Reading for Dec. 20

David Simon: ‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’

December 7th, 2013

David Simon, creator of The Wire, near his office in Baltimore. Photograph: Stephen Voss/Redux / eyevine

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.

There’s no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We’ve somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you’re seeing this more and more in the west. I don’t think it’s unique to America.

I think we’ve perfected a lot of the tragedy and we’re getting there faster than a lot of other places that may be a little more reasoned, but my dangerous idea kind of involves this fellow who got left by the wayside in the 20th century and seemed to be almost the butt end of the joke of the 20th century; a fellow named Karl Marx.

I’m not a Marxist in the sense that I don’t think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn’t attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you’ve read Capital or if you’ve got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress. We understand profit. In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we’re supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don’t let it work entirely. And that’s a hard idea to think – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. But man, we’ve dug a mess. After the second world war, the west emerged with the American economy coming out of its wartime extravagance, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how facile it was in creating mass wealth.

Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be – and forgive the jingoistic sound of this – the American century.

It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us. It wasn’t just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labour doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to. But it’s in the tension, it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time, it didn’t matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.

Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

That we’ve gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state’s journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as greed. This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we’re all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible, or two Australias, or two Spains or two Frances. Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

Socialism is a dirty word in my country. I have to give that disclaimer at the beginning of every speech, “Oh by the way I’m not a Marxist you know”. I lived through the 20th century. I don’t believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism in producing mass wealth. I don’t.

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less. From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

If you watched the debacle that was, and is, the fight over something as basic as public health policy in my country over the last couple of years, imagine the ineffectiveness that Americans are going to offer the world when it comes to something really complicated like global warming. We can’t even get healthcare for our citizens on a basic level. And the argument comes down to: “Goddamn this socialist president. Does he think I’m going to pay to keep other people healthy? It’s socialism, motherfucker.”

What do you think group health insurance is? You know you ask these guys, “Do you have group health insurance where you …?” “Oh yeah, I get …” you know, “my law firm …” So when you get sick you’re able to afford the treatment.

The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you’re able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you’re relying on the idea of the group. Yeah. And they nod their heads, and you go “Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.”

And … you know when you say, OK, we’re going to do what we’re doing for your law firm but we’re going to do it for 300 million Americans and we’re going to make it affordable for everybody that way. And yes, it means that you’re going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm … Their eyes glaze. You know they don’t want to hear it. It’s too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected.

So I’m astonished that at this late date I’m standing here and saying we might want to go back for this guy Marx that we were laughing at, if not for his prescriptions, then at least for his depiction of what is possible if you don’t mitigate the authority of capitalism, if you don’t embrace some other values for human endeavour.

And that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people’s racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalised and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.

And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realised it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn’t there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.

The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what’s a good idea or what’s not, or what’s valued and what’s not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans. Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process. So I don’t know what we do if we can’t actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I’m arguing for now, I’m not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.

David Simon is an American author and journalist and was the executive producer of The Wire. This is an edited extract of a talk delivered at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness

By Corey Robin,

The Left wants to give people the chance to do something with their lives, by giving them time and space away from the market.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Robert Pear reports on a little known fact about Obamacare: the insurance packages available on the federal exchange have very high deductibles. Enticed by the low premiums, people find out that they’re screwed on the deductibles, and the co-pays, the out-of-network charges, and all the different words and ways the insurance companies have come up with to hide the fact that you’re paying through the nose.

For policies offered in the federal exchange, as in many states, the annual deductible often tops $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a couple.

Insurers devised the new policies on the assumption that consumers would pick a plan based mainly on price, as reflected in the premium. But insurance plans with lower premiums generally have higher deductibles.

In El Paso, Tex., for example, for a husband and wife both age 35, one of the cheapest plans on the federal exchange, offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has a premium less than $300 a month, but the annual deductible is more than $12,000. For a 45-year-old couple seeking insurance on the federal exchange in Saginaw, Mich., a policy with a premium of $515 a month has a deductible of $10,000.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., where the exchange is run by the state, Robert Aaron, a self-employed 56-year-old engineer, said he was looking for a low-cost plan. The best one he could find had a premium of $488 a month. But the annual deductible was $5,000, and that, he said, “sounds really high.”

By contrast, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible in employer-sponsored health plans is $1,135.

It’s true that if you’re a family of three, making up to $48,825 (or, if you’re an individual, making up to $28,725), you’ll be eligible for the subsidies. Those can be quite substantive at the lower ends of the income ladder. But as you start nearing those upper limits (which really aren’t that high; below the median family income, in fact), the subsidies start dwindling. Leaving individuals and families with quite a bill, as even this post, which is generally bullish on Obamacare, acknowledges.

Aside from the numbers, what I’m always struck by in these discussions is just how complicated Obamacare is. Even if we accept all the premises of its defenders, the number of steps, details, caveats, and qualifications that are required to defend it, is in itself a massive political problem. As we’re now seeing.

