Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no liberal counter-revolution

Brian Beutler warns that Republicans Should Fear What Democrats Will Do When They Return to Power. American politics, he writes, have proceeded on the "presumption that only Republicans are entitled to maximal demonstrations of power"; thus, we are on the cusp of the absolute dismantling of Obamacare, with no regard for its substantial support among much of America. But if Republicans follow through with this, Beutler writes, Democrats will abandon their "concern for achieving liberal goals through normal means"; and once back in power, we can expect a liberalism that "dispenses with all the pleasantries and enacts a simple, truly universal plan, like Medicare for all...by any margin".

Reading this, I can't help but be reminded of a passage from Al Franken's 2005 The Truth:
So not only was Bush inventing a mandate...[he also] intended to use his imaginary political capital to lay waste to the very pillars of middle-class prosperity...I swore then and there, if memory serves, to fight this bastard every step of the way.
We've seen this story before. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, only won the electoral college on the back of a deeply controversial Supreme Court ruling, and nevertheless advanced what was universally understood on the contemporary liberal-left as a radically partisan, norm-shattering agenda. When he narrowly won again in 2004, he claimed a mandate and immediately took aim at one of the core institutions of American liberalism, Social Security. The GOP pursued all of this with zero regard for the niceties of liberal proceduralism, demolishing en route a whole range of executive, parliamentary and judicial norms and practices that have never recovered.

And what did the Democrats do once they got in power? Almost immediately, Obama insisted that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." There was no counter-revolution. Even Obamacare, their most ambitious effort, was (as Beutler himself puts it) "by no means norm-shattering"; it was modeled after Romneycare and passed through ordinary parliamentary procedures.

The reason for this is simple: liberals are ideologically committed to procedural democratic pluralism in a way that the American right is not. Their priority is not the enactment of policy; their priority is adherence to a set of norms and processes and practices which they define as "good governance", and if this so-happens to achieve certain political outcomes, that's an added benefit. Compare this vision of politics with that of the so-called alt-right - or as Stop The Spirit of Zossen called them in 2009, the Movement:
[T]he Movement within the conservative base always plays a different game for a different prize. The Movement may speak in normal political talking points from ‘Republican’ institutions. Yet it isn’t not committed to Dahl-esque pluralistic politics. It has never sought or tolerated compromise or ‘moderation’. That’s because for the Movement, politics is existential warfare. Compromise is defeat.
The hard right has only become more explicit about this since then. But consider how Obama discussed American politics in his farewell speech:
Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. They compromised. They expected us to do the same.
That is the spirit of modern liberalism. And it's exactly what we can expect from our liberal Democrats even if they take back power, because this is what they believe in.  Near the conclusion of his piece, Beutler insists that
There are good reasons, other than respect for norms and comity, why Democrats didn't [pursue a maximal agenda] in 2009...
Perhaps the new number will be 2020 - perhaps it'll be 2024. But either way, expect to see that sentence again.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On left discipline

Yesterday I ran a quick poll:


Among my overwhelmingly leftist readership, one out of every eight respondents rejects a fundamental moral premise of Marxist politics. This will surprise no one, but it does set in sharp contrast the almost complete absence of controversy over this heresy. We do not hear constant calls for a purge of the crypto-capitalist deviationists. We do not hear recriminations about the enablers of deviationists who, by refusing to take a vocal and public stand against them, are themselves abetting capitalism. We don't see outraged denunciations of anyone who shares an article from The New York Times, which, by the way, publishes capitalist agitprop constantly. And we certainly do not see aggressive demands that deviationists must be shunned and blacklisted and social-media-unfollowed into oblivion.

From this, I can only conclude one of two things:
1) Our left disciplinarians are not actually committed to purging (and similar tactics) as a matter of principle; they do not think that leftist orthodoxy should be enforced consistently, and do not think that such disciplinary tactics are always productive; or
2) Our left disciplinarians are not actually left at all - they are standard liberal capitalists who reject Marx's critique of capitalism and do not see a role for class in their intersectionality.
I'm not sure how one avoids arriving at one conclusion or the other. You simply cannot look at the disciplinarians who so piously police modern leftist orthodoxy and conclude that these people also care about Marx. Don't take my word for it - just look at anyone calling for purging, blacklisting, or shunning on other grounds, and then look for the last time they took the same kind of principled stand against capitalists.

