Monday, April 21, 2014

Diplomacy and Terror

Last week, the BBC reported that “President Barack Obama has signed into law a measure that would bear entry to any UN ambassador whom the US says has engaged in ‘terrorist activity’”.  The law is aimed at Iran’s UN ambassador who played a role in the 1979 embassy hostage crisis. 

The Iranian ambassador argued that “he acted merely as a translator on a couple of occasions for the hostage-takers, an account corroborated by some of the activists”.  In signing the law, President Obama recognised the dangerous subjectivity it introduces, and its capacity to substitute fear mongering for diplomacy.  In his signing statement the President suggested that he was responding to hysteria in Congress and would consider the law on an “advisory” basis.

On the one hand, I agree that those who have committed crimes should probably not be diplomats.  On the other, there are avenues for the prosecution of international crimes if the U.S. was interested, avenues from which we notoriously shy away in its refusal to ratify the International Criminal Court.  “Terrorist activity”, moreover, is a dangerously subjective category, one which would have barred Nelson Mandela and the virtually any leader of an anti-colonial movement from taking part in international forums depending on who was calling the shots.

There is a danger that politically-motivated claims of this kind, levelled by the United States, could be used to shut down diplomatic efforts from countries which fall afoul of our notoriously narrow worldview.  Such action could foreclose potential for negotiation and discussion in a world where many leaders are prone to resort to violence without exhausting other alternatives which stand to benefit their publics.

But one thing is very clear from the spirit of the U.S. ruling, which probably violates international law.  Neither the current President nor his predecessor, nor any of the top officials of the Bush Administration should be allowed anywhere near the United Nations.  Because all of these people have liberally adopted “terrorist activity” to pursue their foreign policy aims.

President Bush committed crimes against peace and launched an illegal war of aggression.  His administration authorised and practised torture, rendition, disappearance, and murder.  His punitive military attacks on Iraqi cities killed massive numbers of people, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure and institutions.  His unleashing of mercenary forces on Iraqis, and the cover-ups which protected some of those mercenaries and many officials and military figures in the United States are surely the actions of a terrorist government.

President Obama escalated the War of Terror, and his primary weapon has been the drones, the use of which has allowed him to substitute murder accompanied by pedagogical collateral damage for the incarceration and torture preferred by the Bush administration.  The President has promoted proponents of murder—who defend their lawless killing by referring to “disposition matrices”—and granted impunity to officials from the Bush Administration.

Obama’s drones—the programme was introduced by Bush but expanded in scope by the current administration—are also designed to literally strike terror into their victims and the populations over which they soar, out of sight and out of legal reach.  A U.S. journalist described them as “terrifying”, writing that “from the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what the are tracking as they circle overhead.  The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death”. 

The U.S. investigation into Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq found that U.S. forces had committed “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuse”.  And it was only natural that this abuse, which in another setting would have been called “enhanced interrogation” by the Bush Administration, would flourish in the context of a war designed to fight terror with terror, using the weapons, administrative apparatus, and ideological premises of all imperial wars.

Critics of U.S. terror are often asked why they don’t move on and forget about the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the broader war of terror waged by the United States. 

My own answer is that no one would ask a society to forget about a serial killer or violent criminal in its midst.  The reason that we meet crimes with punishments is to protect our citizenry and make it clear that there are consequences for violating the social contract and taking or abusing human life.  If we did not take these actions to apprehend criminals and protect people, those criminals could act with impunity and others would see that they too could act unpunished.

If we take action against people who have killed a few of our fellow citizens so seriously, surely we should be concerned about the engineers of mass killings in which the victims number in the hundreds of thousands.  If we prosecute the murderers of individuals in order to protect our community, we should surely prosecute people who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

After all, if the neoconservatives see that they can wage illegal war and unleash terror with impunity, they will do it again and again, so long as they are persuaded that it will advance their twisted cause, so out of step with the needs and values of our country and our society.  This, for me, is the reason why it is important that people who break the law and take human life on such a massive scale, or who violate it through the use of torture and rendition, should be held to account.  Until they are, our politics will remain unfocussed and misguided, and our world will not be safe. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

From the Ruins of Empire: Book Review

Understanding the perspectives of other people is not something the United States and its citizens do terribly well.  We have a tremendously self-important sense of how we as a people and a culture are shaped by our own history, even if our sense of what that history is might be a few degrees removed from reality. 

