThirtyEight says that turnout is down (though if there are figures on how much of this is due to voter suppression, I haven’t seen them).

[The figures show] a steep decline from recent national elections. McDonald estimates that just 36.6 percent of Americans eligible to vote did so for the highest office on their ballot. That’s down from 40.9 percent in the previous midterm elections, in 2010, and a steep falloff from 58 percent in 2012.

OK, 2012 was a presidential year, so turnout was up, but relative to 2010? That’s cliff-diving! In regards to the Democratic GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operation, how are the mighty fallen!

Remember that Obama’s strategists didn’t simply assume control of the Democratic Party when they won in 2008; they actually supplanted it. The idea was that his field operation, rechristened Organizing for America (as opposed to Obama for America) after the campaign, was far more sophisticated and space-age than anything Democrats already had in-house. So OFA moved into the Democratic National Committee and effectively took it over.

The Obama Campaign paid the iron price, in other words; their sword was technology.

In the afterglow of that victory, during the weeks in early 2009 when the OFA guys were plugging in their iPhones over at the party’s new, sleek headquarters on Ivy Street, it was popular to suggest that a permanent realignment had taken place. I recall sitting on one of these postelection panels around that time, at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and hearing some of my colleagues go on about this Rooseveltian, once-in-a-century shift that Obama had ushered in. Republicans were finished for 40 years, give or take a few; the new electorate was younger, more diverse and more liberal, and it was only going to get more so with each successive election.

And what a load of bollocks that turned out to be. (This would appear to be a case of A Tiny Revolutions #3 — “a conscious attempt to change its culture” by celebrating organizers — but I’d argue that contacting people only creates weak ties, and isn’t the same as organizing them, and the iPhone dudes did a lot more of the former than the latter.

No turnout model on the planet, no matter how shrewd or high-tech, can make a party as compelling as a great messenger. Nor can it substitute the blather of an empty campaign for the power of an actual idea.

You can’t beat something with nothing, another theme that has re-occurred this year.

Election Night Problems

As usual, and shamefully for a putatively first world country, there were all sorts of glitches all around the country[4]; Reuters has a list:

Chicago, more than 2,000 election judges – a fifth of the total – failed to show up at polling places after automated phone calls beginning on Saturday falsely informed them that they were unqualified without additional training (!). … Officials and voting rights advocates reported machine failures in North Carolina and Texas, polling breakdowns in a key Florida county and an overall increase in the number of people reporting they were turned away for lack of proper identification [see above].

The locations reporting problems include Ferguson in St Louis County. Bradblog has a round-up of odd events reported from the ground and by St Louis papers:

They ran out of paper ballots at 4:20 this afternoon and had hours long lines for 3 electronic voting machines. The poll workers said paper ballots were running out at other polling precincts.

Move along people, move along….

Crosscheck Project

Building on the spurious concern over voter identification fraud, we have the Crosscheck project. Greg Palast has a report in Al Jazeera America:

Using open-records requests, Al Jazeera America obtained the previously confidential Crosscheck lists of 2.1 million voters potentially accused of casting ballots in two different states in the same election, a crime punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison. The lists reveal that the supposed double voters were matched simply on first and last name, and middle initials, suffixes and Social Security numbers were ignored. Due to its shoddy methodology, the list captured far more black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters than their white counterparts, in large part because of the commonality of minority surnames.

That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. What shows amazing chutzpah is that Crosscheck nationalizes the techniques of the infamous “Florida Felon’s List,” which Jebbie[5] used to purge Florida voter rolls of Democrats before election 2000. Note that the technique of “shoddy” database methodology” (and by “shoddy” we mean “having engineered the outcome the client preferred”) is very similar:

[The] computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named “Christine” was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a “Christopher” with the same last name. Smith says ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods.

Fortunately, Democratic party leader President Obama spoke out strongly about disenfranchising black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters using shoddy database methodoloy. Oh, wait…


Here are some resources on voting: Bradblog is the go-to blog for the subject of voting; Ballot Access News tracks the efforts of emergent parties to get on the ballot, and how the legacy party duopoly attempts to prevent them.

Ballot Initiatives

I’m only going to go into detail on one ballot initiative; Alabama’s, below. WaPo has a good summaries, and The Atlantic has a state-by-state list. FDL:

Ballot measures about increasing the minimum wage scored huge wins in Illinois, Alaska, Arkansas and Nebraska. In the same Arkansas election that incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D) lost by 17 points, the minimum wage increase ballot measure was approved by a two-to-one margin.

In California Proposition 47, a major sentencing reform measure, won with 58.5 percent support. The measure is a clear signal the state has turned against the aggressive drug war and “tough on crime” mentality.

Marijuana legalization had its best election ever scoring three big wins in D.C., Oregon, and Alaska. An impressive feat given that young people tend to turn out in lower rates during midterm elections.

Paid sick leave will now be required for many workers in Massachusetts thanks to a win for Question 4.

The extreme anti-abortion personhood measures were easily defeated in Colorado and the red state of North Dakota. …

Alabama’s ballot initiative was an amendment to the State constitution. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) summarized it:

Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to prohibit the State of Alabama from giving full faith and credit to public acts, records, or judicial proceedings of another state that violate the public policy of the State of Alabama and to prohibit the application of foreign law in violation of rights guaranteed natural citizens by the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and the statutes, laws, and public policy thereof, but without application to business entities.

Coverage focused on “prohibit the application of foreign law,” by which the proponents meant sharia law, another well-known Republican issue of sphincter control non-compliant “others.” However, I think the “full faith and credit” clause is more interesting. From AL.com, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gerald Allen, asked Eric Johnston of the Southeast Law Institute to explain the bill:

“With the laws about legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, our sister states are not all walking together,” Johnston said. “They are coming up with different things, so we need to address all of this kind of thing. Amendment One would remind judges: We’ve got a constitution, we’ve got rights; you need to respect those rights.”

Which is all fine, but where do Alabama’s “states’ rights” stop, and why? Could Alabama decide not to recognize other state’s driver’s licenses, for example? How about forms of identification? Or health insurance? I mean, “out-of-network” is one thing, but “out-of-Alabama” is another, surely?


Ballotpedia maintains an online database of ballot initiatives, as does The National Conference of State Legislatures.

At the State Level

David Sirota has been on fire since he left Pando and joined International Business Times, and here are two stories he wrote. First, he contrasts campaign funding at the state level to that at the Federal level:

To put the DLCC’s fundraising total into context, consider Kentucky’s election. Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes raised almost double the amount of money for her single unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid than the national party apparatus raised for its campaign for more than 6,000 state legislative seats.

The election results starkly reflected the decision by party donors and operatives to direct so few resources into state races. … In all, NCSL reports that there are 67 legislative chambers controlled by Republicans and just 29 controlled by Democrats. Republicans gained seats in every region, adding up to 375 seats to their column. That gives the GOP more than 4,100 of the country’s 7,383 legislative seats.  

