Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Liberalism and the politics of passive-aggression

The Dirtbag Left's origin myth typically credits the term to columnist Amber A'Lee Frost - but like most origin myths, this simplifies a far more complicated story. "Dirtbag," after all, is not a name that you give to yourself. It's a name that people call you. It's what people call you if you talk too loudly about getting high after a rough week at work. It's what people call you if you have earnest and informed opinions about the fries at Wendy's. It's what people call you if you enjoy professional wrestling, or laugh at Brandy's sex jokes, or have an avatar of a chubby guy with a bowl haircut and a prominent bluetooth earpiece.

Above all, "dirtbag" is the kind of thing people call their political opponents. And if you're powerless enough, and if you hear this kind of insult enough, what are you going to do? What all marginalized people do: you're going to wear the slur as a badge of honor.

So it says everything about Jeet Heer's latest that he can write an entire article on the insults and incivility of the Dirtbag Left - without even a mention, in passing, about how they got their name.


When an article like Heer's appears, it's tempting to respond with sneers and jeers - that is, to lay out the endless incivilities and attacks leftists endure from liberals. And they aren't hard to find; as Sam Kriss recently noted,
every single pundit or journalist who goes on a moral crusade against left-wing social-media crudery will have, very recently, done the exact same things they’re complaining against. They will have used insults, personal attacks, expletives, epithets, or unpleasant sexual suggestions; they will have engaged in bullying or spiteful little squabbles...
Focus on insults and rudeness, and you will have no problem exhuming the crass hypocrisy of liberals who concern-troll about the rowdy left. But here, I want to note that if you focus on insults and rudeness, you will miss the great assault of liberalism, and an entire language of antagonism and disrespect. Account for this, and you may even begin to suspect that "dominance politics" is not a label best applied to one of the smallest political factions in the United States.


Because as it turns out, liberals (in the colloquial American sense) share with conservatives absolute power in this country; they control our politics, our economy, our culture, our institutions, our discourse, our memories of the past, and our visions of the future. And the left's true rival, liberalism in the international / philosophical sense, is even more dominant; it exercises global hegemony to a degree that is simply without historical precedent. For the socialist, liberalism is a system which subjects us to constant violence, antagonism, and degradation - and complicity in this system means complicity in all of these attacks.

It's easy for this sort of point to become lost in abstraction, so consider this specific example: lesser-evil voting.

Every two-to-four years, leftists are reminded that we have to vote for Democrats; invariably, we are told that this obligation has been imposed not by liberals, but by "the two-party system", which has cornered everyone into the lesser evil dilemma once again. And yet it is plainly true that liberals have no real interest in ending this system; there is never any serious effort by elected Democrats or by their (overwhelmingly liberal) constituents to do so. Some of them will even fight such efforts, but in general this kind of active opposition isn't at all necessary - if they want to dominate leftists, liberals can just stay at home and do nothing at all. This is how liberals tell leftists to bend the knee.

Or consider the popular liberal slurs "brocialist," "dudebro," "Bernie Bro," and so on. Confront one of the cleverer liberals about this, and they will insist that they aren't actually using this slur to misgender leftist women - they're just using it to narrowly refer to leftist men. But liberals can play coy about this precisely because media and political messaging organs have spent several years baking into our discourse the myth of a male-exclusive left; and those organs, of course, are overwhelmingly controlled by liberals. The insult to women is as crude and vicious as you will ever hear from anyone else on the political spectrum, but liberals don't have to say it out loud anymore; they can just blow the dog-whistle, and the public will hear what liberalism has taught us to hear.

These are the dominance politics of liberalism: they are far more hurtful, far more belligerent, and far more consequential for political outcomes in our world than the petty insubordination and cathartic irreverence of American socialism. Understand dirtbagism as a big fuck you to the Chaits, Tandens, and Ygelsiases who defend this imbalance of power, and Jeet's reproach about fraternity and sorority starts to sound a lot like that classic refrain: "So much for the tolerant left."

It's true: socialism is going to be aggressive in its fight for justice and equality. Liberalism, meanwhile, can play a different game - for example, it can issue constant, one-sided calls for civility across its massive industrialized media apparatus, knowing full well that only a few voices (like Chapo Trap House) will ever respond. As Stanley Fish put it, "Liberals...need not be so aggressive (although they will always be passive-aggressive) since the field, as it is presently demarcated, is already theirs."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Two points about that Jacobin climate change piece

Daniel Aldana Cohen, writing for Jacobin, is critical of The Uninhabitable Earth - a new piece on potential climate change outcomes by David Wallace-Wells. As far as I can tell, Cohen is making two distinct arguments - but while he scores a few point on the way, I don't think they amount to a case that DWW's article "gets it painfully wrong."


