Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump is not going to abandon NATO

Abandoning NATO "would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike" - and this is exactly what will happen, Hillary Clinton warned, "if Mr. Trump gets his way".

Since that speech in 2016, we've heard the warning time and time again. It came most recently after Trump's first NATO meeting, when The New York Times editorial board suggested that "the United States might not defend [NATO] allies under attack" - a concern echoed by pundits like Zack Beauchamp, Josh Marshall, and Ned Resnikoff, among others. Among the liberal commentariat, at least, the consensus is clear: Trump pulling out of NATO and reneging on our military obligations under Article 5 is an actual possibility that could really, actually happen.

This is madness. Donald Trump is not going to abandon NATO. If Donald Trump wanted to abandon NATO, his advisors would talk him out of it. If Donald Trump tried to abandon NATO, he would be impeached almost immediately, by a bipartisan vote. The US is far too invested in NATO for any president to who does not want a revolt on his hands to sever ties.


"We need to look at the facts"

The reasons for this aren't particularly mysterious. As the New York Times laid out earlier this year, What the U.S. Gets for Defending Its Allies and Interests Abroad is substantial: trillions of dollars in trade and uninhibited access to energy supplies and other resources. Simply maintaining NATO with arms sales is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the profits go to companies with armies of lobbyists and powerful PACs.

That's why Trump won't even try to leave NATO. It's why he's not even inclined to, Elliott Abrams writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:
...after repeatedly disparaging NATO, Trump backtracked...The alliance, Trump now declared, was "no longer obsolete."...it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades...the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.
Abrams is a Republican, but he's no isolationist - he's a neoconservative hawk, and if he saw any danger of Trump abandoning NATO, he'd be among the first to panic. Similarly, consider how someone on NATO's front line - Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia - responds to the usual alarmist hyperbole from Sarah Kendzior:
“In the new administration's steps, I see not a single U-turn,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, referring to Washington’s historical defense of Baltic states. 
She crisply and dryly upbraided a couple of American panelists including writer Sarah Kendzior, who warned Baltic nations to be “wary” of a president “with obvious autocratic leanings…who is not rational, who is destructive.” 
“When we're done with synchronizing all our gossip about the new administration, then we need to look at the facts,” [Kaljulaid] said.

Business as usual

As it turns out, the facts of Trump's military don't much resemble his campaign rhetoric. Abrams highlights Trump's reversal on Syria, but the evolution of his military budget is even more instructive.

As recently as February, Trump promised a "historic" increase in military spending, and on the campaign trail he made even more elaborate promises: for example, calling for a 350 ship Navy. But in his first actual budget, Trump simply continued Obama-levels of spending. And in a revealing article for The Hill, multiple sources outlined a budgeting process that barely involved Trump at all:
There is also wide speculation that the defense plan is the work of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney...Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s unlikely Trump even knows the details of his defense request or the ways it does not follow through on his promises.
Kendzior may imagine Trump as some kind of tyrannical autocrat, but autocrats don't delegate major defense decisions out to accountants and second-tier wonks. In fact, despite his role as Commander-in-Chief, Trump has now found himself entangled in one of the greatest bureaucracies the world has ever known: the military-industrial complex of 21st century America. He is now utterly reliant on a massive apparatus of advisers, managers, and political operatives to guide and enact his decisions, and as Abrams observes, "Trump’s national security team embodies 'the Establishment' as much as John F. Kennedy’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s did."

Reporting in Politico gives a hint as to how this dynamic is playing out with respect to NATO. When Trump neglected to affirm America's commitment to Article 5 in a recent speech, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott predicted "a very dangerous and damaging effect" - and in dire tones, Politico lays out "the ripple effects from the Trump NATO speech-that-wasn’t":
[a] rift...during the private dinner...unusually frank criticisms...Trump’s rebuffed national security leaders...left in increasingly awkward positions...
Despite these dinner feuds and frank critiques, however, Defense Secretary James Mattis still managed to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore. Mattis is just one of multiple pro-NATO voices in the administration, Politico notes, and despite Trump's ongoing bluster, it appears that he and everyone else are still proceeding with business as usual.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Capitalism protects bigots

Two weeks ago, talk show host Bill Maher used a racial slur on the air. This week, Nation columnist Joan Walsh declared that Palestinians are white and suggested that she is a person of color. Immediately, in both cases, the familiar mechanisms of liberal discourse discipline set in motion. Maher and Walsh were immediately called out for their offenses. Critics shamed them for what they said, educated the public about why it was wrong, and even called for boycotts of Walsh and Maher's employers.

Two weeks later, Bill Maher is back to saying gross things in public - and undoubtedly Walsh will be too, sooner than later.

Everyone knows why this is: Maher and Walsh are rich. And they are protected by people who are even wealthier, and by companies who are even richer still. Rich people don't care if you try to shame them and don't have to listen to your persuasive critiques. Usually they don't even care about boycotts, because rich people can afford to lose a little business. The richer they are, the less they have to care.

By the way: wealth also means influence. It means that your personal bigotries infect everything you control - including, as Maher and Walsh demonstrate, giant media platforms that can broadcast racism to a mass audience. So perversely, the people who have the most control over our culture are the people who are least subject to liberal discourse discipline. In this way capitalism becomes a massive engine of pathology, endlessly generating and amplifying oppressive discourses that are insulated from social regulation. The paradigm example of this dynamic, of course, is Donald Trump - a deranged sociopath whose astronomical wealth lifts him above shame, criticism, persuasion, and social pressure of any kind. And who, through his astronomical wealth, has become one of the most influential voices in America.


