Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who is the modern bourgeoisie? Pt. II: Imperialism

This is the second in a three-part series on the modern bourgeoisie.

The laws of capital are binding all over the word, and they guarantee, Marx writes, a common fate: the international exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Even in his time, Marx saw this happening all over the world:
National differences and antagonism between people are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.
And yet today, those differences have decidedly not vanished, as wealthy countries continue to exploit the third world. A quick comparison of the purchasing power of your average resident in any given country tells the story:


Pool the wealth of your average resident of every country, and those from the 30 wealthiest countries will have as much as those from the other 159.

Marxists, of course, insist that all of this can be explained in the course of ordinary class analysis - but for Marx's critics, the division of the world into rich and poor countries proves that something more is at work than a struggle over the means of production. Arghiri Emmanuel writes:
as a result of some historical changes which Marx could not forecast...The proletariat, the true party to the cause of the socialist revolution, has practically disappeared in the affluent countries of the centre. It continues to exist in the periphery.
Meanwhile, "the population of the rich countries constitutes the upper class of today's world." This, quite explicitly, is not the upper class of Marxist theory; here, the bourgeoisie is defined, at least in part, by nationality. Some variation on this point can be found among liberals, third-worldists, and sundry other leftists: Marx's formulation of class is wrong because it fails to account for something about imperialism.

The autonomous interests

Michael Hudson, writing on the central role of the United States in the imperialist system, hones in on the fundamental issue:
...the real question that called for examination by scholars, and was not examined, was what it portended for the world that a leading government would subordinate the interests of its national bourgeoisie to the autonomous interests of the national government.
Here, we see the precise point of conflict between orthodox Marxism and certain theories of imperialism. If Marx is correct, then bourgeois control of the means of production should be a sufficient explanation of the first world's exploitation of the third world. If something like Hudson's analysis is correct, however, Marx's theory is insufficient, since the interests of the bourgeoisie can be (and has been) subordinated by "autonomous interests". In that case, we should be able to find a theory of imperialism that defines a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie.

Liberalism, of course, insists that there are all kinds of political factions that are neither defined nor driven by economic forces - and this provides some obvious candidates in our search for a ruling class other than the bourgeoisie. Before we abandon the materialist perspective entirely, however, consider a typical attempt to define this ruling class through an economic analysis. In Unequal Exchange and the Prospects of Socialism, Denmark's CWG lays out a typical explanation:
[U]nder developed capitalism – imperialism – the appropriation of other people's abstract labour does not only take place in the relationship between capitalists and labourers. The high wage level of the population as a whole in the rich countries means that also the labourers are able to appropriate the surplus-value created in the poor countries so that the labourers are able to appropriate more value than they create themselves. This is a characteristic of the position of the working class in eastern Europe and North America today.
Thus, in addition to Marx's bourgeoisie, there are also first world workers, who allegedly "appropriate the surplus value created in the poor countries."


Privilege without power

Certainly, workers of the first world are - to borrow the liberal term du jour - privileged; an unjust system has given them economic benefits denied to the third world proletariat. And undeniably, first world workers have an interest in defending this imperialism against alternative distributions of capitalism's misery.

Nevertheless, the question remains: do first world workers actually exercise power? In addition to benefiting from the imperial system, and perhaps even endorsing it, are first world workers causing imperialism? They may be a lucky class, and perhaps even a malevolent class - but are they actually a ruling class? With what political or economic leverage do they impose imperialism?

Here, in my view, the case against Marx begins to break down. Consider in particular the United States, generally held to be the heart of the imperialist system. Liberalism may still dream of a political order in which ordinary citizens control the US government through democratic channels, but this vision has become so implausible that even bourgeois elites like Jimmy Carter routinely dismiss our government as "more of an oligarchy than a democracy". An extraordinary body of research and literature affirms this point; in particular, a 2014 study by Benjamin and Page is worth quoting at length:
Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state hold that economic classes—and particularly the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production—dominate policy making and cause the state to serve their material interests...[they] make predictions resembling those of theories of Biased Pluralism: that interest groups and corporations representing “large scale business” tend to prevail...
...our evidence strongly indicates that theories of Biased Pluralism are more descriptive of political reality than are theories of Majoritarian Pluralism...When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy...
Even if we conclude that first world workers enjoy prosperity at the expense of the third world, it is simply not the case that they are the agents of appropriation - that the imperialist system is imposed through their power, perhaps even despite the preferences of the bourgeoisie. The study continues:
To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence.
The first world bourgeoisie