The political story

First, Cohen argues that "the real climate danger" will hit before any of DWW's worst-case scenarios. In a few cases, he probably has a point: if Bangladesh launches sulfates into the stratosphere, or if Pakistan starts a nuclear war over control of the Indus river, things could go wrong for the human species quite quickly. These risks are far more immediate than the remote Canfield ocean scenarios DWW goes into, and deserve our attention.

But DWW, we are told, hasn't just ignored a few specific threats. Repeatedly, Cohen insists that what DWW neglects is "the real...(and political) story"; thus, The Uninhabitable Earth is only "ostensibly" a "discussion of what humans are doing to themselves". Instead of grappling with things like "brutal inequalities" and "a vicious right-wing minority imposing the privilege of the few over everyone else," DWW has focused on "pure weather scenarios"; damningly, "the word capitalism appears [only!] four times in this many-thousand-word piece."

This framing turns Cohen's specific objections into a full-blown, systematic leftist critique - but not, I think, a fair one.

DWW is not ignoring "what humans are doing to themselves" when he writes about the ecological consequences of human behavior. To insist that he "misses the action around poli-econ" is to imply that the scenarios DWW surveys are not themselves political-economic outcomes - consequences of inequality and antidemocratic privilege. And DWW is quite explicit about this: he blames "fossil capitalism" for its "devastating long-term cost: climate change."

Recognize that DWW is taking on a political problem, and Cohen's left critique falls apart: DWW is neither ignoring the sociopolitics of climate change nor neglecting to implicate capitalism. Instead, he's just guilty of an analytical error. DWW has written about some of the dangers of climate change, but neglected a few of the most immediate.


The hopeless cause

Early on in The Uninhabitable Earth, DWW offers an important caveat:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.
And Cohen, for his part seems to agree: "obviously," he writes, "absent any real action to reduce emissions we're fucked." But even as he affirms DWW's account on the merits, Cohen thinks that it "is socially and politically hopeless" to have published it; what is needed, he concludes, "isn't a better grasp of science," but rather "political campaigns that foreground...hope."

It strikes me as odd to insist that DWW is pessimistically peddling "disaster porn" and to argue that he has omitted "the real and scary" story - dangers that are even more imminent. Still, setting that inconsistency aside, Cohen is raising an important question for the left: is the science of climate change so profoundly hopeless and depressing that we should just keep quiet about it, particularly when it comes to acknowledging some of the worst-case scenarios?

On one hand, climate science is objectively depressing - it's even depressing the scientists themselves. And it's true that hopelessness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Chomsky put it, "If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope." So I suppose that one can't entirely dismiss this objection, either; if your end-game is stopping climate change rather than education for the sake of education, perhaps it makes sense not to draw attention to the most intimidating worst-case scenarios.

On the other hand, however, I remain hopeful that the public can handle the science DWW lays out and continue with the hard work of climate change activism. Why? Ironically, because of Cohen himself: "Yes," he writes,
obviously, absent any real action to reduce emissions we’re fucked. BUT: That is not going to happen.
By the fourth sentence of his article, Cohen has conceded the entire premise of The Uninhabitable Earth - and he has demonstrated, through his own example, that one can be familiar with these scenarios and still expect to avoid them. Cohen has read the same scientific papers DWW has, and yet remains admirably committed to the fight against climate change. Can't we handle the truth, too?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What replaces discourse

I don’t think anybody has any idea about what replaces rights and discourse. Using “liberal” as a slur without showing your work and proposing a meaningful real-world alternative does not advance the cause of achieving socialism-in-fact in our own lifetimes, and that’s what I’m after — real democratic socialism, in the real world, before I die. To get it we need to be a movement of political substance, not a social circle. - Freddie deBoer
What I think will replace discourse, at least, is a greater recognition of the limits of human agency. People will lose faith in their ability, as individuals, to manipulate political outcomes at a significant scale. The psychosocial impulse to do so will be generally understood as a form of anxiety, and people will cope with it by embracing various forms of quietism. Liberals will be remembered for wildly overestimating their ability to influence others and change the course of history, and variously judged as controlling egomaniacs, laudably ambitious, or simply unenlightened.