This seem like a fine case of “The Iron Law of Institutions.” The powers-that-be are all at the Federal level, so that’s where the money goes, the strength of the party be damned. (So the Democrats should really stop whining about gerrymandering and redistricting, right? Since they are putting no money into winning the legislatures where those decisions are made?)

Second, Sirota points out a fine example of open, third world-style conflict and corruption:

No recount will be needed to declare one unambiguous winner in Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections: the financial services industry. From Illinois to Massachusetts, voters effectively placed more than $100 billion worth of public pension investments under the control of executives-turned-politicians whose firms profit by managing state pension money.

Note that this is Naked Capitalism’s beat, and I hope that readers will be on the lookout and send us links on pension funds being looted by finance Flexians. Because you know it will happen!

“Money in Politics”

I have some skepticism about “Get money out of politics” as an ethic and a goal, expressed here. That said, there’s no question money (“the gold price”) does affect politics, and here’s an example.

Judicial Elections

From the Atlantic, which explains that state judges have a better ROI than state legislators:

Political donors have realized that a donation to a state supreme court campaign brings higher yields than a donation to a state legislator’s campaign: It’s more expensive to change who’s passing the laws—often more than 100 people—than to change the handful of individuals who interpret them. ….

In one poll, nearly half of the judges surveyed said that campaign contributions had in some way influenced their decisions. But Shepherd, the Emory professor, sought out a more empirical link between judicial-election spending, Citizens United, and the rulings that judges then made. She and her co-author, Michael S. Kang, found that as the number of campaign ads increased, judges were less likely to side with a defendant. Further, they were 7 percent more likely to side in a defendant’s favor before Citizens United than after.

But the relation between money as input and elections and policy as output is by no means always linear, as the state of Maine shows.

The Strange Case of Maine

First, Maine was number one in voter turnout, at 59.3%; remember that the average turnout was an abysmal 36.6%. However, Republican Governor LePage won re-election “at Marden’s prices”[6], with his cost-per-vote less than half of Michaud, the Democratic loser, who also had a greater proportion of money from outside groups. Nor did heavy Democratic spending yields returns in state Senate races:

Outside groups working to elect Democrats to the Maine Senate spent more on negative advertising than their opponents in almost every case but received very little return on that hefty investment.

In fact, the relation between spending and victory in Maine was inverse!

That’s where most of the opposition spending was concentrated, with outside Democratic groups spending about $6.50 in opposition ads for every $3.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their Senate candidates.

The reverse was true in the House, where Democrats appear to have retained majority status — albeit by a slimmer margin — after spending about $2.50 in opposition ads for every $7.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their candidates.

I think the Governor’s race is another case of “you can’t beat something with nothing,” and in this case the unlovable and irascible LePage, who fled his abusive millworker father at the age of eleven and lived on the streets for two years, was most definitely something, and the grey apparatchik Michaud was nothing. For the Senate races, I have no explanation, except to hope that Maine can bottle and distribute whatever cultural factors cause more spending to lose votes, because the rest of the country needs it. Of course, this election could be just a blip!


In so many ways, the 2014 midterms were about the gold price. Gold to pay the operatives, consultants, “strategists,” and bent database programmers; gold in retirement coffers to be seized by bent FIRE executives; gold to Federal Senators, but not to state ones; and a rejection, quite possibly random, of the gold price for office in the great state of Maine.

It would be a pleasant thing if the 2016 elections were about the iron price: Challenges to the leadership by Democrats who believe that the neo-liberal policies that have been metastatizing in the body politic since the mid-70s are indefensible in human and moral terms, and that neo-liberals will take down the whole country if their policies are not halted and rolled back. I don’t see any Democrats on the horizon who are willing to pay that price, but then LBJ didn’t see Eugene McCarthy coming either.


[1] All the points A Tiny Revolution makes are worth studying. For example, Howard Dean was, ultimately, not willing to pay the iron price, but the “50 State Strategy” did attempt to change the culture of the Democratic Party as #3 suggests. #4 calls into question the justification for emergent parties like the Greens. #5 is a useful reminder that our political economy has many power centers besides parties (and voters).

[2] There’s certainly a more scholarly definition out there somewhere, but since this definition evolved in the rough and tumble of the NC comments section, and moreover is useful in providing a plausible account of the actions and policies of both parties, we can go with it for now. See here for an operational approach to the same question of definition. Presumably, when neo-liberalism has metastatized completely, the only people willing to pay the iron price will be mercenaries.

[3] Were voter impersonation fraud an optimal technique, Jeb Bush would surely have used it in Florida 2000.

[4] I remember that voting in the last Quebec referendum, in a province of six million, was done on paper, and the count was done by volunteers and complete in an evening. There is absolutely no reason — except, perhaps, the Iron Law of Institutions — why this cannot be done in the United States, and even made an occasion of conviviality on the holiday that Election Day should be. Hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots, tabulated in public, are the “gold standard” of voting technology.

[5] The same Jebbie who is treated seriously as a possible Presidential candidate in 2016. Then again, impunity for theft and fraud is now normalized among the elites, so I suppose we should not be surprised.

[6] See here for the Marden’s reference, and more on LePage.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Ben Johannson

    Neo-classicalism is a school of thought in which the world is represented by an idealized model: actors are rational, institutions are profit-maximizing, markets adjust instantaneously (or nearly so) via price changes and everyone wants and is made happy by the same things. It is the ultimate in one-size-fits-all intellectualism.

    Neo-liberalism is the political agenda of forcing the world to more closely resemble the model. In that sense it is identical to Marxism-Leninism and fundamentalist religions seeking to remake earth in the image of a fantastical heaven. Its adherents should be approached in the same manner as an IS militant: no one ever thinks of themselves as greedy, corrupt or evil when they’re doing god’s work.

      1. Ben Johannson

        It’s pieced together from the work of many others so I don’t consider it mine. Have at it.

    1. David

      Or in other words:
      Central tenant of Marxist-Leninism is “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”,
      Central tenant of Neo-Liberalism is “The Dictatorship of the Market”.

      Dystopias are the outcome of both.

      1. James

        True enough, as far as it goes. However, “the Market” is just a thinly veiled reference to the market makers, the big kahunas behind the veil pulling the strings on all this. The market is the neo-liberal academically justified mechanism by which they impose their will, just as the proletariat was an even more poorly academically disguised excuse in the case of Marxist-Leninist regimes. In fact, I imagine the dictating is being done by people of surprisingly similar means and motivations in both cases. In the end, the actual mechanisms might be the least of our worries, although they’ll certainly have to be dealt with too. It’s the people and their motivations behind the mechanisms that are the real problem. And that nut won’t be nearly as easy to crack.

    2. human

      Marx was an intellectual (analyst/philosopher/writer). Lenin was indeed a demi-god who preached his own visions of the evils of capitalism and his own ideal of socialism.

      Please do not conflate the two as this is in large part what has given Marx a bad rep.

    3. Uahsenaa

      I would note that contemporary materialism (a la Zizek, for instance) is far more in tune with fundamental issues proposed all those years ago by Freud: namely, the role of desire (why we want stuff) and aggression (why we fight each other over stuff). I recently reread Civilization and its Discontents and was amazed by how apt Freud’s account still is, even if his digressions on gender are totally bonkers.