Will breaking up the big banks end racism and sexism? Probably not! But if your plan to fight bigotry involves a lot of education and social pressure and persuasion, it's clear that this would be a lot easier on a level economic playing field. In a world of extreme economic inequality, liberal discourse discipline may chasten the least influential among us - but it will tend to leave the most powerful untouched as they firehose their bigotry into our culture. An intersectional understanding of racism acknowledges capitalism's role in amplifying it - though we should not expect rich people like Walsh and Maher to talk about this, for obvious reasons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The powerful aren't going to learn any lessons from Corbyn

Against incredible odds and pundit expectations, Jeremy Corbyn has won one of the most stunning victories in British electoral history. He won by running unabashedly to the left, promising nationalization, to tax the rich, to expand public services, and to expand worker rights. And he did all of this not only in opposition to the UK's radical right, but to his critics in the liberal center.

Corbyn's victory has so many direct implications for American politics that it's tempting to think of this as a victory for the American left as well. It demonstrates that instead of simply running to the right and trying to peel off their voters, a party can win by mobilizing voters who prefer left priorities and positions. It demonstrates that voters want to see their basic economic concerns substantively addressed, even in ways that reject capitalist orthodoxy. And it demonstrates that our political operatives, mass media and intellectual elites often have no special insight into political realities - and that they are systematically, overwhelmingly biased against the radical left.

In a sane, rationalistic discourse, this would all have a profound impact on American politics. Corbyn's victory would inform the efforts of our party leaders, policy planners, media managers, and rank-and-file activists, and the result would be a clear and immediate radicalization of American politics.

But this is not, of course, what will actually happen.

What will actually happen is that people who have an interest in learning the wrong lessons will tend to learn the wrong lessons. Liberal centrism has been terrible for most people, but it has been very good to a few, and these people do not want to learn anything that threatens their world. These people live extremely comfortable lives, and they believe that they have earned these comforts through hard work and personal talent. For this reason, they have a powerful incentive to rationalize away any political lessons that could hurt their self-image or take away their privilege.

This point may seem obvious, but its implications are easy to forget when we are immersed in the ideology of liberal rationalism. If you think that the central arena of political struggle is the "marketplace of ideas", and that progress is just a matter of education and intellectual persuasion, then you'll be inclined to downplay the role that motivated reasoning plays in our politics. This is an odd mistake to make, because the research is quite clear about how political bias distorts our perception and reasoning; because Marxist theory explicitly rejects this notion of rationalism; and because our ordinary experience interacting with other people demonstrates the problem constantly. It's extraordinarily rare that anyone changes their mind in a political discussion, or learns anything that radically changes their beliefs.

And unfortunately, this problem of ideological investment is most pronounced among the people who are in the best position to change our politics. If you are a decision-maker in the Democratic party, you almost certainly got to where you are by embracing and fighting for Third Way liberalism. If you make major editorial decisions at a national media outlet, it's probably because you adhered to bourgeois norms of professionalism and insisted on an editorial direction amenable to shareholders and marketers. If you build a career in an influential think tank, you will spend a lot of time deferring to your director, and your director will spend all of her time worrying about political access and large-donor funding. All of these people, moreover, will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts: they'll have a comfortable, stable, well-paying job with good benefits, and they'll constantly be showered in praise for their intelligence, professionalism, diligence, and so on, by networking colleagues and magnanimous bosses.

That's why we're already seeing all kinds of ridiculous, tryhard arguments in America against the obvious lessons of Corbyn. We're hearing that Labour would have done even better than its already spectacular win if it had only run a completely different centrist campaign. That UK voters did not actually care about the issues that affected them at all, but were simply voting for Corbyn as a weird symbolic gesture against Donald Trump. That British politics are so different from what happens in America that there are no lessons to be learned here - even though the same people, when Corbyn was losing, insisted that he was demonstrating the futility of leftist politics in the US.

To be sure, Corbyn's win is a victory of solidarity for the American left, because we have a stake in what happens to our comrades all over the world. And certainly there are people in the US who are not invested in centrist-liberalism, who will see what Corbyn did, and who may decide that it can happen here, too. But the people in control - the people with power - aren't going to change their minds because of Corbyn. Which is why we have to do precisely what the British left just did: take their power away.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What do liberals mean by "Russian" propaganda?

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters warns that Trump has moved "from lies to authoritarian-style propaganda", and hints darkly at connections to Russia:
Increasingly, this White House’s propaganda operation looks like an authoritarian one found in other countries, such as Russia...like Russia’s president, Trump has a built-in media infrastructure that will obediently echo his lies and present them as news.
If this critique of a media that obediently echoes the president's lies sounds familiar, it's because Boehlert wrote an entire book about it - more than ten years ago. In Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over For Bush, Boehlert insisted that
the compliant press repeated almost every administration claim...that virtually every one of those claims turned out to be false only added to the media's malpractice. (209)
Reading through Lapdogs in 2017, his critique of Bush sounds awfully like his critique of Trump. Today, for instance, Boehlert writes that Trump
staged a faux bill-signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House...The whole event was just Kabuki theater.
And here's what he was writing about Bush in 2003:
The entire press conference performance was a farce - the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, the answers...the calculated kabuki press conference [was] stage-managed by the White House... (207)
Almost to the letter, Boehlert is rehearsing the same media critique he's written about for years: Republicans are waging a propaganda campaign. They are lying a lot - or in the parlance of elite liberal media, they are gaslighting / spinning / promoting fake news / building an alternative reality. They are staging elaborate press spectacles, repeating slogans, and using other standard PR tricks. A conservative media infrastructure is disseminating and signal-boosting all of this, and they are being abetted by a credulous and unduly submissive mainstream media.