More important than the politics, that byzantine complexity is a symptom of what the ordinary citizen has to confront when she tries to get health insurance for herself or her family. As anyone who has even good insurance knows, navigating that world of numbers and forms and phone calls can be a daunting proposition. It requires inordinate time, doggedness, savvy, intelligence, and manipulative charm (lest you find yourself on the wrong end of a disgruntled telephone operator). Obamacare fits right in with that world and multiplies it.

I’m not interested in arguing here over what was possible with health care reform and what wasn’t; we’ve had that debate a thousand times. But I thought it might be useful to re-up part of this post I did, when I first started blogging, on how much time and energy our capitalist world requires us to waste, and what a left approach to the economy might have to say about all that. It is this world of everyday experience — what it’s like to try and get basic goods for yourself and/or your family — that I wish both liberals and leftists were more in touch with.

The post is in keeping with an idea I’ve had about socialism and the welfare state for several years now. Cribbing from Freud, and drawing from my own anti-utopian utopianism, I think the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. God, that would be so great.

There is a deeper, more substantive, case to be made for a left approach to the economy. In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts — one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government) — and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal — and the neoliberal worldview more generally — is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids—maybe it was Ezra Klein—tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking complicated.

I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their 20s—whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it—could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

That’s not what the Left wants. We want to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it, without having to take a 30-year detour on Wall Street to get there. The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it. That’s what a good welfare state, real social democracy, does: rather than being consumed by life, it allows you to make your life. Freely. One less bell to answer, not one more.

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Why Obama’s Haters Are Worse Than Bush’s

By Michael Tomasky,

December 14th, 2013

The left’s critics of the Bush presidency are no match to today’s paranoid right, as this week’s insane innuendo—from the Hawaii plane crash to The Handshake—perfectly illustrates.

Permit me to share with you my favorite set of headlines from Thursday.

USA Today: Official who OK’d Obama birth papers dies in crash.

NPR: Hawaiian Official Who Released Obama’s Birth Certificate Dies in Plane Crash.

NBC News: Health care director who approved Obama birth certificate dies in plane crash.

And finally, National Review, and note the difference, which rests in just one word, but what a word it is: Official Who Released Obama’s Birth Certificate Dies in Mysterious Plane Crash.

Ah, of course.

“Mysterious.” Well, I mean, it had to be, didn’t it? Poor Loretta Fuddy, 65 and a longtime public servant, was evidently a beloved figure in Aloha State political circles, at least based on the tributes I’ve read over the last couple of days from Hawaii officials, who seem to be absolutely grief-stricken at her passing.

But to certain of their fellow Americans, Fuddy’s tragic death provides the occasion for only one thing—sly suggestions that her death might not quite have been an accident.

You see, she was the only person of nine on board the small Cessna who perished.

Hence, “mysterious.”

In fairness, the National Review writer was having a bit of a laugh.

But even so, that word did appear in the headline, and that headline happened to appear toward the end of the most flagrantly batshit-crazy week of Obama obsession we’ve seen in a long, long time.

I needn’t rehearse all the ridiculous and false and not-a-little-racist things that have been said.

But let’s look into this dementia a little more broadly.

Of course, some on the left said nutty things about Bush too, and for the arbiters of conventional wisdom, that mere fact makes for “equivalence.” Both sides do it.

Well… OK.

But that depends on how you define “it.”

In fact, both sides do different things.

My assertion is this: Baseless left-wing attacks on Republicans differ in character from baseless right-wing attacks on Democrats in two ways.

First, most liberal-left attacks on Republicans are more political than cultural, while virtually all right-wing attacks on Democrats are about culture.

And second, those liberal-left attacks that are about culture tend to be mocking in tone, expressing derision, while the right’s attacks are fearful, expressing deep paranoia.

Let’s take them one by one.

Bush and his top men were often called fascists on the left.

That’s an attack that certainly has its cultural elements, but it is first and foremost political.

The worst thing people on the left could think to do, in other words—call Bush a fascist—is a political smear, not a cultural one.

This reflects the way most people on the left see the world—through a political lens primarily, and through a cultural one only secondarily.

There are exceptions to this, but in the main, for the broad liberal-left, politics is primarily about politics, not culture.

To people on the left, Bush was embarrassing.

To people on the right, though, Obama is a menace.

They are different—and yes, the latter is worse than the former.

On the right, politics is much more about culture, because the right feels itself to be an aggrieved minority whose culture (industriousness, self-reliance, Godliness, etc.) is under constant attack from the libertines and relativists, who of course far outnumber and surround the righteous few.

Culture is where people on the right live, and so the worst thing they can think to do is to make attacks that are about culture, about the Democrats hating God, destroying America, and so on.

Sometimes, of course, the left goes cultural.

Calling Bush a chimp and an idiot and a cowboy, say; those trafficked in liberals’ stereotypes about Texans, Southerners in general, back-slapping oil men, and so on (well, chimp just had to do with certain facial features).

That wasn’t nice, I suppose, but here’s the thing.

It was done to laugh at him.

By and large, the right doesn’t laugh at Obama.

Oh, sometimes.

There’s the absurd teleprompter meme from early on, which held that he couldn’t put two sentences together without huge transcripts placed in front of him.

And there’s a strain of criticism that he’s in over his head.

