Tag Archives: Utopia

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

I Came To Grieve and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

What if the President of the United States gave a speech and all anybody could talk about the next day was the applause? That is not exactly where we find ourselves today, one day after Obama’s remarks at the University of Arizona last night; but it is hard not to talk about the raucousness of the crowd and wonder whether all that hooting and clapping and whistling and hollering was appropriate, and why the occasion wasn’t more serious and solemn.

Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce labeled it “massacre rally theater,” and thought the event outdid even the Paul Wellstone funeral in its cynical exploitation of tragedy. Others were appalled, or pretended to be appalled, by the “Together We Thrive” t-shirts distributed to the audience.

You can write most of that off as mere whining from the right. Of course the event was political; how could it not be? The conservatives protest too much, and they would have a better case if John Boehner had bothered to show up and shed some tears over someone other than himself. Still, I have to wonder how many people in that audience came expecting grief, prayer, or catharsis and left confused by the pep-rally atmosphere and the lousy t-shirt.

I was reminded less of the 2002 Wellstone memorial and more of the 2007 rally at Virginia Tech after Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, inspiring Nikki Giovanni to write yet another very bad poem and raise her arms in triumph as the Hokies in the bleachers let out war whoops. I guess all this cheering and hollering and chanting is one way people have of coming together and lifting themselves up after something inexplicable and terrible happens; and maybe we can’t expect restraint or dignity from a big college crowd, used to gathering at football games and basketball tournaments.

I worry, though, that in the face of shooting rampages or worse, the rally atmosphere makes nuanced discussion nearly impossible, and gives false hope, asking us to pretend we are less divided than we really are, and tries to bring closure prematurely when we should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about where we go from here.

To put it another way, I am not at all sure that Together We Thrive. Dissent and dissonance matter, too; a democracy thrives through difference and division. The whole “Together” theme feels Orwellian, to use an overused word; it celebrates a hive mentality, and smacks of a Utopian fantasy — that we can retreat from history and take refuge in some Togetherness or Unity, or the City of God (as the President himself suggested in his reference to Psalm 46), or that we can escape from the work of politics with a group hug and big, rousing cheer.

Goodness Has a New Flavor, Maybe a New Form


Earlier this week, National Public Radio aired a story about efforts by lawyers in seven states to “rewrite laws” on behalf of social entrepreneurs.

Right now, according to April Dembosky’s report, social entrepreneurs operate in a state of legal limbo: in the eyes of the law, social enterprises are for-profit entities, but they have a non-profit ethos, a concern for doing good or simply doing less or no harm.

The law may respect and admire, but it doesn’t have to recognize that ethos; social enterprise is not – or not yet — a legitimate corporate form. The law in most states currently says that shareholders have the right to sue if your desire to do good compromises their ability to do well, or better than they are already doing. And shareholder value will always trump “social values” in a court of law.

But now there are now serious efforts, mainly in Vermont and California, to create the legal framework for a new, “for-benefit” corporate form. These efforts seek to undo what is commonly called “shareholder primacy” in the for-profit corporation and challenge the idea that the sole duty of corporate directors is to make decisions in the best interests of shareholders – or, as it’s usually put, to “maximize profits” or “maximize shareholder value.” Advocates say that corporations should also have a duty to various stakeholders, including employees and consumers as well as to society as a whole, and that this duty should be on par with, or sometimes trump, fiduciary duties – or, at the very least, that shareholders ought to take into account the costs corporations socialize (e.g., the degradation of the environment) for the sake of shareholder profits.

There is already a for-benefit certification companies can earn. Think of it as a Good Housekeeping Seal for politically progressive investors, job seekers and consumers. But the for-benefit legal movement wants to do much more. For this reason, the movement represents more than another extension of the corporate social responsibility movement, more than a new chapter in the old debate about the public purpose of the corporation that dates back (at least) to the Berle-Dodd debates of the 1930s. The newly-chartered for-benefit corporation or “B-Corp” would, presumably, use “the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.” It would have a legal mandate to do so. In other words, the B-Corp would be a legally chartered, for-profit agent of social change or social “benefit”; its directors would be bound by law to take stakeholder interests and social benefits into account when faced with a decision.

