Monday, June 29, 2015

Is universal leisure possible?

Ecology seems to suggest that it is. There are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive even though they don't engage in anything that is really analogous to labor, particularly once you leave the animal kingdom. They metabolize, but they're no more conscious of this than we are. They reproduce, but they do not necessarily mate. Many of these creatures are not significantly less complex than humans -- particularly if we try to narrow in on what we would consider to be the "essential" biology of being a human. (I do not think, for instance, that we necessarily need to contemplate a future where every person still has an appendix.)

Plants provide the basic model for how this can work. Set in place a process that uses the sun's energy to transform local resources into digestible nutrients. Set in place a kind of pollination process that outsources the work usually expended on mating to other organisms. Labor problem: solved. Nothing about these processes necessarily depends on the organism being simple or stationary. We can already do most of this with machines and medicine, though we can't do it as efficiently as plants. Yet.

Intuitively, a lot of these solutions would eventually seem to demand significant lifestyle trade-offs. To take a simple example, humans generally seem to enjoy their courtship rituals, but courtship is intimately bound up with mating, which takes work. Humans also seem to enjoy eating elaborate foods, but it's probably a far more difficult problem to transform abundant resources into elaborate food than it is to transform abundant resources into basic nutrient slurry. Humans generally enjoy moving around, though it's easier to provide sustenance for an organism that stays in one place. And so on.

This all suggests, to me, three points.

First, contrary to the "no free lunch" conventional wisdom of modern economics, there does not seem to be any physical or biological principles that necessarily prevent humans from getting what would essentially amount to a free lunch. Draw from resources as large as the sun and lean on processes as efficient as photosynthesis and the costs of lunch become extraordinarily infinitesimal. I can't think of any objections to this that don't amount to arbitrary anthropocentrism.

Second, the sort of economy/ecology that could facilitate this demands a level of technology we haven't reached yet - but it isn't completely out of sight. The primary challenge is learning to chemically transform abundant elements into complex proteins; we can already do something like this, but only with relatively scarce elements, and quite inefficiently. The secondary challenge would be to facilitate large scale artificial fertilization in a way that maintains a viable population without encountering the moral problem of eugenics.

Third, the sorts of problems we'll encounter at this stage of technological evolution will be qualitatively different than the ones we experience today. Right now the standard trade-off is between leisure and abundance. In the future we will have the option of trading off leisure for things like courtship, or sensory indulgence, or mobility, or even biological autonomy. These seem to suggest some pretty dystopian possibilities, but it's worth bearing in mind that these are all options. They are in any case options that capitalism, grounded as it is in a certain technological economy, cannot provide.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

EXPLAINER: Obamacare's King vs. Burwell victory (wonkish)

The government has defeated yet another legal challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a decisive 6-3 Supreme Court ruling this morning in the case of King vs. Burwell.

The plaintiffs in King targeted insurance subsidies for Americans who enrolled through Obamacare's federally-run exchanges, relying on a gibberish legal pretext and hoping that the Supreme Court's majority of Republican justices would vote it through. Opponents of the law then spent the next several months in an uncoordinated media pressure campaign to secure their ruling.

The Court's Democratic minority -- Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan -- were always going to rule against the case, since it was obviously stupid and since they are Democrats who want the law to succeed.

But Republican Chief Justice Roberts has never opposed the ACA in principle, and Republican Justice Kennedy has only voiced modest, narrowly tailored objections. In the end, both joined the Court's Democrats to defeat their more partisan colleagues, Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas. Ultimately, a number of factors influenced their defection:

  • A relative lack of social and financial investment in an adverse ruling -- for instance, fewer close friends and loved ones in radical right-wing circles;
  • Instinctive judgments about how various rulings would impact their legacies;
  • Partially unresolved Oedipus complexes involving an incomplete reconciliation and identification with their fathers, expressed as an inclination towards rebellion and contrarianism;
  • What they had for breakfast the morning they settled on an opinion.
Both Justices will presumably try to compensate for this decision with a ruling for Republicans in a completely unrelated case.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The crank psychology of right-wing hashtag games

