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Russiagate "denialists" haven't denied anything - 3/25/19
A recurring feature of the Russiagate discourse has been an attempt to villify skeptics as reflexive, absolute "denialists" who irrationally dismiss allegations against Trump. They do this, the line usually goes, either out of lazy contrarianism or because they are secretly sympathetic with the right.

This line of attack has usually been launched by overt Democratic loyalists, but it has also come from leftists who labor to position themselves - on this issue, at least - as reasonable moderates.

And yet, if you look at what the most prominent Russiagate skeptics have actually said and written over the past few years, you'll find that the "denialist" attack has very little basis in reality. There is, of course, a statistically inevitable subset of weirdos that the charge might stick to, but among the actual most influential and vilified skeptics of Russiagate, what you actually find is a stance of explicit agnosticism. In fact, many of the skeptics have openly stated their suspicions that Trump has committed crimes - but simply insist that their suspicion does not amount to proof. And that the entire controversy is, in any case, what the left has called it from the start: a selective, flimsy, and bizarre crusade riddled with conspiracy theory and xenophobic paranoia.

To spell this out, a brief selection of quotes from some of the more prominent and notorious Russiagate skeptics:


Glenn Greenwald:
"I’ve said that of course it’s possible that Russia and Putin might have hacked, because this is the kind of thing that Russia does to the U.S., and that the U.S. has done to Russia, and to everybody else in the world—and far worse—for decades." He’d never insisted "on the narrative that Russia didn’t do it." ...Greenwald bristled at the suggestion that he had ever considered the idea of Russian interference a hoax. "I never said anything like that," he said, explaining that his demand for serious evidence was connected to the deceptions propagated before the Iraq War.

Noam Chomsky:
"If there's going to be collusion I think we can guess what it is. Maybe he made some deal to have the Trump hotel put up in Moscow. Okay. That's corrupt. But it's the kind of corruption that's unfortunately all over the place."

Noam Chomsky, 2:
"So yeah, maybe Russians tried to interfere in the election. That's not a major issue. Maybe the people in the Trump campaign were talking to the Russians. Well, OK, not a major point, certainly less than is being done constantly."

Aaron Maté:
"Both Schiff and Nadler have now launched what two major outlets have described as “turbocharged” and “supercharged” congressional probes of Trump’s ties to Russia and alleged corruption. Perhaps they will uncover evidence that federal investigators have missed."

Matt Taibbi:
"To be clear, I don’t necessarily disbelieve the idea that there were 'illicit' contacts between Trump and Russians in early 2015 or before. But if there were such contacts, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why their nature should be withheld from the public."

Ben Norton:
"I don't know if anyone can figure out what the hell is going on, and I think we should stop until we can figure out what's going on. But that's just me."

Max Blumenthal:
"The focus has been on the allegation of...the meeting between that Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner...took with Natalya Veselnitskaya and her group...was this meeting treasonous? It was certainly idiotic, but the reality of the meeting is that Trump Jr. and Kushner were lured to the meeting with the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton...to the extent that these were Russian officials, that should be troubling..."

If you have any quotes that I've missed, feel free to let me know.
Climate change and left attempts to discourse-game public opinion - 3/21/19
Geoengineering approaches to climate change have been met with significant skepticism on the left. Some of it is perfectly reasonable: a few of the more radical proposals on the table need much more research and development before they are at all viable, and there are good reasons to believe that some of them will never be safe and effective. It's entirely possible that we will never come up with a good way to do stuff like stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which is a reason why anyone who is concerned about the future of our planet needs to pursue other approaches as well.

Among these more credible lines of skepticism, however, I've often encountered one that's far more dubious: the appeal to moral hazard. Advocates for geoengineering aren't just calling for an approach that is potentially flawed; in so doing, they are actively taking away support from climate change mitigation plans that are far more credible!

This may seem like a modest assessment on its face, but it's actually a fairly ambitious theory about how our political discourse works. Different proposals about how to deal with climate change exist in a kind of zero-sum economy with each other, competing for public support in a kind of intellectual rivalry - a "marketplace of ideas", if you will. Because some activists see the discourse this way, they are worried that support for geoengineering means that their preferred approaches will lose; it just goes without saying for them that people will reason through the possibilities a certain way, and decide that we can do either one thing or the other.

Anyway, this isn't just an extremely elaborate theory of how our discourse works - it's also, it turns out, empirically incorrect:
In a large-scale framed field experiment with more than 650 participants, we provide evidence that people do not back-pedal on mitigation when they are told that the climate change problem could be partly addressed via SAI. Instead, we observe that people who have been informed about SAI mitigate more than people who have not.
Set aside our armchair speculation about how people are thinking about climate change, and about how they react to certain ideas and proposals that emerge in the discourse - set these theories aside and look at what people actually do when you talk to them about geoengineering, and the evidence is quite clear. What happens is that people become more supportive of geoengineering and mitigation. Ironically, this means that even if geoengineering is not a good way to address climate change, simply talking about it seems to increase support in approaches that are productive.