Just one man's opinion here, but if you ask me, capitalism is a gruesome, murderous ideology that's responsible for more death and suffering than just about anything else you can name. The victims of capitalism are violently oppressed and exploited every day: they're robbed of their dignity, they're degraded and humiliated, they're broken down into serious mental and physical illness, they're perpetually threatened with poverty, and all the while they're robbed of their time and labor. The notion that the victims of capitalism have no right to defend themselves against this - violently, if necessary - is one of the most privileged, heartless, and reactionary positions I can imagine.

So given the utter ubiquity of calls to discipline on the left these days, I think it's worth reflecting on the clear and complete apathy our disciplinarians maintain towards this central point of leftism. And one way to make it an issue is to simply bring it up whenever our disciplinarians ignore it and want to talk about something else. Just guessing here, but I suspect these folks are going to be suddenly very hesitant to call out and purge 14% of their comrades, for obvious reasons.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Demurrage and inequality: modern anthropology affirms another critique of capitalism

Lately I've been working my way through Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler, an anthropological study of the relationship between inequality and violence. In his discussion of the ancient roots of inequality, Scheidel references a fascinating 2015 paper called "Cereals, Appropriability, and Hierarchy", which argues that
the development of social hierarchy following the Neolithic Revolution was the outcome of the ability of the emergent elite to appropriate crops from farmers. Cereals, for which storage is feasible and required, are easier to confiscate than...[any type of crop which] isn't stored and rots shortly after harvest...
This point of anthropology touches on something deeper, Scheidel argues: "inequality and its persistence over time has been the result of...how suitable [assets] are for passing on to others". If your wealth consists of something that can be endlessly hoarded, and even passed on to subsequent generations, then enduring inequality becomes possible; otherwise, being rich just means having a temporary windfall until your wealth inevitably goes away.

What's interesting about this finding is the way it substantiates a long-held but mostly theoretical critique of the way money works in capitalism. As Gesell wrote in 1913,
Commodities in general...can be safely exchanged only when everyone is indifferent as to whether he possesses money or goods, and that is possible only if money is afflicted with all the defects inherent in our products. That is obvious. Our goods rot, decay, break, rust, so only if money has equally disagreeable, loss-involving properties can it effect exchange...No one can any longer interfere with public monetary administration by putting into circulation or withdrawing private reserves of money.
That last observation is central to Gesell's argument: make money decay just like the commodities that it is exchanged for, and you return the economy to equillibrium by undercutting the incentive to hoard. And the corrolary, it seems, is proven by Scheidel's anthropological argument: the more hoardable your wealth is, the more inequality you get. David Harvey, in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:
While the utopian aim of a social order without exchange value and therefore moneyless needs to be articulated, the intermediate step of designing quasi-money forms that facilitate exchange but inhibit the private accumulation of social wealth and power becomes imperative...With electronic moneys, this is not practicable, in ways that were not possible before. An oxidisation schedule can easily be written into monetary accounts such that unused moneys (like unused airline miles) dissolve after a certain period of time.
Harvey goes on to explain how this approach to monetary policy is still compatible with various social and policy goals we presently achieve through investment - though "moves of this sort would require wide-ranging adjustments of other facets of the economy." Whether the left chooses to pursue demurrage as a policy solution is mostly, in my view, a question of tactics; regardless, it's worth noting how the emerging scholarship about relationships between depreciation and inequality substantiates insights that anticapitalists have maintained for over a century.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