Historically, this is not a new or even uncommon perspective; it broadly echoes the temperament and rationalizations of the ancient Sumerians, the Stoics, and various strains of Buddhism and Christianity. This sort of philosophy generally emerges in ages of hardship as the world increasingly feels malevolent and beyond our ability to control. "In bad times," Bertrand Russell writes, philosophers "invent consolations."

I don't predict any of this approvingly, but between capitalism and our accelerating ecological crises, it seems to me pretty likely. Freddie is correct in his observation that this skepticism of discourse expresses "an assumption of permanent powerlessness". And people feel that way for a reason.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Why is CAP pushing a center-right healthcare bill when it knows it's going to lose?

There are all kinds of subtle and complex problems with the Market Stability and Premium Reduction Act - the Center for American Progress's proposed alternative to Trumpcare - but the most telling one is pretty blatant:
Neera Tanden and Topher Spiro offer a simple plan to stabilize the individual markets that Republicans could easily support.
That's how Paul Waldman describes the bill's prospects in the Washington Post, and he's on-message with CAP. "Senate Republicans...can work with Senate Democrats," Tanden and Spiro insist in their write-up of the bill. And in Vox, Spiro repeated the same line: "We are at an inflection point where there’s an opportunity for senators to choose a different path."

But in that same article, Jeff Stein makes the obvious point:
The plan is almost certainly dead on arrival with a Republican caucus that has been bent on dismantling Obamacare for years.
This is an understatement. The MSPRA will not be enacted into law. It will not even come close. And everyone talking about this bill as if it's actually a potential alternative to Trumpcare knows that it will never pass. The Center for American Progress didn't commission this project with any real expectation that it will.


I point this out because it marks one of those rare moments in American politics where liberals cannot claim to be constrained by inconvenient pragmatism. Ordinarily, when liberal politicians and policymakers abandon their constituents, their go-to move is to insist that they are just doing what it takes to stop the Republicans. That's why terrible "compromises" are necessary; that's why Democrats have to constantly give up ground and settle for crumbs.

This, for example, was Representative Barbara Lee's excuse for abandoning single payer at the DNC platform committee just last year:
Every single Democrat in the House, we fought very hard for either single-payer or public option. We got as much as we could get as Democrats...The political dynamics weren’t there on the outside to do that.
But today, the political dynamics are there - precisely because CAP cannot win this fight. The odds of any CAP-crafted healthcare bill making it through Congress as an alternative to Trumpcare are effectively zero. The GOP may fail to pass Trumpcare, but if that happens it will be because of the GOP, not because of any clever maneuvering from CAP.

Once we dispense with the pragmatic-compromise explanation for the MSPRA, it's much easier to understand what CAP is doing. They are proposing a "bipartisan" patch on Obamacare, not because they think they can win through compromise, but because they largely agree with what Republicans want to do. They are promoting market-based healthcare instead of embracing popular support for single payer because they do not want to see single payer succeed. There's no counter-intuitive chess game going on here; liberals are telling the left exactly what they want, and we would do well to take them at their word.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump is not going to abandon NATO

Abandoning NATO "would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike" - and this is exactly what will happen, Hillary Clinton warned, "if Mr. Trump gets his way".

Since that speech in 2016, we've heard the warning time and time again. It came most recently after Trump's first NATO meeting, when The New York Times editorial board suggested that "the United States might not defend [NATO] allies under attack" - a concern echoed by pundits like Zack Beauchamp, Josh Marshall, and Ned Resnikoff, among others. Among the liberal commentariat, at least, the consensus is clear: Trump pulling out of NATO and reneging on our military obligations under Article 5 is an actual possibility that could really, actually happen.

This is madness. Donald Trump is not going to abandon NATO. If Donald Trump wanted to abandon NATO, his advisors would talk him out of it. If Donald Trump tried to abandon NATO, he would be impeached almost immediately, by a bipartisan vote. The US is far too invested in NATO for any president to who does not want a revolt on his hands to sever ties.


"We need to look at the facts"

The reasons for this aren't particularly mysterious. As the New York Times laid out earlier this year, What the U.S. Gets for Defending Its Allies and Interests Abroad is substantial: trillions of dollars in trade and uninhibited access to energy supplies and other resources. Simply maintaining NATO with arms sales is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the profits go to companies with armies of lobbyists and powerful PACs.