To illustrate the need for the new corporate form, Dembosky looked briefly back to Unilever’s 2000 takeover of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream. As a case study, it’s a bit hackneyed, but as I went back to review it I discovered some distortions in Dembosky’s reporting, and came up against a number of questions about the for-benefit movement, and social enterprise in general, that I’ve run into before.

Ben & Jerry’s is widely regarded as a sort of ur-social enterprise, an early experiment in “hippy capitalism”. The company was founded in 1978. By 2000, Ben & Jerry’s had grown far bigger than its founders ever imagined it would. They needed to raise cash. The company had not solved its distribution problems: Ben & Jerry were still hitching a ride on other “super premium” ice cream distribution networks (mainly Haagen Dazs and Dreyer’s). Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield no longer saw eye to eye. All this made the company vulnerable and the target of speculation.

Still, the company was well past its hippy phase, and this is probably the first place where Dembosky’s story starts to distort the picture.

To hear her tell it, these really cool social entrepreneurs were just making their ice cream and trying to make the world a better place when the Unilever harpy swooped down upon them and carried them away, arms flailing.

Not quite.

First of all, Unilever was already part of a buyout offer engineered by Ben Cohen himself in March of 2000. He had teamed up with Unilever and Meadowbrook Lane Capital; Meadowbrook, a socially responsible investment firm, had put together a group of investors that included Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick. This unlikely trio offered $38 per share; Ben & Jerry’s was then trading at around $30. A shareholder who was privy to the board’s deliberations told the New York Times that the board had approved the deal (over Jerry Greenfield’s angry objections).

But then, in April, things took an unexpected turn. Unilever offered $43.60 per share – a 25 percent premium, almost nine dollars over the then-current share price — for a total offer of $326 million in cash.

Why the aggressive offer? Not because Unilever admired the social mission Cohen and Greenfield had set for their company, except insofar as it added to the buzz of the Ben & Jerry’s brand. Unilever had a nationwide distribution network already in place in the United States and access to European markets; and the company was faced with growing pains of its own: the consensus among analysts was that the company’s “longer-term fundamental growth rate” was “not inspiring.” It needed to enter new markets and find new areas of growth.

When the offer came in, Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors was in no position to refuse, or stand on principle. This much Dembosky had right. However they may have felt about Unilever, however much they may have feared for the social mission of the ice cream company, they were prudent – and they were right — to reject the lower offer from the Cohen-Roddick group in favor of the higher cash offer.

To do otherwise would be to risk being sued by shareholders, and to be accused of neglecting their duty of care – even if the Cohen-Meadowbrook-Unilever group could somehow have proven that they and they alone could keep the ice cream company true to its social mission.

Which is, by the way, exactly what the Cohen-Meadowbrook-Unilever group had done when making their offer. As the Times reported, Meadowbrook Lane “pledged to create a ‘social performance plan’ that would place women and minorities on the board, pay about 7.5 percent of the company’s pretax profits into the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation and provide venture capital to other ‘progressively minded enterprises,’ among other social efforts.”

(Missing from this list – at least as reported by the Times — was the original Ben & Jerry’s compensation scheme, whereby no executive would earn more than seven times what an entry-level employee learned. The company had abandoned that policy in 1995, and apparently there was no going back. But all the ideas in the Meadowbrook package were, and — most people will tell you — still are, very fine sentiments. Whether they are good business practice is open to debate; whether they are to be dignified with the phrase “social mission” or “social responsibility” is even harder to decide.)

In the end, none of this stuff really mattered to the merger agreement. None of it influenced the Board’s deliberations or could make up the difference in the offers. So, when the deal was done, Cohen and Greenfield issued a joint statement celebrating Unilever’s commitment “to pursue and expand a social mission that continues to be an essential part of Ben & Jerry’s,” and the European multinational mumbled something about nurturing community values. None of this talk was binding or even very credible. At the time, it all seemed a little discouraging.

