Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Singer and the tragedy of charity

Singer, say what you will about him, is one of the most honest Capitalists left. He refuses to shut his eyes against the horrific suffering, poverty and economic injustice that plagues our world -- and he refuses to allow arguments about meritocratic entitlement and the virtue of selfishness to relieve us of our responsibility to fight for justice. None of this should be taken for granted or dismissed lightly. Among a liberal intelligentsia where most are inclined to follow the path of least resistance in pursuit of economic justice, Singer demands hard choices and difficult solutions; and more often than not, he practices what he preaches.

Nevertheless, Singer remains quite decidedly a Capitalist, voicing all of the usual liberal misgivings, only to conclude, as liberals do, that there's simply no better option. Because of this, he is ultimately unwilling to endorse class war, and can only insist on an unusually aggressive vision of class peace. Charity and democratic welfare, Singer argues, are the appropriate vehicles for humanitarian aid; the rich have a responsibility to use both in the fight against inequality, but that responsibility must be ethical, not political.

To be fair, Singer is generally willing to acknowledge the full weight of that responsibility. His standard argument, seemingly obvious but almost universally ignored, is that we should not spend money on luxuries while anyone lacks basic necessities. And this is not, moreover, an imperative that only kicks in when we find it convenient; we should all be willing to accept a significantly lower standard of living, and to give away the vast majority of our wealth and income, in order to provide for the poor.

There are, of course, some major problems with this.

First, Christ too instructs us to "sell all that we have and give it to the poor" -- and there's a reason why so many theologians call this a "counsel of perfection". It's an admirable ideal, but it's not one that many people are going to even come close to observing. Singer is advocating an ethic that, however internally consistent and hypothetically adequate it may be, is never even going to come close to solving the problems of poverty and inequality.

Moreover, even if Singer's program worked perfectly, it could not solve the problem of economic justice for a simple reason: the haves are still in control. "Why should [the poor] be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table?" Oscar Wilde asks; "They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it." Capitalism, even supplemented by exhaustive welfare and charity, is still Capitalism; it places all the power into the hands of those who control the means of production, and makes slaves of everyone else.

Additionally, as Zizek so often argues, charity cultivates all kinds of perverse outcomes: it alleviates guilt, relieves of us responsibly, and through self-perpetuation guarantees that we'll continue to rely on an inadequate solution. Whatever good it does accomplish must always be weighed against the suffering and injustice it will necessarily maintain.

For all of these reasons, Singer's project, on its face, must be regarded as a failure. This does not at all mean that charity and welfare are useless as stopgap approaches to damage control; their counterrevolutionary function has to be taken into account as well, but even Marx was willing to make tradeoffs for what he called a "minor Magna Carta" for workers, a better deal than they previously had. Ultimately, however, our priority must remain the abolition of Capitalism.

Generously, however, I think we can credit Singer with making unintentionally the same move that Marx often makes quite deliberately: by accepting Capitalism's assumptions, he exposes how it can't even work on its own terms. Singer's vision extends charity and welfare to their absolute extremes, but even its most liberal realization leaves billions in poverty, and billions in utter impotence.

Even the most honest Capitalist maintains that we can do no better; but if we are committed to justice, we must try.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Marxism as a speech community


I think this can certainly be a useful way of thinking about Marxism if we begin with a particular understanding of language.

Marxist linguist Valentin Volosinov argued that the sign is "an arena of class struggle." I think what he meant by this is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial: when there are political controversies about language, those controversies are in some sense expressions of class struggle.

From this conception, it follows pretty directly that the side you take in political controversies over language will often be the side you are taking in the class struggle. As a trivial example, we can probably infer something based on whether you think the rich are better described as "job creators" or "parasites". What's telling is not that you have picked words with particular definitions, but that you have picked the same words that the working class has picked, and in opposition to the words that the bourgeoisie prefer. I don't have to even speak English to grasp the essential class dynamic here; all I need to know is that there's a class struggle over which word to use, and who is advocating what word.