If you've read much popular literature on hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming, business communications, seduction methods, or any other pseudoscientific speculation on communications, you've almost certainly at some point come across a passage like this:
[I]f you ask a stranger to do something—especially to buy something—they tend to balk. Their natural reaction is to question the instruction. To find a reason to disagree with it. The critical mind throws up objections. 
What’s interesting, though, is this doesn’t happen if you just ask someone to imagine something. Especially if you ask them to imagine the outcome of the sale, rather than making the purchase itself. There’s no resistance to that. 
This is because we don’t see imagining as a “real” task. It’s just a mind-game. Indeed, an enjoyable game; a distraction from life—as with fantasies. 
So by asking your prospect to imagine something, you bypass that critical part that throws up objections, and “sneak in” to their mind through the back door of their imagination. And bypassing the critical mind is the second of three crucial steps to achieving hypnosis. (The first is attracting the person’s attention, which I’ll assume you’ve already done.) 
The third step is to stimulate the unconscious mind. That is exactly what imagining something does. As strange as it may sound, the brain literally cannot tell the difference between imagining reality, and actually experiencing reality. As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between visualizing a tree, and seeing a tree.
Scientifically, just about every empirical claim in this passage is absolute gibberish. The brain does not reflexively object to requests, it does not imagine uncritically, and it is not somehow unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Nevertheless, the exercise can work like any other attempt at persuasion -- "imagine X" is just a roundabout way of claiming "X could happen". So its basic efficacy, combined with the way it's constantly sold as some kind of gimmicky brain-hack, has made the technique exceedingly popular among professional PR and marketing types. Once you're familiar with how the technique is supposed to work, you'll see it everywhere.

This is why I'm always interested when something like this starts trending on Twitter:


There's a recurring formula for most right-wing hashtag games: everyone is encouraged to imagine something terrible liberals could say or do, or something mean and insulting about them. There is no expectation that any of this should actually correspond to reality, or that it ever will; the point is simply to vent animus in a kind of Two Minutes Hate session.

The formula is so consistent, and corresponds so closely with just the sort of gimmicky persuasion technique that people who see Twitter as a PR channel would buy into, that I can't help but suspect that there's some astroturfing at work here. It would be interesting to analyze what accounts these trends originate from, and to investigate just how organic they really are.


Barack Obama does not think we can stop climate change

President Obama had a lot to say about climate change in his recent podcast interview with Marc Maron, but it was a digression on lessons he's learned in office that was most revealing:
Progress, in a democracy, is never instantaneous, and it's always partial, and you can't get cynical or frustrated because you didn't' get all the way there immediately.... Sometimes your job is to just make stuff work. Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the Ocean liner two degrees North or South so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were. But, at the moment people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn. We don’t need a two degree turn. You say ‘well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns. And you can’t turn 50 degrees... societies don't turn 50 degrees, democracies don't turn 50 degrees.... As long as they're turning in the right direction, then government is working the way it's supposed to. 
This incrementalist perspective is standard liberal orthodoxy in Washington, and there are plenty of situations where it's tactically sensible.

But climate change is not one of them. Climate change is a situation where the changes we have to make are not only radical but immediate. Global temperatures rise two degrees Celsius in a matter of decades, pushing civilization over a ledge where all kinds of threshold triggers fire, feedback loops launch, and chain reactions cascade into a warming process this planet hasn't seen in millions of years. You only stop this with massive overhauls of the largest sectors of our economy, including energy, agriculture, and transportation. And you only make those overhauls with political action that is deliberate, impatient, massively controversial, and socially volatile. There is no getting around any of this. Climate change is an iceberg just a thousand yards in front of the ship; if you're going to miss it, you have to turn 50 degrees.

No major politician - and as far as I know, only one aspiring politician - is actually thinking about climate change in this way. No one is prioritizing it the way it must be prioritized, no one is advocating specific proposals on the scale of what needs to be advocated, and no one is willing to do any of this despite our political system if they can't do it within our political system. Radical leftist candidate X may promise to cut emissions twice as fast as Obama and invest three times as much to the Green Climate Fund, but none of this is qualitatively different from mainstream Democratic / centrist-Republican proposals because none of this gets the job done fast enough.

