Now Published: ‘The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins’

I am happy to announce the publication of a new anthology that I co-edited with Professor Anna Grear, Professor of Law and Theory at Cardiff University in the UK.  The book is entitled The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins, released by punctum books last week. 

The book asks the question: As we enter a time of climate catastrophe, worsening inequality, and collapsing market/state systems, can human societies transcend the old, dysfunctional paradigms and build the world anew?

The answer:  There are many signs of hope. In ten different essays, the book dissects the core problems of neoliberal capitalism and showcases some particularly encouraging vectors of transformation.

Anna and I want to thank the ten cutting-edge activists, scholars, and change-makers who joined us in producing this book. The authors probe the deep roots of our current predicament while reflecting on the social DNA required to build a post-capitalist future. A golden thread connecting the chapters is the role of commoning in building working utopias with the capacity to protect themselves and grow in a hostile capitalist environment. As Grear and I write in our Introduction:

Basic structures of contemporary life seem to be falling apart, no longer able to contain the chaotic energies unleashed by global capitalism, digital technologies, libertarian market culture, and modernity. One might call it a Great Unraveling. Yet, paradoxically, this period of history might also be called, accurately, the Great Awakening.

There is a growing awareness of the need for a fundamental shift in mindset and culture, as suggested by the youth climate protests of recent times; the rise of progressive politics; and a general sense that the system is broken and needs to be replaced. Amidst the messy unwinding of obsolete paradigms, many sturdy, fresh, and green sprouts of change — marginal, as yet, to the public consciousness — are emerging.

A growing cohort of self-identified commoners, working largely outside the circles of respectable opinion, is developing important new frameworks of thought and innovative tech platforms. Such commoners bring an almost dizzying array of creative approaches to central challenges of human social organization. They are pioneering, for example, creative hacks of law and new sorts of currencies. They are re-imagining regional food systems and systems for keeping agricultural seeds shareable. They are developing new models of peer production such as “cosmo-local production,” which lets people share knowledge and design globally, open-source-style, while building physical things locally. Notwithstanding pervasive crises and traumas, it turns out that this is a fertile time to reinvent the world with collaborative initiatives.

The good news is that the social practices of commoning are opening up creative new modes of life. They can sidestep the pathologies of capitalism and generate and share wealth in fair-minded, ecologically respectful ways.

For example, new initiatives are bringing “open source” seed-sharing to agriculture, defying the proprietary schemes that Big Ag companies have devised to enclose the seed commons (chapter by Maywa Montenegro Wit). Another chapter explains the promise of blockchain ledger technologies in enabling networked collaboration (Primavera De Filippi and Xavier Lavayssiere) – an advance that could enable new, more versatile modes of commoning in online spaces.

My contribution to the volume looks at the importance of legal hacks as a way to overcome conventional law and open up new zones for commoning. Legal workarounds are necessary because “the practices and values [of commoning] are philosophically alien to many aspects of the liberal market and state and their mutual focus on individualism, calculative rationality, material gain, and market growth.”

I explore the tension between commoning and state law, and showcase some clever, elegant legal hacks, such as Creative Commons licenses for all sorts of content and the General Public License for software. Such hacks invert the intended uses of conventional law (by requiring sharing, for example), while retaining the enforcement powers of state law.

Three essays delve into the philosophical dimensions of commoning -- by Anna Grear, Vito de Lucia, and Paul B. Hartzog, respectively – to probe ontological shift that must be advanced if our human societies are going to find a responsible (and enlivening!) coexistence with the more-than-human world. These chapters provide some valuable big-picture perspective that move us beyond the grubby political and economic realities of the moment.

Here are the contents of the book:

        1. INTRODUCTION / Anna Grear and David Bollier 



  1. AWAKENING TO AN ECOLOGY OF THE COMMONS / Michel Bauwens and Jose Ramos

A word of thanks to punctum books, one of the most important yet little-known experiments in open-access book publishing around. Many of us commoners are supremely frustrated that academic publishing is so corporatized and disdainful of their contributors and readers. It’s insane that so much academic knowledge must fit through the commercial filters of Edward Elgar, Sage, John Wiley, and Routledge, who not only acquire their manuscripts for free or very little, but then turn around and sell them to university libraries, at exorbitant prices that ordinary readers cannot afford.

For example, I recently encountered the announcement of a forthcoming book, Capitalism and the Commons, that I would very much like to read. To my dismay, the book is priced at a ridiculous $128. I realize that, for many academics, career advancement depends on publishing with the most “prestigious” publishers – and sometimes those publishers are the most efficient way to reach one’s academic peers. But it doesn’t advance the cause of the commons to speak to a mandarin cohort of cloistered academics through profit-driven publishers who both exploit their contributors (who were likely not paid for their essays) and readers (who can’t afford the retail prices). Academics would do well to rebuff the leading publishers – and counter-organize by starting their own upstart presses. That would be a fine commentary on capitalism and the commons.

This is why I admire punctum books (whose tagline is “spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion”) -- it's doing something about this problem by publishing high-quality academic books under Creative Commons licenses. This allows books to be published for a modest sum (our book is US$25) while making a PDF version available online for free.

Although some academic presses are starting to experiment with CC licenses, most politically progressive book publishers find this idea way too radical. Nonmarket ways of sharing are simply unimaginable. (Let me give a spirited shout-out to New Society Publishers, which had no trouble publishing Silke Helfrich's and my Free, Fair and Alive under a CC license.)

