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A New Bismarck?

Charles F. Sabel

Theodore Lowi, always far-sighted in his fears, hapless in his remedial programs and projects, has found a new way to be prescient and wrong. Historically there is little that speaks for the plausibility of his dystopic condominium of international capitalists and local oligarchs; conceptually there is much that speaks against it. Yet in naming the threat of a new tyranny, and suggesting, by a wink and a nod, that we need a Bonapartist leader to surmount it, Lowi carries to the verge of caricature many of the categories and themes of current discussion of the future of the Left. His intellectual audacity advances debate by showing just how tightly many of our current assumptions corner us.

What Lowi says now is all the more remarkable for the unifying breadth and depth it reveals in what he said before. Lowi is, of course, one of the most distinguished of those post-War centrists who feared that the welfare state was always disciplining the market too little or too much: too little redistribution and regulation, and the masses would be driven to a misery that would soon deliver them up to fascist demagogues; too much, and the state itself would become an enemy of liberty even as it befriended the entrenched interests. Observing the balance of state and market from the perch of this Archimedian anxiety, he denounced New Deal administrative managerialism for decades as a conspiracy against the rule of law and the well being of the common people. As remedy he urged Congress to spell out its intention in precise but general laws, to be interpreted by the letter. Even those who mistrusted managerialism for the reasons he did feared that this solution would more likely destroy the administrative state than reinvigorate it. The populist undercurrent in his thought was often submerged in a torrent of disdain for the selfish and self-deceptive smugness of the New Deal institutional architects and their heirs.

Now, as the welfare state retreats, routed in part by the failures of the very managerialism he decried, Lowi reveals himself a man of the Left, concerned that the emergent regulatory regime will serve the powerful even more surely than the New Deal administration. It is a turn that honors his humanity and his intellectual integrity. As before, he sees the threat to democracy in the illegitimate delegation of state power to private parties. But whereas the deviltry was once done by administrative agencies colluding with those they regulate, now it will be accomplished even better, he fears, by the states and local elites, into whose joined hands big money is busily devolving responsibility for keeping the population under control while it gluts itself on the rewards of globalization. As the threat now is from too much market, the remedy is to strengthen the state-not, surely, by more of the managerialism whose impotence and corruption lie before us, nor by reinforcing Congress. In the wide world the market rules. Rather, Lowi-as always, equally audacious and ambiguous in his programmatic flights-provokes us with the suggestion (his only positive one) that the Left today consider the possibility of . . . a new Bismarck, a Bonapartist leader strong enough to check the greed of the international capitalists without becoming ensnared in the coils of domestic law, yet caring enough to protect the people without subverting its liberty. Bismarck, the chancellor whose age made silence the citizens' first duty, as the inspiration for a new voice of the people? If the national level is paralyzed by its own overreaching, the international occupied by the enemy host, and the local essentially corrupt, providential intervention is indeed the most reasonable hope. Are we truly that desperate?

Lowi is plainly right that the chances of omnibus reform of national administration and polices are close to negligible, and those of any comprehensive international response-on the lines, say, of international Keynesian reflation-to economic disruption and emargination are, if possible, more far-fetched still. But he is, it seems to me, just as plainly wrong to think that the local is by historical tradition or deep necessity bound to be a sump of reactionary domination. Take first the history, remote and near: The Granger laws establishing public authority over railway-rate setting, early regulation of occupational health and safety, payment of workmen's compensation for injuries suffered on the job, unemployment insurance-all of these innovations, and many more, originated in the states and shaped or were incorporated into the parts of the New Deal welfare state that Lowi does seem to admire. More recently, many states adopted anti-takeover laws limiting the freedom of out-of-state corporations to make hostile acquisitions. Some have pioneered systems of environmental regulation that, require firms to account for and plan reductions in their use and production of toxics. Using the pooled information that results, public authorities can identify and more closely monitor the laggards, can diffuse best practices, and can continuously update expectations of feasible improvements. Some of these innovations, and many others besides, will eventually reshape, or become incorporated into national institutions, with the certain result that the very distinction between local and national levels of regulation on which Lowi relies will be no clearer in the future than it has been up to now.

