Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump and the failure of incrementalism

Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are advancing an epochal tax bill "that could reshape major areas of American life," the New York Times reports:
Some see in this tilt a reworking of basic principles that have prevailed in American life for generations... 
“This is a repudiation of the social contract that Franklin Roosevelt announced at the New Deal,” Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, said...
This may seem like unusually apocalyptic prose for a news report, but we've heard a lot of this in the past year. The American Healthcare Act, Esquire warned in May, would "fundamentally reshape the American healthcare system" if passed; in June, Time Magazine explained that "the Paris Agreement represents a...decade of international discussions on climate change" and that Trump's withdrawal would "toss aside years of grinding work from the global community."

On front after front, the Trump Administration is teaching us the same lesson: in just a few moments, the right can completely nullify decades and decades of patient, pragmatic, hard-won incremental progress. This point is not really all that controversial: the night before her 2016 loss, Hillary Clinton warned that Trump would "rip away the progress we’ve made and turn the clock back, sending us back in time"; similarly, President Obama warned that Trump "in the first couple of weeks sitting in the Oval Office [could] reverse every single thing that we've done."

But contrast that warning with Obama's own words just a few weeks later during his farewell speech:
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion...
This theory of "forward motion" may be a truism among American liberals, but it's directly at odds with a point liberals will themselves admit in moments of insecurity: you can lose every inch of progress in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a sufficiently ambitious right or some unusually bad luck. More often progress can die the death of a thousand cuts, as one can see in the steady, deliberate erosion of the welfare state in the US; but occasionally you get a Donald Trump, and then the reversal becomes impossible to miss.


The theory of incrementalism, as far as I can tell, is that we should prefer the guarantee of slow-but-steady progress, which is achieved through modest ambitions, to the risks of immediate victory. What Trump is showing us, however, is that even if you win a short-term incremental victory, you can still end up with nothing in the end. You can engage in years of modest pragmatic compromise climate change diplomacy and find yourself right back where you started a decade later; you can pass "achievable" business-friendly health care legislation on the assumption that this will engineer some kind of universal coverage down the road, and then have it gutted as soon as the opposition takes power. If what we care about is progress, an incremental victory can easily leave you in the exact same place as you'd be if you'd taken a big political gamble and failed.

The only way the progress rationale for incrementalism survives is if you accept liberalism's mystical theory that for some reason (Providence? American exceptionalism? Wishful thinking?) progress never gets completely reversed or eroded away. Perhaps there are other reasons to prefer incrementalism as a political strategy, but if we take the threat of Donald Trump seriously, we should abandon this "forward motion" ideology once and for all.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Most liberals support violent sex offenders

YouGov has conducted some polling on American politicans embroiled in sex scandals, and the results are not particularly flattering for liberals.

An extraordinary 71% of self-identified liberals still approve of Bill Clinton, compared to 52% of moderates and 19% of conservatives. That majority is even stronger among Democrats (at 77%), especially compared to independents (37%). This despite the fact that 75% of liberals and 68% of Democrats believe that he "probably" or "definitely" committed sexual assault.

Similarly, Al Franken retains majority support among liberals (at 54%) and plurality support among Democrats (at 42%), compared with plurality opposition among independents and moderates. This, even though most liberals (66%) and Democrats (64%) believe that he's guilty of sexual harassment.

Two simple points:
1) Particularly over the past year, it has become popular to insist that only a trivial number of unusually vocal liberals are reactionary, while an overwhelming majority are quietly sympathetic to left politics. For example, this was the standard (tortured) reading of a poll a while back which demonstrated that only 8% of Democratic voters oppose Bernie Sanders. But what polls like this show us is that in fact significant majorities of Democrats are quite willing to take reactionary positions when it's politically convenient. 
2) A similar line of rationalization spares liberals from critique by bracketing off reactionary politics as a problem of so-called moderates and centrists - the toxin hasn't spread among liberals per se, just among an odd and distinct species of fence-sitters and No Labels enthusiasts. In fact, however, what we see here is that support for dangerous misogynists is actually stronger among liberals and Democrats than among independents and moderates.
In my view, all of this is pretty easy to understand once we accept that ideological and partisan labels often have more to do with tribal identity than with values and political committments. A third or so of all Americans grew up in liberal Democratic families, socialize in liberal Democratic communities, and live in liberal Democratic districts. Predictably, these people will tend to think of themselves as liberals and Democrats, and they will tend to cheer for causes and positions aligned with liberals and Democrats. This only implies so much, however, about their personal priorities, interests, and sympathies.