Yet another thing Thomas Friedman doesn't understand: pro wrestling

Friedman has a baffling complaint about current tensions between the US and Russia:
...this time it seems like the Cold War without the fun — that is, without James Bond, Smersh, “Get Smart” Agent 86’s shoe phone, Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, a race to the moon or a debate between American and Soviet leaders over whose country has the best kitchen appliances. And I don’t think we’re going to see President Obama in Kiev declaring, à la President Kennedy, “ich bin ein Ukrainian.” Also, the lingo of our day — “reset with Russia” or “pivot to Asia” — has none of the gravitas of — drum roll, please — “détente.” 
No, this post-post-Cold War has more of a W.W.E. — World Wrestling Entertainment — feel to it, and I don’t just mean President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s riding horses bare-chested, although that is an apt metaphor. It’s just a raw jostling for power for power’s sake — not a clash of influential ideas but rather of spheres of influence: “You cross that line, I punch your nose.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” “You got a problem with that?” “Yes, let me show you my drone. You got a problem with that?” “Not at all. My cyber guys stole the guidance system last week from Northrop Grumman.” “You got a problem with that?”
Grotesque trivialization of a horribly destructive international conflict aside, what does Friedman think professional wrestling is actually like?

He wants things to be more "fun", and his idea of fun: cartoonish gimmicks (the shoe phone), outrageous promos (Khrushev's shoe-banging), sensational storylines (the space race), and better catchphrases ("ich bin ein Berliner", "detente", etc). This is an argument that international politics should be more like the WWE, not less. Friedman imagines that pro-wrestling is just two guys saying stuff like "You cross that line, I punch your nose." This is what it's actually like:


This is an exact literal depiction of what Friedman wants. The entire point of professional wrestling is to take what would otherwise be a boring conflict and make it as entertaining as possible. The next time Thomas Friedman wants to pretend like he's in touch with the working class, maybe he can give the classist condescension towards its culture a rest and ask his taxi cab driver to explain to him why Rusev hates John Cena.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Some thoughts about Confederate iconography (here comes Lacan)

When I was a child it was absolutely unthinkable that southern states would ever distance themselves from the iconography of the Confederacy. The apologetics were always articulated with rhetoric about heritage and free speech, but it's perfectly obvious what the controversies were really about: they were proxy relitigations of the Civil War. The revanchists who littered the South with monuments to racist, homicidal traitors and plastered capitol buildings and license plates with their disgusting flag were people who regretted the defeat of slavery and who continued to fight tooth-and-nail to defend its legacy.

So as skeptical as I usually am of symbolic victories, I can't help but feel like the South's recent gestures to roll back Confederate iconography indicates a substantive sea change in American politics. This should not be overstated -- many also thought the same thing about the election of a black president -- but the question remains: what did these signifiers actually signify?

As remote from actual politics as he often is, I think Lacan actually gives us a good way to think about this.

Lacan begins with the foundational and uncontroversial insight that symbolism is potentially arbitrary: any symbol can be used to represent anything. This is just as true of the shapes that we use to represent sounds (letters) as it is of the patterns we use to represent semantic/pragmatic meaning (words) as it is of the geometric arrangements we use to represent concepts (flags, for example). All that matter is that everyone is able to "communicate" (in some sense) using the symbols.

That point introduces an important consideration in our understanding of symbols: how they relate to society. Intuitively, it seems like we would just use symbols as a direct representation of the world. But because the symbols we use are arbitrary, we can actually use them in any way we like. We can even use them to misrepresent the world, and nothing about the way symbolism works can prevent this.

For that reason, what actually determines symbolism is power. Lacan's insight was to explain how power does this: by pinning down meaning.

Specifically, power takes the network of symbolism that already exists -- the definitional relationships between different words, for example --maps it onto the world in the way that it finds most convenient, and then holds it there. So for example, power cannot easily change the relationship between words like "freedom" and "good" -- but it can adjust what in this world "freedom" applies to, and then the chain of associations will drag "good" along with it. The crucial point here is that power only needs to control certain symbols and certain words to reconfigure the entire world of meaning. If it just relentlessly polices and dictates the meaning of certain representations - what Lacan called points de capiton -- an entire epistemelogical shift can follow.

This perspective, I think, becomes useful when we're thinking about Confederate symbolism. Some symbolic victories are just that -- completely symbolic, because they just involve trading out one arbitrary signifier for another. It is for example not a particularly compelling step forward if racists just start using "thug" in place of other racial slurs that we've successfully vilified. But when what is at stake is a point de capiton, the situation changes, because power has structured its entire world of meaning around it. Imagine, for example, how radically our entire political discourse would have to change if the Left successfully seized control of the word "freedom". This is unlikely to happen precisely because of its importance to the powerful -- the right would throw everything it has into preventing you from doing it. But if this did happen, it wouldn't just be a symbolic victory; it would signify an enormous shift in power and in the way we think about things.