But those tropes are far outweighed by the ones that assign to Obama a world-historical level of devious intelligence—indeed, he’s so maliciously brilliant that he managed to fake a birth certificate decades ago, all as just the opening salvo of a grand scheme to bring America and/or the white race to ruin.

If that’s how they see him, and it is, it stands to reason that the most out-there attacks will be pegs that will fit nicely in that hole.

And, always, race will be ladled on top, like, well, chocolate syrup.

Both elements were at work in this ridiculous thing about the Danish prime minister, with whom Obama was allegedly bringing dishonor upon America and behaving the way black men behave in Concerned Citizens’ Council newsletters, unable to keep his libido on a leash and so forth.

To people on the left, Bush was embarrassing, ever a threat to behave boorishly or be asked to appraise a Kandinsky on a European visit and crack that it looked like yesterday’s breakfast leftovers.

To people on the right, though, Obama is a menace.

They are different—and yes, the latter is worse than the former, because it does breed a more intense hatred.

Did you know, for example, that Obama has “ordered” the deaths and executions of some 30 or more people? Here’s the list, have a look.

One of them is particularly impressive—apparently, a 10-year-old Obama iced an Indonesian classmate, decapitating him as part of an initiation ritual, “since Islam demands that a boy spill another’s blood before the age of 10 to prove their loyalty to Allah.” The Clintons, of course, were accused of murder, too.

Whereas no one had to make crazy murder accusations against Bush.

He actually did kill people (not with his own hands, obviously, but by starting a war of choice whose death tally will never be fully known).

One can only roll one’s eyes, but in fact, all this is psychotic and sickening, and it has power in the media, which can’t resist talking at length about The Handshake or The Selfie, even if it’s to defend Obama, because the mere fact of talking about those things really only fuels the fire.

Yes, Obama will be out of office one day—which only raises the question what they might say (that they haven’t already) about Hillary.

“Corporatism,” the latest right-wing Obama smear

By Mike Konczal,

December 15th, 2013

Right-wing critics have a new favorite word to malign President Obama’s economic policies: corporatism.

Naturally, it’s an ugly word.

Whether it evokes Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy or just an image of the rich growing richer through government collusion, it’s a vision nobody would defend.

Nobody is for corporatism.

Starting with Tim Carney’s 2009 book Obamanomics the idea that Obama is either consciously or accidently enriching the well-off has become a conservative meme.

The right-wing blogosphere uses it, as does conservative intellectual heavyweights like Yuval Levin.

Thus liberal readers were surprised the other week to learn that the contraception mandate in health-care reform was “corporatist.” Likewise, it may have been news to you that the Dodd-Frank financial reform overhaul—the one Wall Street is perpetually fighting against—is a corporatist sop to the big banks.

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to move the economy closer to something like full employment? Yet more corporatism.

Ditto both the stimulus and cap-and-trade.

The “corporatism” meme is more than just another refrain for the professional right and their noise machine.

In fact, it is a subtle but fascinating bit of ideological work.

Talking about corporatism flags worries about power and abuse that everyone shares, allowing conservatives to claim the mantle of the populist movement.

But at the same time, the folks currently flinging around the term use it to mask their doubling down on the ideology embraced by the populists’ foes: a three-legged stool of laissez-faire economics, liberty of contract, and hard money.

As the historian Charles Postel notes, these current elements also formed the reactionary 19th century counterrevolution that populism and progressivism had to overcome.

They also explain why the idea of any type of left and right convergence in fighting government corruption is unlikely to happen.

Behind every current right-wing invocation of corporatism is the assumption that the market would work perfectly fine if the government simply just got out of the way.

Corporatism goes beyond invocations of corruptions.

Whatever problems exist, it must exist as a result of the government existing and trying to do something.

This vision of laissez-faire assumes a free-floating market system, one whose logic is dangerous to challenge.

Sadly, markets don’t always work, nor will they always solve society-level problems.

That’s why conservatives who call cap-and-trade, for instance, corporatist, are missing the entire picture—which is how do we best deal with the onset of global warming? To point out that correcting market failures benefit some parties versus other parties is self-evidently true.

The question is how do we choose to correct the problems markets can generate, rather than assuming they are entirely the fault of those trying to address them.

This critique turns a blind eye to the actual problems we are trying to solve.

This blindness shows up even more closely when you consider how corporatism turns out to be present anywhere an economic transaction is regulated.

Why did Carney, for instance, flag the contraception mandate as a form of corporatism? Because of the proposition that a “person gives up his First Amendment rights when he is acting as a businessman.” Because some businesses want to do one thing, regulating their actions only benefits others who already wanted to do those things.

This is, of course, the same logic of “liberty of contract” that was used to defeat numerous attempts to regulate the private market during the populist and progressive eras, best exemplified by the Lochner-era court that ended during the New Deal.

As Judge Rovner wrote in her Seventh Circuit dissent in the case involving the contraception mandate, this case “is reminiscent of the Lochner era” because employers could claim that providing protections to workers was “infringement on the freedom of contract and the right to operate a private, lawful business as the owner wished.”

The pre-FDR court ignored the way that workers themselves might not have the bargaining power that would allow them to pursue their own liberty; by invalidating laws on these terms, they were depriving them of the same rights.

