Monday, August 25, 2014

Capitalism means militarization

  • Capitalist ideology authorizes government violence in ways that other ideologies do not. Specifically, it uniquely maintains that the "only proper functions of a government," as Ayn Rand put it, include protecting "your property and contracts". These are obviously not permissible occasions for violence in governments that do not police private property or private contracts.
  • We should understand private property and private contracts as opportunities for state violence. Every piece of property and every contract represents a state of affairs which Capitalism may require the government to police through violence. I repeat: this requirement comes from Capitalism.
  • Crucially, the requirement that the government police crimes against Capitalism is a requirement that the government must maintain the capacity to police potential crimes against Capitalism. The government cannot wait until a robbery has started to hire, train and arm police. It must try to stop the robbery in progress - Capitalism demands this in order to minimize disruptions of the economy.
  • The incentive Capitalism provides to build and maintain the government's capacity for violence will be in direct proportion to the growth of the economy and the potential for disruption. The more private property and contracts there are to police, the greater a capacity for violence the government must develop. And as economic conditions grow more precarious - in particular, as markets become more vulnerable to anything that could trigger recessions etc. - the demand for absolute stability, and the corollary demand for a more powerful, responsive police force - can only increase.
  • The government may also attempt to protect private property and contracts, and stabilize the economy, through pre-emptive measures, such as education programs, business regulations, monetary policy, and so on. To the extent that these fall outside of the "only proper functions of government," however, the political right will resist them and rely exclusively on reactive policing.
The implications here are straightforward. Blame whatever you like on big government, but it's clear that because of Capitalism even the most minimalistic Randian state must build an extraordinary capacity for violence in direct proportion to the growth of the economy. And while liberal social measures may try to pre-empt the need for militarization under Capitalism, nothing within Capitalism can stop it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Conservatives, the state, and the presumption of innocence

The American government owes every citizen the presumption of innocence. The logic here is straightforward, particularly for conservatives: since the state maintains a monopoly on the use of force, we should be skeptical of the justifications that it provides for doing so, and it should affirmatively satisfy our scrutiny. In cases of ambiguity or uncertainty, individual liberty must prevail over government exercises of power.

This situation is complicated when police officers are on trial - but again, for conservatives, the logic should be straightforward. Legally they must retain the presumption of innocence, since the police will be prosecuted in their capacity as American citizens. But politically, conservatives have no business taking at face value the state's judgments of its own actions against citizens. They should assume that these rulings are at least unreliable and often corrupt and self-interested, for all of the exact same reasons conservatives assume that other government actions are corrupt and self-interested.

So it's extremely telling when, outside of the jury, an endless parade of "conservatives" demand we give armed agents of the state a benefit of the doubt against (black) citizens:

Capitalism needs your malice to survive

Capitalism digs its own grave. One way it does this is by encouraging increasingly stupid positions in its defense. More and more, its apologists become untethered from economic reality and public opinion. They sell this as intellectual independence and elite insight - but hilariously, that posture becomes a license for every contrarian crank in the universe. Thus, Daniel Payne:
Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency... Keeping welfare firmly in the stigmatized realm is not merely a conservative crusade; it’s good policy, too.
This is clearly supposed to be some kind of outrageously provocative argument, but as is so often the case with this genre of writing it isn't even offensive so much as catastrophically dumb.

Explicitly, Payne argues that Capitalism depends in the final analysis on a mass government social engineering project to micromanage our sentiments about poverty. And to the limited extent that his ideal policy outcome is even coherent, it is by his own description completely counterintuitive to ordinary human sentiment.

This is not an argument that Capitalism as a workable or even particularly desirable economic program; it's an argument that Capitalism is completely untenable and not worth saving.

lol sympathy

Notably, Payne's entire premise places Capitalism under what was supposed to be one of the strongest indictments of Socialism: both, we are now told, rely on popular attitudes that don't exist.