If the rich don't fund health care, young people will

During the debates leading up to the passage of Obamacare, Republicans settled in early November 2009 on a new messaging strategy: Obamacare exploited young Americans. Cato's Aaron Yelowitz laid out the case: Obama's health care bill
would drive premiums down for 55-year-olds but would drive them up for 25-year-olds - who are then implicitly subsidizing older adults.
...the premiums of older, less healthy people will be subsidized by the premiums of younger, healthier people.
 Dick Morris, in Front Page Magazine:
Under 30? Get ready to pay...these mandates will mean higher costs for the younger and healthier population. This bill is, in effect, a tax on the young.
 Diana Furchtgoot-Roth and Jared Meyer at The National Review:
...the law artificially holds down premiums for older people and raises the price for the young...the insurance companies have no choice but to pass the health-care costs of older people on to the young in the form of higher premiums. 
Will Wilkinson, at The Economist:
...the young and healthy will experience some "rate shock" at the Obamacare exchange not only because they will be subsidising those with a much higher cost of care...
Scott Gottlieb, at Forbes:
Obamacare is asking young adults to effectively subsidize the healthcare costs of older Americans. So far, Millennials are resisting this age-based transfer of wealth.
There are a million articles like this, particularly in right-wing publications, and they all invoke age-based transfers as a reason for young people to be skeptical of Obamacare.

The Republican alternative

Today, we got our first glimpse of what is evidently going to pass for the Republican "alternative" - and among other stipulations,
The Republican plan would offer tax credits ranging from $2,000 per year for those under 30 to $4,000 per year for those over $60.
If this is not an age-based wealth transfer from the young to the old, I don't know what is. Like Obamacare, the Republican alternative also includes some circumstantial and income-based adjustments that offset some of the more regressive effects of this formula. Nevertheless, the basic redistribution from young to old remains, which is why this stipulation exists in the first place. All this new plan does is make the ageism much more explicit.

Young people should blame capitalism

Health care policy presents an excellent case-study in how capitalism engineers ageist outcomes in our society.

At its heart, health care provision is a redistribution problem: some people are less able to afford health care than others. The direct solution would be to simply transfer the medium of health care access (wealth) from those who have it (the rich) from those who do not (the poor). This is the general form of socialized health care, which typically funds access to all by disproportionately taxing the rich.

Since capitalism frowns on wealth-based redistribution, however, our health care policy has to engineer all kinds of indirect workarounds that approximate a similar outcome. And while there are all kinds of ways you can do this, an obvious approach is to redistribute money from the young to the elderly. The elderly generally need more health care than the young, and the young generally have more income than the elderly; thus, an ageist redistribution scheme will at least imperfectly replicate what you would achieve by basing your redistribution on wealth. But only imperfectly - it does not, for example, help you to avoid the ageist injustice of a poor young person paying for the health care of a rich old man.

That's why, even in the Republican health care plan, the ageist redistribution mechanism has to be offset with income-based adjustments. Ultimately, the GOP is vulnerable to the same accusation of ageism as Obamacare was, and it only manages to escape this insofar as it abandons capitalism and indulges in wealth-based redistribution. Democrats would do well to target this political liability - but this attack only works if they abandon Obamacare and embrace the redistribution of wealth.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Yes, capitalism is literal violence

Earlier this week I wrote a piece on the odious campaign to blacklist independent journalist Rania Khalek. One recurring point of criticism I've encountered, in response, objects to my characterization of blacklisting as "violent". Even if we suppose that blacklisting is coercive, we are told, this still should not be equated with "real violence" or "physical violence"; this is a category error, and drawing such an equivalence threatens to trivialize our understanding of what violence actually is.

Here, I want to take on this line of criticism, because I think it is important for socialists to understand how it gets our situation completely backwards. It is capitalism that trivializes our conception of violence, narrowing the definition so as to exclude itself and draw our attention away from the very real, physical, and aggressive operation of our economy. The task of the socialist is not to reify these ideological boundaries, but to push back against them, and expose how capitalism is literal violence in every meaningful sense of the word.

With that in mind, consider the following three ways in which capitalism necessarily relies on - and denies - things that we would in any other situation understand as violence.


1. Private property is violent

We are born into a world where nature and its bounty are, by default, accessible to all. In this state of nature, I can go anywhere I like. If I am tired, I can lie down wherever I am. If I am thirsty, I can drink any fresh water that I can find. If I am hungry, I can look for a wild fruit or I can start a garden or I can kill a rabbit. The commonwealth is a gift from God, or it is the legacy of cosmic evolution; either way, it equally belongs to everyone. In philosophy, this situation is something like what the Enlightenment philosophers called "the state of nature", or what Roderick Long and Matt Bruenig refer to as "grab-what-you-can world".