Is the Confederate flag a point de capiton? For over a century it has certainly been ruthlessly fought over like one. And it would seem that in American political discourse, the flag's function has been to redefine racism as things like "tradition" and "independence". If it is compromised, the entire legacy of the Confederacy is compromised, and with it the discourse of states rights, of noble heritage, and so on.

Three takeaways here if we take Lacan seriously (and I think that we should). The first is that symbolic victories should be understood as faits accomplis of underlying power shifts; they are never significant in and of themselves, but they can mark something significant that has happened. The second is that not all symbolic victories are equal; most will be completely trivial. And the third, I think, is that we can probably learn a lot about power by paying attention to the symbolism that it is most vested in policing. The strongest case for the Confederate flag's significance is the very ferocity with which it was defended.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Federalist's propaganda article is conspiracy theory dressed up in terrible scholarship

Stella Morabito has written an essay for The Federalist arguing that "propagandized ideas seem to have taken America by storm," and describing the "propaganda methods and tactics" she sees at work. Most of this is uncontroversial and obvious to the point of utter banality. For example, we learn from a Stanford Law Review paper on "collective belief formation" that - wait for it - people conform sometimes! Also, it turns out, according to an allegedly obscure book by Meerloo, that "a sense of enforced isolation is a cruel and effective tool for instilling loneliness". And so on.

Most of the quotes in this article are just elaborations of ideas that Americans in the 21st century are utterly familiar with and that no one would bother to contest. One might wonder why Morabito feels the need to dignify such a trivial argument with so much intellectual authority - but not for long! Because this is The Federalist, and soon enough we come to the actual crux of her argument:
American conservatives are by and large clueless about propaganda methods and tactics...Meanwhile, the Left has been employing social psychology and depth psychology on the masses for decades.
ICYMI: liberalism is a total propaganda operation, while conservative ideology is just the hapless common sense of clear-eyed Americans who care about logic and reason.

This is obviously the central claim of Morabito's piece, and the one she's trying to buttress when she works in her endless and completely superfluous quotation. It also happens to be a position that all of the authorities she appeals to unanimously reject. And when you strip away that scholarly pretense, all that remains is the sort of crackpot conspiracy theory that we usually hear from Alex Jones or late-night call-in AM radio.

Consider, for instance, her reference to Propaganda by Jacques Ellul -- the radical leftist Jacques Ellul. Here is his classic conception of propaganda, which he lays out almost immediately:
Propaganda is very frequently described as a manipulation for the purpose of changing ideas or opinions, of making individuals "believe" some idea or fact, and finally of making them adhere to some doctrine -- all matters of mind. Or to put it differently, propaganda is described as dealing with beliefs and ideas... This line of reasoning is completely wrong. To view propaganda as still being what it was in 1850 is to cling to an obsolete concept of man and of the means to influence him; it is to condemn oneself to understand nothing about modern propaganda. The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action.
Ellul is contesting precisely the notion of propaganda Morabito tries to advance. She certainly begins by echoing him: "Political propaganda aims to mobilize the masses," she writes. But almost instantly, she slips back to talking about "propagandized ideas", propaganda that dictates how we are "supposed to think," "mass delusion," "political correctness and groupthink," "brainwashing," and so on.

These aren't just mistakes in formulation: she has to put it as she does for two reasons. First, Morabito wants to attack an ideology. It's not enough for her to argue that Democrats are tricking people into voting a certain way, or into donating time to particular causes; she wants to insist that people have been tricked into thinking a certain way, into holding certain wrong beliefs, into valuing things they should not value. She wants to bring down a whole platform of political beliefs and ideas -- and to do that, she has to insist that propaganda can somehow impose doctrine.

Which leads to the second point: Morabito has cartoonish, quasi-mystical ideas about what propaganda can do. She is openly arguing that a faction of political operatives (and various co-conspirators) have used a set of social engineering tricks to brainwash millions upon millions of Americans. Half of the country's most deeply and passionately held beliefs -- beliefs that often form the core of their personal identities, that they base major life decisions on, and that they invest an enormous amount of time into thinking about -- all of this is just a delusion that they would shake off if only they were to think about things logically.