When Phil Ochs famously said that American liberals are "ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally", he was making this basic distinction between politics and cultural identity. As the response to Clinton and Franken is demonstrating, this is a distinction that the left would do well to bear in mind.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

What does Northam's win teach us about the Democratic coalition?

I'm inclined to say "not very much". Virginia's off-year governor races turn out a smaller and different constituency than what you see during other elections, which means that you can win with different coalitions. And as Clinton taught us, you can win Virginia and still lose the country. Still, I suppose that the demographic breakdowns are inevitable, so here's all you need to know:


These numbers indicate how much Virginia's Democratic coalition changed in each demographic as a percentage of voters between 2016 and 2017. To calculate them, I just determined Clinton's margin of victory (or defeat) against Trump in each demographic, and I subtracted those numbers from the corresponding figures in this election. I also adjusted for changes in turnout. This year, for example, Northam won a major demographic that Clinton lost in Virginia: voters making $50-100k a year. And this improvement is even more significant because this year a bigger slice of the pie made $50-100k: 33% of voters in 2017, versus 30% in 2016.

So if we just look at demographic shifts, the story is straightforward: Northam improved on Clinton's numbers with a coalition that was whiter, more middle class, and that had more men. (The rest of the margins are probably too small to mean very much.) Again, I don't think that this tells us much about what Democrats should do in future campaigns. But I do suspect that it will affirm what much of the party establishment is already thinking:


Northam himself flirted with this strategy with his anti-immigrant comments; moving forward, I expect more of the same.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Martin Luther, on rebels and revolution

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which means we will undoubtedlyhear endless variations on the standard narrative: Martin Luther was an anti-authoritarian rebel, courageously fighting for religious freedom against the domination of the Catholic Church. In that light, it's worth remembering what Luther himself thought about rebels.

What is the connection of Luther's doctrines with the psychological situation of all but the rich and powerful toward the end of the Middle Ages? As we have seen, the old order was breaking down. The individual had lost the security of certainty and was threatened by new economic forces, by capitalists and monopolies; the corporative principle was being replaced by competition; the lower classes felt the pressure of growing exploitation. The appeal of Lutheranism to the lower classes differed from its appeal to the middle class. The poor in the cities, and even more the peasants, were in a desperate situation. They were ruthlessly exploited and deprived of traditional rights and privileges. They were in a revolutionary mood which found expression in peasant uprisings and in revolutionary movements in the cities. The Gospel articulated their hopes and expectations as it had done for the slaves and laborers of early Christianity, and led the poor to seek for freedom and justice. In so far as Luther attacked authority and made the word of the Gospel the center of his teachings, he appealed to those restive masses as other religious movements of an evangelical character had done before him. 
Although Luther accepted their allegiance to him and supported them, he could do so only up to a certain point; he had to break the alliance when the peasants went further than attacking the authority of the Church and merely making minor demands for the betterment of their lot. They proceeded to become a revolutionary class which threatened to overthrow all authority and to destroy the foundations of social order in whose maintenance the middle class was vitally interested...

Loewen and Nolt:
At the height of the peasants' rebellion in the mid-1520s, Luther sharply criticized them in a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Luther accused the peasants of breaking oaths to their lords and of taking up arms against divinely instituted governments. 
Luther called the rebellion inexcusable because it led to the breakdown of all law and order. "Therefore," he advised the princes, "let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don't strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who is the modern bourgeoisie? Pt. II: Imperialism

This is the second in a three-part series on the modern bourgeoisie.

The laws of capital are binding all over the word, and they guarantee, Marx writes, a common fate: the international exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Even in his time, Marx saw this happening all over the world:
National differences and antagonism between people are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.
And yet today, those differences have decidedly not vanished, as wealthy countries continue to exploit the third world. A quick comparison of the purchasing power of your average resident in any given country tells the story:


Pool the wealth of your average resident of every country, and those from the 30 wealthiest countries will have as much as those from the other 159.

Marxists, of course, insist that all of this can be explained in the course of ordinary class analysis - but for Marx's critics, the division of the world into rich and poor countries proves that something more is at work than a struggle over the means of production. Arghiri Emmanuel writes:
as a result of some historical changes which Marx could not forecast...The proletariat, the true party to the cause of the socialist revolution, has practically disappeared in the affluent countries of the centre. It continues to exist in the periphery.
Meanwhile, "the population of the rich countries constitutes the upper class of today's world." This, quite explicitly, is not the upper class of Marxist theory; here, the bourgeoisie is defined, at least in part, by nationality. Some variation on this point can be found among liberals, third-worldists, and sundry other leftists: Marx's formulation of class is wrong because it fails to account for something about imperialism.