Meanwhile, the government has a legitimate right to promote the general welfare and to guard the public health and safety.

Market failures and the need to provide for the common good are important, but the other important ideological innovation of the progressive era wasn’t that liberty of contract and laissez-faire were wrong, or not important.

It was that they were incoherent.

Contracts themselves, and the markets that evolve out of them, are created and limited through political power.

There’s no way for the government to get out of the way.

Between enforcing contracts and setting the contours of trade through an extensive web of tax, bankruptcy, corporate, property, and liability laws, the government creates the conditions for a modern capitalist economy.

The liberty of contract people want to elevate the daily affairs of corporations to constitutional status by treating businesses as the embodiment of their owners.

But they aren’t—they are legal creations, formed and enabled by the law.

All contracts, since they are enforceable through the public courts, are like mini-forms of public power, and thus are accountable to the public.

As the progressive legal realist Robert Hale wrote, all private contracts are a form of “law-making by unofficial minorities.” If public power’s involvement in contracts is corporatism, then the entirety of capitalism and the last several centuries of property rights are corporatist through and through.

This becomes clearer the more you watch conservatives trying to declare various things to be on the good or bad side of corporatism.

Ron Paul calls the idea that large online retailers should pay state taxes like local businesses “corporatism” between big business and government.

But how is the reverse of taxing local businesses and not large national ones any less about picking winners and losers? Carney refers to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as the good type of oligarchs because they are non-corporatists, but it’s impossible to imagine their wealth without elaborate systems of intellectual property protection or limited-liability corporate structures.

The idea that these market structures happen naturally, so there’s some liberty of contract to point to guide us, instead of through a political process ideally balancing concerns about fairness, growth and efficiency, shows how deliberately blind this entire critique is to our actual economy.

The third leg of the reactionary stool, hard money, has also seen a resurgence of right-wing interest throughout the past five years.

Hard money isn’t just about conservatives being quite willing to nail William Jennings Bryan to a cross of gold, but it’s also the more general conservative project of discrediting the entire idea that the short-term economy is something the government has a responsibility to manage.

There’s been an all-out assault to portray the three main levers the government has – fiscal, monetary and housing policies – to deal with the Great Recession as corporatist insider dealing.

Instead of a depicting the stimulus as a project that had bipartisan support from economists, one that provided both an economic boost and much needed investment when interest rates were at record lows, conservatives have portrayed it as ground zero of the corporatist agenda.

The Tea Party was originally founded on the idea that housing remedies were unfairly supporting the losers, and that waves of foreclosures would reward the prudent instead of dragging them down too.

But the criticism aimed at the Federal Reserve has been the angriest of the three.

Monetary policy is consistently described as both punishing savers while also rewarding the rich; bailing out struggling, underwater homeowners while also giving a sweetheart deal to Wall Street.

The hidden assumption is that all efforts to fight the recession are necessarily corrupt and illegitimate, with a darker underlying message that the recession is doing the hard work of purging out the weak.

The idea that prolonged mass unemployment, leaving workers with weak bargaining power and corporations with high profits is the most vile form of corporatism and coercion over everyday working people somehow never gets mentioned.

There won’t be any left-right convergence on how to fight corruption as long as the concept of corporatism is hiding a reactionary agenda behind its mask.

The netroots left and the libertarian right made big waves about the possibility of teaming up to oppose President Obama’s “insider” “corporatist” agenda back in 2009.

One of the few victories of this was an audit of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending facilities passed into law.

But instead of using a small but important victory to build onto new goals and expand a movement, the left wanted to know why the Federal Reserve wasn’t doing more to jail bankers and boost the economy while the right demanded harder money.

There was simply no place to go next, as one side wants to use the government and the other wanted to bury it.

The core right-wing ideology reappears when any effort is made to shelter something from the market.

If corporatism is such a bad thing, then focusing more plainly on public ownership should be a way out.

Indeed some of the most striking corporate favors lately are the result of the mass privatization of civic infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools, and parking meters.

Yet the right is quiet on this.

Crucially, they don’t join efforts by the left to paint these kinds of measures that slowly bleed the state as terrible versions of cronyism and corporatism.

This is in no way meant to downplay the serious challenges of corruption and hijacking of public policy by elites and the rich in this country.

What it does mean is that liberals will need their own language for how to combat these problems.

This language will need to be focused on public accountability, collapsing the distance between those with power and those who are impacted, choosing how politics will be structured by political power, and equality.

What it won’t mean is using the fact that political power is everywhere, and everywhere a challenge to reform, to retreat into a reactionary fantasyland of how the world works that was already an anachronism by the time the right-wing used it to delay the arrival of the modern state a century ago.

Language log Dec. 19: Renewed interest

Yes, it’s true, I’ve discovered a renewed motivation in keeping up with my Japanese learning.

It’s a very small thing right now — I certainly don’t want to overhype this — but I actually feel like I’m making progress on getting back to where I was. And, dare I say it — making good long-term progress.