The Russian connection

In fact, when you read through Boehlert's writing on the media, only one thing has really changed: the connection to Russia. For instance, when Trump stages a kabuki bill-signing, Boehlert pointedly quotes Mike Mariani in Vanity Fair:
Trump’s team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities...
There is nothing like this in Lapdogs, or in any of Boehlert's writing about Bush - even when the Bush administration stages its own kabuki press-conferences, and relies on its own politically friendly media infrastructure. No suggestion that Russia invented "authoritarian propaganda", or that these tactics are evidence of some kind of connection to the Kremlin. Just the opposite - in one remarkable passage, Boehlert actually connects Bush to anti-Russian propaganda:
...the bureau, anxious to play up Cold War fears, interviewed defectors from Russia but sometimes fabricated the details of their tales. "So the whole concept of fact checking was moot," said Heidenry. "They created their own facts." (143)
It's possible that this "fake news" approach to propaganda is still distinctly Russian in nature - perhaps it was originally invented by Soviet Russia, and then co-opted by Bush-era cold warriors, and then reclaimed by Putin's Russia, and now it's being mimicked by Trump.

But there's also a less complicated explanation: as Jacques Ellul put it in his seminal work Propaganda, "Propaganda as a phenomenon is essentially the same in China or the Soviet Union or the United States or Algeria." There is nothing historically, tactically, or conceptually Russian about the Trump administration's lies, and there is zero insight to be gained in making comparisons between the two, or suggesting that one is inspired by the other. When liberals like Boehlert do this, it's not because they've studied the Russians - it's because they studied Republicans, and learned just how useful it is "to play up Cold War fears".

Sunday, June 4, 2017

You can't fix climate change without big government

Trump is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate deal, but Juan Cole is optimistic about state-level progress on wind:
Governor Sam Brownback...wants 50% of Kansas electricity to come from wind by the end of his term. The state already gets 24% of its electricity from wind...these advances in clean energy are coming from the states, not the Federal government...Those are goals Trump has nothing to say about.
Cole also praises "the good kind" of billionaire, who invests in fighting climate change. On CNN, Al Gore echoed those remarks:
We're seeing civic leadership, businesses - Apple, Google, General Electric - you can go right down the list. We are going to see continued reductions in emissions in the US...regardless of what President Trump does.
It's understandable why the liberal-left, shut out of Congress and the White House, would search for other ways to fight global warming - but ultimately, this is a fool's errand. We already know what a small-government response to climate change looks like.

For example, when Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, it killed 28 people, caused $1.6 billion worth of damage, and left 80,000 plus households applying for aid in its wake. And when the state asked Washington for help, Trump rejected 99% of their request. Months later, WFMY reports, the situation is still dire:
The state says there are still 140 families living in hotels, and many more people displaced, but living with family or friends, still not able to go home. In Lumberton volunteers are still working to clean up the $7 million dollars worth of mess.  In Fayetteville roads are still blocked off after they were essentially washed away. Princeville is dealing with more flooding from recent rain, before they ever even had a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. The elementary school is one of many buildings that have been shut down for months.
Or consider how the private sector responded to Hurricane Sandy: in New York, private donors gave about $600 million. This may seem impressive until one notes that the total damages came to about $50 billion.

Consider Hurricane Sandy, and then imagine Manhattan under a foot of water. Because according to research published just last year, that's how much the ocean will likely rise at 3 degrees of global warming. And even if we meet our international obligations, we'll hit the 3 degree mark by 2100. More realistically, Thorvald Moe writes, since "the United States does not seem to be able to deliver a consensus on climate politics," we'll likely stick to something resembling the Trump-Obama status quo - and that means we'll hit 3 degrees by the mid-21st century.

If the private sector couldn't handle Hurricanes Matthew and Sandy, there's no way it will be able to handle permanent flooding in New York City. And Boston. And Miami. And all along the Gulf Coast. Instead, what we can expect is the destruction of multiple major coastal cities; local budgets completely overwhelmed by prevention and relief funding; and minimal philanthropy from the private sector, coupled with the usual profiteering. And none of this, of course, even touches on the droughts, wildfires, refugee crises, civil unrest, and all of the second, third, and fourth-order problems that will mount on top of them. Local governments aren't ready for this, and our "good" billionaires aren't going to bail us out. There is no path to fighting climate change that doesn't go through the federal government.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Hillary Clinton is okay. Are you?

Hillary Clinton and her supporters want you to know that she is still standing. They've wanted you to know this for years. "What I want you to know is I'm still standing," Clinton told crowds in 2008. "[S]he's been through the mill, and is still standing," Mother Jones reminded us that same year. Here's a typical dispatch from the rank-and-file:
Hillary Clinton and her husband have to be the most thoroughly vetted politicians in the history of the Republic.  There is nothing - n-o-t-h-i-n-g - that hasn't been been drug out into the light of day about the Clintons.  All the smears have been smeared.  All the dust has been busted.  All the dirty laundry rummaged through. All the closets snooped. It is finished.  And Hillary is still standing.
That one's from 2008, too. Then, she lost the Democratic primary. Then, her favorability rating dropped about ten points. Then, we heard it again: "That she is still standing, let alone winning, is mind-boggling," Peter Daou writes. "[S]he is STILL standing," he noted a while later. ICYMI, Daou reminded us again: "Hillary has withstood decades of these coordinated attacks and is still standing".

The right wing has thrown everything at Hillary – not only the kitchen sink, but the stove, the refrigerator and the toaster too. And you know what, she’s still standing!
Clinton, meanwhile, carefully tweaked her message from the last presidential campaign by adding eight more years: "They’ve done it for 25 years, and I’m still standing!"