In that sense, Marxism certainly can be defined as a speech community - specifically, the community which sides with the proletariat in linguistic class struggle against the bourgeoisie. 

This is easy enough to see in controversies like the one mentioned above; but of course, in more complicated or subtle controversies, it's not necessarily clear which side is aligned with the interests of which class. When self-identified Marxists disagree with self-identified Marxists about what Marxism is, and when that disagreement is expressed as a dispute over terminology and language, the notion of Marxism as a speech community stops being useful. Linguistics gives us no insight into the conflict; the sides may very well be aligned with opposing class interests, but nothing about the language they're using tells us who is who.

The anticipation fallacy

Given the internet's aggressively robotic policing of hyper-rational discourse, you'd think that we would have by now discovered every fallacy that human language can possibly articulate. And yet somehow, the right once again proves its endless capacity for innovation:


The problem here is embarrassingly obvious: the right thinks that it has contested criticism simply by anticipating it. Sandra Hartle generalizes the first two insane tweets into their logical conclusion: attempts to blame the right for anything are wrong, because they are so predictably what one would expect the critics of the right to do.

It's not all that interesting to notice that the right is making stupid arguments, but I think the form of this one is deeply revealing.

First, it suggests that the right feels a general need to affirm the explanatory power of its ideology. Anticipating criticism is in this case a way of suggesting that everything -- even one's critics -- has been thoroughly understood and dealt with. Epistemelogical closure has taken place, and this is a good thing; the sheer comprehensiveness of right-wing ideology, its ability to reduce any line of attack into an ideologically consistent formula, demonstrates its absolute power (and that of its partisans).

Second, it suggests that the right has become keenly self-conscious about particular points of criticism; they anticipate certain lines of attack, but not others, and they do this for a reason. The right, of course, will insist that they simply see a pattern of mindless talking points. But the anticipation fallacy also leaves them open to a less flattering possibility: they anticipate particular attacks because they're aware of particular vulnerabilities. They expect liberals to "play the race card" in response to criticism of Obama, for example, because they realize that this is a plausible and widely accepted line of attack.

And third, it suggests that the right is looking for rhetorical silver bullets. The anticipation fallacy always entails generalizing specific, circumstantially contingent criticism into abstract "cards" that critics have allegedly played over and over -- that way, all of these instances can be summarily dismissed. If we notice that "reductio ad Somalium" isn't an actual fallacy, all that's left is the attempt to declare any comparisons to Somalia pre-emptively illegitimate. Cooke doesn't just want to rebut the specific point at hand -- he wants to win a final victory, ending any future comparisons to Somalia once and for all. This impulse finds its ultimate expression in Hartle's attempt to strangle in the cradle all potential criticism of the right.

So in general, I think the proliferation of the anticipation fallacy signals a deep insecurity on the right: they sense that their ideology is inadequate (1) and vulnerable to criticism (2), so they hope to win for it a final victory (3). This political psychology isn't latent in every stupid argument the right makes, but it's pretty damn evident in this one.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Chuck Johnson's radical attack on Capitalism

Economic actors within a free market can't coerce each other -- so the Capitalists tell us. Since the state exercises a monopoly on violence, economic actors can only enter into voluntary arrangements with each other. And since the invisible hand optimizes these arrangements, any problem in the free market is necessarily a consequence of government constraints on market efficiency. Therefore, when problems arise, the correct response is not to intervene and regulate them, but to eliminate constraints on economic actors, so that the problem will solve itself.

This is the general form of Capitalist arguments against regulation. Obviously, right-wing troll Chuck Johnson is going to have to overcome this argument if he wants the courts to intervene and force Twitter to reinstate his recently banned account. But how he does so is deeply revealing:


Chuck is not just endorsing any old argument against his ban: he is openly invoking a radically leftist argument against Capitalism. Not only has the market malfunctioned, granting Twitter a "monopolistic position" -- it also cannot be expected to correct itself. Note that Johnson's lawyers aren't even calling for standard remedies like monopoly busting, which would be the logical Capitalist response to this situation. Instead, as soon as Chuck's own interests are at stake, he immediately demands that the democratic state wield its authority on his behalf against an economic system that cannot function correctly.