Identifying these "economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence" has proven to be a more complicated matter - in part, I suspect, because most relevant research relies on income and wealth as exclusive indicators of economic power. Even these imperfect measures, however, are suggestive. In a joint study of political spending and influence, The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics report
a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent...Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers...Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access...[they] effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.
Since 2012, donors in this .01% have contributed at least $10,000 per election cycle. And even if we examine contributions as low as $200, it is clear that the most active political investors are, even by first world standards, extremely rich:


Here, more than half of all donors come from the 2% of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year. One does not need to specify any particular income threshold to observe that donor participation and investment skyrockets dramatically somewhere in the very upper percentiles of the American economy. Thomas Ferguson, in his seminal Golden Rule, makes this point quite clearly:
Essentially the investment theory of political parties postulates that a strong relationship exists between the extremes (or "tails") of two different distributions: the distribution of investors in political action and the distribution of investors in the circumambient economy. In testing the theory nothing important depends on the exact values of the cutoff points used to indicate "large" investors in each distribution - the top 5 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, or whatever. 
Elsewhere, Ferguson suggests that "the best and most practical way to define 'large' investors makes reference to (whoever controls) the largest corporations and banks in the country" - returning us once again to the standard Marxist conception of a ruling class defined by its control of the means of production.

Just as Marxist theory predicts the political dominion of the bourgeoisie, it also explains the political limitations of the first world working class. As Marx put it long ago:
In countries where modern civilisation has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. The individual members of this class, however, are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition...
Under capitalism, even the wealthiest workers can at any moment be fired, lose sources of household income, lose investors, and face any number of immiserating economic shocks. This is precisely why the wealthier working class is so obsessed with the problem of precarity - why elite liberals fixate on capitalist welfare tweaks, and why elite reactionaries try escape into the safety and stability of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, Matt Bruenig notes, one popular conception of the modern bourgeoisie defines them as "anyone whose capital ownership allows them to receive the average annual wage without having to work...assuming 5% return on capital, that puts the bourgeois at those with $1.2 million in capital". Freed from the need to sell their labor, freed from dependence on the whims of their bosses, these Americans can turn their priorities elsewhere.


The origins of imperialism

This strikes me as a logical place to look for the origins of imperialism, but here we must be careful. Once we return to bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat as the essential feature of capitalism, it is tempting to think of imperialism as an accidental development - a technique of domination that the bourgeoisie does not need to rely upon, and that it could abandon at any moment. And quite easily, this logic merges into the liberal dream of a more just capitalism: one that distributes opportunity, prosperity, (and misery) equally, without regard for categories of identity like nationality.

More than a hundred years ago, Lenin was already quite stridently warning against this tendency:
Kautsky's definition is not only wrong and un-Marxist. It serves as a basis for a whole system of views which signify a rupture with Marxist theory and Marxist practice all along the line...Kautsky detaches the politics of imperialism from its economics, [and] speaks of annexation as being a policy "preferred" by finance capital...It follows, then, that monopolies are compatible with non-monopolistic, non-violent, non-annexationist methods in politics. It follows, then, that the territorial division of the world...which constitutes the basis of the present peculiar forms of rivalry between the biggest capitalist states, is compatible with a non-imperialist policy...the result is bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that imperialism is a direct, necessary, and inevitable consequence of bourgeois control of the means of production. David Harvey observes that in
the geographical landscape that capital makes...some regions tend to become richer while poor regions get poorer. This happens because of what Gunnar Myrdal calls circular and cumulative causation. Advanced regions draw new activity to themselves because of the vibrancy of their markets, the greater strength of their physical and social infrastructure and the ease with which they can procure their necessary means of production and labour supplies....
Contradictions arise because these new dynamic spaces of capital accumulation ultimately generate surpluses and need to find ways to absorb them through further geographic expansions...[this leads to] increasingly fierce competition within the international division of labour as multiple dynamic centres of capital accumulation compete on the world stage in the midst of strong currents of overaccumulation (lack of markets for realisation) or under conditions of competing scarcities for raw materials and other key means of production. Since they cannot all succeed, either the weakest succumb and fall into serious crises of localised devaluation or geopolitical struggles arise between regions and states. The latter take the form of trade wars, currency and resource wars, with the ever-present danger of military confrontations...
Capitalism does not, in other words, simply guarantee the exploitation of the global proletariat; it guarantees that this exploitation will be regionally inflected, and imposed with constant violence. As long as capitalism is still with us, these dynamics will always overpower antiwar activism, gestures towards conscientious consumption, "fair trade" pacts and initiatives, humanitarian charity, and so on. In order to ensure imperialistic exploitation under global capitalism, all the bourgeoisie needs to do is fight for global capitalism.