That last quote comes from a 2016 piece from Rebecca Traister - just a few months before Hillary Clinton lost, again. So we should not be surprised that, just a year later, Traister is writing to once again to remind us that Clinton "has lost but is soldiering on":
Yes, she did a lot of walking in the woods and around Chappaqua. And yes, she caught up on her sleep — she speaks often these days of the benefits of rest and good food and being outdoors. She answered mail and had scores of off-the-record exit-interview meetings, and she and Bill saw most of the shows currently on Broadway. They have dinners together and spend time with their grandchildren, whose jungle gym is right outside the window where Hillary works...focusing on her writing and speaking engagements.
A lot of folks have pointed out that the life of an obscenely wealthy semi-retired political celebrity is not actually all that taxing. It says little about Clinton's brave persistence or heroic endurance that she can still maintain a presence in American public life; at this point, the book deals and speaking engagements just fall into her lap. What we learn in this piece is that Clinton can do what millions of Americans do every day - eat, go for walks, answer mail, sit in audiences, complain about politics - and still get national press for "soldiering on." She doesn't even have to be conscious! She can catch up on her sleep, and we'll be sure to hear about it.

I read passages like this, and I realize that when Clinton's admirers say that she is still standing, they mean this in the most literal sense. It's been more than a decade since she won an election: since then, she has lost, settled for a political appointment, resigned, and lost again. Today she is shut out from the halls of power; her favorables are at record lows, even for Clinton; and she still loses hypothetical rematches against Donald Trump, the least popular president in modern history.

In any meaningful political sense, Clinton has not been standing for quite some time. Her critics roasted her for decades, some quite fairly, and in the end they succeeded: she is no longer electable, and not even particularly well-liked. Today she lives the mundane life of a bourgeois Uncle Rico, waxing nostalgic about her glory days on the football bench and luring her family into new business schemes.

Clinton, to her credit, is quite explicit with Traister about how low she has set the bar:
You know, these guys on the other side are not just interested in my losing, they want to keep coming after me. I mean, think about that for a minute. What are they so afraid of? Me, to some extent. Because I don’t die, despite their best efforts.
Again, this isn't new messaging: Traister herself has been telling us that Clinton ain't dead for nearly a decade. And it's true: millions are going to die when Trump dismantles Obamacare. Black and brown folks all over the country are going to die when cops under Trump's belligerent policing regime gun them down. Hell, Trump will probably end up bombing more people than even Clinton would have. But through it all, Hillary will still be alive - and she will still be standing, to endless critical acclaim.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The left is probably going to lose on climate change

Freddie deBoer has written a post taking aim at leftists who are "contemptuous of the essential work of persuasion but totally unable to articulate an alternative." To be fair, he specifically calls out Angus Johnston amid a debate over the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, and I'm not sure how far beyond that context his point extends. Still, this seems fairly sweeping:
Here’s the idea: we build a mass left-wing movement for change by persuading those who are able to be persuaded through appeals to their enlightened self-interest and their desire to build a better world. Then, we will have enough people on our side to take power through democratic governance and show the rest that our way is better for everyone. And we do all this through the slow, unsexy work of politics, which means going to meetings, walking picket lines, writing pamphlets, doing local radio, shaking hands, and yes, having a dialogue to convince others to join our cause. That’s it, that’s the only possible way to win.
On most political fronts, I think this is good advice - but there's at least one where I think it's dead wrong. And I think the left needs to understand that it's wrong, because as long as we keep thinking of the climate change challenge as one of mass persuasion, we're going to lose. Derrick Jensen:
It is our prediction that there will be no mass movement, not in time to save this planet, our home...If we had a thousand years, even a hundred years, building a movement to transform the dominant institutions around the globe would be the task before us. But...the usual approach of long, slow institutional change has been foreclosed, and many of us know that.
This is not the perspective of dilettantes who are averse to the hard work of persuasion; Jensen is writing on behalf of a group of seasoned and prolific environmentalists. And their conclusion is pretty defensible. Gwynne Dyer:
[I]t is unrealistic to believe that we are really going to make those [decarbonization] deadlines. Maybe if we had gotten serious about climate change fifteen years ago, or even ten, we might have had a chance, but it's too late now...To keep the global average temperature low enough to avoid hitting some really ugly feedbacks, we need greenhouse-gas emissions to be falling by 4 per cent now, and you just can't turn the supertanker around that fast.
If these voices seem a bit too radical, here's a conservative outlook from investment banker Carlos Joly:
[T]he needed wholesale transformation of energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing will not happen in time...The result is that we are only forty years away from disaster. In 2052 the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be moving toward levels that will trigger irreversible large-scale damage.
Again: if we had even a century, I could see politics-as-usual making a difference. A kitchen-table conversation here, an election victory there, and maybe your liberal-left climate change plan has slowed emissions enough to buy your scientists enough time to invent a decarbonization silver bullet. If that's where we were, there would be a lot of sense in writing those letters to the editor and having those debates with your right-wing dad and doing "the slow, unsexy work of politics" that yields so much progress elsewhere.

One can even see Freddie's mass persuasion approach as a kind of damage control, a preferable alternative to a world where we do nothing whatsoever to mitigate climate change. But even in the most optimistic forecasts where civilization improves on our present efforts,
The negative impacts will be significant...there will be more droughts, floods, extreme weather, and insect infestations. The sea level will be 0.3 meters higher, the Arctic summer ice will be gone...Acidic ocean water will bother shell-forming animals. Many species will have died out. (Randers)
And these are just the first-order consequences, ignoring the cascading problems of crop failure, drought, mass migration, war, failed states, and so on. To head off the obvious question, I don't know what can be done to avert this, or if it can be avoided at all. But for people of conscience, this outcome should be absolutely unacceptable, and we should not resign ourselves to the damage control of persuasion politics.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fascism is a movement of the middle class