By December of the same year, Ben Cohen was threatening to quit unless Unilever appointed a CEO with the right “business mentality”: “otherwise,” he was quoted as saying, “I’m not interested in hanging around and supporting what I’m sure is a destruction of the company.” It’s worth noting that while making these threats Cohen was angling to have his own choice for CEO, Ben & Jerry’s director Pierre Ferarri, assume the role. He lost that battle. But over time, it seems, the guys from Unilever started to get the idea – or at least they learned how to keep up Ben & Jerry’s “socially responsible” brand.

The company continued to make decisions in keeping with the social agenda Cohen and Greenfield had set for it. It switched to “eco-pint” packaging in 2001. On Earth Day of 2005, Ben & Jerry’s protested oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by delivering a half-ton “Baked Alaska” to the Capitol. In the same year, the company committed to fair trade; and just last month, Ben & Jerry’s announced that its entire “global flavor portfolio” would use only “fair trade ingredients” by the year 2013, engaging with “smallholders, who grow nuts, bananas, vanilla, cocoa and other Fair Trade-certified ingredients.” And in September of 2009, Ben & Jerry’s changed the name of Chubby Hubby to Hubby Hubby, in support of gay marriage.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. But surely there are larger lessons here. What are we to make of the real buyout story, and what does it tell us about the efforts now underway to create a new corporate form?

For Dembosky, the moral of the story, or at least the good news, is that the new for-benefit corporate form will allow – or legally require — a social enterprise to stay true to its mission and its values. It will attract a different kind of investor, one who cares about balancing profits with social costs and social responsibilities. That may be true. But questions remain. Consider what would have happened if Ben & Jerry’s had been legally incorporated as a B-Corp back in 1978, at its founding. How would its for-benefit incorporation have affected its growth? Would it have been possible for the company to make those early distribution deals with Haagen-Dazs or Dreyer’s, without requiring those companies to undergo an intrusive social audit? A fussy shareholder could have demanded it; any early deals or alliances could have been subject to the same additional scrutiny. It sounds cumbersome, and a little absurd.

I’m no lawyer, but I don’t really see how legally-binding social commitments wouldn’t hang over all legally-binding deals or contracts that the B-corporation makes (unless of course the “social values” inscribed into the B-Corp charter are easily manipulated or ignored when it’s convenient to do so). The Meadowbrook Lane social performance plan would have been legally binding, written right into the merger agreement. It’s unclear whether under those conditions Ben Cohen would have been able to bring Unilever to the table at all. Jerry Greenfield might have liked that just fine. But would Unilever have agreed to be bound by the social mission of a Vermont ice cream company? It’s hard to see how that deal would have shaped up under these circumstances, but it’s clear that B-Corp charter would have altered the merger equation. Couldn’t shareholders have objected — as Greenfield did — that Unilever would compromise the company’s social mission, and held the merger up on those grounds?

There are broader and more interesting questions here, too. One has to do with the phrase “for-benefit” itself, and whether it can stand up to very close legal scrutiny, or survive a legal challenge. Current definitions of for-benefit corporations don’t really help in this regard. The Vermont Benefit Corporation Act defines “public benefit” as “a material positive impact on society and the environment, as measured by a third-party standard, through activities that promote some combination of specific public benefits.” That is sufficiently vague as to open the door to all kinds of arguments; and it’s also worth noting that the proposed legislation sets out “no criteria to qualify to be a ‘benefit corporation’.” The company is required only to file “annual reports about its community-oriented work.”

I suppose the “third-party standard” is meant to be reassuring; but it is bound to raise the question who will guard the guardians. That question doesn’t matter all that much when “for-benefit” is simply a certification or thumbs up from the progressive business community, or from the non-profit B-Lab; but when it’s a matter of corporate law, you can expect that someone is eventually going to point out that the third party needs to be checked and balanced, and that the for-benefit corporation is essentially chartered to pursue what looks very much like a political agenda.