As Lauren Berlant, an English professor at the University of Chicago, has said: “The release of art and knowledge from enclosure and hoarding into spirited circulation is punctum books’ great work. It is not just that punctum books refuses to reproduce class inequality by making our work free to the desiring. It is also that it is radically open to collaborative, dynamic, rigorous experiments in genre and thought’s forms.”

New modes of life amidst capitalist ruins!

Caring and Thriving: The Social Security Engendered by Commoning

Thomas de Groot, Head of Programmes at the Commons Network in Amsterdam, recently spoke with Silke Helfrich and David Bollier about the future of social security systems and how the commons can offer alternative transition paths.

The interview is shortened for clarity. SH is Silke Helfrich, DB is David Bollier and TdG is Thomas de Groot. The original posting of this interview was at the Commons Network website. 

*       *       *

TdG: ‘Could you share your thoughts about the need for a different vision for our systems of social security?’

SH: ‘Sure. Let’s start by identifying why it is so important to link the issue of social security to commons-thinking. We are all burdened by a structural dependency on the market-based economy. And so are our social security systems. This is what we see now with the Covid-19 pandemic. The state spends billions and billions to keep businesses going because it assumes that flourishing businesses will generate more money for the state. And in fact, the state is dependent on those capital flows and tax revenues.

‘So there is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all. We know there will be another crisis. This is why we need to think about the future of the economy and of social security in such a way that we make ourselves more independent of the capitalist, market-based economy.’

DB: ‘I like the phrase ‘from redistribution to predistribution’, meaning that we need to go from the current situation, where the state redistributes wealth in a certain way, to a situation where people control and manage wealth to start with. This is not the same as equity ownership because the goal is not to use assets to generate profits or return on investment, but to have shared wealth and infrastructure for creating provisions and services outside of the market and state.’

‘There is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all.’

SH: ‘That is actually a good segue to make a related point: problematizing the source of social security is so important, because it is obvious that social security cannot just mean monetary security. We would all agree on that. And still usually we think of social security as monetary security. That means that any redistribution of wealth will necessarily depend by design on the vagaries of markets. That’s pretty insecure as an approach (especially when the wealthy politically dictate unequal terms of redistribution).

‘It also forces us to keep the megamachine going (see Fabian Scheidler’s book ‘The End of the Megamachine’) to conceive and provide social security in the first place. This is a design flaw! And it brings us directly to another pillar of the capitalist economy, and therefore of the welfare state: property – the prerequisite for generating monetary value through the market. Therefore, we are not allowed to touch the familiar ownership models.

‘In other words, there is a tacit consensus that we can talk about redistribution, but we cannot talk about predistribution, because real predistribution would mean making sure everybody has legally secure access to land, housing and other basic elements of shared wealth needed to live a dignified life. Decommodifying land – the land for agriculture and the land our houses and flats are built upon – would be the biggest contribution to a more commons-friendly version of social security. But that would require re-claiming some of the accumulated wealth of the ‘1%’.

‘The reality is different though: part of the reason why governments are having to spend all these billions now, during this pandemic, is that many people cannot even afford their rent. It’s an untenable situation. The right to decommodified housing should be part of social security. It should count as the bare minimum, part of what you are entitled to as a citizen. But for such a shift to occur, we would first need to re-think property.’

DB: ‘The ownership model in our societies is always either private and corporate, or state-run. Which then leads to this simplified debate between capitalism vs. socialism. And commons-based ideas are never even considered. They seem to be marginalized, ignored, and out of reach, always.’

SH: ‘This is because state authorities are trained to consider the market economy and its extractive business models as the only source for achieving redistribution. But whenever a crisis hits, this approach is exposed as a really bad design choice. Because we all know that there will not be enough money to redistribute whenever the next crisis hits.’

DB: ‘It is a matter of power. The state is run by people whose class, prestige, and careers are based on that extractive economy. Their jobs are about facilitating or managing that extraction and the growth it produces. They have no incentives whatsoever to imagine a wholesale shift away from this paradigm. I even think most people understand the problems we face, but they are not willing or occupationally capable of entertaining fundamental solutions.’

‘It is a matter of power. The state is run by people whose class, prestige, and careers are based on the extractive economy. Their jobs are about facilitating or managing that extraction and the growth it produces.’

SH: ‘So when talking about the future of social security, and analysing what is wrong with the current system, this is the right starting point: there is a flaw in the design of our modern nation-states. They are actually market-states, which makes any act of redistribution fully dependent on the market – i.e., investors. So any serious scenario for future social security will have to originate from outside of this framework.’

DB: ‘The market has always evaded the reality that it cannot in fact provide social security for everyone. Inequality is built into the system and accepted as “normal” by those who defend it. Now we’ve reached a crunch-point where that fact has become evident. So in the search for solutions, people are forced to choose between the market and social solidarity. This puts well-intentioned, socially minded politicians in a real bind because they are not “allowed” to entertain degrowth or post-capitalist options.’

SH:  Exactly. In Europe, as in the States, there is a tradition of – supposedly progressive – labour unions that comes to mind – a thinking about organised solidarity. But even that tradition is inadequate for what we are up to because it means that job creation on the labour market is a precondition for any social policy conceived by the welfare state.

‘To put it even more strongly, most of the time, social security policies have the explicit goal of trying to create jobs for everyone, no matter if they make sense or not. What matters is, above all, to keep the economy going, because, as we have just established, that is our only source of means for redistribution. Thus creating a perfect circle, or tautology: We need money to incentivize market participants (businesses, investors) in order to create jobs, which will let people earn money to maintain their social security, which in turn will keep the economy going and – as many hope – create still more jobs. We can not only conclude that social security has become completely monetized. We need to get rid of that entire mindset. It’s a flawed system.