Still, even if orthodox Marxism can explain regional disparities of violence and exploitation under capitalism, a significant question remains: why is the first world disproportionately white? Why is the third world disproportionately black and brown? Why, in general, are the injustices of capitalism so often inflected by forms of identity like race, gender, and so on? And does this not suggest that the bourgeoisie must be defined by categories of identity which have nothing to do with ownership of the means of production?

As promised, in the third part of this series on the modern bourgeoisie, I'll discuss this intersectional challenge to Marxist economics.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Who is the modern bourgeoisie? Pt. I: Financialization

Marx, in his classic formulation of class struggle, divided society "into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." These classes, he argued, play the two essential roles in the system of economic production known as capitalism. One class - the bourgeoisie - controls almost everything involved in economic production. The other class - the proletariat - controls the one part of production that the bourgeoisie doesn't: their own ability to work. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie leverages its control of the means of production to exercise control over the entire economy. And inevitably, they use it to create a system of exploitation that works to their own benefit.

Popular and technical use of "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" has of course significantly evolved since Marx's time, but instead of examining etymology, I would like to ask two different questions. First: does something like Marx's formulation of "the bourgeoisie" exist today? And if so, who are the modern bourgeoisie?

There are no consensus answers to these questions - but in the vast body of literature grappling with them, there are three typical concerns that emerge over and over again:
First, public investment in stocks is thought to have complicated Marx's assumptions about who controls the means of production; 
Second, imperialism is thought to have complicated Marx's class analysis by further dividing society into "first world" exploiters and the exploited "third world"; and 
Third, Marx's class analysis is not intersectional; it fails to account for various forms of identitarian oppression that are equally relevant to the structure and operation of our political economy.
I will, in this series of posts, address each of these points in turn, starting with the first.

Financialization


Though economists have made this same point in greater detail, the challenge of financialization to Marxist theory was most famously (and succinctly) laid out by Camus:
We know that the economic evolution of the contemporary world refutes a number of the postulates of Marx...with the introduction of companies in which stock could be held, capital, instead of becoming concentrated, has given rise to a new category of smallholders...
Hypothetically, this "category of smallholders" would have to include the nearly half of all Americans who, through various financial vehicles, own stock in the means of production. This diffusion of ownership seems to stand in sharp contrast with the economy of Marx's time, in which it was "not uncommon to find...various branches of production controlled by one brain" (Schulz). It also poses a significant challenge to Marxist theory: if anyone, no matter how poor or powerless, can be the bourgeoisie by owning a health savings account or a threadbare 401(k), Marx's theory of power and exploitation has become utterly trivial.

Despite what Camus seems to think, however, Marx was well aware of the complications the stock market introduces into his class analysis. Marx's response was to argue that "the joint-stock company represented a partial separation of ownership and control" (Stephens); he described it as "a new swindle" in which "the functioning capitalist" is "working with borrowed capital" for his own enrichment. By 1904, Heymann had already outlined how the bourgeoisie does this:
..it is possible with a comparatively small capital to dominate immense spheres of production. Indeed, if holding 50 per cent of the capital is always sufficient to control a company, the head of the concern needs only one million...
Lenin adds:
As a matter of fact, experience shows that it is sufficient to own 40 per cent of the shares of a company in order to direct its affairs, since in practice a certain number of small, scattered shareholds find it impossible to attend general meetings, etc...The "democratisation" of the ownership of shares...is, in fact, one of the ways of increasing the power of the financial oligarchy.
What matters then, is not the superficial legal title to ownership - it's actual control of the means of production. This control is determined by an (often deliberately) elaborate and opaque complex of laws and corporate governance rules, but it inevitably tends towards the same outcome: the enrichment of "the functioning capitalist" at the expense of proletarian workers and shareholders. Make this distinction between control and management, and the size of your bourgeoisie contracts dramatically. How dramatically? Wolff's 2013 breakdown paints an indirect picture:


The wealthiest 1% owns as much stock as everyone else in the US. So while widespread public investment has certainly greased the wheel of capital, it has not necessarily democratized control of the economy.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ben Shapiro has changed his mind about antifa

Ben Shapiro, writing for The National Review, gives us the inevitable "both sides are to blame for Charlottesville" take:
There’s still no certain knowledge of who began the violence, but before long, the sides had broken into the sort of brutal scrum that used to characterize Weimer-era Germany. The two sides then carried the red banner and the swastika; so did the combatants on Saturday.
Now they’re growing. And they’re largely growing in opposition to one another. In fact, the growth of each side reinforces the growth of the other: The mainstream Left, convinced that the enemies of social-justice warriors are all alt-right Nazis, winks and nods at left-wing violence...
The antifa response, of course, would be to insist that violence against fascism is justified, and a sign of our commitment to the fight against white supremacy. Clearly, Shapiro now rejects this. But go back just three years, and he clearly had a different view:
This is why it's so comfortable to be on the left: that unearned sense of moral superiority...you are a racist and sexist; they are not...It doesn't matter that if they pointed out a KKK member to you, you'd run across the lot to knock him out; in order for them to be morally superior, you must be morally inferior. (5)
No ambiguity here: as recently as 2014, Shapiro appealed to antifa violence as the exemplar of antiracism, and insisted that of course conservatives would punch ethnonationalists on the streets. This was his explicit proof that the right was just as committed to the fight against white supremacy as anyone else. Since then, it seems pretty obvious what happened to make Shapiro change his mind: fascists took to the streets and became a political liability for the right. In 2014, it was convenient for him to play macho, puff up his chest, and fantasize about attacking members of the KKK - but now that they are such a visible part of his political coalition, Shapiro has to pull his punches.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fascism's pincer

Sooner or later, climate change will consume our economy. If we are wise, we will let this happen sooner, and make massive preemptive investments into green energy and sustainable infrastructure; this will cost a lot up front, but it will mitigate even greater costs down the road. More likely, we'll kick the can down the road, and then we'll find ourselves paying for disaster relief, mass migrations, civil unrest, plague, famine, and everything else that comes with global warming. One way or the other, we'll pay. Estimates vary, but the more plausible ones hover around a third of GDP.

In developing countries experiencing significant economic growth, this will be manageable. In developed countries that have already made big investments in infrastructure and green energy, this will be manageable. But in the United States, where growth will probably slow and where our investments are low, this is going to hit our economy pretty hard.

Couple this with so many other trends of late capitalism - outsourcing, inequality, wage stagnation, and so on - and the prospects for your average American over the next fifty years look pretty grim. Liberalism will have no answer for this. It will offer the same useless panaceas it always has - vocational training, targeted tax cuts, business subsidies, and so on - but it will offer them to generations who've only seen their living standards fall and their futures disappear.

Did I mention mass migration?

A discredited ruling ideology, declining standards of living, the memory of lived prosperity and absolute despair for the future: this is as toxic a society as you can imagine. Now add to that waves of immigrants fleeing the storms and heat waves of South and Central America. An increasingly violent, increasingly militarized border, and an increasingly aggressive ICE. The continued decline of white Americans into a national minority. And a wealthy elite, controlling the most powerful propaganda apparatus in history, desperate to find a scapegoat for the country's ongoing deterioration.

This is fascism's pincer: economic pathology on one side, ethnonationalism on the other. A middle class driven by radical resentment. You can already see the first glimmer of this in the polo shirt neoconfederates who spilled blood in Charlottesville yesterday - a frustrated, revanchist mob of white suburbanites who see in their falling monuments the end of their power and prestige. Their rage is already scary enough, but I am telling you that it is only going to get worse.