This is the sort of absurdity behind some of the article's most bizarre, conspiratorial claims, like the declaration that "Most who protest the RFRA laws are more likely pawns than true believers." Let's consider this point for a moment and see what it would actually entail.

In her article, Morabito extensively invokes Meerloo's "Rape of the Mind" as a book "that cracks the code on what we are living through". Much of that book describes at length various methods of brainwashing used against prisoners as a way of demonstrating how this sort of thought-control actually works. For example, in one instance,
The victim is bombarded with questions day and night. He is inadequately and irregularly fed. He is allowed almost no rest and remains in the interrogation chamber for hours on end while his inquisitors take turns with him. Hungry, exhuasted, his eyes blurred and aching under unshaded lamps, the prisoner becomes little more than a hounded animal...If the prisoner's mind proves too resistant, narcotics are given to confuse it: mescaline, marijuana, morphine, barbiturates, alcohol. If his body collapses before his mind capitulates, he receives stimulants: benzedrine, caffein, coramine, all of which help to preserve his consciousness until he confesses... 
Next the victim is trained to accept his own confession, much as an animal is trained to perform tricks. False admissions are reread, repeated, hammered into his brain. He is forced to reproduce in his memory again and again the fantasied offenses, fictitious details which ultimately convince him of his criminality... 
In the third and final phase of interrogation and menticide the accused, now completely conditioned and accepting his own imposed guilt, is trained to bear false witness against himself and others. He doesn't have to convince himself any more through autohypnosis; he only speaks "his master's voice."
I quote the passage at length to make a point: it takes an unimaginably intense and extraordinarily sophisticated program of torture to brainwash someone. It is not something you can do with a wave of the hand and a Jedi mind trick. To turn millions upon millions of Americans into anti-RFRA "pawns", you would have to literally imprison them and subject them to a horrific regimen of torture for an extended period of time. And somehow, this would have to be an ongoing process -- for "as soon as the brainwashee returns to a free atmosphere, the hypnotic spell is broken."

Not even Meerloo -- who oddly insists that there "actually exists such a thing as a technique of mass brainwashing" -- supposes that it could happen in any society remotely resembling ours. The degree of control necessary is only even possible in a country where "a single group -- left or right -- acquires absolute power and becomes omniscient and omnipotent"; and even then, the interrogator can only "make most of us his victims...temporarily."

But perhaps the most serious problem here is that Meerloo, who the article relies upon so heavily, wrote his book in 1956. If Morabito were at all acquainted with the field, its history, and its scientific basis, she would surely understand that the Pavlovian behaviorism the author grounds his analysis in has been thoroughly discredited for over half a century. As Chomsky wrote in his seminal Case Against B.F. Skinner,
it is important to investigate seriously the claim that the science of behavior and a related technology provide the rationale and the means for control of behavior. What, in fact, has been demonstrated, or even plausibly suggested in this regard?
The answer, Chomsky concluded, is nothing: such "speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior." There's simply no evidence that people can be controlled in the way that Meerloo (and Morabito) suppose -- in fact, there isn't even a coherent explanation of how this would work. "Pavlovian and operant conditioning are processes about which psychologists have developed a real understanding," Chomsky wrote. "Instruction of human beings is not."

The notion that a political elite could actually exercise ongoing thought-control at the scale of national populations through clever propaganda is exactly as insane as it sounds. And yet somehow even that isn't as insane as the other premise of Morabito's article: that all of this is being orchestrated by "the Left's machine."

This is explicit conspiracy theory, and even if it had even the slightest basis in reality it certainly has no basis in the scholarship Morabito relies upon. She invokes Bernays, for instance, to suggest that it is an "elite" that wields propaganda -- to her audience, this is code for the leftist alliance of Democratic officials, ivory tower academics, decadent celebrities and so on. The claim only advances her argument if understood this way. But Bernays, in the passage she alludes to, argues something quite different:
Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject. But there are usually proponents and opponents of every propaganda, both of whom are equally eager to convince the majority. 
This conception of propaganda gives us no reason to suppose that it would be the exclusive province of any particular interest group; on the contrary, since propaganda is just "an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine," it's obviously ubiquitous in politics.