‘I have researched the federation of cooperatives called Cecosesola, in Venezuela. This makes for an interesting case study about commons-based social security. There is very little left in the Venezuelan economy these days. Not enough supply on the market, not enough energy provided, no capital, nothing. But still people manage to meet their needs somehow, with provisions from Cecosesola, for example.

When you ask people who participate in that network, ‘What does Cecosesola mean to you?’, they say: ‘Security, the feeling that nothing can happen to me’. And that’s the point. It’s derived from the stability of social bonds, from living social relationships. It’s the de facto ownership they have, of their community-stewarded markets, their self-organisation, their price-sovereign trading, their ritualized activities and mutual support. They control their decision-making processes. Their peer-organized social security – they even run a fully equipped hospital without a boss – creates a sense of belonging for their members at the margin of the state of the larger economy. And I feel that this basic element, having a sense of belonging, is not even part of the discussion about social security here in Europe.’

DB: ‘One of the reasons something like Cecosesola could never work in the US is because there is no space in the political culture, discursively speaking.’

SH: ‘This brings us to the next flaw in our systems. The boundaries of our discourse around social security and economy are so narrow that there is no space to introduce new insights and experiment with them.’

DB: ‘A lot of this has to do with the bureaucracy that is such an essential part of state power, which tends to rely on one-size-fits-all models. Bureaucracy helps politicians justify their centrally administered policies as ‘meritocratic’ and fair. But by clinging to universality and bureaucracy, the system does not take into account local particularities and how bottom-up creativity can generate value, open source style. The commons approach explicitly takes these factors into account because the commons tend to be place-based and accessible. But this is also one of our challenges: how do we, as commoners, engage with the state’s bureaucracy to make it more supportive of commoning and localism?

‘One example is the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, for instance, and more broadly, the whole “Co-Cities” movement that people like Christian Iaione and Sheila Foster are part of. This approach is trying to develop a working rapprochement between city bureaucracies and commoners, working as neighborhood groups, citizen associations, or whatever. But this good-faith experiment is vulnerable to all the power-plays of electoral politics, political parties, and legislative representatives. In addition, there is a philosophically unresolved collision of world views between state power and commoning.

‘Silke and I have struggled with this challenge: How do we formulate a commons-public partnership in a fruitful way? How can we make bureaucracy and electoral politics shift and open up, to allow for the pluriverse of commoning to occur? It’s not clear what the answers are.’

SH: ‘Exactly. It is too simple to blame “the state,” and it is, in this context, understandable that people propose a state-run basic income that is the same for everyone. However, if our governance system is set up hierarchically, as it is today, we get used to asking the same for everyone even though no one’s circumstances and needs are the same. State power creates monocultures of administration that obviously prefer monetary security. And this is a big problem, because if there is one thing we learned from Elinor Ostrom, it is that there is no such thing as a panacea. People have non-monetary security needs that have to be addressed as well.’

TdG: ‘In our research, we explore a couple of transition paths. One of them is about ‘care income’ and alternative currencies. A care income is a concept that we learned from feminist thinkers in the degrowth movement. It could serve as a way to value social reproductive labour in a way that the market simply does not. We added to that the idea to organise this with neighbourhood currencies.’

SH: ‘We always talk about the undervalued part of the economy, the part where we as people engage in provisioning. The current system only looks at the part of the economy where the money flows. But as you point out, that excludes a lot of work. The answer that many feminist economists give is that we simply have to pay more to the people who care, who account for all that reproductive labour. But paying more doesn’t get us out of the monetization trap we talked about earlier. I do understand the impulse to connect care income to alternative currencies. It’s a good idea, because you take part of the solidarity economy and shield it from the market economy. Commoning and commerce should be kept apart.

‘But there is another way. Let’s go back a bit. Any nation state depends on a bureaucracy that makes rules for everyone. Let’s call it ‘abstract equality,’ panaceas, one-size-fits-all. States will always have to govern from above and thereby ignore a lot of different situations. Otherwise these governments would continually be challenged because the law has to be the same for everybody, right?

‘So when talking about various forms of Universal Basic Income, or care income, or any such scheme, we need to ask another question. And that question is: Who governs it? Let’s think about community-based basic incomes, governed by federated communities. In this scenario, it would not be the state determining who gets how much for how long and what for.

‘There are successful models of local communities managing basic income programs that help leverage a sense of belonging, responsibility, and commitment – as opposed to a pot of state money suddenly dropping from the sky with only formal, legalistic strings attached to it. And we have to keep in mind that there is no such thing as social security without a living social fabric, without that sense of belonging.’

‘When talking about various forms of Universal Basic Income, or care income, we need to ask another question: Who governs it? Let’s think about community-based basic incomes.’

DB: ‘To add to that, I am working on a report about commons-based financing. It asks how to keep money and community inalienable – i.e., not commoditized by market forces? In other words, how can we design a system where money (and value) does not leak away from the community, and where communities and people are not treated by capital as neocolonial sites of extraction (think fracking, water, minerals, data-mining, etc.)?