The autonomous interests

Michael Hudson, writing on the central role of the United States in the imperialist system, hones in on the fundamental issue:
...the real question that called for examination by scholars, and was not examined, was what it portended for the world that a leading government would subordinate the interests of its national bourgeoisie to the autonomous interests of the national government.
Here, we see the precise point of conflict between orthodox Marxism and certain theories of imperialism. If Marx is correct, then bourgeois control of the means of production should be a sufficient explanation of the first world's exploitation of the third world. If something like Hudson's analysis is correct, however, Marx's theory is insufficient, since the interests of the bourgeoisie can be (and has been) subordinated by "autonomous interests". In that case, we should be able to find a theory of imperialism that defines a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie.

Liberalism, of course, insists that there are all kinds of political factions that are neither defined nor driven by economic forces - and this provides some obvious candidates in our search for a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie. Before we abandon the materialist perspective entirely, however, consider a typical attempt to define this ruling class through an economic analysis. In Unequal Exchange and the Prospects of Socialism, Denmark's CWG lays out a typical explanation:
[U]nder developed capitalism – imperialism – the appropriation of other people's abstract labour does not only take place in the relationship between capitalists and labourers. The high wage level of the population as a whole in the rich countries means that also the labourers are able to appropriate the surplus-value created in the poor countries so that the labourers are able to appropriate more value than they create themselves. This is a characteristic of the position of the working class in eastern Europe and North America today.
Thus, in addition to Marx's bourgeoisie, there are also first world workers, who allegedly "appropriate the surplus value created in the poor countries."


Privilege without power

Certainly, workers of the first world are - to borrow the liberal term du jour - privileged; an unjust system has given them economic benefits denied to the third world proletariat. And undeniably, first world workers have an interest in defending this imperialism against alternative distributions of capitalism's misery.

Nevertheless, the question remains: do first world workers actually exercise power? In addition to benefiting from the imperial system, and perhaps even endorsing it, are first world workers causing imperialism? They may be a lucky class, and perhaps even a malevolent class - but are they actually a ruling class? With what political or economic leverage do they impose imperialism?

Here, in my view, the case against Marx begins to break down. Consider in particular the United States, generally held to be the heart of the imperialist system. Liberalism may still dream of a political order in which ordinary citizens control the US government through democratic channels, but this vision has become so implausible that even bourgeois elites like Jimmy Carter routinely dismiss our government as "more of an oligarchy than a democracy". An extraordinary body of research and literature affirms this point; in particular, a 2014 study by Benjamin and Page is worth quoting at length:
Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state hold that economic classes—and particularly the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production—dominate policy making and cause the state to serve their material interests...[they] make predictions resembling those of theories of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and corporations representing “large scale business” tend to prevail...
...our evidence strongly indicates that theories of Biased Pluralism are more descriptive of political reality than are theories of Majoritarian Pluralism...When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy...
Even if we conclude that first world workers enjoy prosperity at the expense of the third world, it is simply not the case that they are the agents of appropriation - that the imperialist system is imposed through their power, perhaps even despite the preferences of the bourgeoisie. The study continues:
To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.
The first world bourgeoisie

Identifying these "economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence" has proven to be a more complicated matter - in part, I suspect, because most relevant research relies on income and wealth as exclusive indicators of economic power. Even these imperfect measures, however, are suggestive. In a joint study of political spending and influence, The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics report
a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent...Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers...Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access...[they] effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.
Since 2012, donors in this .01% have contributed at least $10,000 per election cycle. And even if we examine contributions as low as $200, it is clear that the most active political investors are, even by first world standards, extremely rich:


Here, more than half of all donors come from the 2% of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year. One does not need to specify any particular income threshold to observe that donor participation and investment skyrockets dramatically somewhere in the very upper percentiles of the American economy. Thomas Ferguson, in his seminal Golden Rule, makes this point quite clearly:
Essentially the investment theory of political parties postulates that a strong relationship exists between the extremes (or "tails") of two different distributions: the distribution of investors in political action and the distribution of investors in the circumambient economy. In testing the theory nothing important depends on the exact values of the cutoff points used to indicate "large" investors in each distribution - the top 5 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, or whatever. 
Elsewhere, Ferguson suggests that "the best and most practical way to define 'large' investors makes reference to (whoever controls) the largest corporations and banks in the country" - returning us once again to the standard Marxist conception of a ruling class defined by its control of the means of production.