Supposedly, one of Capitalism's greatest assets is the way that it harnesses "natural" human selfishness. Communism, on the other hand, relied on massive government programs designed to impose on the population necessary attitudes about altruism and the common good. This was not only morally suspect for the partisans of intellectual autonomy; it was as a practical matter simply impossible to implement and maintain. You simply cannot create an indoctrination program thorough and effective enough to overcome attitudes so deeply rooted in human nature.

But that, of course, is exactly what Payne is calling for. This "Federalist" even wants it imposed by the federal government: he applauds Rep. Paul Ryan's plan, which "would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements." This tyrannical Big Government requirement, Payne hopes, would aid in "inculcating" attitudes amenable to his plan for the economy. Freed from this benevolent guidance from the nanny state, who knows what subversive ideas Americans might come up with?

A modest proposal

Payne describes his plan as a "policy" and the National Review calls it a "mandate" - but of course, neither actually want you to understand it as a government action.

Rather, hatred of the poor is some kind of natural "stigma" that would exist by default - but for the Left's sinister efforts to "make it [welfare] a no-big-deal kind of thing". So Paul Ryan's attempts to tack a social engineering project onto welfare grants is really just a way of offsetting the destructive culture of dependency fostered by those very programs.

Of course, there's a simpler way to eliminate that effect, a truly Federalist approach that takes Big Government out of the equation completely: end all welfare.

Get rid of school lunches for hungry children, and instantly there is zero danger of government dependency. Within a matter of weeks we will have our truly "independent citizenry that can provide for itself without the Left's benevolent help," because by then all of the justly reviled third-grade parasites will (hopefully!) have starved to death.

Not to tread too heavily on too many sensitive progressive ideals, but as Capitalists have long noted - correctly - the very existence of welfare programs destigmatizes them. Regardless of the rhetoric we surround them with, welfare sends a clear message to its recipients: "These are entitlements that we as a society have decided you have a legal right to."

Cowardly incoherence

There's an obvious reason why Capitalists are usually unwilling to carry their argument about welfare to its direct conclusion: it's just way too vile and embarrassing.

That's why, even as he insists that we should "bring back the welfare stigma," Payne repeatedly undercuts his own argument, pleading that welfare is "not an irredeemable sin or an uncorrectable wrong" and maintaining that "Those who have truly fallen on hard times deserve our genuine sympathy, and we should not snarl at them for turning to as easy and accessible a source of relief as government welfare."

This is plainly RINO gibberish.

The problem is that nothing about the way that Payne "moderates" his position actually provides a logical or principled basis for navigating its competing claims. Sympathy and concerns about government dependency allow for welfare - but not the destigmatization of welfare. Why draw the line there?

There isn't any economic or rational basis for Payne's stigmatized welfare program, but there's a transparent political factor: cowardice. Instead of owning his grotesque contempt for the poor, Payne finds it humiliating and realizes that it's a political liability; so he veils it with token overtures towards compassion with no meaningful policy consequences. He comes the closest towards his actual position when he talks about there being "plenty more work to reduce welfare use" - the long game, of course, being the right-wing wet dream of ending the welfare state entirely.

No one actually thinks that's a good idea, and Payne knows it. But the persistence of welfare remains an embarrassing reminder of the failures of Capitalism. If the right can find a pretext for shifting that blame onto the shoulders of children, that may buy their ridiculous beliefs a little more time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An odd critique of Chomsky

Erik Loomis scolds Chomsky over his oft-repeated assertion that "In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president." Loomis:
Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills...if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation. 
...What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it.
This is all spot-on except for the part where Loomis thinks he's substantially disagreeing with Chomsky. In his own words:
The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method a marginalizing the population... 
The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive to grow and become strong enough so that they can't be ignored by the centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots...[are] cultivated by steady work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years.
Worth noting that this isn't just an obscure passing remark - it's more or less at the center of Chomsky's politics. He is an anarchist who has written prolifically on the ways that hierarchical power, including state power, controls populations. His primary mode of political action has always been at the grassroots, and is on record insisting that progressives should only "spend five or ten minutes" on presidential elections.