We expect the world to know and to appreciate this history, as well as our “exceptional” nature, which in U.S. parlance means “superior” rather than unique.  But when it comes to analysing the motives of others, we fall short.  We fall back on jingoistic formulas—“They hate us for our freedoms!”—or on comforting cultural reductionism. 

So it’s perhaps understandable that in the age of our nearly forgotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq one of the most popular works of history was Niall Ferguson’s Empire, which offered simplistic and unsubstantiated narratives about the good that the British Empire supposedly brought to the people they colonised, and about the example that the British set for the United States, which Ferguson hoped would take its place as a superpower unafraid of ruling the world with a mailed fist.

The problems with Ferguson’s rose-tinted view of Empire, one shared by the neoconservatives, are legion.  But two stand out.  One is the shocking violence that accompanied not only colonial conquests, but the subsequent “pacificiation” campaigns to put down resistance, and the raw brutality with which the British and other imperial powers met nationalists in later decades. 

The second is that in his crude balance table of what the British “gave” to the people whose societies they conquered, economies they plundered, and cultures they subdued, there are no voices to be heard from the tens of millions of people who the British ruled.

Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (New York: Picador, 2012) is a wonderful antidote to Ferguson’s ahistorical propaganda, with its silent million and refusal to contemplate the British Empire’s record. 

Mishra looks at what was common in the experience of Empire amongst Asian states which had highly-developed senses of their own historical roles, cultural prestige, and place in the world.  Mishra tells this story through key characters, scholars and revolutionaries whose likely-unfamiliar names mask sympathetic stories and a series of encounters across Asia whereby those experiencing the short end of the imperial stick debated how to respond to European and American terrorism and occasionally sought to present a united front, something never realised thanks to different historical trajectories and different state models.

There is the Ottomans’ ecumenical empire, with its sophisticated administrative structures designed to absorb and accommodate an incredible range of ethnicities, languages, and traditions, something no other European power sought to emulate.

And then there was the Japanese state, which in a debate that echoes in parts of Asia and Africa today, decided that to counter the west it needed not only rapid development driven by an authoritarian state shorn of representative niceties, but also an empire of its own. 

There was also the erstwhile superpower, China, which in a conceit that might sound familiar to Americans today, thought itself the centre of the world, a “Middle Kingdom” contemptuous of the notion that it could learn anything from the world’s other peoples.  The insularity was not just technological and cultural.  It was historical, inasmuch as the Chinese government, like its American counterpart today, proved incapable of understanding the motives and reacting to the blandishments of the depraved thugs who came pushing opium at the point of a gun. 

When China rejected the advances of British merchants, the British Empire brought its navy and troops from India to bear, unleashing terror on cities near the sea and rivers, burning the Summer Palace, and humiliating the country’s leadership, imposing a financially crippling indemnity and a series of devastating legal and commercial requirements which undermined the ability of the state to defend the interests of its people.

Mishra’s characters are cosmopolitans.  In their quest to revive their respective civilisations they travelled.  Their journeys took them around an Islamic world which rivalled the “West” as an idea in search of a fixed geography.  Their travels took them to Japan, seat of an expanding Asian Empire which defeated the Russian navy in 1905 and offered hope to people across the Asian landmass.  And they found themselves in the lands of their oppressors, from which they drew lessons about the sources of the West’s power as well as the extent of the violence and depravity associated with the construction of wildly unstable and unequal societies.

Mishra’s narrative allows us to understand the moral and intellectual feebleness of modern-day imperialists’ conception of Empire, but it also allows us to see the perspective of revolutionaries, thinkers, writers, freedom-fighters, and would-be nation-builders who were the victims of Western expansion, enrichment, and duplicity.  If we would like to understand why people look askance at us and question our motives today, it would be helpful to understand how not long ago we gave them very good reason to do so.