The Washington Post has published yet another take - this one by Thomas Wood - on the motivations of Trump voters. As usual, this analysis looks at indicators of racism and authoritarianism, as well as data on personal economics. On that last point Wood proposes to "test the Donald Trump income hypothesis," which proposes that Trump was
unusually appealing to low-income voters, especially in the Midwest, compared with recent Republican presidential nominees.
This is the same hypothesis that liberal pundits have scrutinized for months - typically en route to concluding that it's baseless. Dylan Matthews at Vox, for example, decided in October that
There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class.
Regardless of where one comes down on that debate, it remains unclear to me: why all of the focus on Trump voters who are poor? After all, the standard economic analysis of fascism doesn't focus on poverty - at least, not the analysis maintained by most leftists and mainstream historians. Just a few months ago, Lance Selfa put it quite plainly in Jacobin: "[I]f you look closely at who actually voted for Trump, you’ll soon realize that his supporters look a lot more like the middle class than the working class." Historian Robert Paxton elaborates:
It was soon noticed that fascist parties were largely middle class, to the point where fascism was perceived as the very embodiment of lower-middle-class resements...On closer inspection, fascism turned out to appeal to upper-class members and voters as well...the relative scarcity of working class-fascists...[is because] those already deeply engaged...in the rich subculture of socialism...were simply not available for another loyalty.
The political explanation here is fairly straightforward: the poor prefer socialism. It's the upper and middle classes who oppose it, particularly in wealthy countries. So when liberal capitalism starts to fail, it's the middle and upper classes who are most likely to turn to fascism - not the poor. If this explanation is correct, then much of the high-profile pundit debate over poor Trump voters has been largely beside the point.

That said, there are a few ways to gauge where support for Trump came from. One is to simply divide up the total population of voters by income and vote choice:


While these brackets only approximate "classes", the general trend is clear: Clinton ran up significant margins among lower class Americans, while Trump won middle and upper class Americans by slim margins. This fits the general profile of a fascist movement defined by an absence of support among the poor.

It's tempting to conclude, based on this graph alone, that Clinton did fine among poor voters - and that to defeat Trump, she simply needed to shore up her numbers among the rich and middle class. But compare how this election played out with what happened in 2012:


Clinton actually outperformed Obama among both the middle and upper classes - but Obama more than made up by this by racking up enormous margins among the lower class. The Romney coalition, meanwhile, fits the economic template for fascism even better than Trump's does - but given the drop in turnout among the poor, Trump's coalition was able to win.

This, I think, is the real economic analysis of fascism in 2016: it's about as potent as it was when Romney was the nominee, and it remains eminently beatable. What changed this time around is that Clinton abandoned the economic foundation of the Obama coalition - the poor - in order to run up her numbers among the rich. That's the mistake anyone who wants to beat Trump in 2020 is going to have to own.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Trump administration is the oldest in modern history

Out of morbid curiosity, I though it'd be interesting to take a look at how old our presidential administrations are getting. There are all kinds of ways that you can calculate this, but the simplest approach is just to look at the age of the President and his cabinet officials when they take office. For the sake of consistency, I excluded across every administration cabinet positions that Trump has not filled yet; I also excluded the Department of Homeland Security, since it didn't exist before Bush.

The results, I think, are pretty extraordinary:



For those who like a little granularity in their takes:


A few takeaways:
  • Trump's administration is currently, by far, the oldest in modern history. It is more than a decade older than Clinton's was, and even five years older than Bush's. The average Trump administration official is on the verge of retirement.
  • Trump has three of the four oldest officials in history: Trump himself is 70, as is his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and his Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, is 79. The second oldest official, Lloyd Bentsen, was 71 when appointed to Treasury by Clinton.
  • Even young Trump officials are old: his youngest cabinet member, Treasury's Steven Mnuchin, is at 54 older than the average Clinton cabinet member.
A more exhaustive survey might include all cabinet officials (not just administrative launch teams), as well as other high-level executive positions (such as senior advisors); still, among the most important offices, the modern trend is pretty clear, and it's one that Trump has contributed to dramatically.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Shouldn't capitalists be okay with the United incident?

United's customer service policies in this case are clearly heinous and absurd...While there may be something to be said for the ability for private businesses to summon the help of the police to remove people from their premises if they refuse to leave peacefully and their presence is unwanted, there is no excuse for the police to cooperate when the reason their presence is unwanted is not "causing a disturbance" or being violent or threatening to other customers, or stealing goods or services, or doing anything wrong at all, but rather wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for. - Brian Doherty, Reason
The libertarians at Reason need to make up their mind: either contracts are sovereign, or they aren't. United's right to bump passengers from overbooked flights is stipulated in the terms of service of its contract with its passengers, which both parties entered into freely. If the passenger had no contractual right to be on the plane, then he was trespassing, and the police had an obligation to remove him - by force, if necessary. In fact, according to libertarians, this is the only thing the police should be doing: enforcing contracts and defending property rights.

To get around this merciless capitalist rationale, Doherty tries to delegitimize United's contract with its passengers as "heinous" and "absurd" - that way, he can insist that the police shouldn't have enforced it. But isn't this the move that critics of capitalism always make? Intuitively, most people seem to get that business arrangements can be unjust and grotesque - even ones that both parties entered into freely. We look at situations like a man being dragged off of an airplane, and we realize that something monstrous is happening, even if the logic of capitalism insists that it's okay.

That's why critics of capitalism tend to insist that there are contractual arrangements and private property claims that the government should decline to enforce - and in fact, that the government should probably intervene against. The United incident has put capitalists in a uniquely embarrassing position precisely because it demonstrates the kind of horrific, violent outcome you can get when capitalism is enforced.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Waiting for the bodybags

The Trump administration's illegal airstrikes against Syria may very well signal our descent into open war, which means it's time for the antiwar movement to reflect on what can only be regarded as its catastrophic failure.

It's easy enough to blame this on Donald Trump. But Hillary Clinton offered no alternative - she called for airstrikes mere hours before they happened. And more to the point, the overwhelming majority of Americans wanted them. Even 71% of Democrats wanted them; dig into the polling, and you'll find that Americans actually support an even broader range of military action in Syria. In fact, they only draw the line when it comes to actually sending in ground troops:


Unless you buy the insane theory that launching 59 Tomahawk missiles doesn't qualify as an act of war, this is pretty abysmal news. To turn the tide, the antiwar movement is going to have to remind Americans that war is a tragedy and a crime even when it isn't a conventional, boots-on-the-ground confrontation.