This line of thought is explicit in his elaboration on the Nixon-as-liberal-president line:
Nixon was basically the last liberal president, and those liberal measures were in substantial part the result of popular activism, from CIO organizing in the 1930s up to the activism in the '60s and on to their impact in the early '70s. They had an impact on legislation and on public officials. So it's not one or the other; you can do both and recognize what the interaction is like.
This is the exact opposite of claiming that "the entire credit or discredit" for anything lies with the President. As he has multiple times, Chomsky credits the public for placing enormous public pressure on Nixon to enact various liberal initiatives.

To the extent that there is any daylight between Chomsky and Loomis, it may be that Chomsky sees in Nixon's "shrewd" negotiation a prerequisite of pluralistic governance: an ability to recognize opposition and treat with it. This may seem trivial, but it's a completely different ideological universe from modern Republicans who even refuse to negotiate to the point of self-destruction. But what seems clear, in any case, is that Loomis is not exactly contesting Chomsky's ideas about the importance of popular activism. On that, they'll have to disagree to agree.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Capitalists have no coherent critique of militarization

Capitalism usually demands the rhetorical luxury of absolute opposition to the government. Since the market can optimally ameliorate virtually every social ill imaginable, political progress is simply a matter of opposing government intervention. According to this logic, big government is bad, smaller government is better, and no government is best. Insert every Ronald Reagan aphorism ever.

This is at least internally consistent until you concede some kind of role for the government. And that's the problem militarization presents to the right. 

Capitalism implies no upper limit to the police power we invest in the state, but it demands a minimum: at the very least, the state must maintain a capacity for violence superior to the general population. That, after all, is what it takes to enforce contracts, to protect private property, and to deter criminals.

But having conceded this, Capitalists cannot, as they usually do, simply delegate the task of optimization to the market - that responsibility falls squarely in the lap of the government, which must retain its monopoly on violence. And this, of course, is the basic task of liberal governance: exercising the power of the state as responsibly and rationally as possible.

Functionally, Libertarians are using "militarized policing" in the exact same way that liberals use the word "tyranny" - to make a pragmatic distinction between irresponsible and responsible uses of force. As any NRA member will gleefully explain to you, distinctions between "military" equipment and "police" equipment are mostly arbitrary, based on the exact same logic that pinko hippies would use to justify singling out "assault rifles" from "hunting rifles" for regulation. We are not dealing with categorically different types of state violence here - just different degrees. Proportion and propriety can only be evaluated through the hard work of liberal democratic governance.

No liberals, the police state is not going to commit suicide

Governor Nixon has called in the National Guard. This was entirely predictable - authorities can't allow the spectacle of resistance to persist for too long, but Ferguson's police force has seemed entirely content to maintain a war of attrition.

The National Guard, it is hoped, will impose some kind of order on the situation through a combination of superior discipline and overwhelming force. In practice this will probably involve implementing some kind of domesticated COIN strategy involving carefully executed information operations and expanding perimeters of control. 

The aim of the former will be to justify the latter. Expect a lot of extremely visible public diplomacy - press conferences, staged peace rallies, town hall meetings - as well as police-supplied footage of various crimes. All disseminated to advance a distinction between "good" protesters who want peace and dialogue and who are worthy of civil rights, and "bad" protesters who just want anarchy and violence, and who are not only unworthy of civil rights but, crucially, who are ruining things for everyone else. Draconian measures like curfews will be spun as unfortunate but necessary measures police have been forced to impose for the protection of the "good" Fergusonites.

This is more or less what has already been happening, but the Ferguson police have proven themselves terrible at it. The new boots on the ground may have slightly better training, though they'll also enter Ferguson as an alien force with even fewer community ties than the crackers who've screwed things up so far. But the real difference maker will be the new regime of command-and-control and their superior media resources. It is only a matter of time before the national news gets bored with covering this story with any rigor and becomes hopelessly ensnared in the narrative the authorities will lay out for them, with maybe the occasional sordid and scandalous expose for ratings when they can find some good material.