Mishra’s writing is beautiful, his characters tragic, and his story one which badly needs to be heard today thanks not only for its contribution to an historical record and his resuscitation of some extraordinary figures, but for what it offers to an impoverished discourse today in which the West lacks the language and understanding to engage with rising powers and societies which will increasingly not settle for contemptuous dismissal.  Just as Commodore Perry’s gunships disrupted Japan’s sense of place 160 years ago, there are economic and political developments afoot today which demand that analysis be accompanied by empathy and understanding, part of which should be of an historical character.  Mishra makes a fine contribution in his demand that the experiences of Asia and the perspective of Asians during the era of colonialism and internationalism be taken seriously.

Friday, April 18, 2014

News for the Week

I just thought I’d share a round-up of some of the stories that have caught my attention in the last week.

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A map of the new Lake Kariba from the British National Archives

For reporting on the tremendous overreach of the national security state, the Guardian and the Washington Post received the Pulitzer prize, the most prestigious journalism award in the United States and beyond.  Without the reporting of these papers and, it should be said, the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, we would never have known of the extraordinary overreach of the NSA and other arms of the security state.  We would never have known that members of the rogue intelligence agencies have lied in Congress and broken the law.

There are some Republicans and right-wing Democrats in Congress who think that Snowden and anyone who reports on him are traitors.  If they are defending serial lawbreakers who have violated the public trust, they need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, particularly given revelations that wittingly or otherwise, the NSA’s preoccupations with spying on citizens to perpetuate U.S. terror abroad prevented them from stopping the Heartbleed bug, something which is a real threat to the public.

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One of the most dramatic, harrowing, and touching stories I’ve run across in my research—well-documented by other historians—was the construction in the late-1950s of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River, at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Then the largest man-made lake in the world, Kariba required the displacement of tens of thousands of people, whose departure from the Valley which was to be flooded was tragic and unwilling. 

Today, studies of that dam suggest that its structure, and contingency planning around its breach by the powerful Zambezi River in the context of a partial or full collapse, need revisiting.  I’ve never visited this part of either Zambia or Zimbabwe, but hope to get to Kariba one of these days, in part because I’ve read so much about the construction of the dam and the social costs associated with it.

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On a not dissimilar note, PBS is premiering A Fierce Green Fire, a film about the environmental movement.  It will be shown on Tuesday, Earth Day, and looks to be a powerful telling of the story of the emergence of this mass movement in the twentieth century.  It’s hard to imagine that not so many years ago “the environment”, “ecology”, and the health of our planet were not terms, ideas, or concerns in common currency. 

Concerns for the protection of species, the regulation of pollutants, the preservation of “natural wonders”, and the relationship between “natural” and “human” ecosystems and habitats were pushed by grassroots movements which harnessed new sciences.  Our world would be a very different place without the environmental movement, although our growth-oriented economy and inability to come to grips with the threat posed by climate change suggest that we have a long way to go.

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In another environmentally-related story, San hunters in Botswana are attempting to reclaim both their dignity and hunting rights which the government is seeking to deny them.  People for whom hunting serves both a cultural and economic purpose resent the fact that wealthy foreign visitors are permitted to hunt while people with a stake in the land and its resources are not. 

Countries in Southern Africa generally have more liberal hunting laws than their East African counterparts, where the illegal ivory trade is brisker and enforcement more difficult.  But global efforts to crack down on the hunting of animals like elephants have likely had an impact on the Botswana government’s policy, demonstrating the power of international conservation groups, which often pay little attention to events on the ground, or the human presence in many of the lands they regard as “wilderness”. 

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Perhaps afraid that President Obama’s embrace of the Bush administrations War of Terror will make the GOP look like a bunch of peacniks, Republican Senator Bob Corker is trying to start a war with his idiotic demand that the U.S. escalate tensions in Ukraine by shipping weapons to the region.

It was one hundred years ago this summer that the First World War exploded in Europe, driven by secretive alliance systems, the power of arms industries, mindless patriotism, and a diplomacy based on brinkmanship.  That senseless war cost the lives of millions. 

Corker is a mulish defender of the illegal war of aggression in Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands of people, so he appears to be someone who doesn’t understand or care about the consequences of his actions when they claim the lives of other people.  Hopefully his colleagues and the administration have better sense.