There's a reason Chuck is relying on this line of defense: it's the simplest, the most obvious, and the most effective. He did not need to read Marx to know how Capitalism can create unjust situations, or to understand that the only plausible remedy is for the democratic will to trump so-called private property rights. He didn't defend Capitalism all of these years because he failed to understand it, nor did he attack the critics of Capitalism because they failed to aggressively and persuasively make their case. He simply relied on Capitalism when it was too his advantage, and now that it's attacking him he's attacking it back.

People are ready to turn on Capitalism. They're just waiting for an opportunity.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Should workers own the means of production - or control it?

It appears that most people don't find the distinction particularly important. Both formulations are somewhat unique to Marxist discourse, but a quick Google Ngram tells the story: more people are writing about ownership than control, and since the 50s the ratio has always been at least 2:1.

"own the means of production" vs. "control the means of production"

One ought not read too much into this. For one thing, people frequently use one to mean the other since ownership often entails control. And Marx in particular was concerned with how worker control of the means of production could be guaranteed; his solution was to give them ownership, albeit collective ownership, which would be enforced by the state.

But none of this means that ownership of the means of production is the essential condition for ending capitalism. In fact, if that were true capitalism would already be in serious peril, since many workers already own the means of production insofar as they're also shareholders. This has not, of course, translated into worker control for all kinds of obvious reasons having to do with corporate governance and the financial leverage of the bourgeoisie.

That's why what should matter to us is not ownership so much as control. If a political-legal regime can be created that guarantees workers control of the means of production through ownership rights, that's fine. But if workers can control the means of production without owning it, that's fine too.

Monday, May 18, 2015

O'Reilly is exposing the impotence of liberalism

Today we've learned that Bill O'Reilly has been accused of domestic violence against his wife. This should not lead to him losing his job. Neither should revelations that he's repeatedly lied about his reporting on the Falklands War. Neither should evidence that he lied about his account of George de Mohrenschildt's suicide. Neither should Andrea Mackris's sexual harassment lawsuit.

The fact is, O'Reilly should have lost his job long before any of this. In a capitalist economy subject to the demands of meritocracy, O'Reilly would have become a major liability for his employer long ago. In a world of rational liberal discourse, he would have no credibility with any audience. We should have never even heard of these scandals, because O'Reilly would have been fired sometime in the late 90s.

The reason that O'Reilly has not been fired is obvious: liberal media doesn't work. No amount of rational criticism, however substantiated or rigorously argued, can take away O'Reilly's credibility - because people are psychologically inclined to trust those who say things they want to hear. And no amount of boycotting or pressure on advertisers will seriously compromise his value to his employers. The people who watch his show will watch him no matter what. The people who advertise on his show will continue to advertise for him, or will be replaced by others who will.

After nearly two decades, liberals still don't seem to get this.

To be sure, some of the criticism is counterprop aimed at neutralizing misinformation for centrist/low-information voters. Some of it's agitprop meant to inflame outrage and the donations / turnout that comes with it. Some of the economic actions are just meant to impose a cost on O'Reilly's patrons -- one that won't stop him, but that may deter other investments. Obviously there is some strategic nuance at work here.

But one can't watch the inevitable calls for O'Reilly's head and miss the subtext: liberals still think they can make capitalist media work for them. This is probably the most damning criticism of his opponents he has ever managed; O'Reilly makes a mockery of liberalism every night, simply by keeping his job.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The racism of bad faith

Almost universally, the modern American right understands left antiracism as a cynical political ploy. It is also, of course, an expression of leftist vanity, which is why Ann Coulter writes that “Liberals luxuriate in calling other people ‘racists’ out of pure moral preening” -- but she then goes on to add that “What really made the Democrats sit up and take notice was that blacks began voting.” That, we are told, is what ultimately drives the left’s rhetoric against racism: it’s a useful smear, and it consolidates support among misguided racial minorities.