If any of this seems familiar, it's because some variation on this happens every single time. Capitalism usually relies on pacifying and atomizing the population in order to maintain order, but faced with actual resistance it must rely, in the final analysis, on the overwhelming brute force of the police state. That's the context in which calls for demilitarization by the Rand Paul right need to be understood. He is not calling for a less militarized society, but simply a less militarized state - one which has abdicated its police powers and turned them over to the private sector.

The left, of course, is calling for something different: for a society with less militarization, period.

But that means a different society altogether. And that means even more conflict than what we have seen in Ferguson, not less. You can see the introduction of the National Guard as the first step in a return to the oppressive but superficially peaceful status quo, or you can see it as the unfortunate end of a nascent revolution that should get a lot more violent and destructive before all is said and done. But it is crazy to imagine that we can fix these problems without violence, as if Capital was ever not going to call in the National Guard when things got bad enough. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rand Paul's facile spin on Ferguson

Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem [in Ferguson]. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. - Rand Paul,
Police militarization is definitely part of the problem here, but it doesn't follow that police militarization is necessarily an outcome of a powerful democratic government, or that it can only be addressed by the massive abolition of democratic governance that Paul has in mind. These are the unargued, non sequitur leaps of an opportunist transparently attempting to hijack a tragedy as a vehicle for an unrelated political agenda.

Rand Paul unwittingly draws attention to this a few paragraphs later when he notes - quoting The Heritage Foundation's Evan Bernick - that "federal well as local police departments...come equipped with SWAT teams and heavy artillery."

To elaborate: big government may have militarized the Ferguson police, but it has also militarized government authorities that can serve as a check on the Ferguson police. At any given moment, President Obama and Governor Nixon can mobilize the National Guard or even active military to intervene on behalf of Ferguson's citizens. They are perfectly capable of doing this, not in spite of the power of the government but because of it. In fact, it is precisely because the President and the Governor are so powerful that it likely won't come to that at all. When the Ferguson police stand down, it will be because the massive, armed hierarchy of the state and federal government have given them no other choice.

The reason this hasn't already happened is obvious: Republicans won't let it. They are already decrying the President's call for an investigation by the FBI and the DOJ, and spinning further intervention as an egregious imposition on the local sovereignty. A deployment of troops - the reasonable and proportional solution - would have ignited all kinds of outrage about federal tyranny.

Who will police the police? Liberals have a pragmatic answer for this: a careful system of checks and balances, regulatory, enforcement and military agencies, all ultimately subject to popular control through democratic elections. Demilitarization can ameliorate some of the system's worst abuses, but as a final solution it's just incoherent: the whole point of a police force is that we militarize some people more than others in order to enforce the law.

Remember Al Sharpton

For all of his squishiness in recent years, Al Sharpton is doing the Lord's work in Ferguson right now, and it's the exact same thing he has been doing for decades: rallying the black community against an obvious injustice.

Anyone who has paid any attention to Sharpton's career knows that there is nothing at all unusual about this, and indeed, at this point the unusual thing would be if he didn't show up given the magnitude of the events in Missouri.

But what is unusual, once you notice it, is the almost absolute radio silence among his critics in the Republican party. Just do a quick Google search and you'll find an endless parade of grievance among GOP crackers about Sharpton's "race-hustling" during the Jena Six or Trayvon Martin controversies - just to name two. Look at his actual involvement in those cases, however, and you'll see him doing exactly what he's doing right now.

The point is worth making because the silence isn't gonna last. It's just too embarrassing to come after Sharpton while he's standing shoulder to shoulder with grieving parents against Ferguson's hyper-militarized goon squad; it's obvious that Sharpton's on the right side of history on this one, and no one in their right mind is going to take him on while everyone's paying attention.

But give it a few weeks, and the GOP will weave this one back into a vague narrative of Sharpton as an opportunity who allies himself with shady criminals and radicals. Republicans won't explain what exactly changed between now and then - they'll just appeal to some common-sensical perception of Sharpton as some sinister guy whose ideas about race should never be taken seriously.

So watch what Al Sharpton's doing right now. Remember it when Republicans change the story. And ask yourself, "Just how much of the history of black activism in the United States even remotely resembles the story that Republicans tell us today?"