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Princeton researchers came out with a timely study which defines the U.S. as an oligarchy rather than a democracy, a characterisation that fits well with the massive redistribution of wealth to the upper classes at the expense of the working classes, who are also being stripped of their rights to organise and defend their economic interests by the wealthy and their representatives in Congress.

Political power in the United States is increasingly associated with great wealth, meaning that the middle and working classes, defended by people like Elizabeth Warren, are being written out of the political process.

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One smaller result of the monetisation of politics is the ever greater importance of hired guns.  Campaigns are increasingly about fundraising and targeting, and so “political experts” play a tremendous role in these campaigns, combining efforts to control the process with an utter lack of principles.

This week, the British Labour Party hired David Axlerod, one of President Obama’s advisors, to help them fight the 2015 election and regain power against a Conservative government which has implemented a harsh austerity regime on the country over the past several years. 

That in turn reminded me of the fact that Jim Messina, another Obama campaign officer, had last year joined the Conservative Party offering his services, and throwing any progressive principles he ever pretended to have out the window.  The fact that political campaigns are in the hands of these opportunistic thugs might explain why even in an ostensibly progressive party like the Democratic Party, there are so few conversations about the economic and social welfare of the public. 

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Clark Kerr's University of California: Book Review

Published in 2011, Christina González’ exploration of the University of California through the philosophy of its most famous President, Clark Kerr, is a timely contribution to debates about the future of the University of California.  In Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011), González departs from the premise that to understand the future of the University, we must understand its past.

González was personally close to Kerr, and clearly regards him as a near-unique figure in terms of his impact and philosophy from her vantage point of a long-time student of policy and governance in the higher education arena.  Early chapters are semi-biographical inasmuch as they provide context for Kerr’s upbringing and trace influences of philosophers and educational thinkers on the man who served as Chancellor at Berkeley and President of the UC at a time when the campus and system were undergoing great growth; when political challenges on- and off-campus destabilised the institution; and when the current model of tuition was imposed over Kerr’s protests. 

Kerr identified the most critical development of his tenure as the rise of the “Multiversity”, or the manner in which the traditional university was wrenched from its comfort zone and subjected to the utilitarian demands of a fast-changing society with the attendant goods and ills that process mandated.  González regards Kerr as the ideal leader during that period because of his leadership style, and various sections throughout the book offer musings on garden-variety Mammalia, namely hedgehogs and foxes.

In González’ reading of Kerr’s formulation (which is borrowed from other contexts), “hedgehogs are transformational leaders, while foxes are transactional ones” (12).  The essential argument of the book is that Kerr, a hedgehog, went out of fashion and was replaced by a series of fox-like University leaders.  González argues that now, as the University faces a new crisis, rule by foxes is not only inadequate, but has contributed to the rise of a misguided administrative cadre, and that we are ready for a new generation of hedgehogs in positions of leadership.

The chapters on Kerr’s philosophical journey, and some of the sections on internal UC politics in the latter portion of the book read a bit like inside baseball (although the examples are well-chosen and illustrative). 

González’ own argument is captured in a quotation from Upton Sinclair’s The Goose Step, wherein he quotes the daughter of Johns Hopkins’ first president.  Elizabeth Gilman wrote in the early part of the twentieth century that “the fine new buildings and campus have not to my mind compensated for a considerable lowering of intellectual ideals and accomplishments.  Money getting is horribly dangerous to institutions as well as to individuals, and the Johns Hopkins University has been out to get money.  It is true that this money has been given for education and not for profit, and yet even so, there may be the insidious temptation of adopting purely business standards” (30). 

Those “business standards” were part of what students in Kerr’s day criticised in his explanation and partial embrace of the “Multiversity”.  González argues that private and public universities are slowly converging on a model which will do a disservice to the public the latter are meant to serve, to the diversity of that public in particular, and most especially to undergraduate students, the last remaining sector of the campus to be significantly funded by decaying state support, a dubious distinction which absent sudden change puts those students in an unenviable position (120).