This is of course is almost entirely garbage, the defensive, self-serving bad faith of people who don’t actually care about racism – points that become entirely clear when we consider how their argument proceeds.

After all, if we take the problem of racism seriously, we have to take accusations of racism seriously. They have to be given a hearing, addressed on their merits, and either accepted or rejected. There’s an obvious and inescapable conflict of interest if the accused can simply dismiss the charge without argument by declaring it “dishonest” or “offensive”; and the stakes are just too high to place the debate over racism at the mercy of such judgments. Of course it’s unfair and inconvenient when people make spurious charges of racism, and when others credulously accept them. Does that warrant abandoning the debate over racism altogether? Is your personal reputation, or your political agenda, more important than maintaining subtantive debates about race? Probably not!

But that is precisely the conclusion the right arrives at. Ben Shapiro, in How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them, makes this point quite explicitly. “There will be no conversation in which you call me a racist, and I explain why I’m not a racist,” he writes. “That’s a conversation for idiots.” This logic, of course, directly and pre-emptively disqualifies every possible accusation of racism – even those that are potentially legitimate. To accept Shapiro’s view is to insist that victims of racism no longer have standing to make their case.

This is not an argument that we should care about racism -- it's an argument that we should not care about racism, not even enough to ever take it seriously. That's what makes the line of defense so odious. In order to deflect any charge of racism, the right is willing to delegitimize every charge of racism, dismissing the entire problem as a political contrivance that should be pointedly ignored.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

There is no reason to believe that Hillary has moved to the left

It may be unfair to single Bouie out here, since he is merely repeating what has become internet consensus: Hillary Clinton, after years of occupying the party's center-to-center-right, has suddenly reversed much of her agenda.

But Bouie should know better, just as all Democrats should know better. Clinton may very well have changed her campaign rhetoric, at least for the moment, while it's important for her to pre-empt as much opposition from the left as possible. But it doesn't follow at all that she will actually govern to the left, and in fact there's significant reason to assume that she won't govern that way.

One major reason is that the Congressional stalemate provides significant political cover for any liberal candidate who fails to deliver on her promises. Clinton can posture about immigration, criminal justice, inequality, and anything else she likes, knowing full well that any liberal bill she proposes to Congress will be dead on arrival.

A second major reason is that Obama's 2008 campaign taught her a hard lesson about the expectations of the modern electorate. Clinton in many ways ran a more honest campaign than Obama, a point that clearly exasperated her by the end; she refused to pander to the party's liberal base, and it cost her dearly. Obama, meanwhile, understood that he could win by telling party activists what they wanted to hear, even if he had no intention of pursuing that agenda.

But the third and most important reason to doubt Clinton's posturing is also the most obvious: her record, and the record of an allies. Whenever she has had any kind of power, as the First Lady, as a Senator, and as a Secretary of State, she has wielded it like a centrist neoliberal. Her husband, her advisors, and her patrons have always done the same.

For me, these points are more than decisive; but at the very least, they should incline liberals to view her new progressive rhetoric with some minimal degree of skepticism.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A wrongheaded reaction to internet racism


Obviously the odds of persuading anyone of anything they disagree with are always pretty slim. If you want a good reason to block internet racists, this is probably it.

What does not work, however, is for a white person to complain that fighting racism is some kind of onerous burden that they should not have to bear. You know what's even more unpleasant and inconvenient than yelling at someone on Twitter? Getting murdered by white supremacists!

This isn't to say that white people therefore have some kind of affirmative obligation to wage perpetual scorched-earth internet war against bigots. Some people have the luxury of doing this; other people need to use their free time more productively.