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The lesson of the Obama years

"The Obama years have taught us the sometimes frightening lesson that our Constitution and legal structure alone don't secure the Republic. We also depend on norms - or an implied understanding of what behavior is acceptable."

This is true enough, but Chait then proceeds to exactly the wrong conclusion. We have only become aware of our dependence on "norms" during the Obama years to the extent that they have utterly failed to constrain political power. Republicans have departed from precedent by enforcing the supermajority rule, politicizing the debt ceiling, obstructing routine appointments, and filing suit against the President through the House. From these infamous and unambiguous violations of institutional convention, Chait concludes that Obama needs to maintain another convention, if only to constrain future Republicans?

This is not to say that these conventions are irrelevant - simply that they aren't decisive. It turns out that a Republican president could decide to stop collecting the estate tax whether or not Obama pursues his immigration plans, and that he could decide not to even if Obama does pursue his immigration plan. Historic precedents may play a role here, but if the Obama years have taught us anything, they've taught us that things like partisanship and immediate incentives and a whole host of other dynamics may be even more relevant.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Libertarians do not get credit for social liberalism

Robert Draper in the New York Times Magazine:
Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position...[libertarians support] the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders...The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb...deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington...
It's gratifying to see so many Americans take up these causes, but that doesn't change history. All of these are liberal positions advocated by liberals for decades and decades. Crucially, liberals have fought for these positions when libertarians have been unwilling to, and often in the face of fierce opposition by libertarians. Liberals often maintained these positions at their own political expense, and it has largely been through their sacrifice and dedication that these causes even became viable.

Draper's reference to foreign intervention is just the most obvious case in point.

Consider the most significant instance of foreign intervention in modern history: the invasion of Iraq. Liberals didn't merely oppose this - they led the opposition, and it was the central rallying point of their politics throughout the GWB presidency. The Democratic party was a major vehicle of their opposition, though a glance at contemporary protests show the heavy involvement of organizations even further to the left: the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition, United for Peace and Justice, the Green Party, and so on. Accordingly, opponents of foreign intervention were overwhelmingly associated with the left, and defended and criticized on those terms. Opponents of the Iraq War were routinely attacked as Communists, Socialists, Big-Government liberals, and even sympathizers with the notion of a totalitarian Islam Caliphate. Rather than disavow their acceptance of liberal governance, critics of the war routinely maintained that government funds being wasted in Iraq would have been much better spent on welfare programs and maintenance.

It's become a political truism that Libertarian opponents of intervention were missing-in-action during the Bush years - but really, that's far too polite. In reality Libertarians supported foreign intervention, as they often have. Not just passively, though they did that too - as when CATO repeatedly maintained radio silence on the issue to the point that even allies started criticizing them. And not just from the top down, though they did that too - as when CATO fired anti-interventionalist Charles Pena. Nope, they did it actively, and at the level of individual voters: for instance, supporting Bush against Kerry by an overwhelming 59-38 margin in 2008.

Does any of this mean that Libertarians aspire or intend intervene abroad?

Libertarians typically respond to these points by insisting that they were making pragmatic trade-offs to advance things they cared more about - supporting the Iraq War because Bush also promised tax cuts, for example. But that's not a counterpoint. Politics are about what positions you support in theory - they're about what trade-offs you actually make. You do not get to call yourself an anti-interventionist if every time the issue comes up you are willing, for whatever reason, to support intervention and oppose the people who oppose it.

This line of criticism holds across the board. There's an old joke on the left that Libertarians are just Republicans who want to smoke pot - but it's worth noting that they haven't been doing this by actually advocating legalization. For the most part, Libertarians have spent the last fifty years voting for the party that regularly uses "pot-smoking hippies" as a way to insult liberals. When they want to smoke up, they just do it, because they're privileged and they can get away with it. Sometimes, as Draper reports, they even brag about it in contests!