Of course it’s nothing too offensive – a concern for the environment, fair dealing, civil rights, workers’ rights. If it were a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, it would be Progressive Passionfruit, or Vibrant Vanilla: easily digestible, soft, kind of sweet. Hope and Change. But what about other flavors, other political agendas to the right or the left of the B-Corporation’s Unitarian progressivism? To put the question bluntly, is B-corporation law essentially legislating an idea of what constitutes a “social benefit,” and therefore deciding for the rest of us what is good? How — outside Vermont – can that stand without a quarrel? What about other ideas of how businesses benefit society? How long before Milton Friedman rises from the grave to tell us that increasing profits is the highest social responsibility of a business? Or what happens to the idea of social “benefits” (for example) when the American religious right gets into the social enterprise game?

What bothers me most about all this is that behind the Unitarian progressivism of the B-corporation, behind much of the talk about social enterprise and delivering social benefits through business, lurks another 19th century idea: benevolent corporate paternalism, which, as I suggested in a recent post, now manifests itself in a more politically correct, palatable way, so kind and soft and sweet and full of concern that it might be better termed benevolent corporate maternalism.

By chartering corporations to deliver social benefits, isn’t society also surrendering power? Instead of rewriting the laws to create for-benefit, for-profit companies, why don’t states more strictly enforce the existing laws, or enact laws on behalf of communities and the environment? The rise of the social enterprise may actually signal society’s loss of its power to regulate and restrict business. These fledgling efforts to rewrite the law may — albeit inadvertently — usher in a new era of lawlessness, in which companies can do whatever they want, as long as they can claim to be doing good.

Despair in Paris

velib70
The New York Times ran an article recently on the failure of another utopian scheme: Vélib’, the Parisian bike sharing and rental program, which has recently come up against “a prosaic reality”:

Many of the specially designed bikes, which, when the system’s startup and maintenance expenses are included, cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.

“The Vélib’” wrote the French paper Le Monde, “was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.” The failures of the bike scheme remind Parisians of other incivilities, like car burnings in the banlieues. This helps explain Parisian despair. The collapse of the Commune in the 19th century, the barricades of ’68, now this?

The real question is whether there are lessons for the rest of us in all this. One has to do with scale. The exorbitant $3500 price tag is just one outward indication that the Vélib’ was created at the wrong scale. No one ever denied that Utopia would come at a price; but only in a centralized, government-run scheme could bicycles for everyday use cost $3500. The Vélib’ was doomed by grand ambitions, engineered and administered from the top down, with the government developing a scheme for good living and well being and then expecting human beings to conform to it.

Scale matters. How much greater the chances of success if, say, a household, or an apartment building, or even a city block, decided to pool their bikes, or buy some cheap used bikes, and then gave everybody a set of locks that opened with identical keys. The smaller scale experiment may not have had the same civilizing influence that the Vélib’ promised to have, and it could never have turned all of Paris green, but it probably would have worked.

Imagine a thief trying to steal a bicycle from an apartment building or a block where everybody had a stake in keeping the bikes available and maintained. Or imagine if someone within one of these smaller communities decided to turn the bikes for a profit on the black market. There would at least be a good chance of deterring or catching the thief; shame and other forms of punishment also work best within families and very small, close communities.

The Parisian experiment reveals a deep flaw — in the experiment, because it was conducted on such a grand scale, but also in human nature; and the latter flaw should have been taken into account when constructing the experiment in the first place.

I know there are some people who will take issue with that last point, and say that what I am calling human nature is a social construct. Change the society, and what you took to be human nature will change with it. The trouble with this view is not just that it meets an objection to social engineering by calling for more social engineering, which means putting someone — who? — in charge of Hope and Change; the problem is also that it imagines we can step outside of history to do all this engineering, and then somehow populate our brave new world with creatures untainted by history — as if there is a place that is really no place, a utopia.

But our lot is this imperfect world. No amount of engineering — social, scientific, or social scientific — will ever restore us to grace. That’s no cause for despair; it’s just a reminder that theory has its limits.