There is only one way out of this: redistribute to the rest of society the vast wealth hoarded by our (largely white, first world) ruling class. Redistribute the wealth, guarantee to everyone a decent standard of living with all of the necessities that entails, and you can undercut the tribal wars for survival and domination that capitalism constantly threatens to inflame. Redistribute the wealth - particularly to the developing world - and maybe you can buy some time in the fight against climate change, or even soften the blow when it eventually hits.

You are not going to solve all of society's problems by redistributing the wealth. Racism will still be with us. The political and cultural legacy of white supremacy will still be with us. Our planet will still be poisoned and depleted from centuries of industrialized destruction. Fifty years from now, the left will still have plenty of work to do - but if we try to fight these battles when we're caught in fascism's pincer, our chances for survival are slim.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Advocates for climate action should stop defending the rich

Emily Atkin, in an article for The New Republic, has written the latest in a recurring genre of articles defending rich advocates for action against climate change. A year or so ago, Vox gave us Rich climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio lives a carbon-intensive lifestyle, and that's (mostly) fine; now, Atkin has set out to establish that Al Gore’s Carbon Footprint Doesn’t Matter. In common, both of these pieces take on a popular right-wing talking point: rich liberals who live carbon intensive lifestyles yet advocate for government action against climate change are hypocrites. This, Atkin argues,
is deceitful faux-populism...climate change advocates who don’t live a carbon-neutral lifestyle aren’t hypocrites because, for the most part, they’re not asking you to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle. They’re asking governments, utilities, energy companies, and large corporations to increase their use of renewable energy so that you can continue to live your life as you please, without contributing to global warming.
Atkin is correct on one thing - the left does need to reckon with the "learjet liberal" rhetoric - but this is not the way to do it. The reason that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other voices on the right have so much success with this attack is that it contains a kernel of truth: climate change is largely the fault of the rich. As Chancel and Piketty detailed a few years back, "top 10% emitters contribute to 45% of global emissions, while bottom 50% contribute to 13% of global emissions." People see Al Gore living a lifestyle that clearly has more of an impact on the world than theirs, and they resent climate change solutions that threaten to make his lifestyle their problem.

Atkin tries to finesse this point by blaming climate change on a series of abstractions - governments, utilities, energy companies, and large corporations - but everyone knows that all of these institutions are controlled by the rich. Later, she leans on an argument by David Vox that the contributions to climate change by individual rich people are insignificant - but this technicality misunderstands the fundamentally classed nature of learjet liberal rhetoric. It works not because people necessarily hate Al Gore in particular, but because people generally resent the rich as a class, and are happy to find targets for their anger.

Fortunately for the left, there's a simple response to this talking point: reclaim class warfare. The fight against climate change has to be understood as a fight against capitalism. If you leave climate action in the domain of private decision making, then of course rich people who make decisions to disproportionately pollute are hypocrites when they call for action against climate change. But if you understand climate change as a fight to take personal discretion out of the equation - to abolish private property, and place these matters in the hands of democratic governance - that's another matter.

Ultimately, the "learjet liberal" rhetoric resembles nothing so much as the old right-wing complaint about leftists who use iPhones. If your solution to the problems of our age just involves better personal decision making in a free market, then yes, there is something inconsistent about criss-crossing the ocean in a private jet or using cheap consumer electronics. But if your solution is to change the system entirely, and to take personal decision-making out of the equation, then it stops making sense to hold one's consumption under capitalism against them.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bankers and Big Pharma lawyers: We are the left!

An interesting quote in Melissa McEwan's "Sanders Democrats" Don't Own The Left:
With respect to African-American people...We don't necessarily want to overthrow the system — we want the system to work for us... And to be frank, many of us want the opportunity to be part of a fair capitalist system. We want to see people like us on Wall Street and in the capital markets, so that perhaps some of that capital will make its way into our communities.
This quote comes from Ginger McKnight-Chavers, a Harvard Law School classmate of Michelle Obama's and former in-house attorney for Warner-Lambert (a pharmaceutical company eventually bought out by Pfizer). Her husband, Kevin Chavers, was vice president in the Mortgage Securities Department at Goldman Sachs and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, and is now Managing Director at BlackRock Solutions, the world's largest shadow bank.