Right now, all I’m doing is using the Gold List

Gun activists have a new craze — and it’s more dangerous than you think

December 18th, 2013

The new front line in the battle over gun rights is “open carry.” Here’s why it has psychologists deeply concerned

Earlier this month, in the parking lot of the Shop Rite supermarket in West Haven, Conn., a young man pulled a semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle out of his Toyota SUV.

Shoppers watched from a cautious distance as he placed the loaded rifle on the floor behind the driver’s seat and then walked away, carrying his laptop case and two handguns.

A witness described the armed man to 9-1-1 operators — he was Asian, wearing dark sunglasses and heading toward the University of New Haven campus.

UNH students were ordered to shelter in place as police searched for the suspect.

Officers spotted William Dong when he emerged from biology class in Kaplan Hall, still carrying the two Glock pistols.

A subsequent search of Dong’s padlocked bedroom (in his parents’ home) turned up 2,700 rounds of ammunition, as well as newspaper clippings about the Aurora theater massacre.

Tuesday, defense attorney Frederick Paoletti said Dong will plead not guilty to weapons charges.

Though the Bushmaster is on a list of guns that are restricted under a new state law, Dong might have purchased his rifle before the ban went into effect.

And the pistols? He had a permit for them, and Connecticut law makes no distinction between “concealed carry” (wearing a gun under your clothing) and “open carry” (walking around with a gun that everybody can see).

The debate over open carry is the new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture.

In Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, gun rights activists have been staging protests, demanding broader liberty to display their guns in public rather than keep them concealed under clothing.

Major candidates in statewide elections have voiced support for open carry, asserting that the conspicuous display of firepower will deter crime.

For decades, though, social scientists have studied the way people behave around guns, and they’ve found that all of us — not just criminals — will be affected by seeing guns in our everyday environment.

CJ Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, says there’s no reason to fear civilians with guns.

“This idea that gun owners are angry and just looking for an opportunity to shoot somebody is absolutely false,” he explains.

“Although if I’m threatened by somebody, I’m not going to hesitate — if somebody points a gun at me I’m gonna get there first.”

Indeed, there have been many incidents of armed civilians using their guns for legitimate self-defense.

But civilian gun owners reacting to imaginary dangers have also killed unarmed people.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that when people are holding a gun, they’re less capable of evaluating a threat than they would be if they didn’t have a weapon in their own hands.

Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University, asked volunteers to hold either a plastic gun or a neutral object (such as a ball) as they reacted to pictures flashed on a screen.

The photos depicted people holding various objects — sometimes a gun, sometimes a shoe, a soda can or a cellphone.

While holding a gun, volunteers were more likely to misidentify the object in the photo as a gun.

(Likewise, if you’re holding a shoe, you’re more likely to think the guy in the photo is holding a shoe — but that mistake isn’t likely to end in tragedy.)

“You can imagine the kind of actions people are going to take if they misperceive an object as being a gun,” Witt says.

“That’s going to be a terrible consequence — obviously for the victims of those actions, but also terrible for the people who make the mistakes.

We think we can trust our eyes, that our eyes tell us the truth.

But if your eyes lie to you and then you make a regrettable action based on that, that’s a terrible thing to happen.”

Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one.

Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior.

Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm.

But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.

Imagine you’ve volunteered to participate in a study on a college campus.

You arrive to find the lab somewhat cluttered: There’s a badminton racquet and some shuttlecocks on a table.

The researchers tell you to ignore that stuff — it’s for a different study.

They hook you up to a machine that administers electric shocks, and hand the controls to another participant like yourself.

He zaps you.


(He’s secretly part of the research team, following specific instructions — but as far as you know he’s just being a jerk.) Now it’s your turn to zap him.

How many shocks will you administer?

Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage repeated this experiment with 100 male students at the University of Wisconsin, sometimes replacing the badminton equipment with a revolver and shotgun (or no stimulus at all).

They found that participants administered more electric shocks when in the presence of guns.

According to Berkowitz and LePage, the weapons were “aggressive cues.”

A later study at the University of Utah refined our understanding of the weapons effect.

Psychologists watched the behavior of drivers stuck at an intersection behind a truck that wouldn’t budge when the light turned green.

Sometimes there was a gun displayed in the truck’s rear window and sometimes there wasn’t.

The researchers observed that people honked more often when they saw the gun.

Even when nobody has been tormenting you with electric shocks or inciting your road rage, they found, you’ll react to a gun differently than you’d react to other objects in your environment.

You’ll automatically see the gun as a threat, without even realizing it.

“The ‘threat superiority effect’ is the tendency for people to be able to pick out very quickly in their environment things that might pose a threat to their security — anything that might be dangerous,” explains Isabelle Blanchette, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec.

“People have a tendency to be able to see these things before they see other things.”

Psychologists have theorized that the threat superiority effect is a product of evolution — we have adapted the ability to immediately identify threats like snakes and spiders so we can avoid them.

Blanchette’s research shows that people have a similarly quick reaction to seeing a weapon: We’ll immediately spot a gun among several other distracting objects.

When you see the threat, your body will respond before you even think about it.

“The most instantaneous thing that happens is that your pupils will dilate,” Blanchette says.

“You can have other physiological reactions that are associated with fear.

There are changes in your body, such as in your heart rate and respiration rate.”