That's why Trump won't even try to leave NATO. It's why he's not even inclined to, Elliott Abrams writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:
...after repeatedly disparaging NATO, Trump backtracked...The alliance, Trump now declared, was "no longer obsolete."...it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades...the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.
Abrams is a Republican, but he's no isolationist - he's a neoconservative hawk, and if he saw any danger of Trump abandoning NATO, he'd be among the first to panic. Similarly, consider how someone on NATO's front line - Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia - responds to the usual alarmist hyperbole from Sarah Kendzior:
“In the new administration's steps, I see not a single U-turn,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, referring to Washington’s historical defense of Baltic states. 
She crisply and dryly upbraided a couple of American panelists including writer Sarah Kendzior, who warned Baltic nations to be “wary” of a president “with obvious autocratic leanings…who is not rational, who is destructive.” 
“When we're done with synchronizing all our gossip about the new administration, then we need to look at the facts,” [Kaljulaid] said.

Business as usual

As it turns out, the facts of Trump's military don't much resemble his campaign rhetoric. Abrams highlights Trump's reversal on Syria, but the evolution of his military budget is even more instructive.

As recently as February, Trump promised a "historic" increase in military spending, and on the campaign trail he made even more elaborate promises: for example, calling for a 350 ship Navy. But in his first actual budget, Trump simply continued Obama-levels of spending. And in a revealing article for The Hill, multiple sources outlined a budgeting process that barely involved Trump at all:
There is also wide speculation that the defense plan is the work of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney...Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s unlikely Trump even knows the details of his defense request or the ways it does not follow through on his promises.
Kendzior may imagine Trump as some kind of tyrannical autocrat, but autocrats don't delegate major defense decisions out to accountants and second-tier wonks. In fact, despite his role as Commander-in-Chief, Trump has now found himself entangled in one of the greatest bureaucracies the world has ever known: the military-industrial complex of 21st century America. He is now utterly reliant on a massive apparatus of advisers, managers, and political operatives to guide and enact his decisions, and as Abrams observes, "Trump’s national security team embodies 'the Establishment' as much as John F. Kennedy’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s did."

Reporting in Politico gives a hint as to how this dynamic is playing out with respect to NATO. When Trump neglected to affirm America's commitment to Article 5 in a recent speech, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott predicted "a very dangerous and damaging effect" - and in dire tones, Politico lays out "the ripple effects from the Trump NATO speech-that-wasn’t":
[a] rift...during the private dinner...unusually frank criticisms...Trump’s rebuffed national security leaders...left in increasingly awkward positions...
Despite these dinner feuds and frank critiques, however, Defense Secretary James Mattis still managed to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore. Mattis is just one of multiple pro-NATO voices in the administration, Politico notes, and despite Trump's ongoing bluster, it appears that he and everyone else are still proceeding with business as usual.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Capitalism protects bigots

Two weeks ago, talk show host Bill Maher used a racial slur on the air. This week, Nation columnist Joan Walsh declared that Palestinians are white and suggested that she is a person of color. Immediately, in both cases, the familiar mechanisms of liberal discourse discipline set in motion. Maher and Walsh were immediately called out for their offenses. Critics shamed them for what they said, educated the public about why it was wrong, and even called for boycotts of Walsh and Maher's employers.

Two weeks later, Bill Maher is back to saying gross things in public - and undoubtedly Walsh will be too, sooner than later.

Everyone knows why this is: Maher and Walsh are rich. And they are protected by people who are even wealthier, and by companies who are even richer still. Rich people don't care if you try to shame them and don't have to listen to your persuasive critiques. Usually they don't even care about boycotts, because rich people can afford to lose a little business. The richer they are, the less they have to care.

By the way: wealth also means influence. It means that your personal bigotries infect everything you control - including, as Maher and Walsh demonstrate, giant media platforms that can broadcast racism to a mass audience. So perversely, the people who have the most control over our culture are the people who are least subject to liberal discourse discipline. In this way capitalism becomes a massive engine of pathology, endlessly generating and amplifying oppressive discourses that are insulated from social regulation. The paradigm example of this dynamic, of course, is Donald Trump - a deranged sociopath whose astronomical wealth lifts him above shame, criticism, persuasion, and social pressure of any kind. And who, through his astronomical wealth, has become one of the most influential voices in America.