      Why it’s still apt, I think, has to do with a rather perverse desire among pol sci types (and thus economists) to completely avoid the question of how desire and aggression motivate decision making. Marx, to his credit, did at least identify that some want to extract an excess from others (i.e. “surplus value”) but you’re correct in noting that he doesn’t do a terribly good job of identifying why.

        1. digi_owl

          Or the whole of capitalism, if one is to believe Keynes. And the one aspect of “Keynesianism” that neo-classicals bend over backwards to ignore with their “rational agents”.

    4. hemeantwell

      Re Lenin, I’d strongly suggest that you read Lars Lih’s “Rediscovering Lenin.” He does a good job of going over Lenin’s work in the 1890s and early 1900s to show that the claim

      Lenin was indeed a demi-god who preached his own visions of the evils of capitalism and his own ideal of socialism

      is fairly silly. He was strongly oriented to the model of the German SPD, including its emphasis on intraparty debate. His “visions of the evils of capitalism” were very much shared, and seemed to have ample validation in the various horrors that capitalism generated up to and including World War I. In debates Lenin was ruthless, really quite a dick, but he saw them as part of having a viable party that maintained a valid orientation to the working class, particularly the most militant workers. This is a thesis that is, obviously, very much at odds with the crap we all learned during the Cold War — I should know, one of the people Lih takes down was on my dissertation committee. But it has been endorsed by scholars, like Robert Tucker at Harvard, who have been trying to get a bead on Lenin for decades and who are not casual in their scrutiny of attempts to “rehabilitate” Lenin.

      In short, if you want to understand Lenin and the development of “Marxism-Leninism,” don’t imagine that you can do it by looking at a body of doctrine, as though it all came out of an instruction manual originally printed in 1902 or so. You need to consider a tortuous sociopolitical process and how it became very difficult and then eventually impossible to avoid authoritarian solutions in a revolutionary situation that was morally demanded but objectively unjustified. Crowing over 20/20 hindsight is just stupefying.

      That said, it is remarkable that, in the midst of this ongoing crisis of capitalism, you waste your time getting bogged down with anti-Leninist cliches that seem to come out of nowhere in your discourse. We should be trying to think of alternatives to this crap, rather than replaying in a reflexive fashion the formulas of the Cold War.

      1. James

        That said, it is remarkable that, in the midst of this ongoing crisis of capitalism, you waste your time getting bogged down with anti-Leninist cliches that seem to come out of nowhere in your discourse. We should be trying to think of alternatives to this crap, rather than replaying in a reflexive fashion the formulas of the Cold War.

        Absolutely right!

      2. human

        Your comments, re my calling Lenin a demi-god, are duly noted.

        You do also note that my comment was aimed at those who disparage Karl Marx by conflating _him_ as the creator/inventor of modern failed permutations of socialist/communist ideology?

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Hmm. Can I have an example of a successful ideology? Confucianism, maybe? I’m just not sure its in ideologies to succeed, not even neo-liberalism. Something about the way they close themselves off; I don’t know whether logically, sociologically, or whatever.

          1. NoFreeWill

            Marx is still the most cited scholar in history, his analysis of capitalism is still fundamentally true and accurate, and his ideas inspired people around the world who were responsible (as the boogeyman on the left) for securing everything from social democracy in Europe, the 40 hour week, and social security, unemployment insurance, and so many other protections we take for granted (and are now destroying). Just because the USSR collapsed and lost the Cold “War” doesn’t mean the existence of socialism/communism didn’t force capitalists in the West to give a lot of ground to the Left, bettering everybody’s standards of living.

            1. digi_owl

              That collapse is ironic to say the least.

              Gorbachev tried to save the USSR by taking it more towards the Nordic model. The hardliners didn’t approve, but their very actions ended up triggering the downfall of the system they tried to protect.

      3. Lambert Strether Post author

        “[M]orally demanded but objectively unjustified.” Both sides of that antithesis being far more fuzzy and far more tragic than we like to think. The German intelligence officials who sent that sealed train to the Finland Station have a lot to answer for…. As do the Bolsheviks, of course.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I don’t think there’s such a thing as “Marxist theory” any more than there’s such a thing as “Darwinian theory.” World views, methods, controversies, maybe.

    5. Leo

      The reference to Marxism is germane considering Neoconservatism was cobbled together by a bunch of disgruntled marxists.

  2. Ned Ludd

    How is neo-liberalism different than 1800’s predatory capitalism?

    The essence of neo-liberalism is transforming public social relations into transactions — ideally involving rental extraction — because markets.

    I followed the link in the footnotes and came across Lambert’s two rules of neo-liberalism:

    #1 Because markets.
    #2 Go die!

    The capitalism we grew up with was ameliorated with some social programs, pilfered from the communists and socialists who threatened the system in the pre-war eras. Now that those social programs are being wiped away, we are once again witnessing the undisguised face of capitalism, just as our predecessors did over one hundred years ago.

    Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.

    Sounds like neo-liberalism, to me.

    1. Clive

      There’s definitely some overlap there, you’re right. But there’s also some areas of complete divergence. Let’s take for example the ownership of land (and I’ll base my observations on 19th Centuary England so feel free to point out if the U.S. was different but what follows is true for The Old Country). Land which was owned by the elite (the aristocracy) and formed “the Great Estates” of the period was not in any sense of the word a functioning “market”. It was — barring a generation of stunning idiocy who might have gambled away the family fortune — illiquid, virtually untradable in quantity and assumed by the dynastys who owned it to be theirs in perpetuity. The rest of the population, including other members of the aristocracy, assumed that too.

      But in today’s neoliberalism, that assumption isn’t valid. Everything is for sale and everything has a price. The Waltons may have cornered the market in general retail but if a Chinese billionaire comes along and predatory-prices them into commercial oblivion, then no-one in the neoliberal firmament will stop them. In fact, they’d be seeing if they could get a piece of the action. There is no honour in this bunch of thevies and those who carry water for them.

      1. susan the other

        I do agree. Our current model has nowhere to go but down. And in the decline, and ironically because of the decline, it will become ever more expensive to be wonderful. Go figure. At some point there is an optimum. It occurs in nature all over the place. And we deny that because we, the USA USA USA, are ideologues. A pity really.

      2. Propertius

        feel free to point out if the U.S. was different

        Okay, I will. In the US, the government gave away land to smallholders to encourage settlement through much of the 19th Century. Yes, we certainly had “land barons”, but there were some very significant differences in the patterns of property ownership between England and the early United States.

        Of course, we’d never do anything like that now. Because socialism.

    2. Banger

      I don’t agree with this formulation. While noeliberalism has the notion that markets are a good thing it (if we can personify it) is no more interested in markets than most Christians are interested in the Gospels. If only neoliberalism did, indeed, defend something close to a free market! I can’t go out tomorrow and legally take part in ayuhuasca ceremony or legally hire a prostitute or any number of things. Neoliberalism is not focused on markets but on a state-sanctioned kind of capitalism where the capitalists use the state to narrow competition and fix markets. I believe the financial markets, for example, are partially fixed by being weighted to favor certain well-connected capitalists who have, working closely together, been able to corrupt politicians, judges, and media producers to do their bidding.