Or consider the position of Ellul. There's no need to speculate, for he is completely direct:
This is the case in the United States....for financial reasons, a democracy reduced to two parties, it being inconceivable that a larger number of parties would have sufficient means to make such propaganda.
Again, no one has a monopoly on propaganda, and in fact the only reason we still have Democrats and Republicans is that both parties can afford to propagandize.

So the luminaries meant to add weight to Morabito's argument do no such thing -- on the contrary, they tend to openly disagree with her. Another detail worth mentioning is that their position happens to be correct. Anyone who has ever seen Fox News, or who has ever heard the name Frank Luntz, can notice some general problems with this claim that American conservatives don't do propaganda. In fact, the right clearly has an extremely sophisticated and modern understanding of propaganda, and its apparatus for disseminating messaging is in many ways far more robust than the left's.

And even this is a simplification. As Bernays teaches us, propaganda emerges anywhere anyone is advocating for anything - that's why our culture has to be understood as a massive tangle of propaganda, the sum of millions of interests aimed in a million different directions. Morabito, in contrast, entertains a vision of power so childish and tribalistic that even she finds it embarrassing; thus she tries to co-opt the authority of actual scholars, even as she advances wild theories about "the power elites who now control the media, academia, and Hollywood" and their transhumanist "push to end 'fleshism' by enacting laws that protect non-biological entities from discrimination."

One wonders if The Federalist's editors, at least, felt any sense of shame about publishing this piece -- but I think it pretty unlikely. After all, they're propagandists, too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A kind word for Foucault

Foucault has, particularly in recent years, joined his forerunner Nietzsche in the pantheon of philosophers that leftists love to hate. The standard left critique of Foucault is ably articulated in this Jacobin article by Daniel Zamora: "Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete." Ultimately, Foucault stands on the wrong side of the struggle between democracy and capital.

Zamora's point is important, but it is not the final point, and as with Nietzsche, the complete denunciation of Foucault is a bit unfair. Chomsky put it best: Foucault's general argument was always
that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism...Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy.
This is the Foucault I'm most familiar with: the Foucault who argued that power is subtle, persistent, and complex, that it can only be slowed down, and that it inevitably co-opts the very institutions built to contain it. Which, as Chomsky notes, is a truism, but the historical examples that Foucault explored (sexuality, psychology) demonstrated this truism's scope and implication in ways that had not elsewhere been so thoroughly explored. Today we are immersed in an intellectual climate that is constantly hunting out ever-more-obscure microaggressions and ever-more-elaborate forms of privilege; we take this project for granted, and can easily forget that Foucault was in many ways its pioneer.

That project, in its ever-expansive complication, often seems to be in conflict with the Marxist effort to understand the complexity of domination through the basic framework of class struggle. And this, of course, is precisely where Foucault is at odds with the left: his failure to relate the multiplicity of power back to its basis in the material economy. 

But that does not mean that we have nothing to learn from Foucault, or from today's intersectionalists and deconstructionists. They remind us that class struggle is rarely simple or transparent. The domination of the bourgeoisie is sophisticated, minute, opaque, and constantly evolving. When we understand this, we aren't caught off-guard or distracted from the class war by every new tentacle of oppression that bursts from the sea; our focus remains on the monstrous bourgeois beast beneath the surface.

Consider, for example, this recent article by Corey Robin, which exposes yet another form of bourgeois domination: employers are forcing employees to support particular political campaigns. This, he notes, has been largely overlooked by critics: "By focusing so much attention to [Citizens United], critics misstate the actual problem of corporate power and political influence."

This is the sort of problem you run into when you have an overly-rigid and narrow conception of power. This is a particular handicap for liberals: they think of our liberal democracy as essentially benign, so they maintain a reactive political disposition that only notices various "corruptions" given a sufficiently eloquent article or a sufficiently aggressive agitprop campaign. But this can also happen with the leftist who misunderstands class struggle as a simple matter of low wages and secret bribes, and misses the less obvious ways that it's manifest in our society. The underlying problem, Robin continues, is capitalism:
Workers are dependent on employers for their well-being. This makes them vulnerable to their bosses' demands, about a great many matters, including politics. The ballot and the buck are fused. Not because of campaign donations but because of the unequal relationship between capital and labor.
It's easy to see how that unequal relationship will always, constantly find new ways to express itself in our politics, circumventing every attempt we make to regulate it. If you understand the basic class dynamic at work here, then you'll find Robin's article interesting, but not particularly surprising: it's just the latest way that the bourgeoisie has found to leverage its control over the means of production. The underlying dynamic is the exact same as the one Marx noticed at work over a century ago.