González'  treatment of Kerr is far from uncritical, and she notes deficiencies in his leadership style which left his response to student protests looking wooden and ineffective, creating an opening for the UC’s chief detractor, Ronald Reagan.  But Kerr himself remarked on the emergence of the “Unfaculty” (like the “Undead”) to describe what we would recognise today as the proliferation of unsecure lecturers and adjunct faculty who increasingly shoulder the teaching burden while forming a poorly-compensated, under-supported, and ill-cared for caste in the academic community (57).  González describes how “as tuition and fees are increasing, salaries and benefits for low-paid campus workers, such as food workers and janitors, are being kept low, oftentimes by outsourcing these jobs, giving rise to protests.  This process is aggravated by the fact that academics themselves are divided into two classes, a shrinking body of tenure-track faculty and an army of lecturers and researchers with no job security and lower compensation and prestige” (75).  This process is representative of trends in the workforce at large.

What I think must be a novel contribution of the book is its attention to diversity.  From the early twentieth century, the presence of women and minorities was seen as an impediment to “excellence” (143-47), the imperative in the intensely competitive world of U.S. universities.  The widely-praised Master Plan nonetheless embodied what González sees as Kerr’s primary defect, his failure to attend to the need for the representation of all Californians at the UC.  Because of the manner in which the Master Plan cut access to UC, it actually contributed to the segregation of higher education in the state at the very moment of the civil rights struggle (65).

For me, the weakness of the book was the extent to which it downplays the way in which the University is tied up in the state’s political economy.  In calling for a return of Hedgehogs as University leaders, González seems to assume that a visionary would be able to do what no one else has and persuade California’s anti-social, miserly public that it could stand to benefit from reinvesting in an institution it is on the cusp of losing. 

Conversely, although González recognises the complicity of the public, I believe she also understates the extent to which the openness to the privatisation and commercialisation of the University by some of its leaders has been adopted with enthusiasm rather than gritted teeth.  She writes, California’s public has “forced public universities to become privatized, with all that that entails in terms of differential compensation for its employees.  There is a cause-and-effect relationship between lack of public support for higher education and the tuition hikes that universities are experiencing.  To criticize the university for becoming more like a private business  is blaming the victim” (184).

But the UC Regents and some administrators have been very open about their desire to mould the University in the vision of their own corporate cave.  A good example of this came when UC hired Mark Yudof as its President.  In defending Yudof’s extraordinary compensation package, UC Regent Richard Blum (husband of Senator Feinstein), declared, “He’s expensive, but he’s worth it” (186).

González questions that received wisdom.  “Until now”, she writes, “the University of California has invoked the market to justify the salaries of its high-level administrators, and it was true that if it wanted to recruit the most highly-paid university executives in the country, it needed to meet and exceed the compensation they were receiving elsewhere.  But is it necessary or desirable to hire those kind of executives anymore?” (191). To González, to much of the UC community, and to most people in California, the answer is a blindingly obvious “No”.  And yet the Regents and upper-level administration persist in defending the value of outsized salaries that have yielded precious little in the way of material returns to the UC.

In debunking the logic behind the game, González writes, “What started as a legitimate competition for executive talent has turned into a game of musical chairs, in which executives move from institution to institution in pursuit of ever-increasing compensation, a system that is fostered by the search firms, which make a great deal of money with this game...It is a vicious circle: the more money an executive makes, the more desirable he or she becomes without any apparent consideration of actual performance.  In fact, some executives now are moving so often that they simply do not have time to accomplish anything anywhere” (229-30). 

This behaviour on the part of the unaccountable Regents—themselves occupying patronage positions dispensed by sitting governors—is only part of the problem facing California’s public, for whom “the high tuition-high aid formula is arcane and off-putting.  Students and their parents want to know the cost of tuition up front, and they want this cost to be moderate” (76-7).  González recognises the barriers this model—championed by Berkeley’s recent Chancellor Robert Birgeneau—imposes on many Californians, and the uncertainty that it introduces into people’s lives.  This uncertainty is no accident, of course, and mirrors the instability that poorly-regulated markets introduce into the wider job market.

González is unabashed in arguing for an expansion rather than a retraction of the Master Plan (226).  She does not provide a particularly concrete path forward for the reinvigoration of higher education in the Golden State.