‘I have come to realise that alternative currencies are part of the solution. Those schemes are by definition place-based, and so the neighbourhood currency cannot be sucked into the circuits of global finance. The challenge is to create a buffer to prevent the value generated within commons from being subjected to simple monetary trading and speculation in the larger economy. You need a buffer to prevent the users of an alternative currency from sliding back into capitalist relationships. So determining how the alternative currency is designed and used is critical. And ultimately, local communities themselves are the only ones who can settle this issue, really.’

SH: ‘The bottom line is: We need to come up with ways to decommodify our social security. So let’s start by decommodifying information, and land and even the money itself by creating a myriad of alternative currencies that might serve as means of exchange but not as commodity. This way you start to get little pockets of transition, and people can see what works for them, and start connecting them all.

‘So you set up the conditions for a needs-based and peer governed conceptualization of social security. It is key to always start from people’s needs: take shelter as an example. The most important thing a state can do is to create ownership of shelter for everyone, and set up other property models like Community Land Trusts, for example, and help communities to decommodify not only the houses but the land underneath the houses. This will help create structural independence from the market. If you look at this current crisis, we can safely say that self-organised, community-supported initiatives have proven to be more resilient when disaster strikes. They are not as dependent on international flows of capital and goods.’

DB: ‘Fannie Lou Hamer, a famous voting rights activist from the civil rights movement, is mostly known for her political activism. But she is also celebrated as a pioneer in the co-operative movement. To escape the dependency on white supremacists who controlled the local economy, she started the Freedom Farm Co-operative, to build economic independence for the Black community.

‘Her fight for food independence meant that Black people in that region no longer had to answer to white supremacists. This also made them politically independent, because they no longer had to fear being thrown off their land. The Freedom Farm Co-Operative was theirs, it was a place of security for them, a place from where they could build, and not be politically and socially dependent on others. Not just for their basic needs, but for their dignity. And that is something the state should be able to help us with. That would be a great place to start.

‘It’s basically the ‘Transition Towns Ethic’ which strives for communal goals in people’s everyday life. It doesn’t start with ideologies, which are usually politically driven and focused on state-related issues. Instead it’s about real, practical things – food, shelter, public life — that mean something for ordinary people. George Monbiot calls this the “politics of belonging” — a nourished identity based on mutual support and practical needs.’

TdG: ‘Do you think that the future of social security is decentralised, and that the municipalities will play a bigger role in organising localised schemes of social security?’

SH: ‘You know how political centrists always tell you everything is ok? Like, with the US presidential election, people tell me, ‘Biden will be elected, and that will prove that the system works, liberal democracy is the best system and our insitutions are strong’. Well, no, they are not strong. And no, this democracy does not work well. Otherwise you wouldn’t have two parties that are both part of the problem.

‘To put it differently, as long as our cities, regions and countries are ruled according to the competitive logic of political parties whose mandate is based on 50,01%  real change won’t happen.’

DB: ‘Exactly. Many people think that decentralisation is a solution, but major cities are governed by the same people that govern the country. The political culture is the same. For real alternative power structures to arise, you need to get rid of or supplant these parties first. Only then will you be able to construct a new political culture, built around place-based politics.’

‘For real alternative power structures to arise, you need to get rid of these political parties first. Only then will you be able to construct a new political culture, built around place-based politics.’

SH: ‘Absolutely. Rethinking the idea of social security, requires that we begin with predistribution, of land and shelter, and alternative political cultures will follow.’

DB: ‘But it’s not a linear sequence. We have to do both, simultaneously. We need to find ways to extricate ourselves from the market, and we also need to have an affirmative social vision of participation, belonging, contribution, and commoning.’

Research Trajectories, Big & Small

Handout from a talk delivered in the Lunch & Connect Series for the Ed Policy & Evaluation department

Click here for the handout.Today I led the department of Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation‘s Lunch & Connect meeting on Zoom, focusing on the topic: “Research Trajectories: From Idea to Presentation, to Journal Article, to Book.” I had intended to record the meeting, but due to some of the complication of starting a zoom meeting, making sure people had the link to the virtual handout, etc., I managed not to hit record before starting… Oh well. For today’s session, I made a handout and outline for the meeting I facilitated and led. That outline and handout are available here or by clicking on the Adobe logo on left.

Image of a rocket's trajectory.

I’m grateful to SpaceX-Imagery for permission to use this image.

The EPE department’s Lunch & Connect series is meant to help us stay in touch with each other during the time of COVID-19. Today, October 16th, was the day for which I signed up and weeks ago I had reached out to graduate students who participate in the Agraphia writing meeting that I run weekly, to ask what they’d like to hear about. This was one of the options that I had thrown out and that received the most votes.

John Dewey, standing.

John Dewey.

While the subtitle of my talk reads “From Idea to Presentation, to Journal Article, to Book,” actually it all starts before those smaller matters, with the big picture of one’s aims and career research trajectory. By “career,” I don’t particularly mean to refer to employment, but to the life of one’s research aims. Connecting to the big picture in this way and to who each researcher is represents an outgrowth of John Dewey’s philosophy of education, which calls for recognizing persons’ varied inclinations, interests, and selectivity of attention, as well as their powers, abilities, and attitudes. The big picture need not lead a person to exclude all else, but can allow healthy breaks for divergent projects, while also giving us reasons to watch out for what we often call “rabbit holes.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to give this talk again. If I do so, I’ll be sure to record it. For now, at least, I can share the handout I made for the sake of facilitating today’s meeting. I hope it’s useful.