Last month, “Liz” (a pseudonym) experienced some of those reactions when she noticed a group of men with guns gathering just outside Blue Mesa Grill in Arlington, Texas.

Liz had organized a lunch meeting for fellow members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and open carry activists decided to protest outside the restaurant with AK-47 and AR-15 rifles.

“The only reaction I had was ‘I’m not going out there at all,’” Liz says.

“They were all carrying rifles.

There was a lot of firepower, and a lot of potential for carnage out in that parking lot.

Absolutely I was scared.”

That sort of fear is what open carry activists say they want to eliminate over time.

In an online list of goals, the open carry activists at Come and Take It America say they want “to condition Americans to feel safe around those of us that carry [guns].” The same goal is listed on the Open Carry Texas website.

Open carry activists are aware that their marches scare people; they’re used to encounters with police who are responding to 9-1-1 calls.

But Grisham says his group tries to maintain good relationships with local authorities, “in case they do get phone calls from concerned citizens, they can explain that, ‘no, these guys are just exercising their rights.’” He believes people will overcome their fears once they grow accustomed to seeing guns in public.

“Our philosophy at Open Carry Texas is, if we can get people used to seeing AK-47s and AR-15s and deer rifles and shotguns and .22s and things of that nature, when we finally get open carry of pistols passed it won’t be such a big deal.”

Habituating people to guns so that they no longer perceive any threat, however, might not be prudent.

After all, fear can be a useful survival instinct.

“I don’t know to what extent it is beneficial or even possible to reduce fears that are actually very adaptive or normal or useful fears,” Blanchette says.

Without a fear of snakes, for example, we might behave more carelessly around them — and get bitten.

Was it reasonable and appropriate for New Haven residents to feel alarmed at the sight of William Dong carrying two Glocks as he walked to class? Should 9-1-1 dispatchers have informed those callers that the man with the guns was probably just exercising his rights?

In states where open carry is legal, police must walk a careful line, obliged to respond to reports of armed men on city streets, but sometimes lacking the authority to do much when they arrive on scene.

Rich Buress, president of Connecticut Carry, told the New Haven Register that Dong’s arrest might have been improper.

“He didn’t do anything,” Burgess said.

In Texas, open carry advocates routinely document their interactions with police.

“We put those videos up because we want the community to see that there’s a police officer approaching a guy with a gun, and he’s not arresting him, so he must be doing something that’s legal,” Grisham says.

“And also we want other police officers to look at these positive videos and go ‘oh, so that’s how I have to approach these guys so I don’t have to be worried about being embarrassed on YouTube.’ But then there’s the guys who aren’t so respectful of our rights.

Those are the guys who try to impose their authority on us.

They try to tell us we can’t do things we can legally do.

So we expose those guys as well.” Grisham says the Open Carry Texas YouTube channel is also instructional for members.

“It tells our people this is how you should deal with a police officer that approaches you.

Be respectful until you’re disrespected.”

Open carry activists throughout the country have posted similar videos online.

Perhaps the most haunting and bizarre is a jittery clip posted last year by Robert Pratt of Michigan.

In the video, Pratt carries a shotgun while walking his dogs through suburban Plainwell.

Two police cruisers intercept him at the curb, and four officers surround him for a long, tense conversation.

One of the cops is James Pell, whom Pratt greets by name — Cassandra Pell, the officer’s daughter, was Pratt’s girlfriend.

The officers try to reason with Pratt, asking him to go home and put his gun away, because it’s unnecessarily frightening his neighbors.

Pratt says he is “just exercising rights as a U.S. citizen” and that he would continue to openly carry his gun in the neighborhood because “people need to be aware of laws.” He cites the specific state laws and city ordinances that allow him to carry his shotgun.

This June, Pratt used that same weapon to shoot and kill Cassandra Pell, and then to commit suicide.

Grisham is quick to point out that most gun owners are not murderers.

“99.83% never commit a crime,” he says.

(That number can’t be substantiated, since there is no complete record of which Americans, or how many, own guns.) “If people are afraid of guns, just come up and talk to us, just approach us.”

But the Plainwell shooting, and other violent crimes committed by people who were legally carrying their weapons, confirm the worst fears of some opponents of open carry.

“Their perception of what they’re doing is so different than the majority of people watching them,” says Liz.

“They think they’re just showing up saying, ‘see, we’re a bunch of nice guys who just happen to be carrying around semiautomatic rifles.’ Whereas for people who are out and about in a suburban area, it’s terrifying — especially considering the climate.”

Regardless of these fears, and of the potential harms suggested by scientific research, the real-world effects of open carry might soon be tested in the largest lab yet — the state of Texas, where it’s not currently legal to openly carry modern pistols.

Greg Abbott, the front-runner in the Texas gubernatorial race, praised the Texas Legislature this year for expanding gun rights, and for lowering the minimum training required for a concealed handgun license from 10 hours to just four.

Asked in a recent interview whether he supported open carry, Abbot answered “yes.”

1 Item added

Is Shinzo Abe’s ‘new nationalism’ a throwback to Japanese imperialism?