      Even the “go die” part of it doesn’t hold up–I am except in Oregon, allowed to have a doctor aid me in ending my life if I choose. This is why if I tend to sympathize with the libertarian movement. Our society, economy and political structures are tightly controlled not to offer us benefits but to keep a narrow band of oligarchs and their hangers-on in power.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Any formulation that incorporates the concept of “free markets,” even as an ideal, misleads. Capitalist markets are organized and legitimized (or outlawed and criminalized) by the govt either directly or indirectly. As there are easier and harder ways to make a profit, it is always in the interest of capital to try to bend the state to its (profit-desiring) will, in many cases by privitizing public goods and services and thus virtually guaranteeing returns (looting). In the best of cases, finance is the skim from the operation of the money system (controlled looting). But finance is business too, and when finance is the easiest or only way to make money, the whole system comes under risk (of needing massive govt bailouts).

        What we need are actors inside and outside of government that can force capital towards socially useful investments, which means foreclosing easy profits from socially harmful activities and limiting the finance skim.

    3. Jackrabbit

      Neolibs = crony capitalists (mostly). That is not capitalism as most think of it.

      Because markets! is not a defense of capitalism as much as it is a crony excuse for looting.

      It is a ‘self-licking ice cream cone just like exceptionalism! which allows neocons a free hand in foreign policy.

      H O P

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        “Because markets” is an excuse for anything, and by design. Somewhere there’s an explanation with many more examples of the “Because _____” snowclone; the blank idiocy and illogic of the phrase is by design.

    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      I think — and I haven’t thought this through, so maybe somebody smarter than me can help — that the difference between capitalism proper and neo-liberalism as a capitalist ideology is in the treatment of rents, as my definition highlights.

    5. Leo

      Regarding the commoditization of every last aspect of human social relations, I think the recent Lena Durham brouhaha is a case in point; why did she feel the need to share such deeply personal information? Do people have no sense of decorum anymore? I would be mortified if someone shared such private information about me with the rest of the world. Neoliberalism has won. Everything is for sale. I seem the normalization of prostitution and pornography as part of the same process. Selling your body for sex is now being sold to young women as being empowering.

  3. CB

    “to his credit, Barack Obama was willing.” Was willing to what and why to his credit?

    Alabama has exempted business entities from the amendment, and from the provisions of any global trade pact, too, I assume. Like the TPP, for instance, which might fall hard on some in state businesses.

    Wendy Davis is said to have lost for having no ground game and no ideas. Attractive woman, tho.

    I don’t often send money to another state bc I believe people have a right to decide their own candidates and issues. I don’t call for another state, either, bc I believe calling into another state for candidates or issues is obnoxious: who am I to tell someone in another voting district who or what to vote for? Maybe voters are getting pissed off by the money and phone calls from out of staters?

  4. AQ

    Interesting but I always thought Obama paid the Gold price as opposed to the Iron price. His vote on wiretapping and the ATT suite at the 2008 national convention told me that before he was elected.

  5. Carolinian

    It might be interesting to take a look at the history of neoliberalism which, in it’s American manifestation, received early support from Charlie Peters and his crew at Washington Monthly. A big part of the rationale for making the Democrats more business friendly was the Presidential drought–broken only by four uninspiring years of Carter–since 1968. In essence the Dems began to turn their backs on their base in order to capture the power and patronage possibilities of the Presidency. This worked since they got eight years of Clinton and the same with Obama. However the counter reaction from the Republicans–who never seemed able to accept the legitimacy of Clinton’s election–and, in the case of Clinton, of the press was intense. This same twenty year period saw the Dem dominance of the Congress–they had controlled the House for forty years–evaporate. In essence the Dems traded away everything they stood for as a party so narcissists like Clinton and Obama could hear Hail to the Chief.

    Of course it’s likely that the Democrats weren’t so wedded to those principles to begin with but they did at least pay them lip service and see New Deal remnants like Social Security as the source of their strength. However it seems that the Iron Law of Institutions (and thanx for the shoutout to the great Jonathan Schwarz) also applies to the United States itself. The Dems felt they were nothing unless they could control the Presidency.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Clinton wasn’t legitimate; he was elected with only 42% of the vote (legal, but not legitimate) and with a lot of help from Perot – whose cause he torpedoed.
      However, I think the real reason the Republicans hated him was precisely because he was functionally a Republican: he was stealing their ideas and, much worse, their funders. That was the avowed intent of the DLC.

      1. James

        Good points! And he was beating them to the globalism punch, which the elder Bush was old and wise enough to be rightly skeptical of. Too bad we can’t turn back the clock, eh? Imagine how different the world would be today if BillHillary gets sent packing back to AR in ’92?

        1. different clue

          Elder Bush was sceptical of globalizationism? Any evidence?

          Wasn’t Elder Bush aggressively in favor of the various TTAs ( Trade Treason Agreements) such as NAFTA, WTO membership, MFN for China, etc.? Didn’t Clinton merely put the capstone of ratification on the ReaganBush edifice of Free Trade Treason?

  6. Banger

    Very good piece Lambert and stimulating ideas.

    I agree with the notion that people within a system tend to want to protect their place within it more than accomplish the goals of that institution–but it is only a tendency. Much depends on the size, leadership, and what phase that institution is in. Most powerful institutions, indeed, all powerful institutions, in the USA today are at this stage–the stage is called “corruption.” While I agree that the system is fixed and we can only, realistically, choose between the RP and DP so any attempt to support parties outside the system is doomed (at a national level) it is not necessarily true that political forces outside the mainstream parties cannot be mobilized to put pressure on the power structure. The DP is hopelessly corrupt and cannot be reformed at this time. The leadership class is entrenched not only within the various structures that make up the Party but entrenched in their relationship to the oligarchy–the DP is a political party that belongs to oligarchs 100% they decide and the grass-roots has little if any say in anything–now, I’m not saying that the grass-roots cannot have a say theoretically but as a practical matter they don’t in part for cultural reasons which I would be glad to go into if asked. Besides, even if the left was aroused from its Sleeping Beauty death sleep by a handsome Prince (or Princess), the left (or should I say the non-right) would not know what to do–the sorts of solutions and ideas are generally stale, contradictory, confused and ungrounded in any coherent philosophy.

    There are two possible and workable solutions. First, is to move towards direct democracy to more ballot measures (for starters) and, eventually, dispense with the whole notion of “representative” democracy–clearly this worked for a our ancestors but is now completely obsolete. The system has been gamed now it is time to change the system–we start with more ballot initiatives, we create a space-program-like project to create a system to decide public matters through the internet (the issue of authentication and universal access I believe can be solved). The second alternative is that we move towards mandated voting so that all citizens would have one obligation–to vote. Penalties would not have to be heavy. This would solve the problem with voter suppression by the RP because it would stop it in its tracks and, more importantly, have the appeal of appearing to be draconian which people who vote RP love–it has the lovely scent of punishment–conservatives love forcing people to do things–it’s an aesthetic thing for them.