P.S. If you are interested in studying philosophical issues in education, check out the Philosophical and Cultural Inquiry (PCI) track of the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Ph.D. in Educational Sciences. There aren’t many programs like ours in the country. If you want to learn more, reach out:

The post Research Trajectories, Big & Small first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

what if the people don’t want to rule?

The Athenian tyrannicides found a democracy

It should come as no surprise when elites try to undermine democracies and other forms of republican self-government. It is not in their interest to share power. A republic’s founding story is usually the overthrow of a tyrant, an oligarchical cabal, or a theocrat; and many republics have died at the same hands.

But what if the people don’t want to rule? This is an acute worry at times like the present, when some electorates seem to prefer politicians who disparage democratic values (not just Trump in 2016, but also Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi today) and when the only governments in the world that appear to be broadly trusted are in China, the UAE, India, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Meanwhile, influential frameworks or paradigms in political psychology are raising doubts about people’s ability to participate in–and support–democracy.

Evidence that the people don’t want to rule

These concerns were at least as grave between the world wars, when dictators emerged as popular figures, sometimes attaining office through genuine elections, and when theorists like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter anticipated today’s academic skepticism about people’s desire and capacity for self-government.

One cluster of research on this problem was the Frankfurt School, whose most pressing original topic was the failure of the European working class to support revolution. I don’t happen to share the founders’ Marxism, but theirs was a species of republican theory: they wanted the people (equated with the workers) to rule themselves instead of being ruled by capital. And they were concerned about a very real problem: workers’ support for right-wing authoritarians like Mussolini. By exploring the hypothesis that popular opinion might affect history and not simply result from historical forces, the Frankfurt School broke from one orthodox currant in Marxism. As Wayne Gabardi writes, for them, “the problem was not one of objective conditions, but rather of subjective states. This required a radical rethinking of the relationship between social structure and character structure, political-economic forces and social-psychological syndromes, the material and the mental.” It is reminiscent of today’s focus on “subjective states” as an explanation of outcomes like Trump’s 2016 election.

Wanting to add an empirical dimension to the research, Max Horkheimer hired Erich Fromm to conduct a survey. Fromm and colleagues collected data from 584 Germans, including items about their objective circumstances, their lifeworlds, and their opinions. Among the questions were: “What do you and your wife think about early sex education for children (birth, procreation, sexual diseases)?” and “Do you like jazz?” Fromm and colleagues concluded that many of the workers who belonged to left parties held authoritarian attitudes in their personal lives and showed other telltale signs of fascism, such as anti-Semitism and admiration for Mussolini.

This study was the main inspiration for The Authoritarian Personality, the major work that the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno and several American colleagues published in 1950. (See my recent post on that book’s methodology.) Given the change of time and place, the question had shifted from “Why doesn’t the working class support Marxist revolution?” to “Why don’t voters support liberal democracy?” But the threat was the same: authoritarianism. “The major concern was the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (p. 1). The conclusion was also similar to Fromm’s: a substantial proportion of Americans appeared to be potential fascists.

A comparable finding emerged much later on from John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (2002). Many Americans apparently believed that political disagreement was a sign of corruption and preferred government by disinterested elites.

And the currently very influential Moral Foundations theory of Jonathan Haidt finds that many people display a latent variable of Authority, which sounds at least potentially undemocratic, especially if it is a predominant factor for an individual. At the same time, Moral Foundations theory implies that people will generally be resistant to sharing political power with other citizens who emphasize different Foundations from their own.


Each of these research programs has been criticized.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not field their scales with representative samples of the US population, so they could not estimate the prevalence of potential fascism. They did not attempt to identify pro-democratic personalities or estimate their prevalence. And they did not explore whether there might be left-authoritarians as well as right-authoritarians.

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey (2010) challenged the Stealth Democracy thesis in a paper entitled “Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why?” For part of their paper, they simply asked questions that were the reverse of those fielded by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. For instance, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had tested the proposition: “Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.” Thirty-one percent agreed, which Hibbing and Theiss-Morse considered high. Neblo et al. tested: “It is important for the people and their elected representatives to have the final say in running government, rather than leaving it up to unelected experts.” Ninety-two percent agreed. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that 86% agreed that “Elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems.” But Neblo et al found that 92% agreed that “It is important for elected officials to discuss and debate things thoroughly before making major policy changes.” Hibbing and Theiss Morse found a majority (64%) in favor of the statement: “What people call ‘compromise’ in politics is really just selling out one’s principles.” But Neblo et al found that 84% agreed, “One of the main reasons that elected officials have to debate issues is that they are responsible to represent the interests of diverse constituencies across the country.”

By asking questions that were opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s items, Neblo et al. revealed that even most people who held anti-democratic views also held pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people wanted real dialog and deliberation, but were unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al. is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. People were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they did not reject deliberation in principle but disliked the official debates that they heard about or watched on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if people showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, “95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are ‘very valuable to our democracy’ and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues.” These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments.

Kevin B. Smith and colleagues (2017) cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

I also believe that we should be careful about generalizing the findings of Moral Foundations Theory to political contexts. Haidt et al. ask individuals to make private judgments about emotionally charged questions that are often related to human biological functions: universals. In completing these questionnaires, respondents do not have to act, make decisions together, preserve relationships with fellow decision-makers, follow procedures for group decision-making, or assess the kinds of complex, changing, and morally mixed institutions that are the main topics of politics–things like the US government, or the neighborhood’s public schools, or Islam. (See Flanagan 2016.) The Foundations may recede in importance once we enter the Public Sphere.

What should we make of the evidence?