November 27th, 2013

Members of Japan’s maritime self-defence forces: Abe believes Japan’s national interest is existentially linked to freedom of navigation and open sea lanes around the Senkakus and elsewhere.

The deepening confrontation between Japan and its giant neighbour, China, over a disputed island chain, which this week sucked in US military forces flying B-52 bombers, holds no terrors for Kenji Fujii, captain of the crack Japanese destroyer JS Murasame.

As a battleship-grey drizzle sweeps across Yokosuka harbour, home port to the Japan maritime self-defence force and the US Seventh Fleet, Fujii stands four-square on his helicopter deck, a totemic red Japanese sun-ray ensign flapping at the flagstaff behind him.

His stance exudes quiet purposefulness.

The Murasame, armed with advanced missiles, torpedoes, a 76mm rapid-fire turret cannon and a vicious-looking Phalanx close-in-weapons-system (CIWS) Gatling gun, is on the frontline of Japan’s escalating standoff with China and its contentious bid to stand up for itself and become a power in the world once again.

And Fujii clearly relishes his role in the drama.

Asked whether he will be taking his ship south, to the hotly disputed waters off the Senkaku islands in the East China sea (which China calls the Diaoyu and claims as its own), Fujii smiles and bows.

His executive officer, acting as translator, explains that “for security and operational reasons” the captain cannot comment.

The situation there is just too sensitive.

The disputed islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

The name Murasame means “passing shower”.

But Japan’s decision last year to in effect nationalise some of the privately owned Senkakus – officials prefer to call it a transfer of property rights – triggered a prolonged storm of protest from China, which has been sending ships to challenge the Japanese coastguard ever since.

So far, there have been no direct armed exchanges, but there have been several close shaves, including a Chinese navy radar lock-on and the firing of warning shots by a Japanese fighter plane.

China’s weekend declaration of an exclusive “air defence identification zone” covering the islands was denounced by Tokyo and Washington and sharply increased the chances of a military clash.

US B-52 bombers and Japanese civilian airliners have subsequently entered the zone, ignoring China’s new “rules”.

On Tuesday, Beijing said it had monitored the flights; its next move is awaited with some trepidation.

Japanese navy on manoeuvres last year: Beijing and Seoul view efforts to give Japan a bigger role on the world stage as intrinsically threatening.

Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

For Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative prime minister who marks one year in office next month, the Senkaku dispute is only one facet of a deteriorating east Asian security environment that is officially termed “increasingly severe” and which looks increasingly explosive as China projects its expanding military, economic and political power beyond its historical borders.

One year on, Abe’s no-nonsense response is plain: Japan must loosen the pacifist constitutional bonds that have held it in check since 1945 and stand up forcefully for its interests, its friends and its values.

The way Abe tells it, Japan is back – and the tiger he is riding is dubbed Abe’s “new nationalism”.

It is no coincidence that high-level contacts with China and South Korea have been in deep freeze ever since Abe took office, while the impasse over North Korea has only deepened.

Unusually, a date for this year’s trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea has yet to be announced.

The Beijing and Seoul governments profess to view Abe’s efforts to give Japan a bigger role on the world stage, forge security and defence ties with south-east Asian neighbours, and strengthen the US alliance as intrinsically threatening – a throwback to the bad old days of Japanese imperialism.

Shinzo Abe reviews troops near Tokyo: Abe believes Japan must loosen the pacifist constitutional bonds that have held it in check since 1945 and stand up forcefully for its interests.

Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Abe is also charged with arrogance, chauvinism and historical revisionism, by minimising or ignoring wartime legacies such as the controversy over Korean “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution by Japanese troops during the second world war.

Addressing the UN general assembly in September, Abe set an unapologetically expansive global agenda for a newly assertive Japan.

Whether the issue was Syria, nuclear proliferation, UN peacekeeping, Somali piracy, development assistance or women’s rights, Tokyo would have its say.

“I will make Japan a force for peace and stability,” Abe said.

“Japan will newly bear the flag of ‘proactive contribution to peace’ [his policy slogan].”

Referring to the initial success of his “Abenomics” strategy to revive the country’s economic fortunes, he went on to promise Japan would “spare no pains to get actively involved in historic challenges facing today’s world with our regained strength and capacity … The growth of Japan will benefit the world.

Japan’s decline would be a loss for people everywhere.”

Just in case Beijing missed his drift, Abe spelled it out: as a global trading nation, Japan’s reinvigorated “national interest” was existentially linked to freedom of navigation and open sea lanes around the Senkakus and elsewhere.

“Changes to the maritime order through the use of force or coercion cannot be condoned under any circumstances.”

Akio Takahara, professor of international relations and law at Tokyo university, said such statements made clear the Senkaku standoff was potentially precedent-setting for all the countries of the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines, which have their own island disputes with Beijing.

“[Senkaku] must be viewed as an international issue, not just a bilateral issue … and it is very, very dangerous.

They [China] must stop the provocations,” Takahara said.

“If Japan did buckle, it would send a very bad message to China’s hardliners, they would be triumphant and the modernisers and reformers would be marginalised.”

A senior government official was more terse: “We don’t want to see China patrolling the East and South China seas as though they think they own them.”