And that means we're going to have to grapple with the legacy of Barack Obama - who didn't invent undeclared, under-the-radar war from the sky, but who did more to normalize it among Democrats than any modern president. As Gallup reported in 2013,
That more Democrats than Republicans support action [against Syria] -- a sharp reversal from the Iraq war, which Republicans were more supportive of -- is likely because a Democratic president is proposing these war measures.
Democrats didn't rationalize their support for Obama on those terms, of course. Instead, animated by partisanship, they accepted the logic of Tomahawk missiles: if there aren't boots on the ground, we aren't actually at war. The death of our victims became unreal to us, which as Baudrillard observed more than twenty-five years ago has become the rule of modern warfare: "In annihilating [the enemy] at a distance...it becomes impossible to discern whether or not he is dead."

All of this is conventional wisdom on the left. Ask any antiwar organizer, and she'll tell you how much more difficult it is to mobilize opposition when we don't have catalyzing moments like declarations of war or the relentless spectacle of Americans coming home in bodybags. We can wait for that to happen - but there's no reason to believe it ever will, and in the meantime, the missiles are going to keep firing.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The discourse just doesn't work

 The prospect of progress in our discourse – that through public deliberation, we can settle on facts, persuade each other politically, and arrive at better understandings of philosophy and morality – remains a central promise of liberal ideology. It is often implicit in the practical argument for free speech, which holds that but for censorship, we can make discursive progress; similarly, it undergirds the liberal emphasis on civility, which sees rudeness as a similar obstacle. It even buttresses the deliberative argument for democracy: through the dialogue of presidential debates, kitchen table conversations, and even tweets, we can compromise and build consensus and arrive at a political understanding that stands for more than just the tyranny of the majority.

Here, I’m going to take on three of the major historical arguments for this vision of discursive progress. They are, I think, representative of the larger body of justifications – and they are consistently implausible. The upshot is that there really is no reason to suppose that we can make any kind of intellectual, political, or moral progress through discourse; perhaps such progress is possible, but it is not the discourse that drives it.


I. Providence

Historians, almost unanimously, have long credited seventeenth century poet John Milton as a founding father of free speech. “Milton’s defense of free speech in Areopagitica,” Jack Goldstone writes, is one of “the most profound works of political theory in the English language.” It is the “classic defense of free speech” according to Charles Barzun – a judgement that Mark Graber notes is shared by “most scholars.”

At a glance, this consensus makes sense: Areopagitica was certainly one of the first texts of the genre, and its gist is to call for liberalized free speech laws. But read a little closer, and you’ll run into passages like this:
…popery, and open superstition…should be extirpate[d]…that which is also impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners, no law can possibly permit…
To clarify, Milton is giving us a list of speech that must not be tolerated. No Catholicism, no superstition, nothing sacrilegious or rude!

As Stanley Fish writes, this caveat of Milton’s “is rarely noticed in such discussions and when noticed is noticed with some embarrassment.” It has in any case done nothing to displace Milton from the free speech pantheon; we are to suppose, it seems, that the “classic defense” of free speech has not been compromised, and that this has no implications for our commitment to free speech today.

But Milton’s caveat isn’t just some irrelevant tangent – it reflects the narrow and idiosyncratic religious premises on which his entire epistemology is built. He believes that “light and clearer knowledge” are “sent down among us” by God. What makes an argument prevail in the discourse? “Truth is strong next to the Almighty”: it wins by virtue of God’s power. That is why Milton can casually call for the censorship of heretics and sinners; his free speech argument begins with the assumption of God, which means that there’s no need for the discourse to relitigate matters that God has already ruled upon.

Within Milton’s call for free speech, then, is a peculiar theory about how progress in discourse works. When people debate about some point of fact or philosophical truth, it is not logical soundness or empirical substantiation or the laws of morality which guarantee that the right position will prevail: it is God’s divine intervention into the debate.

Suffice to say that this is not a theory about discourse and public debate that is even entertained by most modern Christians. More to the point, it is one that secular liberals would reject in principle; a pluralistic liberalism cannot begin with the assumption that God is controlling the discourse, and certainly can’t defend a theory that smuggles in calls for censorship against Catholics and rude teens.

So it is worth considering why, despite his very illiberal views on discourse, Milton remains venerated as a founding liberal. The answer, I suspect, is simple: the liberal vision of discursive progress is built on an intellectual foundation that we take for granted and don’t reflect on very seriously. The proof is that if we did, we’d notice that the theories behind it are about as antiquated and implausible as Milton’s.


II. Rationalism

Though Milton is often considered a figure of the Enlightenment, his peculiar, mystical epistemology reflects the older intellectual milieu. The Enlightenment’s real innovation on liberal discourse theory came from figures like John Stuart Mill, who insisted that “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.” Mill is voicing here what Gaus calls the traditional liberal view:
According to the traditional liberal view, when we employ our reason we can achieve objectivity: we can see the world as it truly or really is…Liberals influenced by this view of reason believed that free exercise of human reason produces convergence of moral and political views.
So rationalism, with its emphasis on logic and evidence, displaced God as the engine of liberal discourse. Once again, speech must remain free; and once again, a major justification for this is the guarantee of intellectual and moral progress, if the discourse remains unobstructed. But this time, the mechanism of progress isn’t divine providence – it’s rationalism, with its emphasis on things like logic and evidence.