    1. John Zelnicker

      Banger – Have you seen Joe Firestone’s recent work on Real Fiscal Responsibility and the Reinventing Democracy project? If not, you might start with this post, one of several on this new project:


      The Reinventing Democracy website is here:


      And this is the beginning of their Mission Statement:

      “Our mission is to accelerate the evolution of democratic forms of government as they incorporate advanced information technology, telecommunications and social networks. Our goal is to use the Re-Invent Democracy Web Technology to solve a public sector crisis that the public sector is unable to solve – the global governance crisis, by enabling voters across the spectrum to build consensus and end conflicts that far too many governments are proving themselves incapable of resolving.”

      Many commenters here are looking for ways to change the entrenched neo-liberal system and the Reinventing Democracy project is very much worth taking the time to investigate.

      Joe also did a series of posts beginning in the middle of August about Real Fiscal Responsibility which I recommend.

      1. PaulArt

        Sorry to be a cynic but to build any good system one has to start with components that have integrity. Human beings are flawed creatures by design. One cannot build anything of lasting value with them. Anything you build with them will always tend to dissolve into corruption and chaos over the passage of time.

        1. Carla

          PaulArt: you don’t seem sorry to me. And who taught you about “integrity” anyway — a perfect plant? a pristine fungus? Or could it have been — oops, a flawed human being?

      2. Banger

        Thanks, John–the site you directed me to looks very promising and I’ll look more deeply into it when I have time–it appears to be more creative and realistic than most projects I’ve seen.

        Having said that–the real political problem stems from, essentially, two rotten institutions–the first is education–they try to fit kids into a 19th century conceptual framework and ignore cognitive, social and nuero-science that has changed the way we think (if we follow the fields) about human beings and learning–and the academy is even worse; the second, is the mainstream media both “news” and “entertainment” because they give us a completely false view of the world not because they don’t know what they’re doing but because they do know what they’re doing. I will say that there are few bright lights in alternative TV programs and the very rare movie (mainly movies suck big time).

        1. John Zelnicker

          You are welcome.

          I also agree with the rest of your comment. I get so angry with what the education establishment and the “reformers” are doing to our kids; it’s a horrible crime. I’m very worried for the future of my first grandchild who will be born next week. Critical thinking is being replaced by a training regimen to turn out compliant worker bees who won’t criticize or protest and will accept the authoritarian hierarchy without question.

          And the MSM just continues the propaganda and mindless entertainment for the adults. I’ve given up on TV again (didn’t have one for many years when I was younger, don’t have one now), except for a couple of shows I download.

    2. Jen

      I like the idea of more direct Democracy too. I think on many issues people who see themselves as red or blue are actually much closer than they are led to believe. And how about instead of penalizing the mandatory vote, we incentivize it? A fifty dollar tax credit or something?

    3. James

      As usual, your heart’s in the right place, but fixing a system straining under the weight of hyper-complexity by adding even more layers of complexity (ACA anyone?), never mind voting mandates(!), is just adding to the problem. I think we’ve (thankfully) run out of band aids for a system that we all, at some level at least, know is going down. The corruption we see is so rampant now because its the only real profitable opportunity left, and the good capitalists at the top are just doing what good vulture capitalists do under such circumstances: cleaning up and consolidating the mess for their own benefit. I’m not smart enough to know what’s next, but I think I’m smart enough to realize now that what we’re doing is not working, and there’s no sign out there that it ever can be, or that we even truly want it to be, reformed. American style capitalism, just like Soviet style socialism before it, is imploding based on its own internal contradictions.

      1. Banger

        What is next is feudalism–there’s very little chance of reforming the system today, Either of the two options, I believe, would at least force the system to evolve somewhere other than the feudalism that most Americans secretly crave–I don’t think that’s a good outcome. Clearly, the direct democracy is the best alternative–fuck voting for the lesser of two assholes! Let us decide whether we are going to bomb some poor country–of course this is tricky as it would require real information instead of 24/7 propaganda–but that’s another story. The ideas I’m throwing out here are just ways to stimulate discussion–what if people started to think about such things? Imagine the effect! One thing would lead to another and people might begin to think that getting together and planning stuff that isn’t only about making money might be more fun than the endless ads and crap that makes up election in this country–we might even get to the point where we put some effort in not making elections so easy to fix.

        1. James

          Good points. I’m not sure Americans “secretly crave” feudalism, but I agree that’s where it appears we are headed. Direct democracy I’m not so sure of, at least on a mass scale. Just as easily manipulated and hyper-confusing for the masses, who are already more than confused enough.

          But throwing ideas out there is good! God knows the two legacy parties damn sure ain’t doing it!

    4. Paul Niemi

      Regarding being within the party system, there is nothing new there. The parties work for the incumbents. The incumbents take all of the money the parties raise for their own re-elections. First time candidates use their own money and donations from close personal friends and family, and they have about a 1 in 20 chance of winning by having an election fall in their lap. Once elected to something, the party apparatus kicks in to support them financially. There is nothing new about that, and the only exceptions are for military heros and celebrities who can be persuaded to run for office. Each incumbent is an independent franchise, looking after their own rear end first and the good of the party is way down the list. They want to be in the majority party, because that makes it easier to raise money. Again, that is nothing new. Now the idea you raised about manditory voting is easily put away: if someone can be required to vote, they can be told who to vote for. It is what they do in North Korea, not here. People who don’t vote are tacitly endorsing the status quo, in that they feel they can live with things as they are, and they think change is either unnecessary or won’t make much difference. So what? That’s nothing new also. There was an economy before there was a government, and people participate as they see fit, doing in either what they see to be consistent with their interests, by their own lights. The problem, as stated above, is not corralling voters who choose not to vote, it is mischief makers who choose to make it more difficult for people to vote who want to vote.

      1. Banger

        As I said my preference is for direct democracy. Mandatory vote would be an alternative. Now, with a mandatory vote I think you’d have to keep political parties out of the process as much as possible as well as money so that alternative candidates and ideas could be heard at least for the election season.

        But we are quibbling, in a sense—most people don’t care they want to be ruled by a ruling elite and want the elites to hurry up and transition to feudalism which is where we are going if we don’t change real quick.

        1. Ulysses

          “most people don’t care they want to be ruled by a ruling elite and want the elites to hurry up and transition to feudalism which is where we are going if we don’t change real quick.”

          I agree that most people are not eager to do all the hard work it would take to become well-informed, active democratic citizens, fully participating in their own government. Yet I strongly disagree that they desire some sort of open neo-feudalism to end the charade of representative government, that they find too painful to watch closely today.

          I think most people simply want a more liveable world with far less stress, strife and starvation. They are too overwhelmed with their own daily struggles to give a lot of thought to how we are currently drifting towards corporate neo-feudalism, and what might be done to correct course.