I trust there's no point in reiterating the central role that financial firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and BlackRock have played in the explosion of income inequality, but it's worth considering how even a smaller company like Warner-Lambert made its money:
When Dr. Franklin joined Warner-Lambert in April 1996, executives there were unhappy with the limited sales potential of Neurontin, he said...To compensate, he said, Warner-Lambert executives created a plan to sell Neurontin for conditions ranging from migraines to manic-depression to attention deficit disorder -- even though such uses were not supported by proper clinical studies...
One day, Dr. Franklin said, a doctor showed him an article stating that Neurontin had worsened the behavior of a child with attention deficit disorder. ''He said, 'You keep telling me it's a benign drug and it's not,' '' Dr. Franklin related. 
Dr. Franklin said he later showed the article to his boss, who dismissed it as an isolated case. He said his boss then laughed and said, ''Well, the doctor should not have been using the stuff off label anyway.''
Eventually, the manufacturer pleaded guilty and paid $430 million in criminal charges and civil liabilities:
“This illegal and fraudulent promotion scheme corrupted the information process relied upon by doctors in their medical decision making, thereby putting patients at risk,” stated U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan. “This scheme deprived federally-funded Medicaid programs across the country of the informed, impartial judgment of medical professionals -- judgment on which the program relies to allocate scarce financial resources to provide necessary and appropriate care to the poor. The pharmaceutical industry will not be allowed to profit from such conduct nor subject the poor, the elderly and other persons insured by state and federal health care programs to experimental drug uses which have not been determined to be safe and effective."
This is the system that McKnight-Chavers wants to preserve: the system that has made her family wealthy, largely at the expense of some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society. From her position of privilege, it's easy to call for "a fair capitalist system" where "capital will make its way into our communities" - because capital has made it into her community. But why are we making this voice of privilege an arbiter of the left?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Some pretty egregious misrepresentation from Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky has published some criticism of a recent Katie Halper interview of Angela Nagle. Here's a typical passage:
Halper...bizarrely suggests that what is really needed in discussions of the Holocaust is less focus on anti-Semitism and more discussion of German economic grievances and anger over Versailles...This, then, is the sad endpoint of the dirtbag left's confused efforts to throw the mantle of working class authenticity over asshole racists.
Since Berlatsky is dealing in paraphrases here, I was curious about what Halper actually said, so I decided to give it a listen. Halper:
I think that sometimes the comparisons [between Trump’s America and Nazi Germany] are good, but the point is, the people who are so quick to make those comparisons... they’re very selective in it. So they’ve compared Trump to Hitler, but they won’t… look at the Weimar Republic and how it compares to now, right? I don’t think most of these people would look at the Holocaust and say “it was just anti-Semitism – nothing about the economic collapse, nothing about the treaty of Versailles had anything to do with it.” Maybe they would, and they’re more idiotic than I think, but…
TL;DR - Berlatsky alleges that Halper has called for "less focus on anti-Semitism and more discussion of German economic grievances and anger over Versailles" in "discussions about the Holocaust." But what Halper actually argues is the exact opposite: we already focus on these factors appropriately. Her point is not that we should change how we talk about the Holocaust, but that we should change how we talk about Trump's America. She is holding up our typical discussions of the Holocaust as a standard, in their nuance and sophistication, to which today's discussions of fascism in America should aspire.

I won't add much more except to note that this misrepresentation is pretty typical of Berlatsky's piece.

Democrats may be losing, but centrists aren't

The Hill reports on a push in the Democratic leadership to offer alternatives to Trumpcare - and single payer:
Pelosi and other top Democrats have hailed a series of ACA reforms recently proposed by a small group of centrist New Democrats and conservative-leaning Blue Dogs...Adding to the pressure, almost 90 Democrats endorsed four specific reforms — based on the proposals from the New Democrats and Blue Dogs — designed to prop up ObamaCare’s struggling individual markets.
As some readers have already pointed out, abandoning single payer for a significantly less popular raft of inadequate technocratic tweaks is a great way to lose elections! And once you recognize this, it's easy to conclude - like Jeet Heer did recently - that Democrats are chronically suicidal politicians with a compulsion to lose.