So far, I have summarized some empirical evidence that challenges the assumption that people really want to govern themselves, and then some rebuttal evidence. But once any evidence emerges that people may not want to deliberate and rule themselves, the worm of skepticism is already inside the apple. Maybe some studies have overstated the prevalence of anti-democratic attitudes; nevertheless, it’s clear that such attitudes exist, and they may be prevalent in a given time and place. That helps to make sense of the fact that 44% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance in office, even today.

This is the main response I would offer: Some people are authoritarian. It is not wrong to construct a causal theory in which these people help to cause democracies to fail. However, that is not the whole causal story. Something makes people authoritarian. If authoritarianism were inherited or hard-wired, then we could not explain massive changes in attitudes toward democracy within the same populations. In Erich Fromm’s time, many Germans were proto-fascists, which they demonstrated by giving Hitler’s party the largest share of the vote in 1932. Today, their descendants widely support one of the stablest and best-performing liberal democracies in history. Context and experience must matter.

Some combination of centuries of feudalism followed by rapid industrialization, the slaughter and then defeat of World War I, hyperinflation, and sophisticated Nazi propaganda could make people into fascists. On the other hand, living in Angela Merkel’s Germany makes or keeps most people liberal and democratic. As Neblo and colleagues show, inviting people to a well-designed deliberative event with their own elected representatives increases their commitment to democracy. The Tocquevillian argument is that “experience with liberty” and “experience with solving problems directly through collective action” inculcate liberal and democratic virtues (Allen, Stevens & Berg 2018, p. 36)

What should we do?

One conclusion might be that elites–the people in charge of institutions–should create rewarding opportunities for self-governance at many scales, from empowered student governments in middle schools to national deliberations that influence Congress.

That conclusion is true but empty. Elites will not share power because they should. They will do so if they believe it is in their self-interest, and they are more likely to reach that conclusion to the extent that the public organizes to demand self-governance. Unfortunately, such pressure will be weak to the extent that most people have lost experience with, and appetite for, self-governance.

A vicious cycle is certainly possible–and probably evident in many countries today. But the situation is not as dire as it might seem. The good news is that we do not need the active support of a majority of citizens to spread opportunities for self-rule. Some of us can build such opportunities and invite others in, and we can thereby expand the constituency for real democracy.

If we could ask the public–in a truly valid and reliable way–whether they want a deliberative democracy, the results would probably be mixed and ambivalent. Depending on the political context, more or fewer people would agree. Unfortunately, at crisis points, when it’s most important for people to stand up for democracy, their support is likely to be the softest.

But whether a whole society should be a deliberative democracy is not the salient question, anyway. None of us can decide to make it one. The salient question is whether we–you and I and our colleagues and allies–should build and expand opportunities for deliberative democracy in the various contexts where we have influence: our schools and colleges, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and online venues.

The answer to that question may not always be yes. Values other than deliberation and democracy may be paramount in some contexts, such as a scientific lab, an artist’s studio, or a warship. But there are good reasons for us to build more deliberative democratic opportunities than we find around us today. These opportunities can make their immediate contexts better and can extend the public’s appetite for deliberative democracy at larger scales.

Citations: Wayne Gabardi, “The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study by Erich Fromm, Barbara Weinberger and Wolfgang Bonss” (review), New German Critique, No. 41, Special Issue on the Critiques of the Enlightenment (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 166-178; Neblo, M. A., Esterling, K. M., Kennedy, R. P., Lazer, D. M., & Sokhey, A. E. (2010). Who wants to deliberate—and why?. American Political Science Review, 566-583; Smith, Kevin B., John R. Alford, John R. Hibbing, Nicholas G. Martin, and Peter K. Hatemi. “Intuitive ethics and political orientations: Testing moral foundations as a theory of political ideology.” American Journal of Political Science 61, no. 2 (2017): 424-437; Flanagan, Owen. The geography of morals: Varieties of moral possibility. Oxford University Press, 2016. Barbara Allen, Daniel Stevens & Jeffrey Berg, Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate (Lexington Books 2018).

Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom

A Presentation for the Lewis Honors College & for EPE 301 Students at the University of Kentucky

Click here for the handout.On Tuesday, October 13th, 2020, I was invited to give a talk for the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky on “Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom.” This talk is also potentially of interest to students in my EPE 301 course on Education in American Culture. Really, this talk is for any undergraduate who might be interested in taking advantage of opportunities to engage in research or its dissemination beyond the classroom. The handout I used can be opened here or by clicking on the Adobe logo on the right.

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

Students in EPE 301 can use this video as 1 hour of their field experience observations. The dangers of COVID-19 prompted the creation of this option. Most students are probably not studying the subject of this talk for their papers, but all are working on research in their undergraduate coursework. In that context, students might find the content of this video useful for taking their work beyond the classroom. In addition, students interested in an issue about which they suspect that I could offer some useful thoughts can email me with their questions or comments as part of their field experience work:

In the talk, I reference three texts that aren’t mentioned on the handout. Those books were:

Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).

Brewer, Robert Lee. Writer’s Market 2020 (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).

Brewer, Robert Lee. Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agents 2020 (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).

The post Undergraduate Research Beyond the Classroom first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

Tomorrow’s Webinar with AFT on Civics in Real Life and Civics360!