  7. diptherio

    What, no mention of the vote-flipping by electronic voting machines? An oversight, surely:

    By our count, Virginia is now the 7th state to report touch-screen voting flipping in the 2014 election (though we may have missed a few in Pennsylvania and elsewhere).

    During Early Voting, prior to today’s mid-term, we’ve covered 100% unverifiable touch-screen votes reportedly flipping on screen in Texas (D to R), in Illinois (R to D), in Tennessee (NO to YES on anti-choice initiative), in Maryland (R to D) and in Arkansas (unclear which direction the votes were flipping in several different counties), and in North Carolina, where votes were said to be flipping from D to R in the crucial, neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race there.

    Now, “Republicans and Democrats alike” are reporting votes flipping in a U.S. House race in Virginia Beach and Newport News, and one of the Republican candidates involved has supplied a video tape of the flipping votes cast on the town’s Diebold AccuVote touch-screen systems…

    Added to the problems with lack of paper ballots and election judges being robo-called off the job (by whom, know one knows/will admit), we once again have evidence of massive vote fraud–just not the kind the Republicans are so worried about. Will any investigation take place? Will we ever find out what is really going on? Ha! I crack myself up sometimes….

  8. Jen

    Re: #4, and the idea that starting a new party might be lacking in justification, I think it’s being a bit broadly applied with bias toward saving a terminally corrupted lesser evil Dem party.

    Yes, an emerging party, or any older party, would require constant cleaning of the stables; no difference there. The real question is would it be easier to clean one that has become so corrupt and disconnected from the voters that there is no way to touch them, or one that is still dependent on the grassroots? The illogical jump that is made is to an end where the cycle repeats and they are just as bad as what was replaced when that could take decades, and only if maintenance is not done (as it always must be, regardless).

    Put another way, say populist ideas are a fresh heart ready to be implanted in a new patient. Which between these two donor recipients would you choose:
    A) The obese elderly diabetic used car salesman with a slew of nasty habits like smoking and not exercising, or B) the college freshman who is captain of the volleyball team and studying environmental science?

    And another thought: Which do you think will reject the transplant? I don’t think you could get Dems off neoliberalism.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I have no bias whatever toward saving the Democratic Party. That said, “Keep an open mind” is a very useful AA slogan; following history helps with that.

    2. Oregoncharles

      I’ve posted another take on the issue below, based on basic history. Thanks for going into the aspect I didn’t get to.

      Partisan note: members and candidates from an emerging party are actually much more personally honest, because they can’t expect any reward, let alone lots of money. They’re driven mostly by the principles, or they’d be Democrats (or Republicans, on the other side.) Granted, this logic only lasts until they gain poiwer, when “maintenance” has to kick in. At the moment, the Oregon Green Party will have to do that: our candidate for Governor, who was new to us, turned out to be an effective campaigner, but not very Green. We didn’t ask all the questions we should have. We won’t nominate him again. Oddly, he did less well than the Senatorial candidate, a transwoman who is a long-time member and very Green indeed. Both did well enoiugh to secure our ballot line, though.

  9. amateur socialist

    An important aspect of the neoliberal transactional model is the continuing pressure to transform rights (e.g. voting, access to employment and housing opportunity, education) into privileges conferred by arcane and unhelpful bureaucracies. All of which sustain their own constituencies of self licking ice cream cone type corruption. (now often privatized to provide another layer of expense)

    It ought to be obvious by now that schemes which begin with the assumption that every citizen is eligible simply don’t provide the impetus to create these barriers to entry. So they can’t be allowed to exist. (see single payer health care as a key example – we’d much rather spend a lot of money and resources examining the question of “who is worthy and entitled” than actually treating sick people.)

  10. David Lentini

    Lambert served up quite a political smögåsboard this morning. I’ll just pick and choose a few of the more tasty items.

    Iron Laws Usually Have Feet of Clay
    I don’t like the use of any sort of “iron” law outside of the sciences, where actually no one would use the expression since no one really knows how “solid” any given “law” is. For example, you never hear of “the iron law of gravity”. Given the huge problems with establishing any sort of universal in the (so-called) social sciences and economics, the idea of calling any statement a “law”, let alone an “iron law” is silly. Except of course, when you want to make an appeal to power to cow the reader into accepting your view without seriously questioning your arguments or motives. Then “silly” becomes “mendacious”.

    Why people act as they do in institions varies as much as any other endeavor. Often, I’ve found many incompetent managers and directors arrogantly but sincerely argue they’re doing “God’s work”, hewing more closely to the idea that they are indeed serving the organization. As was posted on NC recently, the most incompetent are the last to get the message.

    What does that mean here? We live in a time dominated by what we call a “neo-liberal” culture. That is, a culture that puts little value on community and much value on the personal. The argument for this is, of course, that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will make sure that it all comes out best in end, because … markets. In short, the neo-liberal view is that the only legitimate decisions are those that arise from individuals acting through a market. Since markets are venues for transactions, neo-liberals see everything in terms of transactions, which usually boils down to money. (What those terms and concepts actually mean, however, is a mystery, which is why neo-liberalism really is more mystical than the medieval Church!)

    Under this mechanism, then money ultimately rules, since money is the means of expressing our sensual (physical) wants and desires, which are the only wants and desires that count in the neo-liberal world. Thus, two things happen: (1) individuals tend to use institutions to their personal (“rational”) benefit in the sense that the institution now aligns with their selfish interests; and (2) institutions bend to those with more money, since that’s now the source of power.

    In this light, the analogy with Game of Thorns then, we live in an Age of Gold, since the idea of personal honor (Iron) is, from the neo-liberal view, foolish. Those with the most gold get their wish, since they control the market. Acting from the principle of Iron, then would be acting like the civil rights movement, putting your bodies on the line in a show of resistance to power with the idea that who value honor will take control and break the grip of Gold. But in our neo-liberal culture it’s hard to get people to understand this, especially when they’re so traumatized by their steadily deteriorating economic conditions. (Honor usually falls before hunger.) Chris Hedges’s interview with Sheldon Wolin on The Real News captures this dilemma well.

    Barak Obama a Man of Iron?
    Sorry, you’ll have to make a more complete argument before I can buy that one. So far as I can tell, Obama is a man of the times, which means he’s a complete moral coward.

    Initiatives and Maine
    The varioud victories in the initiatives and the results in Maine suggest to me than voting can still overcome money. So, the neo-liberal view isn’t “iron” at all. Here in Maine, I think Michaud’s loss shows how the Democrats have to start standing for honor and public virtue. Otherwise, people will vote for the real thing.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      By my definition, Obama did indeed “pay the iron price.” He challenged the party leadership — or at least one faction thereof, i.e. the Clintons — and won. That doesn’t make him any less what he is.

  11. Jen

    New parties to challenge the Dems might be unjustifiable. The thrust of it was: Say populist ideas are a heart waiting to be transplanted into a patient. Which donor recipient would you choose?

    A) An obese diabetic elderly used car salesman or B) A college freshman student athlete studying environmental science.