But, turning to the conceptual difficulties in Lowi's position, the notion that state and federal regulatory innovations are so interpenetrating as to form, in time, a complex whole is hardly surprising. It is, rather, the notion of a strong correlation between, on the one hand, "good" and "bad" government, however defined, and, on the other, national and local levels of government that seems partial to be the point of aberrance. A reflexive revulsion at newspaper reports of prison executions and welfare mothers whose benefits may be cut before they are "job ready" may make us feel today that life in the little platoon is hellish. But we know on reflection both that local oligarchs and majorities can tyrannize local societies and minorities, and that tyrannical national governments or majorities can usurp the rights of the whole people or some of its parts. We know too that under other circumstances local and national can each, by turns, be the saving remnant that protects basic freedoms and the capacity to experiment new forms of association and joint control from the interference of the other. The genius of American constitutionalism, and the tradition of civic republicanism from which it derives, has been precisely to seek institutional arrangements by which the mutual influences of the local and the national could protect, under a range of circumstances characteristic of each epoch, our right to be different while discovering how better to further our common purposes.

The former, constitutionalist Lowi had a fine appreciation for the richness and subtleties of institutional possibilities; and in this sense his current project takes a step back. Or, more precisely, with respect to questions of the institutional foundations of political architecture, he has abandoned one error for its opposite: His earlier, restorationist program was self-defeating because his insistence on the unimprovability of familiar forms did not square with our sense of diffuse but pervasive institutional ferment. Now he claims with equal implausibility that the world has changed so much that institutions no longer have a place in politics. So, he suggests by evoking Bismarck, the little good of which we are capable may only be called forth by a leader who beguiles us with gifts and intimidates us in beating back our enemies. The rigid discipline of the founding fathers or the discipline of the stern, yet beneficent leader: these are the extremes left to those who would save a fundamentally vicious people from itself.

But before we set aside Lowi's views as the oscillations of a singularly anxious democrat, we should note how much the central themes of his work connect to and illuminate the programs under construction by other thoughtful and worried advocates of a renewed and truly popular democracy such as Bruce Ackerman and Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Ackerman, in an ingenious new manuscript on the "stakeholder society" co-authored with Anne Alstott, dismisses the possibilities of national institutional reform as readily as Lowi and scants the local and the international, treating them more as marginal than menacing. To fill the void left by the collapse of New Deal managerialism and the corresponding forms of citizenship, they propose a founding pact between generations and between citizens and the polity: At 21, law-abiding US citizens will be given a stake of $80,000 to be paid in installments, to spend as they please. The stake will be financed by taxes on wealth and inheritance. Ackerman and Alstott's hope is that the prospect of this share in the national wealth will teach responsibility to the reckless (a rump of public social insurance will be available for who squander their stake and other life chances, or simply have very bad luck). The ceremonial transfer of the money, the dignity of its possession, and the continuing discussion of the conditions of the grant will recreate the solidarity that citizenship requires, teaching the poor to honor the obligations of property and the rich to honor the duties of redistribution. Such is the curiously acephalous populism of the estado novo being ideated on the Connecticut.

Unger is, if anything, closer to Lowi's concerns. Writing increasingly from and for Brazil, where they know a thing or two about leagues of rapacious foreigners and local elites, not to mention the politics of chickens and pots, he urges the construction of a "hard state"-one powerful enough to resist the pressure of international capital while breaking the opposition of the domestic oligarchs to the massive redistribution of wealth to the poor which is the condition for further reform. At the apex of this hard state will be a presidential Bismarck with a capirinhia. For a tight link between the president and the people will be one of the chief mechanisms for ensuring that the structures of the new state can be de-institutionalized whenever the prospect of managerialist inertia threatens the mobilization of popular power that protects the whole project from the tireless revanchism of its enemies no less than the occasionally wearied complacency of its own beneficiaries.

To establish these associations is not, of course, to demonstrate some common insufficiency. It may indeed be that the international order is as powerful, the local as enfeebled, or vicious, as these accounts presume. But the Left is, after all, the party of ordinary human possibility: the party that believes in our capacities to fashion decent, just, and workable solutions to our problems. To say that amidst all the new possibilities created by the prosperity and freedom-however incomplete-of our day, the "local" in the rich countries, advanced and developing is so disconcerted by the forces threatening it, so incapable of innovative response that it requires the protective guidance of a Bismarck, is to raise questions about our confidence in the powers of democracy. May we not fear that congeries of "local" citizens so inert before the problems of the day will always be the ward, never the master of the state that protects it? More benignly, as Ackerman and Alstott suggest, we might imagine a world that can do without the local because individuals, properly staked out, can do fine without the barest minimum of state. Then we would wonder, more cheerfully, what it could mean to have a democracy without a polity.

But it is just at this juncture, perhaps, that Lowi's proposal is most instructive. The historical and conceptual implausibility of his characterization of the local suggests we look hard at any programs that, with greater tact and circumspection, share many of his assumptions in this regard. Before I bet the store on Bismarckian populism, I would take a very careful look at "the local" to see if now, as so often before, people don't have a better idea.

Return to Think Globally, Lose Locally by Theodore J. Lowi

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

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