But in her history of the UC and her exploration of the leadership styles through which it has been governed over the years, she provides an example of how such a reversal can occur.  Conventional wisdom today holds that UC has to adapt to the brave new world of the market, of high fees, and of declining state support.  Critics of the administration are dismissed and told to “get real”.  Proponents of public higher education are written off as unrealistic romantics. 

But González describes how in the early 1980s, UC President David Gardner, partly as a result of his particular leadership capabilities and partly as a result of favourable circumstances, was able to see a massive (32%) increase in funding for the UC (151ff).  Reagan’s late-1960s attack on the University might have begun a decline which looks irreversible from the vantage point of mid-2014.  But viewed from 1983, things might have looked differently, and this episode reminds us that as citizens, we retain some notional control over the circumstances in which we debate the importance of our public institutions.

González emphasis on individual agency might be overstated, particularly if restricted to the men at the helm of the UC.  But particularly at moments like ours when the inequity of our society is becoming increasingly visible, the public could be primed to launch a fight-back against the idea that educational decline is inevitable.  It might very well do so out of a recognition that we benefit as a collective from investing in institutions which possess the capacity to restore equity and vitality to our society.  In González view, which I very much share, UC has the potential to be precisely such an institution.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Surge of Fawning Coverage Obscures Jerry Brown's Reactionary Rule in California

Jerry Brown, in this third term as California’s Governor, seems immune not just to criticism, but in the national press at least, to anything resembling scrutiny.  In paper after paper and in one magazine after another, glossy profiles featuring the defiant-looking Governor have appeared.  Brown is quoted spouting classical sages and sounding by turns hard-nosed and Zen. 

His tenure since 2011 in Sacramento has generated a veritable cottage industry of crummy “Comeback” literature which proclaims him the Best Thing in California since gold was discovered, back when Brown was but a wee lad.  There are variants to this literature.  Some national commentators don’t even pretend to know anything about California’s politics, and just sit on Brown’s famously uncomfortable bench in his Capitol office and let their eyes get wider as the canny political operator leads them down the garden path. 

In the Huffington Post, William Bradley writes with far more knowledge and experience of California’s political scene, and is in a different way just as startlingly bad, although in his case it has more to do with treating politics like a game instead of a moral endeavour.  In the last few days, Bradley has launched a new one-man tendril of a strain of “Comeback” literature that earlier seemed to die out: the Brown for President 2016 sort.  Bradley cites a GOP operative who “recently talked about a potentially powerful Brown candidacy for president in 2016 with a strong story to tell”.


The latest evidence of Brown’s popularity comes in a poll which suggests that if the election were held today, Brown would secure 57% of the votes of “likely voters”.  His nearest Republican Party competitor, Tim Donnelly, is forty points behind, and Neel Kashkari, the pundits’ favourite to save the Republican Party’s brand, makes an impressive showing with all of 2%!  The Republican Party clearly has no interest in being saved.  It could also be, understandably, that the party has some difficulty in recognising “the 35-year-old dingbat from Goldman someone put in charge of handing out $700 billion bailout dollars” as its Saviour. 

Undoubtedly Brown’s popularity has something to do with the fact that he is something of a known quantity running against one professed cultural fundamentalist (Donnelly) and two economic fundamentalists (both Donnelly and Kashkari).  The Republicans on the gubernatorial ticket might very well welcome Texas Governor Rick Perry’s efforts to poach jobs from California.  Kashkari is a buffoon, whose “education policy” ran to a half dozen lines.  Donnelly is an Assemblyman famous for trying to carry a loaded gun onto an airplane.  Putting Donnelly in charge of a political system like California’s would be akin to handing a loaded gun to a raving lunatic. 

But any evaluation of Brown’s record should recognise that Bradley’s characterisation of Brown as having “[turned around] California’s once crisis-plagued state government by cutting the budget, raising revenue, and encouraging economic growth” rings hollow from the perspective of many Californians.

The recession ravaged California at the end of several decades of increasing economic inequality.  More and more people during that time, and particularly during the eight years of the Bush administration, were shunted down the social ladder.  Their vulnerability, not immediately apparent during more stable years, became tragically apparent when the bottom of the public sphere and the social net fell out from under them—or rather, was slashed from beneath them—in response to the recession and California’s budget deficits.