Ironically, the emergence of the modern Libertarian movement has mostly been an outcome of widespread acceptance of the liberal agenda. Left-wing opposition to war, discrimination and the war on drugs have been so successful that right-wing capitalists have had to accommodate to these realities. Far from representing a "purer" or "more-principled" version of Republicans, Libertarians are mostly Republicans who have capitulated to pressure from their left.

Predictably, the losers in this contest are now trying to re-write history and insist that they were the winners all along. Its the exact same revisionary move we see today among opportunistic Republicans trying to claim the legacy of the Civil Rights; their strategy may seem implausible now, but the Libertarian rebrand seemed implausible too - at first. When writers like Draper invoke these talking points without criticism, they quickly move from implausible to truism pretty fast.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marxism and economic protest

A favorite game on the right is to point out how Capitalism's critics are often themselves implicated in the Capitalist economy. This almost always involves crediting Capitalism with modern technology - so the leftist who tweets from his iPhone, for example, is allegedly profiting from the exploitation of labor even as he decries it.

This is a popular line of attack since it's always at least tangentially relevant. Unless the critic is maintaining some kind of absolute Luddite existence in a shack built with a homemade handsaw, he'll be tangled in some way in the tentacles of the modern economy. The alleged hypocrisy is so sordid in its immediacy that it can derail absolutely any line of critique.

The Marxist, here, has a distinct advantage over the Liberal. Contrast their positions.

The Liberal argues that the evils of Capitalism can be mitigated through some combination of self-and-state regulation. Managers can practice ethical management; consumers can be conscientious consumers; and if all else fails, we can pass rules and regulations to impose some degree of order and humanity onto the system. Writ large, all of this is accomplished through the accumulation of individual decisions - in the board room, at the cash register, and at the polls.

In other words, the right-wing critic has a point. The Liberal can agitate for change and decry the evils of Capitalism all he likes - but to the extent that he is not fully exercising his franchise as a manager, consumer and voter, he is not playing by the rules of his own game.

The Marxist is in a different situation. He denies those rules from the very start and refuses to play by them. 

The economy is not dictated by the managerial discretion, consumer choice and democratic will of individual actors - not according to the Marxist. The situation is more complicated than that. And we can elaborate on those details if one likes, but here it's enough to simply point out that the Marxist does not believe that his personal decision to buy or not buy an iPod is what makes Capitalism work. Nor does he necessarily believe that Capitalism was even necessary for his iPhone to exist in the first place.

The Marxist may be mistaken in all of this, but as I wrote about last time, hypocrisy doesn't exist where the premise is in dispute. Unless the Marxist actually agrees with you that his personal consumer decisions matter, he is not acting in bad faith by proceeding as if they do not - he is merely, at the worst, incorrect.

Which is all to say that legitimacy of the Marxist's position has nothing to do with whether he owns consumer electronics or whatever, and everything to do with the substantive merits of his economic critique. The apologist for Capitalism can't escape that question with the Marxist as he can, to Liberalism's shame, with the Liberal.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How hypocrisy works

Jesse Myerson got robbed yesterday. Right wing bozos have taken this misfortune as their opportunity to make two points:
  1. JM is a hypocrite for criticizing private property rights and theft
  2. JM's beliefs, which allow him to consistently criticize both property rights and theft, are BS
Both accusations are dumb for reasons spelled out ad nauseum elsewhere, but here it's enough to point out that they happen to be completely at odds.

JM believes that the collectivization of private property is not a form of theft. Insofar as he believes this, we should expect him to criticize private property while simultaneously condemning theft. That is the logically and morally consistent expression of his belief.

There is nothing hypocritical about any of this, as maintained in point one. It may be a naive or illogical or incoherent or dumb position, as maintained in point two, but that is different from the allegation of hypocrisy. One can obviously act in perfect consistency with a flawed belief.

This is pure kettle logic. It's what happens when you oppose a position first, and then come up with reasons to oppose it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Orwell would actually say about "political correctness run amok"

If George Orwell taught us one thing, it's to be wary of "political correctness". That's one of the few aspects of his legacy that liberals and conservatives invariably agree upon, even if they disagree over who he was criticizing. (See: West, Krugman)

It seems to me, however, that we might have cause for suspicion when the two ruling ideologies of our age both try to vilify the same phrase to make it mean the exact opposite of what it actually says.