Will breaking up the big banks end racism and sexism? Probably not! But if your plan to fight bigotry involves a lot of education and social pressure and persuasion, it's clear that this would be a lot easier on a level economic playing field. In a world of extreme economic inequality, liberal discourse discipline may chasten the least influential among us - but it will tend to leave the most powerful untouched as they firehose their bigotry into our culture. An intersectional understanding of racism acknowledges capitalism's role in amplifying it - though we should not expect rich people like Walsh and Maher to talk about this, for obvious reasons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The powerful aren't going to learn any lessons from Corbyn

Against incredible odds and pundit expectations, Jeremy Corbyn has won one of the most stunning victories in British electoral history. He won by running unabashedly to the left, promising nationalization, to tax the rich, to expand public services, and to expand worker rights. And he did all of this not only in opposition to the UK's radical right, but to his critics in the liberal center.

Corbyn's victory has so many direct implications for American politics that it's tempting to think of this as a victory for the American left as well. It demonstrates that instead of simply running to the right and trying to peel off their voters, a party can win by mobilizing voters who prefer left priorities and positions. It demonstrates that voters want to see their basic economic concerns substantively addressed, even in ways that reject capitalist orthodoxy. And it demonstrates that our political operatives, mass media and intellectual elites often have no special insight into political realities - and that they are systematically, overwhelmingly biased against the radical left.

In a sane, rationalistic discourse, this would all have a profound impact on American politics. Corbyn's victory would inform the efforts of our party leaders, policy planners, media managers, and rank-and-file activists, and the result would be a clear and immediate radicalization of American politics.

But this is not, of course, what will actually happen.

What will actually happen is that people who have an interest in learning the wrong lessons will tend to learn the wrong lessons. Liberal centrism has been terrible for most people, but it has been very good to a few, and these people do not want to learn anything that threatens their world. These people live extremely comfortable lives, and they believe that they have earned these comforts through hard work and personal talent. For this reason, they have a powerful incentive to rationalize away any political lessons that could hurt their self-image or take away their privilege.

This point may seem obvious, but its implications are easy to forget when we are immersed in the ideology of liberal rationalism. If you think that the central arena of political struggle is the "marketplace of ideas", and that progress is just a matter of education and intellectual persuasion, then you'll be inclined to downplay the role that motivated reasoning plays in our politics. This is an odd mistake to make, because the research is quite clear about how political bias distorts our perception and reasoning; because Marxist theory explicitly rejects this notion of rationalism; and because our ordinary experience interacting with other people demonstrates the problem constantly. It's extraordinarily rare that anyone changes their mind in a political discussion, or learns anything that radically changes their beliefs.

And unfortunately, this problem of ideological investment is most pronounced among the people who are in the best position to change our politics. If you are a decision-maker in the Democratic party, you almost certainly got to where you are by embracing and fighting for Third Way liberalism. If you make major editorial decisions at a national media outlet, it's probably because you adhered to bourgeois norms of professionalism and insisted on an editorial direction amenable to shareholders and marketers. If you build a career in an influential think tank, you will spend a lot of time deferring to your director, and your director will spend all of her time worrying about political access and large-donor funding. All of these people, moreover, will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts: they'll have a comfortable, stable, well-paying job with good benefits, and they'll constantly be showered in praise for their intelligence, professionalism, diligence, and so on, by networking colleagues and magnanimous bosses.

That's why we're already seeing all kinds of ridiculous, tryhard arguments in America against the obvious lessons of Corbyn. We're hearing that Labour would have done even better than its already spectacular win if it had only run a completely different centrist campaign. That UK voters did not actually care about the issues that affected them at all, but were simply voting for Corbyn as a weird symbolic gesture against Donald Trump. That British politics are so different from what happens in America that there are no lessons to be learned here - even though the same people, when Corbyn was losing, insisted that he was demonstrating the futility of leftist politics in the US.

To be sure, Corbyn's win is a victory of solidarity for the American left, because we have a stake in what happens to our comrades all over the world. And certainly there are people in the US who are not invested in centrist-liberalism, who will see what Corbyn did, and who may decide that it can happen here, too. But the people in control - the people with power - aren't going to change their minds because of Corbyn. Which is why we have to do precisely what the British left just did: take their power away.