Historically, people have for all kinds of familiar reasons found this arrangement impractical; most vexingly, we run into problems when two people want to use the same resource, be it land, food, water, or something else. Thats's why capitalism has come up with an elaborate set of rules dictating who may lay claim to any given resource in any given situation - rules that we call "property rights".

As Prodhoun teaches us, what these property rights really are is a threat of violence. If I say that a plot of land is my property, what I am really doing is declaring my right (either personally, or through agents of the state) to physically prevent you from using it. Crucially, even when this right is not exercised, the threat is implicit; capitalism only works when we are constantly aware of this threat and are cowed by it.

This is violence. Capitalist ideology offers all kinds of reasons why property should not be understood as a violent institution - most explicitly, through the so-called "non-aggression principle" - but going by any ordinary meaning of the term, it is certainly violent to threaten to physically coerce someone against their will. Whether this violence is justified is another matter.


2. Contracts are violent

We are born into the world with absolute freedom to bargain with each other and make deals. By default, however, we are also able to break deals. I can, for example, promise to weed your garden if you give me a bite of your apple - and then, once I've eaten the apple, I can change my mind and decide not to weed your garden after all. There are lots of reasons why we may generally consider this to be inappropriate and immoral behavior, but it is certainly not impossible behavior.

In order to prevent people from breaking deals, capitalism relies on something called a "contract". Much like "property", a "contract" is really just a threat of violence: what it says is that if you try to break our deal, I can physically compel you to comply, or I can exact some kind of alternative compensation, again using physical force if necessary. It is, again, the very real threat of violence that makes a contract work, and capitalism needs that threat.

Again, it may be the case that the violence at the heart of contract law is completely justified; the anarchy of a world where everyone can change their mind about deals may be so immoral and unworkable that we are better off maintaining order by constantly threatening each other. Still, this rationale doesn't somehow nullify the existence of violence - it simply maintains that some violent threats are good and necessary.


3. Market activism is violent

Historically, the liberal-left has noticed that capitalism's system of property and contracts often facilitates outcomes that we would prefer to avoid. The left, definitionally, understands this as a problem with the system itself, and advocates subordinating property and contract to democratic sovereignty. If, that is, the violence of contracts and property rights becomes unacceptable to society, leftists reserve the right to nullify them through democratic referendum.

Liberals, in contrast, reject democratic sovereignty, and insist that capitalism's system of violent threats must ultimately be honored. Liberals believe that we can mitigate or nullify capitalism's adverse outcomes while still playing by capitalism's rules. This is the logic of conscientious consumption, employment selectivity, boycotts, and blacklists; in all of these cases, activists are still respecting contract law and property rights, and in fact what they hope to do is leverage the violence of those institutions towards positive outcomes.

Return, for example, to the strategy of blacklisting. The goal of a blacklist is to prevent someone from entering into employment contracts, which in turn cuts off their access to resources they need to survive and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Clearly, this strategy cannot work without property rights; otherwise access to necessities would not be cut off, because one could always just take what one needs. For this reason, blacklisting requires activists to not only maintain property rights, but to leverage their violent threats against the target. If you are blacklisted, you are threatened with a dangerous choice: either comply and regain access to the labor market, or steal necessities and risk the violent enforcement of property rights.

Once again, it may very well be the case that blacklisting can be on a case-by-case basis good and necessary, just like boycotts can be good and necessary. Only absolute pacifists deny that violence can be justified under particular circumstances. Nevertheless, whenever we are engaged in market activism, we should always be clear about what it is that we are actually doing. When we deny the violence at the heart of such efforts, we are denying the violence of property rights and contract law, and we participate in capitalist ideology's effort to veil them. Socialism does not deny the necessity of violence in ordering our world, but it does demand that we acknowledge it for what it is - and to minimize it as much as possible.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Left activism and the culture of seriousness

The Democratic Socialists of America is experiencing a period of historically unprecedented growth - so much so that even major media outlets have begun to take notice. And while much of this has to be credited to the wild success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and understood as a reaction to the ascendence of Donald Trump, it's clear that the proximate cause of much of its recruiting success is the DSA's active social media campaign.