In any case, the general lesson here goes well beyond climate change. Political discourse is often about persuasion, and in our efforts to persuade the left often becomes invested in extremely ambitious theories about how the discourse works. These theories are rarely put explicitly, much less defended, but they are the basis of all kinds of strategies and just-so proclamations about Overton window shifting, argument framing, tactical word choice, and so on.

As a matter of fact, however, we really know very little about how the discourse works, or about how certain arguments and narratives ultimately prevail. Often, the most you can really do is say things seem true; when it comes to ultra-savvy rhetorical manipulation and discourse-gaming schemes, leave that to the hypnotists and pickup artists.
A few notes about "localism" - 3/13/19
I

The fundamental antagonism in capitalist society is between the bourgeoisie - which fights to retain private control of the means of production - and the proletariat, which fights to reclaim social control. This is why class conflict, at its heart, is a war for the abolition of private property. We fight to abolish it not only when it is expressed as an individual right, but also as a corporate right, a national right, or as any other kind of right that contests the sovereignty of the international proletariat. And that also includes assertions of a local right.


II

Capitalists correctly understand that their politics are built upon the ideological foundation of private property rights, which is why so much of their polemic is organized around defending them. They are, of course, defended in different ways. Conservatives say that private property rights are "god given"; libertarians appeal to a supposed "Non Aggression Principle". Lawyers often defend private property rights through corporations law, which places them in the hands of a legal fiction. Internationally, private property rights are defended through "borders", another fiction that defies popular sovereignty with the construct of national sovereignty.

That discourse of nationalism cannot, historically or politically, be untangled from the discourse of localism. Both defy popular sovereignty by constructing a group identity based on geography and placing them at odds. Both deny the stake that anyone outside of a certain (fundamentally arbitrary) boundary may have a stake in what happens inside of it. Both, in their segregation of humanity into distinct tribes with competing property claims, replicate the ideology of private property - and foster its extension into other domains.

That is why, in the United States, the language of reaction has so often been the language of localism. When our founding patriarchs built the Senate and the electoral college, they justified it as a defense of local prerogatives against the popular mob. When  Confederates fought for slavery, they justified it as a defense of states rights against the tyranny of the Union. When libertarians defend capitalism, they defend it as small local businesses that are optimally positioned to receive price signals that distant beltway bureaucrats would ignore. When nationalists oppose immigration, they invariably invoke local entitlement to jobs and wealth. It is not an accident that they are all speaking the same language.


III

Left appeals to localism often position it against alienation. This has the advantage of appealing to intuitions about how society has become too complex and too large, about how "distant" we feel from each other and from the levers of power, and so on; it also has a particularly Marxist resonance, with the subtext that there is a body of material analysis behind this kind of objection.

But when Marx writes about alienation, he is not making some in-general objection to social complexity, or to interdependence with distant people, or even with distant people having some say in our shared society. What he is specifically interested in are the kinds of "alienation" that directly result from our lack of control over the means of production. This is the fundamental problem that Marx comes back to as he discusses the different ways that alienation emerges under capitalism: "All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object." [1, emphasis added]

The question, then, is not whether worker control over production will be local - it's whether it will be control. When workers have no control over their labor, they feel no investment in how they are spending their time, in what they have created, in who they have created it for, and in who they have created it with. The task of the socialist is to give them as much control over all of this as we can, not only to give them power but to restore to them a sense of purpose and meaning.

Obviously, it will sometimes make sense to do this by decentralizing control over production as much as possible. To insist that socialism will dictate when workers go to the bathroom or whether they can listen to music is the province of right-wing caricature and red-baiting. Other times, maximizing worker control over production will mean the exact opposite, particularly when production has global consequences. Should your community co-op be allowed to pump greenhouse gasses into the air in the name of "localism"? Of course not, and the reason is simple: this is an aspect of production that effects all workers.

Socialism asserts the right and the authority of the proletariat to make these decisions. It asserts this against any and all competing claims to authority, including local claims. This is how socialism overcomes the alienation of capitalism. How the people will choose to exercise their authority - whether centrally, or by deferring to locals - is a circumstantial question with no in-general answer.