If you measure victory by election and legislative wins marked with the letter D, this is an understandable take. Still, as fun as it is to point out that the clowns in Congress are a bunch of clowns, this is not actually a plausible account of ordinary human goal-driven behavior. People do not ordinarily try to fail; even losers usually want to win. Democrats see the same polls that we do; they know perfectly well that single payer has plurality support among Americans, and majority support among Democrats. Surely they aren't just reflexively running with the least popular option they can find, regardless of what it is, in order to lose - something else must be at work, right?

Here's an alternative theory: Democrats want to win. But for many Democrats, winning means stopping leftist policy outcomes - and sometimes, the best way to do that is to lose elections and lose fights over legislation. If you are a centrist Democrat and your priority is stopping single payer, then of course you are going to offer alternatives to single payer, even if that means risking a Republican victory. You may even be willing to do things like risk the election of Donald Trump for the sake of denying a win to Bernie Sanders - even as critics warn you just how dangerous this is.

That's why the same people who gave us Hillary Clinton are now actively lobbying for anything-but-single-payer. And as in 2016, this has to be understood as a decision to risk losing to Republicans for the sake of derailing the left. That's the defining calculation that leftists miss when they regard centrists as benevolent but incompetent allies; it's an easy calculation to miss, because only the most cynical centrists realize that they're making it. But if you don't see an effective preference for Republicans over leftists in the operation of centrist politics, there's a lot about their behavior you won't be able to explain.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Marxist and psychological explanations for fascism are not in competition

From the inbox (edited for clarity):
hi carl collective. i have a question about marxism...wouldnt you say that a marxist analysis (in particular, i mean focused on materialism as the driving force of history) fails to explain the populist drive eg which elected Trump, which seems to be mainly rooted in psychological needs to protect a certain morality and enact other forms of psychological catharsis and expression? 
this is clear when for example people are driven to vote for strongman uncompassionate free market political posturing because it fits their values even though they would stand to gain so much w welfare programs...every marxist ive talked to about it has unconvincingly deflected by talking about how materialist forces contribute to these mass- and individual psychological phenomena
I certainly think that psychology can give us real insight into political phenomena, but the psychological determinist always has a simple question to answer: why now?

Consider the standard psychological accounts of fascism, which focus on things like instinctive tribalism, parent-child relationships, sexual pathology and so on. It seems clear to me that these factors play a role in the operation of fascism: you can look at some Trump voters, for example, and see that they find him appealing because they have an infantile desire for an authoritarian parent-figure. Still: society has always been afflicted by people who want a President Dad. So what is it that changed in our country where this ubiquitous, chronic developmental pathology suddenly turned into fascism? Why did we not have a President Trump in 2008, when the same psychological dynamics were also at work?

Psychology can't answer this kind of question. It doesn't even aspire to. But this is certainly a question that a theory of fascism should try to answer, particularly if you're interested in trying to prevent it.

The general answer - held, by the way, not just by Marxists, but by just about any mainstream historian you will ask - is that economic conditions can evolve in a way that allows psychopathology to become a massive political problem.

Sometimes, psychopathology can't overcome popular support for the status quo, because the status quo is benefiting enough people. Other times, opposition to the status quo comes from society's least well off, and this expresses itself in a political drive for redistribution. But occasionally, you can get a dangerous third situation: no support for the economic status quo and a disempowered / disorganized working class. If this happens, the same psychological pathologies that are always with us can suddenly become politically powerful, because neither the rich nor the poor will be in a position to stop them.

This, again, is the general model that most modern historians endorse. Marxism's unique contribution to this is in explaining how the third situation can arise: it predicts that until popular support for socialism reaches critical mass, capitalism will create an increasingly dysfunctional economy. Additionally, some Marxists propose that capitalism does more than simply facilitate fascist psychology - it can actually foment it. For example, some folks from the Frankfurt School held that capitalism inevitably creates an extremely hierarchical society, and that this can end up feeding our authoritarian tendencies; it's not hard to see how that, in turn, would make fascist movements more likely. Other Marxists would say, for various reasons, that the "foment" theories are a bit of a stretch; still, the "facilitate" theories are pretty unanimously accepted.