Educator friends, we are doing a webinar tomorrow evening with the American Federation of Teachers Share My Lesson folks, on using Civics in Real Life and Civics360 to teach about civics and current events. We hope that you can join us! Webinar opportunity from the Lou Frey Institute

Thursday, October 15, 2020 – 5:00PM EDT – FREE –

Join Christopher Spinale, Val McVey and Steve Masyada, all of the Lou Frey Institute and Share My Lesson for a conversation on virtual resources for civics and current events. ·

Some of the most difficult topics for educators to address in the classroom are current events. How do we approach current events in a way that connects to our content while also allowing opportunities for both discussion and engagement? · This webinar will share virtual resources that can be used to address current events from a civics lens. The Lou Frey Institute will discuss its Civics in Real Life series, a weekly series which uses civics concepts to explore current events in a one page, student friendly, image rich text. This includes hyperlinks to related content and a closing activity that encourages reflection and engagement. · The webinar session will discuss ways in which this resource can be integrated into both face to face and virtual instruction while also discussing the use of the free Civics360 content platform as a means of building foundational knowledge through a virtual resource. · Available for one-hour of PD credit. A certificate of completion will be available for download at the end of your session that you can submit for your school’s or district’s approval.

six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative

Any serious (non-fiction) thinker makes claims, supports them with warrants, expects each claim to be challenged, and will withdraw a claim if the challenge proves valid.

However, people make many types of claims, with many kinds of warrant.

Here is a chart that suggests six different kinds of claim (descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative) with examples of how a humanist, a social or behavioral scientist, and a natural scientist might make each of them.

humanitiesSocial/Behavioral SciencesNatural Sciences
descriptive claimKing Lear was written soon after Oct. 12, 1605. (Warrant: it refers to “these late eclipses in the sun and moon.”)44% fewer people dined in a restaurant this year than last year.2019 was the second-warmest year on record.
causal claim(s)Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Machiavelli influenced Shakespeare (which may mean: Shakespeare chose Machiavelli as an influence).Mass concern about COVID-19 has reduced demand for restaurants.Increased burning of carbon causes the climate to warm.
classificatory claimKing Lear is a renaissance tragedy.Restaurant meals are a form of consumer purchasing.Carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas.
conceptual claimThe renaissance was the rebirth of classical culture, which included such classical ideas as Stoicism. The price of a commodity is a function of supply and demand.The carbon cycle includes photosynthesis, respiration, burial, extraction, exchange, and combustion.
interpretive claimKing Lear reflects a fundamental pessimism that is incompatible with Christianity. A restaurant meal can be a status symbol or else a mere convenience. n/a (?)
normative claim(s)King Lear is a great play. King Lear displays the moral perils of avoiding love.People should stay out of restaurants to combat COVID-19.We should cut carbon consumption.

Every one of these claims (including the normative ones) is testable and falsifiable. Each one requires some kind of reason–but not the same kind of reason.

Each kind of researcher or scholar makes more than one kind of claim. It is not true that natural scientists rely exclusively on experiments and are only interested in causal claims. They also describe, classify, and build conceptual models.

It is not clear, however, that natural scientists truly make interpretive claims. They certainly interpret data, but I think their interpretations are actually descriptive, causal, conceptual, or classificatory claims. In the humanities, “interpretation” means understanding the subjective meaning of an action for the actors, and that is not possible for most of the natural world–excepting people and perhaps some other animals. In a phrase like “the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics,” I don’t think that the word “interpretation” means what it does for a scholar of human beings. It’s more like a model.

It is also not clear that science–natural or social–provides reasons for normative claims. It is true that we should cut carbon consumption, but not directly because of what science finds. Science describes and explains the situation; to decide that we should do something requires a different kind of reason.

People can provide good normative reasons (or bad ones, which can be rejected), but these reasons do not arise from science. That is why scientists often claim to be value-neutral. In contrast, humanists’ claims often have strong normative implications. To explain, classify, describe, conceptualize, or interpret a human action often provides the grounds for judging it.

See also: navigating the disciplines; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

Joy of Voting Youth Video Contest Open Until October 23rd

Everyday Democracy, an NCDD member org, announced they are hosting a Joy of Voting Youth Video Challenge and submissions are being accepted until Friday, October 23rd. This contest is an opportunity for youth, ages 14-25, to submit a short video on the importance of voting, and which issues being voted on during Election Day, are the most impactful for their communities and our democracy.

Please note, that submissions are limited to residents of Connecticut or those students enrolled at a Connecticut school. Read more about the contest requirements below and find the original posting here.

Everyday Democracy Announces Joy of Voting Youth Video Challenge

The Joy of Voting Youth Video Challenge invites youth and young adults ages 14-25 to submit a video entry between October 1 through noon EST on October 23, 2020 sharing why voting is important. 

Inspired by Eric Liu’s TED Talk on the importance of voting and his Joy of Voting initiative, the Joy of Voting Youth Video Challenge is an opportunity for youth to engage in civic action through a creative medium—videography! Participants in the challenge are invited to create and submit short (1-2 minutes) videos on how voting connects with issues they care about, their communities, and our democracy. What policies or initiatives could be impacted by their vote on Election Day? 

Participants are encouraged to celebrate and promote voting with their peers! 

The 1 to 2 minute videos can include interviews, collages and public domain pictures or images, non-copyrighted music, or employ any other creative means in a video format. Some of the criteria for judging the video entries will include: technical quality and presentation, power of the message conveyed, relevance to the upcoming general election, enthusiasm, and creativity. Participants can submit videos in the 14-17 or 18-25 age categories. Participants must complete an entry form prior to submitting their videos.