The nationwide response to recession, increasingly the norm particularly after 2010 was a cruel drive for austerity, which held that the black in the budget was more important than people’s lives, and that the spectacular wealth of the plutocrats who increasingly dominate our country was off-limits when it came to redistribution.  Instead, that redistribution had to occur amongst people in the middle class and below.

In other states, that might have provided enough leeway for the state governments to take something resembling a humane approach to its problems when it came to the provision of state-sourced welfare and public goods.  But California possesses a Byzantine political structure, with details of the tax code written into what is one of the world’s longest constitutions.  The Golden State’s political structure pits voters and the legislature against one another.

Most devastatingly, it is rigged towards making cuts, because it requires 66% of the legislature to vote to direct more tax dollars towards, well, anything, but only 51% of the legislature to rip the foundations out from beneath a population rendered vulnerable by national and statewide trends towards divestment from the public sphere, slow processes accelerated dramatically from 2008 onwards.

Arnold Schwarzenegger set grimly about the business of squeezing Californians and shaving down their institutions.  But it was Jerry Brown who gave a more credible face to austerity.  Our gimlet-faced Governor, elected by a wide margin in 2010, launched a stunningly regressive assault on schools, universities, parks, libraries, regulatory agencies, and the social safety net.  By so doing, he achieved the balanced budget of which the pundits are so enamoured.  But the human costs of Brown’s violently-reactionary program never feature in the calculations of such people. 

None of them ask what it means to use these cuts to fashion a society in which fewer people have access to quality public services like schools and universities and libraries and the social welfare resources that act as a stimulus to families who are the victims of economic forces beyond their control.  None of them have sought to measure the value of a balanced budget against the chronic damage done to those on whose backs the budget was balanced. 

The pundits’ excuse for neglecting these issues would likely be the passage of Prop 30—by voters, not Brown and legislators—which was sold as a “fix” by the Governor, but did nothing more than place a band-aid on the gaping wound the Governor helped his predecessor and the Crackpot Caucus (i.e. the California GOP) inflict on the state. 

Brown’s best moment for potential redemption after his sociopathic assault on Californians during the previous two years came in 2012, when Democrats won supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate.  This could have been the chance to reinvest in our state’s beleaguered institutions, the strengthening of which would have been a boon to the working and middle classes.  It could have been an opportunity to tackle our broken system of governance.  It could have provided a moment for a debate about the responsibilities of those who govern—including California’s voters—and the value we place on democratic public institutions and democratic forms of government.

Instead, Brown threatened to go to war with Democrats in the legislature if they contemplated taxes.  He ignored outright calls for political reform.  He compared our state’s struggling, debt-burdened students to millionaire bankers.  He is wrenching the “community” out of our Community College system.  He is instrumentalising higher education.  He didn’t even mention the word “inequality” in this year’s State of the State Address.

Bradley praises Brown’s “future-oriented” agenda, citing the bullet train, and renewable energy, but not identifying who will ride the train that will likely serve fewer people than a overhaul and subsidy of the existing Amtrak system would achieve, or mentioning Brown’s decision to simultaneously endorse facking and roll back the remit of regulators who could assess the safety of the policy. 

Brown resembles less some classical sage in the agora of the “New California”, fresh from a comeback, than an addled Nero, fiddling to some orchestra only he can hear atop a social and economic tinderbox which he is actually well-placed to overhaul were he not so serially irresponsible. 

Given the cowardice and irresponsibility of the California progressives and Democrats who have given Brown a free pass, abetted by the bamboozled press, I can’t imagine a scenario in which he is not our Governor until January of 2019 (barring a successful presidential run, of course).  What is so shameful is that these coming years will be spent so unproductively, because of the refusal of this one man who sits atop his state and so obstinately refuses to come to grips with its emerging social chasms, the crumbling of its public sphere, and its devastating democratic deficit.  We need a Governor who will do more than take up space and contribute to the degradation of our polity, and Jerry Brown is unlikely to fit that bill.