It should be clear, then, how caught up localism is in right-wing assertions of private power, rejections of popular sovereignty, and constructions of nationalist identity. It plays into right-wing efforts to contrast state power with personal power, and (contra Marx) to blame state power for capitalist alienation. Intellectually, these appeals to localism find their home not in the socialist tradition, but in the right flank of anarchism - at best. 
Russiagate isn't about foreign influence. The attacks on Ilhan Omar are proof. - 3/5/19
If the ongoing political attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar proves one thing, it's that Islamophobia is alive and well in the United States - and at the highest levels of power. If it proves two things, it's that the Democratic Party is absolutely incapable of acting as a competent opposition party. And if it proves three things, it's that Democratic concerns over the influence of foreign governments are an absolute farce.

From the very start, most of the US left recognized Russiagate for what it is: an opportunistic crusade fueled by a legitimate desire to defeat Trump, a cynical drive to displace blame for Clinton's failure, and a dangerous subtext of Russophobic xenophobia. Over the past year, however, a new approach has emerged: leftists who argue that we can rehabilitate Russiagate into a principled, across-the-board critique of foreign influence. Ryan Cooper, for example, writes:
Russiagate...[is] a much better fit for conservatives and cruise missile liberals who want to punish Putin on nationalist grounds. But that is not a necessary conclusion...the main objective ought to be securing American institutions — purging them of the corruption that allows someone like Putin to waltz in and get what he wants. The American government should be responsible to the American people.
Ryan's argument echoes that of David Klion:
This is the context in which Russian interference should be understood: not as an unprecedented attack on US institutions, but as an especially dramatic example of how those institutions have been made vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments and financial interests.
Both authors acknowledge at least some of the failings of the Russiagate discourse to date - but both also insist that we can somehow take it back and use it as a vehicle for a broader campaign against foreign influence.

The attacks on Rep. Omar, plainly fomented by lobbying groups like AIPAC and shamelessly abetted by nearly the entire Democratic establishment, should put that plan to bed once and for all. The Democratic Party clearly sees no inconsistency in its relationship with Russia and its relationship with Israel, and the reason is obvious: no one in power actually cares about the influence of foreign governments. Democrats are openly villifying the very suggestion of "dual allegiance" to another nation. They do not make a political connection between Russian influence and Israeli influence; they don't even make a conceptual connection between the two. This is not a rational discourse. We are not going to logically corner the Israeli government's allies into abandoning their politics by pointing to Vladimir Putin, and it's absurd to even try.

Leftists absolutely should be concerned about government meddling in foreign democracies, but we clearly aren't advancing that fight by letting Russiagate co-opt it. If you want to take on the blob, take on Israel - a lobby so powerful that you can get censured by acknowledging its very existence. Take on Saudi Arabia. Better yet, take on the United States, which is engaged in plenty of meddling of its own.
Time to fight - 2/19/19
Bernie Sanders is running for president. I could make the case that we should support him here, but a lot of other people are already doing that, and doing it better. Instead, I want to use this space to make a slightly different point: the time to make your decision is now. Because the center is already fighting to win - and if you do want to win the presidency and you do not act now, you will find yourself out-organized, out-numbered, out-resourced, and out-argued before you can even throw your first punch.

Romanticized visions of American democracy imagine the party primary as a discrete moment in collective decision-making usually just lasting about six months. When the Iowa caucus arrives, the playing field is level, every candidate is equally well-positioned, everyone with a worthy platform is still around, and voters make disinterested on-the-merits judgments about policy and competence.

Obviously this is not how party primaries actually work. What actually happens is that the fight for the nomination begins years before Iowa as competing factions of the Democratic coalition struggle for hegemony. Early on this battle is fairly abstract and unsettled - there is an interregnum in the wake of the last election, a consolidation of factions around emergent rival priorities, and a war of position as different groups fight to frame our politics, build alliances, and gather resources. But today, the shadow primary has already been underway for nearly a year. Candidates are now well into the process of building staff; courting donors, institutional allies, and local kingmakers; fighting for favorable party nomination rules and processes; and promoting their candidacy in the media.

And the center is already on the attack. Wall Street is already running attack ads, influential elites are already picking sides, and candidates are already breaking fundraising records.


There is a certain narrative on the liberal-left that finds this urgency objectionable - that counsels deliberation, organization, and strategic restraint. Now, we are told, is the time to learn about the candidates; to build our influence and organizational capacity; and to make candidates compete for our support. In tone, this is the voice of patient wisdom, disinterested independence, and pragmatic savvy; in rhetoric, it is framed against the frenzied partisan, the cult of personality, and the strategically naive.