A panel of independent judges will establish ranking criteria and help select the winning videos. The public, including participants of the challenge, will then be able to vote on their favorite videos from October 26 to October 30, 2020! More information about this will be made available later in October. The winners will be announced on November 2, 2020 right before the election! The top two finalist videos in each age category will receive $150 and $100 cash prizes and have their videos posted online on Everyday Democracy’s Facebook page and YouTube channel! 

Steps to Enter

  1. Create your 1-2 minute video and give it a name.
  2. Register by visiting: 
    • IMPORTANT: Only submit your application to register once you are finished with your video and are ready to submit!
  3. Upload your video here:
    • IMPORTANT: If you are under 18 years of age, you must also submit a parent consent form with your written application.
  4. Email Zoya Ali at with any questions


Your submission should focus on the importance of voting. Perhaps there is a specific cause, such as environmentalism or police brutality, that you think could be impacted by voting on Election Day. That being said, we want you to have fun and use your creativity! You can shoot your film through whatever technology you have access to, whether it be your phone or a camera. Feel free to use some of these free online programs to edit, including WeVideo, TikTok, Animoto, or GoAnimate to name a few. Just be sure not to fall under the one-minute minimum or exceed the two-minute maximum. 

All video submissions must feature original non-copyrighted or public domain content. Videos must contain non-partisan content. This challenge is about the importance of voting, not the specific candidates.

Participants must be either residents of Connecticut or enrolled in a Connecticut school/college.

Where to submit your video:

Please complete your video entry form here: At the bottom of the written application is a link that will take you to the video submission page on Film Freeway where you will send us your video. Make sure that the title of your video is the same on both the entry form and the video. If you are under 18 years of age, you must also submit a parent consent form with your written application.

To give you some ideas and get you thinking about the importance of voting, here are some relevant links to videos, readings, and tools:

You can find the original version on this on the EvDem’s site at

why protect civil liberties in a pandemic?

With the encouragement of the Journal of Public Health Policy and Springer Nature, I’m posting a pre-print of a forthcoming JPHP article entitled “Why Protect Civil Liberties during a Pandemic?

The abstract:

During a public health emergency, a government must balance public welfare, equity, individual rights, and democratic processes and norms. These goods may conflict. Although science has a role in informing wise policy, no empirical evidence or algorithm can determine how to balance competing goods under conditions of uncertainty. Especially in a crisis, it is crucial to have a broad and free conversation about public policy. Many countries are moving in the opposite direction. Sixty-one percent of governments have imposed at least some problematic restrictions on individual rights or democratic processes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 17 have made substantial negative changes. The policies of Poland and Hungary reflect these global trends and continue these countries’ recent histories of democratic erosion. The expertise of public health should be deployed in defense of civil liberties.

I’ll also quote a passage here:

Imagine a government that is legitimate (having an unquestioned right to make laws and regulations within its territory) and benignly motivated. A pandemic such as COVID-19 will force this government to make difficult decisions. It should strive to maximize public welfare, which can be measured on the dimensions of health, economic prosperity, security, and environmental sustainability, among others. The government should strive for equity, meaning that the costs and harms (as well as any benefits) are distributed fairly. It should attend to individual rights, which can be understood as “trumps” that people may play against policies that benefit the general welfare [2]. For example, an individual may claim a right to move freely when subjected to a quarantine; that claim presents a tradeoff that the government must resolve. Finally, the government should protect political processes and norms, such as a free and vibrant debate and fair elections.

These goods may conflict. Closing businesses has health benefits but also economic costs and may restrain individual economic rights. Allowing a mass protest enhances democratic debate but can allow a virus to spread. The relevant goods are incommensurable—not measurable on a single scale. And governments must weigh and balance them under conditions of uncertainty, not knowing for sure whether closing businesses will help control the epidemic or whether allowing a protest will spread the infection.

Now imagine that a government is neither legitimate nor benign. Perhaps a dictator has seized power in a coup. He, too, will face difficult choices during a pandemic, but there is no reason to expect him to weigh the costs and goods in an impartial fashion. More likely, he will see the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power, eliminate threats, and profit economically. …

upcoming public events on the arts in Boston’s Chinatown, the impact of political polarization on teaching, and voter disenfranchisement today

I’ll be presenting at these two events, which are open and online:

Finding Belonging Amidst Neighborhood Development: A Case for the Arts in Boston’s Chinatown: “The Pao Arts Center uses arts, culture, and creativity to promote social cohesion and community well-being in an ethnic enclave, Boston’s Chinatown. In the same neighborhood, luxury development may be disrupting the community’s close-knit social fabric and sense of a coherent cultural identity. A team comprised of Tufts University researchers, Pao Arts center staff, and community residents investigated whether the Pao Arts Center remedies the effects of this displacement. Preliminary findings from the research will be presented.” Wednesday, October 7, 2020, noon-1:00PM. Register here.

The Impact of Political Polarization on Teaching: “The combination of remote learning blurring the lines between classroom and home, and the hyperpolarized political climate are raising more and more concerns for classroom teachers as they navigate relevant, timely and often controversial topics with their students. Come join a group of civic scholars and educators as they engage in conversation around some of the issues pressing on teachers this school year.” October 8 at 7:00 – 8:00pm ET. Register here.

I also recommend this event, which is public but face-to-face:

Central Square Theater (Cambridge, MA): Women’s Vote Centennial: Voter (Dis)Enfranchisement Today, Thursday, October 8, 2020, 8:30 PM 9:00 PM. More here. (I am listed as a speaker and cannot actually make it, but the real presenters are great.)