Mill’s rationalism still finds significant purchase in the modern world. It’s expressed in academia, with its systematic and highly formalized pursuit of knowledge and truth; academics submit to a whole field of norms meant to ensure that discourse remains rationally sound and intellectually rigorous. It’s expressed in journalism, with its elaborate rules of sound investigation and “objective” reporting. And it’s expressed among the general public – especially among elites – in the norms of civil debate and discussion, with their emphasis on substantiveness, their demands for evidence, their fallacy-policing, and so on. All of this, liberalism tells us, will lead to intellectual, social, and moral progress – if only speech remains free.

Since the time of Mill, however, multiple challenges to rationalism have emerged.

For one, Gaus notes that as a matter of (fairly obvious) sociological fact, we still have different cultures, with different beliefs and perspectives that seem both irreconcilable and stubbornly unchanging. Even where there would seem to be some objective truth at stake – say, when it comes to the imminence of climate change – large segments of the populations are often unpersuaded by appeals to reason. For whatever reason, rationalism often seems completely incapable of driving discursive progress, even in a free speech environment.

Another genre of objection challenges our capacity for rationalism at the level of the individual. The mind, psychology and neurology have taught us, doesn’t operate as some kind of infallible calculating machine; it is riddled with all kinds of powerful cognitive biases that prevent us from engaging in reason successfully. Our capacity for reason is also limited in scope – for instance, as Chomsky has argued, “human behavior might be beyond our inquiry”. Elsewhere, he elaborates:
It’s not really arguable, unless you think we’re angels – but if we’re part of the organic world, we have fixed capacities. Just like I can’t fly. These capacities have a certain scope, and they have certain limits. 
If this is true, then some of the central focuses of liberal discourse – debates about politics and morality, technical questions about economics and policy, and so on - may simply be too profound and complex for our primate brains to reason about with any rigor and objectivity. We should not be surprised to find Enlightenment philosophers, with their boundless but often blind optimism in human potential, got this wrong – and we certainly have no reason to assume that they got it right.


III. Capitalism

If neither providence nor rationalism can guarantee progress in liberal discourse, what is left? Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, invokes a third possibility:
…the Constitution…offers us the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one in which the “jarring of parties” works on behalf of “deliberation and circumspection”; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements.
Obama’s references to deliberation and debate may suggest that he’s still dealing in rationalism, but his metaphor suggests something else. There is, after all, no such thing as a “genuine marketplace of ideas” – that is just an analogy we draw to explain, through comparison with the material economy, how ideas circulate and interact.

And in the origin of this metaphor, we see a different premise at work. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1919, wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” he is not talking about a rational process so much as a capitalistic process. What proves that an idea is correct, or good, or just, is not something about its correspondence with Miltonian religious doctrine, or even its rationality; what gives it value is the fact that so many people accept it. Blocher:
…academic and popular understandings of the First Amendment have embraced the notion that free speech, like the free market, creates a competitive environment in which the best ideas ultimately prevail…The marketplace of ideas model… remains faithfully wedded to a neoclassical view that depends on a perfectly costless and efficient exchange of ideas.
Here, the guarantor of discursive progress is neither God nor reason – it’s the competition and efficiency of capitalism.

But explanations like this only work insofar as one accepts the terms and premises of capitalism – which is how belief in capitalism animates and legitimizes belief in a marketplace of ideas. Widespread acceptance of the marketplace theory can be understood to express widespread faith in capitalism; laissez faire attitudes towards regulation and economic intervention generalize into laissez faire attitudes towards regulating and dictating the discourse. Liberalism is that generalization - it merges these two distinct theories into a single ideology.

That is why the socialist, who meets capitalism with skepticism, might also regard with skepticism the theory of a marketplace of ideas. For example, socialists have always noted that a firm, within capitalism, can build a monopoly that resists competition – why would this point not also apply in the marketplace of ideas as well? Why not suspect that claims of truth and knowledge can dominate our discourse, not because of some intrinsic value, but because they have become intellectually entrenched, just as a firm is economically entrenched? If this is indeed the case, then there would seem to be some real value in a government that makes illiberal interventions into the marketplace of ideas, busting the monopolies of entrenched thought through censorship.



Providence, reason, and marketplace competition – these are three of the major reasons that liberalism has historically given us for believing that our discourse is making progress. This isn’t an exhaustive survey of such narratives, but it is, I think, representative.

Certainly, the preceding critiques do not overthrow the case for free speech. One can still argue for liberalized speech rights as a matter of principle, perhaps on grounds of personal liberty (though this is subject to different objections). What one cannot do, however, is insist upon free speech by appealing to the political, moral, and intellectual progress that it supposedly guarantees. That guarantee rests on grounds that no skeptic of Miltonian mysticism, of rationalism, and of capitalism should take seriously.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

In the end, liberalism must lose

The US's socialist movement is still too small and marginalized to take power. We typically can't even win local elections, let alone national ones; we just don't have the votes. Outside of the electoral arena, we can only win limited, temporary victories within the narrow political spaces of resistance and dissent that the powerful haven't decided to crack down on. Protest and discourse activism remains trapped in symbolism. Consumer activism is almost always futile. The labor movement is on its knees, and it's going to stay there until enough workers develop class consciousness.

What all of this means is that if socialists want to at least slow down industrial civilization's descent into the horrors of late capitalism - at least enough to buy us some time - we have to make tactical alliances with non-socialists.

Plenty of people who are far more intelligent and eloquent than I am have made this case at length, so I'm not going to go into it here. If you want to know why Marxists should do things like "make deals" and "negotiate", read what Marx had to say about what is "achievable within the framework of capitalism". If you want to know why Marxists should form alliances with other people, read some Gramsci or whatever. The case for coalition and compromise has been laid out so exhaustively that there's really no need to relitigate it here.