Central to that campaign, of course, has been the outreach efforts of folks like Larry Website. Along with other media stables like Chapo Trap House (and to a lesser extent, I dare say, the Matt Bruenig Election Team), Larry and his colleagues have worked to build a fun, accessible culture meant to welcome the public into socialism. Their jokes and memes are decidedly blue-collar, revolving around tropes like sports, junk food, animals, pop culture, and so on. They are, quite deliberately, less esoteric and inaccessible than irony Twitter, and less crass and controversial than the Dirtbag Left; they are, quite clearly, running a public relations campaign, and it's working.

A line of criticism has lately emerged that sees these efforts as unbecoming of a serious political organization, and possibly even counterproductive - but I think there are two good reasons for the DSA to stay the course.


First, theoretical: as the Soviet philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argued, the culture of seriousness is always the culture of entrenched power. Consider, for example, his analysis of medieval ideology:
As we have said, laughter in the Middle Ages remained outside all official spheres of ideology and outside all official strict forms of social relations...all these elements determined this tone of icy petrified seriousness. It was supposedly the only tone fir to express the true, the good, and all that was essential and meaningful. (Rabelais and His World, 82)
In opposition to this regime, irreverence played a decidedly revolutionary role:
Lower- and middle-class clerics, schoolmen, students, and members of corporations were the main participants in these folk merriments. People of various other organized elements which belonged to none of these social groups and which were numerous at that time also participated in the celebrations. But the medieval culture of folk humor actually belong to all the people. The truth of laughter embraced and carried away everyone; nobody could resist it... (Rabelais, 82)
Under capitalism, prevailing norms about what is "respectable" and "proper" express bourgeois ideology. If such norms are at odds with the imperatives of capitalism, capitalism systematically wipes them out. This is why, for example, it is considered a grave breach of professional etiquette to call someone who destroys the welfare state a "scumbag", but silly and forgiveable for a rich public relations operative like Ben Dreyfuss to wish death on his trolls. Rules of seriousness and professionalism have of course always been implicated in racism, which is why Allen Iverson is forced to wear suits and why Bill Cosby blames the economic oppression of black Americans on their dialect.

It is the Very Serious pundits and politicians who, because they cannot appeal to people through their personal and material interests, must rely on optics and gimmicks of presentation. These are the people who, with as much somber gravity as they can muster, give themselves titles like Fellow or Visiting Scholar, put on a suit, and then solemly explain that we can only fight income equality by eliminating the capital gains tax. Bourgeois ideology teaches us to regard arguments made in this tone with reverence and respect, and to dismiss the Twitter troll who meets them with the reply they invariably deserve: LOL.

Proletarian culture is inherently subversive. It is funny. It reveres equality and comradery; everything else, as a matter of principle, must be subject to question and open to ridicule. It insists that, no matter how serious and prestigious capitalism appears, and how silly and frivolous socialism appears, capitalism has no right to prevail; socialism must win, not because it is serious, but because it is moral and correct and inevitable.


The second reason for DSA to stay the course is practical: as already mentioned, this strategy is working. There is a long and glorious history of socialists voicing dry, academic critiques of capitalism, or putting on suits, showing up at presidential debates, and being turned away at the door; if what you want is a humorless prestige left, there is no want of opportunities already available. There is, on the other hand, very little history of Larry Website tweeting GIFs of riding mowers rocketing over rooftops and getting thousands of DSA recruits in the process - and I think this has everything to do with socialism creating a welcoming culture for people who enjoy jokes and having fun. Until this approach starts showing diminishing returns, I see no reason to abandon it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Employment threats against Rania Khalek are violence. If you're okay with this, admit it (UPDATED)

Capitalism forces people to work if they want to survive - an arrangement that the global left has always regarded as violent and oppressive. Chomsky, voicing the standard critique:
...people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery.
I don't think this perspective is particularly radical or difficult to square with basic ideas most people have about fairness and morality; in fact, it's probably one of the most basic leftist positions you can take. Labor is important, and a functional society will probably have to find ways to encourage it - forcing people into labor against their will, however, is a form of violence. Similarly, just as forcing people to work is a form of violence, so is forcing people to do particular kinds of work.