Just as Marxist theory predicts the political dominion of the bourgeoisie, it also explains the political limitations of the first world working class. As Marx put it long ago:
In countries where modern civilisation has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. The individual members of this class, however, are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition...
Under capitalism, even the wealthiest workers can at any moment be fired, lose sources of household income, lose investors, and face any number of immiserating economic shocks. This is precisely why the wealthier working class is so obsessed with the problem of precarity - why elite liberals fixate on capitalist welfare tweaks, and why elite reactionaries try escape into the safety and stability of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, Matt Bruenig notes, one popular conception of the modern bourgeoisie defines them as "anyone whose capital ownership allows them to receive the average annual wage without having to work...assuming 5% return on capital, that puts the bourgeois at those with $1.2 million in capital". Freed from the need to sell their labor, freed from dependence on the whims of their bosses, these Americans can turn their priorities elsewhere.


The origins of imperialism

This strikes me as a logical place to look for the origins of imperialism, but here we must be careful. Once we return to bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat as the essential feature of capitalism, it is tempting to think of imperialism as an accidental development - a technique of domination that the bourgeoisie does not need to rely upon, and that it could abandon at any moment. And quite easily, this logic merges into the liberal dream of a more just capitalism: one that distributes opportunity, prosperity, (and misery) equally, without regard for categories of identity like nationality.

More than a hundred years ago, Lenin was already quite stridently warning against this tendency:
Kautsky's definition is not only wrong and un-Marxist. It serves as a basis for a whole system of views which signify a rupture with Marxist theory and Marxist practice all along the line...Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, [and] speaks of annexation as being a policy "preferred" by finance capital...It follows, then, that monopolies are compatible with non-monopolistic, non-violent, non-annexationist methods in politics. It follows, then, that the territorial division of the world...which constitutes the basis of the present peculiar forms of rivalry between the biggest capitalist states, is compatible with a non-imperialist policy...the result is bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that imperialism is a direct, necessary, and inevitable consequence of bourgeois control of the means of production. David Harvey observes that in
the geographical landscape that capital makes...some regions tend to become richer while poor regions get poorer. This happens because of what Gunnar Myrdal calls circular and cumulative causation. Advanced regions draw new activity to themselves because of the vibrancy of their markets, the greater strength of their physical and social infrastructure and the ease with which they can procure their necessary means of production and labour supplies....
Contradictions arise because these new dynamic spaces of capital accumulation ultimately generate surpluses and need to find ways to absorb them through further geographic expansions...[this leads to] increasingly fierce competition within the international division of labour as multiple dynamic centres of capital accumulation compete on the world stage in the midst of strong currents of overaccumulation (lack of markets for realisation) or under conditions of competing scarcities for raw materials and other key means of production. Since they cannot all succeed, either the weakest succumb and fall into serious crises of localised devaluation or geopolitical struggles arise between regions and states. The latter take the form of trade wars, currency and resource wars, with the ever-present danger of military confrontations...
Capitalism does not, in other words, simply guarantee the exploitation of the global proletariat; it guarantees that this exploitation will be regionally inflected, and imposed with constant violence. As long as capitalism is still with us, these dynamics will always overpower antiwar activism, gestures towards conscientious consumption, "fair trade" pacts and initiatives, humanitarian charity, and so on. In order to ensure imperialistic exploitation under global capitalism, all the bourgeoisie needs to do is fight for global capitalism.

Still, even if orthodox Marxism can explain regional disparities of violence and exploitation under capitalism, a significant question remains: why is the first world disproportionately white? Why is the third world disproportionately black and brown? Why, in general, are the injustices of capitalism so often inflected by forms of identity like race, gender, and so on? And does this not suggest that the bourgeoisie must be defined by categories of identity which have nothing to do with ownership of the means of production?

As promised, in the third part of this series on the modern bourgeoisie, I'll discuss this intersectional challenge to Marxist economics.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Who is the modern bourgeoisie? Pt. I: Financialization

Marx, in his classic formulation of class struggle, divided society "into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." These classes, he argued, play the two essential roles in the system of economic production known as capitalism. One class - the bourgeoisie - controls almost everything involved in economic production. The other class - the proletariat - controls the one part of production that the bourgeoisie doesn't: their own ability to work. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie leverages its control of the means of production to exercise control over the entire economy. And inevitably, they use it to create a system of exploitation that works to their own benefit.

Popular and technical use of "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" has of course significantly evolved since Marx's time, but instead of examining etymology, I would like to ask two different questions. First: does something like Marx's formulation of "the bourgeoisie" exist today? And if so, who are the modern bourgeoisie?