The point of calling something "politically correct," of course, is to declare that it is actually politically incorrect. Conservatives object if I use the word "actor" to refer to a woman, because I am incorrectly neutering a gendered noun for the sake of an incorrect feminist agenda. Liberals object if I refer to their agenda as "class warfare," because it is correctly understood as egalitarian benevolence towards all classes.

All of this makes sense if we understand the phrase "politically correct" as sarcasm. But does anyone ever call something "politically correct" in earnest? Does the phrase still have any literal meaning? Can we still argue that something is in fact politically correct? I'm not so sure. Consider today's Washington Post:
The Flaggers group was formed a few years ago after the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags from the Confederate memorial chapel on its grounds, and the city of Lexington banned the standards from city light poles. Group members are frustrated by what they see as political correctness run amok, and they frequently bring their banners to protest at sites where flags have been removed.
Note the phrasing. The author, Susan Svrluga, could also worry about "too much political correctness", or "over-the-top political correctness", or "political correctness on a rampage", and so on. But that's not the phrase, is it? We refer to "political correctness run amok" instead of "out-of-control political correctness" for the same reason that we refer to "out-of-control spending" instead of "spending run amok" - because these are canned phrases, and one is supposed to use them certain ways, but not others.

Another possible variation: "Group members maintain that is is politically incorrect to ban the Confederate flag." This phrasing is both literally true and extremely unlikely for the same reason that other versions were unlikely: one simply doesn't write it that way. No one alleges that something is politically incorrect by calling it politically incorrect. In fact, if Svrluga phrased it that way, the reader might conclude that the Flaggers support banning the Confederate flag. Bans are so politically incorrect! What a righteous defiance of groupthink and political convention, to ban the Confederate flag!

It is not surprising that canned phrases like "political correctness" should be so difficult to rationally parse - that is in fact precisely what Orwell says we should expect:
[Modern writing] consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else...By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself...You can shirk [scrupulous writing] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Calling something "politically incorrect" is a way of smuggling in the premise that one's idea is only opposed on the basis of popular orthodoxy, and that the very act of disagreement demonstrates a brave and admirable commitment to the truth. It suggests that political insight is more about resisting public opinion than considering to it; it fetishizes contrarianism and heterodoxy at the expense of sympathy and consensus. None of this needs to be explicitly argued for; simply splicing in the phrase does it all.

"In our time," Orwell writes, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." How better to do this today than to call something politically incorrect?

Not an argument against democracy

Okay, democracy has been suspended. Meh? ...Evil bureaucrats bribed, stole, and swindled Detroit into utter ruin. It seems inhumane to me that anyone could think this result was what city residents deserved as long as some chunk of them cast ballots authorizing it on behalf of everyone else. What about all the people who didn't approve of their city government's criminal dealings?
This is mostly inane except for one curiosity - Soakes clearly thinks he is making some kind of provocative, radical argument against democracy.

In a functional democracy, we would expect the democratic minority to be critical of democratic outcomes. They should think it unfortunate that the majority prevailed, and should maintain that their interests have been compromised against their will. All of this is exactly as it should be. None of this is a critique of democracy - it's a demonstration that democracy is working precisely as it should.

Soakes, of course, would maintain that his assessment happens to be correct. But even if true, how would this demonstrate that "democracy isn't worth saving"? How does this instance function as an indictment of the entire system?

There are venerable and legitimate critiques of democracy to be made, most involving deontological minutia or expansive utilitarianism. There's even a standard Libertarian critique to be made alleging the relative efficacy and minimal coercion of markets.

No one is expecting a decisive treatise from Robby Soaves, but it should be obvious that the case against democracy isn't even minimally or hypothetically made by smugly pointing a finger at Detroit. It's difficult to distinguish this kind of I'm-sure-totally-subversive rhetoric from the general grievance of every democratic loser there will ever be.