But I think it's worth bearing in mind that as futile as the task of persuasion can be for friends, it's even less productive with strangers. Our relationships are precious, and often the only leverage we have when trying to pry someone out of a toxic culture. Sometimes the best way to shame someone is, as Allison suggests, simply cutting them out of your life -- often they'll know why it happened. But sometimes you may be the only person whose voice of disapproval would matter to someone else, and the only person in a position to pressure them to change. That is not an opportunity we should throw away simply because it's hard.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bernie Sanders is not running for president

A lot of left-criticism of Bernie Sanders is beginning with an odd but telling assumption: that he is running for president. This is only colloquially true. At this stage in the process, when we say that Sanders is running for president, that's just rhetorical shorthand for what is actually happening: he's running for the Democratic nomination. Then and only then will he possibly run for president.

The distinction is important, because at this stage he is only running against Hillary Clinton and whomever else decides to compete for the nomination. He is not running against Green Party candidates like Jill Stein or Cynthia McKinney. He is not running against whomever the SPUSA eventually nominates. He is not running against the radical with much better politics who is going to get swept into office on a wave of popular acclamation in a year or so.

Maybe you think that a Sanders presidency would co-opt popular support for socialism towards another four years of neoliberal hegemony. This is a good reason to oppose a Bernie Sanders presidency, but it doesn't necessarily follow that you should therefore also oppose a Sanders nomination. For instance, one could argue that a truly radical opponent would be more likely to beat Sanders than Clinton in the general election - he is, after all, a far weaker candidate. Perhaps a Sanders nomination would be a better way of bringing into sharp relief the contrast between Socialism In Name Only and a real, principled socialist agenda.

How you come down on such matters is mostly a question of strategic calculus. It does not necessarily have anything to do with supporting a Sanders presidency.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The left should make executive action an election issue

The obvious consequence of the GOP's domination of Congress for the foreseeable future is that we shouldn't expect it to pass any progressive legislation.

Nevertheless, Democratic presidential candidates are already running on agendas that implicitly demand the passage of progressive laws. Clinton's early calls for criminal justice reform, as widely noted, can make little progress without repealing many of the measures instituted in her husband's 1994 anti-crime bill. She has also endorsed a constitutional amendment establishing a right to same-sex marriage -- an even more ambitious ask from a right-wing Congress. Her only declared opponent, Bernie Sanders, is best known for proposals that somehow manage to be even less likely to reach his desk -- like a single-payer health care system, and expansions to Social Security.

This is madness on multiple levels. It dooms the Democratic agenda to four years of futile posturing and political theater, further undermining public confidence in the government. It severs any meaningful relationship between campaign platforms and policy outcomes, substituting a raft of dreams and quixotic aspirations for a plausible agenda. And most importantly, it abdicates the last and best tool the left has for overcoming the right's antidemocratic intransigence: executive action.

Liberals will flinch at the idea of candidates running on promises to make end-runs around the legislative branch -- but they shouldn't. The simplest reason is democratic accountability. As it stands, candidates simply aren't expected to articulate an executive agenda beyond indicating general dispositions on foreign policy. Pressuring them into doing so politicizes their plans, sets expectations, and creates the possibility of democratic feedback; it gives voters more control over their government.

The alternative defaults into the hands of the right: a presidency that is increasingly untethered from popular control, increasingly dictated by the powerful apparatchiks and lobbyists who will demand executive action. At best it ends in executive forbearance -- which in an era of legislative gridlock means governmental paralysis, again playing into the hands of the right.

That said, arguments that democracy is better facilitated by an archaic institution deliberately rigged to thwart it -- by overrepresenting landowners, by cynical gerrymandering, by supermajority requirements, and so on -- aren't particularly convincing. The presidency, too, is hobbled by the electoral college and the two-party system; nevertheless, it remains a far better instrument of popular control than the Congress. Moreover, those with a sentimental attachment to the Congress can console themselves with the reconfiguration of incentives an assertive presidency would impose on federal governance. It could force Congress to negotiate in exchange for continuing relevance, reversing the dynamic of polarization that has fomented much of the radicalism we see today.

It's easy enough to imagine all kinds of leftist policies and programs that could be implemented - or thwarted - by executive action. The limits of the president's authority, under the realpolitik norms governing our politics, are limited only by the democratic will and interpretive imagination.