Ironically, there's a strand of conservative thought that knows this as well: the one that sees attempts to govern capitalism as futile, since it's so innovative and persistent. Laws and regulations, they argue, have perverse and unexpected consequences that lawmakers can never anticipate; and in the end they'll only hurt law-abiding citizens since criminals will inevitably find ways around them. These are precisely the sort of insights that Foucault found so seductive: the vision of power that's more cunning than we are, that can draw us along an endless intellectual chase after its ever-more arcane and counterintuitive machinations.

The left doesn't need to get drawn into that chase. We can watch Foucault and his successors run after power, we can take their discoveries as reminders of just how pervasive and evasive power really is -- and then we can remind ourselves that our task isn't just about regulating or containing capitalism. We're here to destroy it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

This is what climate change will look like


At least 1,725 refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe have died this year, ACAPS reports today. More than 200,000 had to be rescued last year. Most of them are fleeing the war in Libya, but many of them are migrant workers from further south.

This is what climate change will look like. It will hit hardest in places like Africa, where predictable chronic drought will compound already rampant poverty. It will force tens of millions north, destabilizing countries like Libya and Tunisia with wave after wave of immigrants. And a significant fraction will attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

We haven't seen migrations of this magnitude in the modern era, but there's plenty of historical precedent. The major lesson is that it completely changes civilization. You can stop mass migrations, but only if you're willing to become a xenophobic fortress society. Sometimes even that doesn't work. The last time we had a really big, famine-driven migration across the Mediterranean, it effectively ended Bronze Age civilization. And if you open your borders, then the war over resources just goes internal.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of all of this is that we won't recognize it as a symptom of global warming until it's too late. Droughts will look like aberrations; wars and migrations will look overdetermined; and everything will happen at the pace of climate change. That's a pace that isn't measured in the familiar news cycles -- it's measured in decades, centuries, and millennia.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Who do we thank for surveillance reform?

Before this conventional wisdom that we have Snowden, Libertarians, and an activist press to thank for surveillance reform becomes too entrenched, it's worth taking a step back and reviewing what's actually happened here.

The Patriot Act was initially passed in a borderline fascist political climate with almost unanimous support from both parties. Of the 67 Congressmen and Senators who voted against it, 64 were Democrats. The only three Republicans to oppose the bill - Ron Paul, Butch Otter, and Bob Ney - represented districts with only nominal opposition.

In the years that followed, Democrats and the American left led the opposition to the Patriot Act. In fact, it became central to their politics - the LA Times noted that criticism of "the Patriot Act was easily the biggest applause-getter at Democratic rallies." But the same article notes that opposition had become a political liability for Democrats, and 2004's exit polls bear that out: when asked who they trusted to handle terrorism, voters preferred Bush over Kerry by a crushing 18 points. Meanwhile, the 2004 Libertarian Platform did not even mention the Patriot Act.

Despite political setbacks, Democrats have remained the face of opposition to surveillance. At least 35% of House and Senate Democrats have opposed every major Patriot Act reauthorization and extension, compared with at most 15% of the Republican caucus. On average the difference is even more stark - 59% of Democrats versus 8% of Republicans.


Can media activists like Glenn Greenwald, who have relentlessly hyped surveillance issues since the Snowden leaks, take credit for this? Seems dubious! About 87% of Americans say that they've at least heard something about government surveillance. But since Snowden's leaks, fewer Americans have voiced concerns over civil liberties -- 37% in January, versus 47% right after the leak. Over that same period of time (1,2), the NSA's favorability rating dropped 3 points - but its unfavorability rating also dropped, and dropped 10 points, from 47% to 37%. Meanwhile, Snowden himself remains significantly unpopular: 64% of Americans view him negatively.

If anything, popular outrage seems to have significantly subsided since Snowden's leaks. It's easy to understand why. When the story first broke, it was a revelation for many Americans. Since then, Americans have lost interest in the program. Glenn Greenwald is clearly aware of the public's short attention span, and has attempted to time his exposes to counter this; but the strategy has mostly failed.