There are no consensus answers to these questions - but in the vast body of literature grappling with them, there are three typical concerns that emerge over and over again:
First, public investment in stocks is thought to have complicated Marx's assumptions about who controls the means of production; 
Second, imperialism is thought to have complicated Marx's class analysis by further dividing society into "first world" exploiters and the exploited "third world"; and 
Third, Marx's class analysis is not intersectional; it fails to account for various forms of identitarian oppression that are equally relevant to the structure and operation of our political economy.
I will, in this series of posts, address each of these points in turn, starting with the first.

Financialization


Though economists have made this same point in greater detail, the challenge of financialization to Marxist theory was most famously (and succinctly) laid out by Camus:
We know that the economic evolution of the contemporary world refutes a number of the postulates of Marx...with the introduction of companies in which stock could be held, capital, instead of becoming concentrated, has given rise to a new category of smallholders...
Hypothetically, this "category of smallholders" would have to include the nearly half of all Americans who, through various financial vehicles, own stock in the means of production. This diffusion of ownership seems to stand in sharp contrast with the economy of Marx's time, in which it was "not uncommon to find...various branches of production controlled by one brain" (Schulz). It also poses a significant challenge to Marxist theory: if anyone, no matter how poor or powerless, can be the bourgeoisie by owning a health savings account or a threadbare 401(k), Marx's theory of power and exploitation has become utterly trivial.

Despite what Camus seems to think, however, Marx was well aware of the complications the stock market introduces into his class analysis. Marx's response was to argue that "the joint-stock company represented a partial separation of ownership and control" (Stephens); he described it as "a new swindle" in which "the functioning capitalist" is "working with borrowed capital" for his own enrichment. By 1904, Heymann had already outlined how the bourgeoisie does this:
..it is possible with a comparatively small capital to dominate immense spheres of production. Indeed, if holding 50 per cent of the capital is always sufficient to control a company, the head of the concern needs only one million...
Lenin adds:
As a matter of fact, experience shows that it is sufficient to own 40 per cent of the shares of a company in order to direct its affairs, since in practice a certain number of small, scattered shareholds find it impossible to attend general meetings, etc...The "democratisation" of the ownership of shares...is, in fact, one of the ways of increasing the power of the financial oligarchy.
What matters then, is not the superficial legal title to ownership - it's actual control of the means of production. This control is determined by an (often deliberately) elaborate and opaque complex of laws and corporate governance rules, but it inevitably tends towards the same outcome: the enrichment of "the functioning capitalist" at the expense of proletarian workers and shareholders. Make this distinction between control and management, and the size of your bourgeoisie contracts dramatically. How dramatically? Wolff's 2013 breakdown paints an indirect picture:


The wealthiest 1% owns as much stock as everyone else in the US. So while widespread public investment has certainly greased the wheel of capital, it has not necessarily democratized control of the economy.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ben Shapiro has changed his mind about antifa

Ben Shapiro, writing for The National Review, gives us the inevitable "both sides are to blame for Charlottesville" take:
There’s still no certain knowledge of who began the violence, but before long, the sides had broken into the sort of brutal scrum that used to characterize Weimer-era Germany. The two sides then carried the red banner and the swastika; so did the combatants on Saturday.
Now they’re growing. And they’re largely growing in opposition to one another. In fact, the growth of each side reinforces the growth of the other: The mainstream Left, convinced that the enemies of social-justice warriors are all alt-right Nazis, winks and nods at left-wing violence...
The antifa response, of course, would be to insist that violence against fascism is justified, and a sign of our commitment to the fight against white supremacy. Clearly, Shapiro now rejects this. But go back just three years, and he clearly had a different view:
This is why it's so comfortable to be on the left: that unearned sense of moral superiority...you are a racist and sexist; they are not...It doesn't matter that if they pointed out a KKK member to you, you'd run across the lot to knock him out; in order for them to be morally superior, you must be morally inferior. (5)
No ambiguity here: as recently as 2014, Shapiro appealed to antifa violence as the exemplar of antiracism, and insisted that of course conservatives would punch ethnonationalists on the streets. This was his explicit proof that the right was just as committed to the fight against white supremacy as anyone else. Since then, it seems pretty obvious what happened to make Shapiro change his mind: fascists took to the streets and became a political liability for the right. In 2014, it was convenient for him to play macho, puff up his chest, and fantasize about attacking members of the KKK - but now that they are such a visible part of his political coalition, Shapiro has to pull his punches.