Abe’s forcefulness has produced forceful reactions.

In a recent editorial, South Korea’s Joongang Daily, lambasted him as “one of the most rightwing politicians in Japan in decades”.

It continued: “Buoyed by the nationalist mood sweeping Japanese society since Abe took the helm of the once-pacifist nation, [rightwing
politicians] are increasingly regressing to a militarist path … As a result, the political situation of north-east Asia is becoming shakier than ever.”

Pure hyperbole, say Abe’s defenders.

Tensions were high primarily as a result of China’s aggressive bid for hegemonic regional leadership, a senior foreign ministry official insisted, while describing the antagonistic South Korean leadership’s anti-Japan behaviour as “strange” and “emotional”.

Abe’s premise, said government spokeswoman Kuni Sato, was that, after years of restraint, “Japan can now do what other countries do within international law”.

What Abe was doing was “necessary and justified” in the face of China’s diplomatic hostility and rapid military buildup, said Yuji Miyamoto, a former ambassador to Beijing.

“Only three countries don’t understand this policy – China, South Korea and North Korea,” said Nobuo Kishi, the prime minister’s younger brother and senior vice-minister for foreign affairs.

In contrast, the members of Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) were mostly on board.

Abe’s advancing security agenda suggests his second year in office will be even more rumbustious than the first.

It includes creating a national security council modelled on the US and British versions (David Cameron and William Hague have offered their advice), a new national security strategy, revamped defence guidelines, and a harsh state secrets law.

Criticised by the UN and the main opposition parties, the proposed law threatens long jail sentences for whistleblowers and journalists who break its vague, catchall provisions.

Abe has increased the defence budget for the first time in years, is overseeing an expansion of naval and coastguard capabilities (Japan’s maritime self-defence force, or navy, is already the second biggest in Asia by tonnage), and has gathered expert support for a reinterpretation of article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow “collective self-defence” – meaning that if the US or another ally is attacked, Japanese armed forces will join the fight.

On the diplomatic front, Abe is busily wooing his Asian neighbours.

Having visited all 10 members of Asean in his first year, he will host a gala Asean summit in Tokyo on 13 December that looks very much like an anti-China jamboree.

He comprehensively outflanked Beijing during this month’s typhoon emergency in the Philippines, sending troops, ships and generous amounts of aid, the biggest single overseas deployment of Japanese forces since 1945 – while China was widely criciticised for donating less financial aid that the Swedish furniture chain Ikea.

Abe is also providing 10 coastguard vessels to the Philippines to help ward off Chinese incursions.

Improved security and military-to-military co-operation with Australia and India form part of his plans.

Officials insist, meanwhile, that the US relationship remains the bedrock of Japanese security.

Taking full advantage of Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot to Asia”, Abe’s government agreed a revised pact in October with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, providing for a “more robust alliance and greater shared responsibilities”.

With a wary eye on China, the pact envisages enhanced co-operation in ballistic missile defence, arms development and sales, intelligence sharing, space and cyber warfare, joint military training and exercises, plus the introduction of advanced radar and drones.

Japan is also expected to buy American advanced weapons systems such as the F35 fighter-bomber and two more Aegis-equipped missile defence destroyers.

Washington is positively purring with pleasure over Abe’s tougher stance.

“The US welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute proactively to regional and global peace and security,” a joint statement said.

The pact reflected “shared values of democracy, the rule of law, free and open markets and respect for human rights”.

But Abe’s opponents fear the country is developing a new military mindset.

What the Japanese public makes of what seems to amount overall to a landmark post-war shift in the scope and ambition of Japan’s regional and global engagement is hard to gauge.

China’s disapproval ratings are a record high 94%, but a big majority (80%) of people polled also believe good bilateral relations are important.

Many cling to the old pacifist verities but many others now understand the world around Japan is changing fast and unpredictably, said Kuni Miyake of Tokyo’s Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“Despite his conservative, hawkish image, Abe is in fact a very pragmatic, reasonable politician.

But he is also proud of Japan and he is saying it’s OK to be proud,” Miyake said.

“A huge power shift is going on in east Asia.

Before Abe and the new era, we were day-dreaming.

We thought we could follow pacifism, not threaten anybody, have no army, and the world would leave us alone.

We were in a bubble.

And it worked because of the US alliance, not because of pacifism.

“The next generation doesn’t believe that … People are aware that prayers for peace are not enough.

We have to deter many potential aggressors.

If China insists on being a Pacific power and challenges the US-Japan hegemony at sea, a showdown is inevitable,” Miyake said.

For Takahara, the opposite holds true.

There were limits to what Japan could do when faced by China’s rising power and Abe’s approach was fraught with peril.

“There is really no choice but to use diplomacy and dialogue to mend ties with China,” Takahara said.

“Abe is very rightwing by traditional measures.

He is a historical revisionist at heart.

He would really like to visit the Yasukuni shrine where Japan’s war dead are remembered.

He is a nationalist … But Abe won’t succeed with his ‘new nationalism’.

We are a post-industrial society.

There’s no way the youngsters will go along.”

Read more comment and opinion from The Guardian, the world’s leading liberal voice


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