So - who do we have to thank for surveillance reform? A tremendous amount of credit must go to a sizeable faction of Democrats who fought the Patriot Act from the very beginning -- even when it was an extraordinary liability. It is their persistence that cleared a political space for officeholders to oppose the Act without being destroyed by "weak on terror" attacks. And while Rand Paul has repeatedly claimed credit for derailing the Act, the record tells a different story. McConnell just didn't have the votes on a clean extension. 54 Senators vote nay on the bill - 44 Democrats, joined by 10 Republicans.

A prevailing media narrative on surveillance credits a growing grassroots faction of Libertarians, sparked by Edward Snowden and relentlessly inflamed by media activists, for pressuring a recalcitrant political establishment on civil liberties. The numbers, however, suggest just the opposite: House and Senate Democrats have always led the way, once in the face of massive public opposition, and today in the face of growing public apathy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

You can't fight climate change without massive foreign aid

Carbon emissions from the United States and other industrialized countries have driven climate change in the past, but that's about to change. In the future, emerging economies will account for about 90% of the growth in anthropogenic carbon dioxide as they build their own roads, coal-fired power plants, and so on.

To mitigate this and keep warming below the standard two degree tipping point, the US is going to have to make enormous investments in international aid. To honor international commitments we've already made, we should be giving about $30 billion a year by 2020*. Developing nations have called for about four times that number, and their request is probably much more realistic.

In other words, in 5 years, the US should be giving away more money to fight climate change than we budget for agriculture and transportation combined - about $120 billion annually*. These are conservative estimates. To put them in perspective, here's how Senate Republicans responded when President Obama made a one-time pledge of just $3 billion:
"If they think they're going to get all that money for the fund, they're mistaken," a senior aid to Senator Inhofe said. "You're going to see us being more aggressive about not sending more money to the U.N. and elsewhere for climate change."
If you take climate change seriously you should be mobilizing for a political war. And you should challenge as inadequate any climate change agenda that isn't calling for massive, historically unprecedented foreign aid. And you do not have a hell of a lot of time to get this done. This is not the sort of political long-war that progressives are used to fighting; generously, we have a decade or so to get this rolling.

* Right now the US is capping its contributions to the Green Climate Fund at 30% of international totals. At that level, we would have to contribute $30 billion annually to honor the 2010 Cancun Climate Change Agreement, which calls for $100 billion annually from industrialized nations. Developing nations at the Copenhagen climate summit, meanwhile held out for $400 billion annually.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Yes, right privacy activism is actually rooted in racism

Salon has published a pretty flimsy article arguing that Rand Paul opposes the Patriot Act because he fails to see the egalitarianism of bulk data collection.

This isn't a very plausible analysis -- but let's not go too crazy here. Ultimately, Paul opposes the Patriot Act because he's a Libertarian who opposes the government in general. And Libertarianism in general is certainly a rationalization of white privilege. It's what you believe when you've never needed the government to protect you from racism. It's what you believe when you've only ever experienced the government as a check on your power. Rand Paul, remember, is the guy who thinks that we didn't need a Civil Rights Act because free market. That's how he sees the world.

Moreover, it's worth remembering that even Rand Paul's supposedly principled concerns about civil liberties end at America's borders. He has been explicit about this. His opposition to the Patriot Act is driven exclusively by American interests, and particularly by an overwhelmingly aging white male constituency. None of this is surprising. Minority privacy concerns mostly involve local policing policies like stop-and-frisk; the prospect of the NSA reading your Facebook posts or counting your bitcoins is primarily a white people problem. Paul sets his priorities accordingly.

Finally, it's easy to forget that less than a decade ago, mainstream Republicans openly and actively agitated for ethnic profiling as a common-sense anti-terrorism tactic -- particularly against the Muslim community. And the most common and effective rebuttal, then, was the left's call for "an evidence-based approach to intelligence gathering," as Jamali puts it. Gathering that intelligence through bulk data collection is, of course, a significant step beyond this basic call for neutrality. Nevertheless, it's completely understandable if a man routinely mistaken for a Muslim -- who "regularly puts up with extra scrutiny, whether it’s at an airport or a shopping mall" -- finds NSA surveillance less personally invasive than constant pat-downs by armed strangers.

Ultimately, Jamali's reading of Paul's motivations is wrong, as is his defense of bulk data collection. But the two major premises his critics on the right will object to are absolutely correct. Paul's Libertarian politics are rooted in white privilege. And the right is mostly fine with bigoted profiling as an alternative.