    The idea is that seeing how upkeep and the iron price is always needed either way, which would actually be easier to clean? An neoliberal entrenched party disconnected from the public completely, or a new party still dependent on the grassroots?

  12. hemeantwell

    Tiny Revolution’s “Iron Law of Institutions” really needs a tip o’ the hat to Robert Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy.”

  13. jgordon

    Since it’s appropriate and you all have linked to the Archdruid in the past:


    The Democrats destroying their own party in order to secure a more prestigious place within the (soon to be destroyed) party is exactly analogous to the process by which civilizations implode. Yes, anyone you replaced Democrats with would be equally as corrupt and lame in short order. And in the same token any organization, government or otherwise, would also eventual become just as foul in turn. That would seem to argue that there is something inherently wrong with the way we are organizing our societies at the moment. My favorite “solution” is to radically decentralize the society and economy.

    1. Massinissa

      I believe economic and political decentralisation will happen whether we want it or not in the next few decades, so you will get your wish if you live long enough. It will happen because there will be no choice, circumstances will force the transition violently, if gradually.

    2. James

      You beat me to it. Good points. The Archdruid certainly has a way of cutting through the nonsense.

      The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.

      “The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Wait, wait. I thought we found markets under cabbage leaves?

        Incidentally, ObamaCare, through the mandate, makes the compulsory nature of “because markets” crystal clear.

  14. Kurt Sperry

    The obvious is that the more hierarchical the organization, the easier and cheaper it is to corrupt. You only need bribe a small ruling group of a highly centralized command to alter the organization’s trajectory instead of having to sell your influence to many. A highly hierarchical, rigidly top down entity like the DP is thus easy prey. Probably the same can be said of any political party with a small group at its top controlling it. But the greater the corruption, the greater the required ruling discipline. As the direct benefits of the corruption are limited to a small group, that small group must be essentially immune to any bottom up influences to reliably deliver whatever benefits are on sale. You also need a fixed ruling group operating out of public view in place to guarantee the delivery of benefits bought over time, no good currying favor with and bribing someone who might not be in place tomorrow and having to constantly renegotiate the terms. Corruption doesn’t like turnover at the top, it creates costly inefficiencies.

    It appears to me that the DP is both exquisitely hierarchical and disciplined–a tiny core elite fixed safely in place, unaccountable and in complete command is a guaranteed recipe for corruption. The corruption is baked in organizationally by the very structure of the institution. Thus direct democracy, not or less curated by partisan intermediaries, is by the same token structurally resistant to corruption. When you have to bribe everyone, corruption becomes pointless and ineffective.

    A national referendum process like many states have in place might it seems be a good check on how far corruption could go, as would electing politicians without a party affiliation who while still liable to corruption would at least be time limited in how reliably they could deliver benefits for it. Term limits could also be a useful tool in this regard, although to work best they would have to apply to appointed as well as elected officials as if only elected officials were term limited, I can see it being pretty straightforward to just transfer greater authority to non-elected partisan insider lifers immune from the limits who can burrow into party or governmental administrative places of authority.

      1. Kurt Sperry

        Having to bribe everyone is in fact the essence of any functional democracy. If the unelected party heads set and substantially fund the candidate slate, changing the cast of partisan legislators really does nothing. You just slot in new pre-vetted personalities who under orders from above maintain the corruption in exchange for their empty roles as public figureheads. You get the appearance of a democratic process but without any actual democracy. If you can corrupt *both* parties in a fixed two party system, you are then essentially completely free of any accountability via the electoral process–you’ve defeated democracy while maintaining its outward appearance. I’d argue this is exactly where we stand today, with a putatively democratic system that in fact is completely undemocratic. The voters have no ability to substantively influence the process and no real alternatives to consider to change it.

        1. James

          Very good and thought provoking posts Kurt and points very well taken!

          Not to be a naysayer at all, but how would you counter the voter confusion over single/narrow issue referendums and the ability of large corporate/coalition interests to unduly target and influence them? Do you not think that would be a problem? To my mind, the corruption of the two political parties might be the least of it if the corporate capitalist entities still pull the strings regardless.

  15. NOTaREALmerican

    Why would anything change when nothing is “wrong”. Is anything “wrong”? Are the peasants “unhappy”? Well, sure they say they are “unhappy”, but I mean are the peasants REALLY “unhappy”? No, we’ve got the happiest peasants in the world, they love their slow-motion eagles-n-flags and have plenty to eat. There’s nothing “wrong”.

    1. James

      True enough. The simulacrum, the matrix, or whatever is damn sure enticing. A trailer, a car, a TV/phone/internet connection, and some beer 2-3 nights a week will pretty much fill the bill these days.

  16. Jake Mudrosti

    Regarding the “Iron Law of Institutions”:
    I hadn’t seen that term before. A quick search led to this primer:
    “Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution. He was originally describing Nancy Pelosi’s unwillingness to consult with Iraq War protestors in 2007 — and more generally, Democrats’ failure to embrace disaffected leftist voters.”

    That notion (“would rather the institution ‘fail'”) seems off the mark. All things that this Iron Law might possibly account for can, I believe, be more parsimoniously accounted for (and with greater predictive value, to boot) by a standard list of human cognitive biases and known forms of emergent group dynamics (e.g., refer to Robert Jay Lifton). It’s possible to account for people’s choices without assuming any priorities, either overt or covert (such as “would rather the institution ‘fail'”). I would say that to assume such covert priorities is to mistakenly assume far more structured cognition than actually occurs inside hollow resonant human brainpans.

  17. curlydan

    Great post, but there’s a small logic problem here: “So, one can conclude only one thing: Since Democratic leaders don’t oppose these Republican efforts, they support them”. Not really true. You can be for, against, or neutral. I’d say the Democrats have shown themselves to be neutral. As pointed out in the Tiny Revolution post you quoted from, the Dems don’t really care about what’s going on at the ballot. They just need to preserve their status within the institution. They’re only looking up the corporate/institutional ladder. But it would be better if they actually gave a $#!+ about the activity below them and challenged the suppression.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Logically, you are correct, but in this case that’s like being “neutral” when somebody puts a gun to your head. Either you’re worried about being shot, or you know you won’t be.

  18. Propertius

    Outside groups working to elect Democrats to the Maine Senate spent more on negative advertising than their opponents in almost every case but received very little return on that hefty investment.

    As a former state Democratic Party official, I can assure you that the Democratic Party has very reliable internal studies showing that negative advertising usually increases Republican turnout and suppresses Democratic turnout – no matter which side does it. This does not stop Democratic candidates and interest groups (and even the party itself and its affiliated organizations) from launching suicidal negative advertising campaigns. 2008 and 2012 were exceptions to that rule, of course. Someday there will be dissertations written on how cynical appeals to sexism and ageism transformed the 2008 campaign (both in the primaries/caucuses and the general).

    I guess I’m not at all surprised by the results in Maine. The U.S. Senate race here in Colorado was pretty similar. The Udall campaign was sufficiently nasty that it drove the Denver Post (the most reliably pro-Democratic paper in the state) to endorse his opponent out of sheer disgust.