And this, I think, is actually very good advice - two years ago. If the left hopes to overcome the juggernaut of capital and the entrenched party bureaucracy at the polls, the time to start working is the day after the last election. That is when you start to build your organizational capacity and political influence; that is when you start to develop your agenda, to make demands, to stick-and-carrot politicians into compliance, and to learn who is on your side and who is not. And to their credit, much of the US left has spent the past three years doing just that, which is why I think we are better positioned to fight for the nomination today than we were in 2016.

But obviously, the time for preparation ends when the fighting begins. And ready or not, the fight has already begun. If the left decides to sit on the sidelines, our rivals aren't going to stand down and idly wait for us to step into the ring - they will build momentum, frame the primaries, recruit supporters, raise money, and crush their opposition. Don't let that happen. You've had two years to get ready for this. It's time to fight.
The Green New Deal's magic word - 2/7/19
From November's original draft text for establishing a select committee for a Green New Deal:
The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall be developed with the objective of...making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
From the Green New Deal resolution released today:
the "Green New Deal mobilization"...will require...promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal
This is the most important word in the entire text. The first draft text, as I noted when it first appeared, made no reference whatsoever to funding for international development, which has always been and remains the central challenge of climate change. The domestic policy proposals that have dominated our plans for climate change are important, but they are completely inadequate without attention to international development.

The new draft has that magic word - "funding" - but I don't really see the mere acknowledgment of a need for funding as a step forward so much as a return to the status quo. Before Trump, token contributions to the Green Climate Fund were the norm, even from Republican presidents. The challenge facing the left today is not to win mere recognition that climate change is a global problem - it's to get people to recognize that climate change is a massive global problem, requiring international funding on a scale that is both historically unprecedented and well outside the scale of what Washington is presently willing to even consider.

Until we are talking about hundreds-of-billions-to-trillions in funding, we're really just spinning our wheels. Getting the word "funding" into a resolution is a step back to the era of Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush, but we have to do much, much better than that.
What historical materialism can tell us about Trump's shutdown - 1/26/19
Capitalism endlessly intensifies the suffering of the poor, places a hard ceiling on the upward mobility of the middle class, and constantly threatens to drop them back into poverty. This is why Donald Trump got elected: his opponent inspired no hope that she could fix the problem, and he offered to the Republican base a ladder of white supremacy. Trump is politically viable as long as he can channel the anxieties of the middle class towards rage against immigrants; he fails as class consciousness, fostered by the lived experience of oppression under capitalism, exposes his ethnonationalist scapegoating as the ruse that it is.

This is the basic shape of the material forces at work in contemporary politics. They are, incidentally, the same dynamics at work in every administration that has failed to confront capitalism: liberals try to finesse it with increasingly futile welfare and regulatory measures, reactionaries double-down into increasingly rabid bigotry, but both are caught in fascism's pincer. The explanatory power of a materialist understanding of history is not that it can predict every incident and micro-trend that emerges within this framework: historical materialism allows us to understand the cumulative trajectory of all of these different moments, and to anticipate the choice between socialism and barbarism that they will, with increasing force, impose upon our politics.


So let's return, then, to the specific question of Trump. Historical materialism does tell us that, pending a real confrontation with capital, we are increasingly likely to see reactionaries take power - but that does not mean that Trump was destined to win the Republican primary, or that the Republican was destined to win the general election. Historical materialism does tell us that reactionaries will try to channel class anxieties towards various sociocultural scapegoats - towards constructed identities like race, gender, and nation - but this channeling need not occur in any particular way, so long as it happens. One way you can do this is to fixate the reactionary id on building a giant wall against immigrants; but as we have seen in the past, you can also do this by ginning up resentment against the racist image of an indolent welfare queen, or against the devious careerism of the affirmative action beneficiary, or against the anti-Semitic figure of the parasitical Jew.

And indeed, we have seen all of these currents at work in Trump's base - nothing about historical materialism predicts that he would need to focus his politics on any one of them in particular. Nor does it predict that he would need to rely, in particular, on the tactic of a government shutdown in pursuit of that agenda; you can play wall-politics without that, just as he has until now. Nor, moreover, does it predict that he would draw out that shutdown for 35 consecutive days - another tactical choice that might have easily gone another way.

From a materialist perspective, the most we can really say about this shutdown is that capitalism makes the election of reactionaries likely, and makes it likely that they will try to channel class anxiety into a reactionary agenda, and that opposition to these trends will increasingly take the form of class warfare (like labor strikes). But historical materialism is not a crystal ball that lets us predict or explain every little detail of our world within infinite precision and clarity; if you want to understand why the shutdown lasted as long as it did, then it probably makes more sense to look at things like psychology and Trump's ego-entanglement in an escalation of commitment. For the socialist, understanding the explanatory boundaries of historical materialism is just as important as understanding its potential.