Again, this is pretty remedial leftism - which is why I'm surprised that there isn't much more outrage about this:


Katerji could not be clearer about this: he is engaged in a deliberate, continuing campaign of attacks on Rania Khalek's economic livelihood in order to force her to abandon a political position. His hope is to leverage capitalism towards inflicting as much violence on her as he possibly can. He wants to threaten her with food insecurity. He wants to threaten her with unsafe living conditions. He wants to threaten her with cut off access to health care. He wants to use all of the things that come with poverty in order to make Khalek say and do what he wants.

There are all kinds of reasons why people of conscience should find this behavior absolutely revolting, but here the point I want to make is simple. If Katerji has the courage of his convictions, and wants to posture as some brave and principled critic, he should come out and admit what he believes: that violence against Rania Khalek is good and justified.

This is an extremely easy challenge, and one that Katerji should be able to meet if he actually means what he says and stands behind his actions.

There are plenty of leftists who disagree with Khalek on Syria, but who have at least been consistent and honest about their position and motives. Katerji, meanwhile, is making threats like "change your rhetoric or we will continue to campaign against you" - but it seems pretty clear that he is neither honest nor brave enough to spell out what he actually means. Because if he did, he knows that even people who generally agree with him on the issue would find his behavior creepy and abhorrent. Katerji will continue to try to bankrupt Khalek into submission, leveraging violent capitalism against her where his powers of persuasion have failed - and then, if he is called on it, he will retreat into patently right-wing arguments about how no one has a right to income.

If the left stands for anything, it has to stand behind this basic point: capitalism is violence. This was true in McCarthy's era when blacklists and political firings were the main tools of discipline the right used against American communists. This is true all over the world, where American empire still relies heavily on sanctions, debt-collection, trade leverage, and other instruments of economic coercion to impose its will upon other nations. This has been true during the endless parade of employment threats that liberals have rolled out against the media left over the past year, most notoriously during their rabid campaign to silence Matt Bruenig. And it's true here and now, as Khalek suffers continuing, relentless attacks on her basic livelihood. If you're on the left and you're okay with this kind of violence, step up and admit it. And if you aren't okay with it, then it's time to speak out on Khalek's behalf.


UPDATE: One need look no further than the responses to this article to see that I've read Rania's critics right. They're all in a double-bind. On one hand, they want to maintain their leftist credibility, and this means accepting the very basic point that within capitalism, blacklisting is a tactic of violence. But even as they admit this, they don't want to own up to a point that follows directly: if you are working to blacklist Rania Khalek, and blacklisting is violent, then you are committing violence against her.

As comrade Eleanor has noted, this should not be such a hard thing for them to admit. Except for a very small group of principled hardline pacifists, everyone believes that violence is moral and justified in certain situations. And given the seriousness of the charges that Khalek's critics throw at her on a regular basis, it seems like they ought to be able to argue that this is one of those circumstances where violence is indeed necessary.

The reason that they can't do this is obvious. It's an utterly implausible and embarrassing position to insist that Rania Khalek should be subject to violent retaliation for her views on Syria. Even if she is in the wrong, aggressively working to cut off her entire livelihood is a patently draconian and disproportionate response. And the creepy overtones of a clique of largely male critics obsessively using their personal and professional connections to bankrupt a young woman of color are impossible to miss, particularly as they largely ignore far more influential white male voices who say the exact same things.

The challenge remains: if Rania's critics believe that violence against a young woman of color is justified, they should say so explicitly. If they believe that socialism is incorrect and that capitalist blacklisting is not a form of violence, they should admit it. The refusal to take one position or the other reveals, generously, a failure to think through what they're doing - and more likely, bad conscience, and a dishonest fear to own it.