    The only thing that saved Gov. Hickenlooper from the nationwide Republican sweep was his relentlessly positive campaign, which was very nearly sabotaged by negative advertising against his opponent paid for by “friendly” national organizations in the final couple of weeks of the campaign.

    Your point about neglect of state and local races by the national Democratic Party over the last 8 years is well-taken. Rather than backing a traditional “combined campaign” effort which used the energy of a Presidential campaign to drive state-level campaigns (and thereby ensuring that the post-2010 census reapportionment, performed in most states by the legislature, would yield dividends in subsequent Congressional elections), the national party sucked all the air out of state and local campaigns in both ’08 and ’12. The result was fairly predictable: loss of control of the House.

    I can tell you that a lot of us starting referring to “Obama for America” as “Obama for Obama” during the ’08 campaign, but I’d already bailed by then.

    1. Banger

      Good comment! The reason the RP does better with negative advertising is that the conservative brain is more attuned to the lambic system and DP voters are general more involved in higher brain functions.

      1. James

        I hate to admit it, but that sounds right at first blush (and like something I’d blurt out in a red state bar and promptly get my ass kicked!), but it still sounds terribly intellectually patronizing nonetheless. I’d prefer to think it’s more about cultural conditioning.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        I don’t buy that “conservative brain” stuff; it seems like the modern day equivalent of phrenology, if anything heritable is implied. Of course, to a materialist, conservative brains would differ; how not? But the brain is so plastic I don’t see how cause and effect can be reliably disentangled.

      3. Propertius

        Well, I suspect that a die-hard Republican might say that it means that Democrats are weak-willed, lily-livered pantywaists who swoon at the first sign of adversity and therefore can’t be trusted to govern in a contentious environment.

        Same coin, different sides.

    2. Yves Smith

      I’d love to see how those studies were done. Honestly, exhortations to fear or anger are highly motivating. To me, those studies just say that Dems are not good at negative advertising or have not figured out better conventions than the scary deep throated man you hear in most negative Republican ads.

      For instance, what got me to vote for Obama in 2008 was seeing Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech. I have to think negative ads around Sarah Palin would have been very effective. The SNL parodies of her amounted to that. Has it never occurred to Dems to do funny negative ads? They are just not imaginative enough.

    3. Yves Smith

      I have to tell you that I have well placed Democratic party contacts who see research and they tell me you remark about negative ads is utter hogwash. From my inbox:

      “What idiot study says this?”

      “Obviously negative ads work. ”

      “Hard to believe negative ads were not effective against Romney. Soc sci lit mostly unsupportive of such a claim.”

      “It’s asanine to say negative ads don’t work. It’s like saying arguments don’t work or words don’t work or jokes don’t work. Of course they do. And of course they don’t. You just have to do it well. Also a ‘negative’ ad as a concept doesn’t even make sense. Every ad is about saying ‘hire me not that guy’.”

  19. susan the other

    Here’s a cause for the Skunk Party. Skunk self serving pols. My only wish is that the Skunks were less defensive and more offensive. Like those incomparable French Farmers! Man. I want to come back in my next incarnation as a French Farmer with a state-of-the-art manure spreader and just smear all the government buildings.

  20. Oregoncharles

    ” #4 calls into question the justification for emergent parties like the Greens.”
    There is a fundamental problem with this. Trying to change the Democratic Party is exactly what “progressives” have been doing – or at least talking about – for at least 30 years. The last Democrat to “pay the iron price” was Dennis Kucinich, a truly impressive politician. But the real effect of his efforts was to strengthen the right-wing trend of the Democrats; indeed, that was the real effect of all those progressive efforts within the party. It’snow utterly clear that the Dems are the sort of honest politicians who stay bought – and this is a case where their personal interests and those of the party coincide, granted that it does cost them occasional elections. There is no present reason to think they care.

    In short: the sole effect of all those efforts to “take back” (itself an illusion) the Democratic Party is to grease its slide to the right – I think by luring progressives into a party they cannot influence.

    The same money, effort, and people put into an emergent party (nice term) would have made, eg, the Greens a genuine threat by now. (Granted, it would also have made them considerably less radical.)

    And a note about Oregon: The Oregon Pacific Green Party is at the point of attempting an initiative to install Instant Runoff Voting in Oregon, and/or quite possibly in certain counties. This is the sort of INSTITUTIONAL

    1. Oregoncharles

      (Damn – posted it unfinished)
      …institutional change that is needed to open up our politics. We can’t do it alone. If you’re in Oregon, or even if you’re not and wish to work on electoral reform, please contact us at the website, http://www.pacificgreens.org; we’re only just getting started on this, and our decisions will depend partly on how much outside interest it stirs up.

    2. Banger

      I was very upset by the left’s abandonment of Kucinich in 08. It was appealing, and to think that progressives are that stupid to not understand that during the primaries there was no requirement to pick the ultimate candidate–had K gotten more votes and held the balance of power he could have negotiated with Clinton and Obama for certain guarantees that would have gotten us something–instead we got nothing at all but a kick in the backside–and that kick came within a month or two. That is why, politically the left is moribund today.

      1. James

        Sign of the times my man. I’m continually amazed, Banger, that you are at once so idealistic regarding possibilities, and yet so grounded regarding past realities. You remind me of me sometimes, although I’m not nearly so idealistic anymore. The “what if” part of me is starting to fade in favor of the melancholic realization of “what is.” It’s inevitable.

  21. Cujo359

    4. If you don’t believe the Democratic party is redeemable, don’t get your hopes up that another party would end up being much better.

    I’ve never thought otherwise. The problem isn’t the parties themselves, it’s progressives’ relationships with them. Giving support or votes to a party even though it doesn’t do the things we need it to is a recipe for being ignored by that party. It’s only when you’re willing to go elsewhere that they will care what you want. Politicians need power to do their jobs – they’re not going to waste time and energy pleasing power that won’t go elsewhere.

    So, put the Greens in place of the Democrats (or the Socialists, as recent events in France should show), and nothing will change as long as progressives support them unconditionally.

    To me, the value of voting for a third party is to tell the two leading parties what they have to do to earn my vote.

  22. Cujo359

    [Since I’m sad thinking about my poor little comment being all alone in purgatory, let me just add…]

    I’d never heard of the iron law of institutitions before, but it’s absolutely true. The only way to make the people who run institutions care about the success of those institutions is to make sure that their power is dependent on that success. Clearly, the result of the 2010 midterms and the resulting lack of change should demonstrate that there’s no such tie-in for leaders of the Democratic Party.

  23. Carla

    A great big THANK YOU to Lambert for this post, and to all the commenters here. I will come back to re-read and re-consider and re-evaluate and re-think all of this again. Thank you, thank you all.

  24. different clue

    George Orwell once referred to “the slave states of antiquity” as being something very different than the more modern emergence of feudalism after the breakdown of Roman imperial order in West Europe. And the surveillance and control methods being worked on by the Big Government Bussiness Complex look designed to
    restore a digital version of the Slave States of Antiquity rather than a post-disorder feudalism of many little warlords and bizlords.

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