Liberalism: not a good look

Here, I simply want to point out that for the socialist, cooperation with liberalism is a compromise. It is a terrible compromise. Liberalism is not some off-brand version of socialism or some kind of Diet Socialism: it is a distinct, hideous, antiquated ideology that is responsible for tremendous oppression and suffering all over the world. The great hope of the socialist is not to make peace with liberalism or to seek some kind of accomodation with it: we must annihilate liberalism, root and branch.

At a bare minimum, liberals are definitionally capitalists. They do not ultimately believe in the absolute democratic sovereignty of the people over the commonwealth; they believe that there are cases where individuals have a "right" to do whatever they want with property, whether everyone else agrees with it or not. For the reasons so persuasively laid out by Marx, this kind of economic system inevitably leads to massive and increasing oppression, immiseration and exploitation. No matter what technocratic fixes and policy band-aids liberals invent to get around this, their ideological committment to private property functions as a guarantee of endless, escalating destruction. Their gross, primitive ideas destroy lives and destroy the earth.

If you take Marx seriously, you should find liberalism horrifying and repulsive. Did a liberal just bring up meritocracy? Think of sweatshops. Is a liberal red-baiting? Think of US bombings in Southeast Asia. Is a liberal fetishizing entrepreneurs? Think Ron Paul berating the poor for not bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. Is a liberal fetishizing science and technology as solutions to political problems? Think polar bears starving to death and decomposing as climate change evaporates our sea ice while we wait for our green-energy-deus-ex-machina.

Compassion for the victims

None of this is to argue against the need for popular-front coalition building with liberals when necessary - but it should go far in explaining why a socialist would meet such alliances with skepticism and suspicion. A socialist with any minimal sense of decency and integrity will find the beliefs of their liberal allies absolutely monstrous, just as she would find disagreeable an alliance with any other bigot or reactionary.

Socialists should also recognize that the distinct ideology of liberalism implies distinct goals and thus distinct political incentives and priorities. In 2016, for example, faced with the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump, liberals insisted on running an unusually weak and vulnerable opponent rather than one who was much more popular. One can, of course, always explain this as a kind of mass error, but that misses the fact that liberals had an incentive to make this kind of mistake. If you are a liberal, you have a personal interest in risking defeat for the sake of putting a liberal in office. Socialists, of course, have a symetrical set of incentives, but that just affirms the point: liberals and socialists are not necessarily reliable allies.

And what that means is that among other things, liberals may be willing at any moment to break the terms of the popular front alliance if they think they can gain from it. Substantively, for the liberal, this will necessarily mean a betrayal right at the fracture-point of the liberal-left coalition: their commitment to capitalism.

Again: there are times when socialists will have to risk that betrayal anyway, particularly for the sake of building a popular front to defeat fascism. But this is a terrible risk to take, and an extremely hard one if you care about the victims of capitalism and want to end its oppression once and for all. Instead of hectoring each other for our lack of tactical savvy and our occasional failures to bite the bullet, comrades should be understanding about this. For the socialist, hostility to liberalism comes not from a place of factionalism or piousness or short-sightedness - it comes from compassion for the lives and the world that capitalism is destroying every day. And if you can't understand the contempt your comrades have for liberalism, it's possible that you are, yourself, a liberal.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Center for American Progress's "Moscow Project" is another escalation of liberal Russophobia

The Center for American Progress has launched a pretty odious new initiative:
The Moscow Project is dedicated to investigating the extent, nature, and purpose of Trump’s ties to the Kremlin—but we need your help. By scouring the internet to investigate allegations, donating to fund our research, or sharing our findings on Twitter and Facebook, you can help uncover the truth about Trump and Russia.
I'm on record insisting that I'd be fine with some basic Congressional investigation into actual conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration relating to Russia - as long as we can be bothered to investigate the same thing with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Goldman Sachs, and all of the other obvious candidates as well. But this, of course, falls far short of that, since Tanden's CAP cares much more about some conflicts of interest than others, for obvious reasons.

And even on the narrow grounds of a limited investigation of Russian "ties", this is absolutely absurd. CAP is not going to dig up anything even approaching interesting or actionable information by crowdsourcing research to amateur Googlers. The only kind of information here that could possibly matter is information you obtain with wiretaps and hard drive seizures and subpoenas. Sorry Neera, it's not sitting on Wikipedia.

What makes this effort so monstrous is that CAP knows all of this perfectly well. The point of The Moscow Project isn't to gather intelligence; the point is to foment paranoia by investing a deputized public into their kabuki "investigation", to use Russophobia to build opposition against Trump, and of course, to fundraise off of all of this. The CAP sees this as a chance to score political points and win donations, but as I wrote back in August, they're playing an increasingly dangerous game:
Liberals may be comfortable with shrugging off racism against the Russian people as a trivial or necessary evil, but they are playing with fire. The social and psychological forces that animate any form of racism are hard to rein in once they've been unleashed, and they can easily metastasize into forms of bigotry that are even more widespread and oppressive.
It's hard to escape the impression that this is exactly what is happening. Even the name of this initiative casually implicates an entire city in whatever sinister machinations liberals think are going on here; it's now impossible to distinguish the way liberals say "Moscow" from the way right-wingers say "Chicago" or "The Middle East". The project only works by completely untethering public interest in Russia from material facts and stoking a suspicion that something is sinister about these Russians, something that we haven't quite figured out yet but that maybe you can figure out, if you spend enough time worrying about it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A personal note, and some changes to Carl Beijer

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Monday, March 13, 2017

There will be no liberal counter-revolution

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On left discipline

Yesterday I ran a quick poll:


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

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

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

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Demurrage and inequality: modern anthropology affirms another critique of capitalism

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

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

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

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

The Republican alternative

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

Young people should blame capitalism

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Yes, capitalism is literal violence

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

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

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


1. Private property is violent

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

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

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

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


2. Contracts are violent

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

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

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


3. Market activism is violent

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Left activism and the culture of seriousness

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

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

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


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

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

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


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