Fleischer’s Utopia

Ari Fleischer is no poet, and it may be unfair to subject his literary figures to very close scrutiny; but I do expect a certain level of rhetorical competence from the man who once was entrusted with making dread pronouncements and weasel-like prevarications from the White House bully pulpit.

That’s why I was a little dismayed as I tried to follow Fleischer’s argument in today’s Wall Street Journal. The central figure of his op-ed asks us to imagine the federal tax code as “an inverted pyramid scheme,” in which the tax code appears in the shape of an upside-down pyramid.

The only the way the pyramid can stand is by spinning fast enough or by having a wide enough tip so it won’t fall down. The federal version of this spinning top is the tax code: the government collects its money almost entirely from people at the narrow tip and then gives it to the people at the wider side.

Leave aside, for the moment, the strange inversion of social class that this metaphor requires: the top ten percent of earners are actually on the bottom of the spinning top and everybody else occupies the ever widening area of the inverted pyramid. Fleischer’s intention is clear enough: he wants to make the point that the 10 percent earning over 92,400 dollars pay over 72 percent of the taxes. They are the tip at the bottom of the top — the tip on which it all spins.

To rectify this situation, and in the name of a “more conservative, fiscal discipline,” Fleischer calls for an “Economic Growth Code,” under which everyone — he even repeats the word for emphasis, everyone — would pay their fair share.

Odd that in this critique of wealth redistribution we should hear a faint echo of Marx (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”); but maybe not so odd: after all, this is Fleischer’s Utopia, where the Republicans have abolished Medicare, Social Security and estate taxes and are running a progressive income tax scheme with “no deductions or credits at all.”

In this topsy-turvy world, “the bottom 50%” — those are people at the broad top of the inverted pyramid — will pay for the government services they now mooch; top earners will sacrifice loopholes and deductions on which they now rely to reduce their tax burden. The tax base will broaden widely. Politicians will no longer exploit the tax code to divide us along class lines.

You may be excused if you don’t yet feel the love. It’s all about keeping the pyramid spinning: “Growth is the key to keeping the pyramid spinning, and to keep spinning the pyramid’s tip needs to be broadened.”

I am no physicist, but the figure here gives me pause. And I can’t get past the rhetorical failure to consider whether there is wisdom in Fleischer’s policy. After all, the broader you make the spinning top’s narrow tip, the more the pyramid will come to resemble a cube, and the slower it will spin. And you will necessarily have to apply more force to keep it spinning.

This isn’t a quibble — or if it is, it may be an important one. Remember, at the start of his piece Fleischer says we have two options: one, to keep the pyramid spinning fast enough; and, two, to broaden the base. What happened to the first option? What happened, in other words, to the argument for increased velocity, or just the image of economic velocity? Why opt for deceleration or cubic inertia if there is, in fact, another option? And what would that option look like? And why doesn’t Fleischer want to entertain that option here?

I don’t want to live or work in a cube; and there is, overall, something gray and grim, something intellectually parsimonious and unexciting, in Fleischer’s notion of growth. Though he says Republicans should “make their mark” by concentrating on economic growth, he never really specifies how they ought to do that, beyond following his prescriptions for tax reform.

No doubt, the tax code needs reform. But rejiggering or revamping the tax code does not add up to a strategy for growth; only a wonk — and a Republican wonk at that — would think it does.

Innovation, new industries and technologies, new business models and new ideas about the role of business in society — none of these have a place in Fleischer’s Utopia, at least as he presents it here. Entrepreneurs, too, go largely unrecognized and uncelebrated, even though their efforts and energies make the top go round and round, sometimes very fast — sometimes even too fast.

No Promethean fire, just a cold calculation of how much each of us owes. Why? Maybe because Ari Fleischer really does think that changing the tax code is the most urgent thing we can do right now to spur growth, or at least the best thing the Republicans can do to regain political advantage. Or maybe because he’s still just the public face of a shady ventriloquist act on which the curtain should have gone down long ago.