Marxism doesn't need to account for the psychological particulars of fascism in order to be a correct and useful theory that gives us a lot of insight into where fascism comes from. Like any explanatory theory, it's limited in scope; it isn't going to tell us everything about the world, and doesn't need to. The same is true for psychology. These analytical lenses aren't in competition - they're complementary.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Liberalism and the politics of passive-aggression

The Dirtbag Left's origin myth typically credits the term to columnist Amber A'Lee Frost - but like most origin myths, this simplifies a far more complicated story. "Dirtbag," after all, is not a name that you give to yourself. It's a name that people call you. It's what people call you if you talk too loudly about getting high after a rough week at work. It's what people call you if you have earnest and informed opinions about the fries at Wendy's. It's what people call you if you enjoy professional wrestling, or laugh at Brandy's sex jokes, or have an avatar of a chubby guy with a bowl haircut and a prominent bluetooth earpiece.

Above all, "dirtbag" is the kind of thing people call their political opponents. And if you're powerless enough, and if you hear this kind of insult enough, what are you going to do? What all marginalized people do: you're going to wear the slur as a badge of honor.

So it says everything about Jeet Heer's latest that he can write an entire article on the insults and incivility of the Dirtbag Left - without even a mention, in passing, about how they got their name.


When an article like Heer's appears, it's tempting to respond with sneers and jeers - that is, to lay out the endless incivilities and attacks leftists endure from liberals. And they aren't hard to find; as Sam Kriss recently noted,
every single pundit or journalist who goes on a moral crusade against left-wing social-media crudery will have, very recently, done the exact same things they’re complaining against. They will have used insults, personal attacks, expletives, epithets, or unpleasant sexual suggestions; they will have engaged in bullying or spiteful little squabbles...
Focus on insults and rudeness, and you will have no problem exhuming the crass hypocrisy of liberals who concern-troll about the rowdy left. But here, I want to note that if you focus on insults and rudeness, you will miss the great assault of liberalism, and an entire language of antagonism and disrespect. Account for this, and you may even begin to suspect that "dominance politics" is not a label best applied to one of the smallest political factions in the United States.


Because as it turns out, liberals (in the colloquial American sense) share with conservatives absolute power in this country; they control our politics, our economy, our culture, our institutions, our discourse, our memories of the past, and our visions of the future. And the left's true rival, liberalism in the international / philosophical sense, is even more dominant; it exercises global hegemony to a degree that is simply without historical precedent. For the socialist, liberalism is a system which subjects us to constant violence, antagonism, and degradation - and complicity in this system means complicity in all of these attacks.

It's easy for this sort of point to become lost in abstraction, so consider this specific example: lesser-evil voting.

Every two-to-four years, leftists are reminded that we have to vote for Democrats; invariably, we are told that this obligation has been imposed not by liberals, but by "the two-party system", which has cornered everyone into the lesser evil dilemma once again. And yet it is plainly true that liberals have no real interest in ending this system; there is never any serious effort by elected Democrats or by their (overwhelmingly liberal) constituents to do so. Some of them will even fight such efforts, but in general this kind of active opposition isn't at all necessary - if they want to dominate leftists, liberals can just stay at home and do nothing at all. This is how liberals tell leftists to bend the knee.

Or consider the popular liberal slurs "brocialist," "dudebro," "Bernie Bro," and so on. Confront one of the cleverer liberals about this, and they will insist that they aren't actually using this slur to misgender leftist women - they're just using it to narrowly refer to leftist men. But liberals can play coy about this precisely because media and political messaging organs have spent several years baking into our discourse the myth of a male-exclusive left; and those organs, of course, are overwhelmingly controlled by liberals. The insult to women is as crude and vicious as you will ever hear from anyone else on the political spectrum, but liberals don't have to say it out loud anymore; they can just blow the dog-whistle, and the public will hear what liberalism has taught us to hear.

These are the dominance politics of liberalism: they are far more hurtful, far more belligerent, and far more consequential for political outcomes in our world than the petty insubordination and cathartic irreverence of American socialism. Understand dirtbagism as a big fuck you to the Chaits, Tandens, and Ygelsiases who defend this imbalance of power, and Jeet's reproach about fraternity and sorority starts to sound a lot like that classic refrain: "So much for the tolerant left."

It's true: socialism is going to be aggressive in its fight for justice and equality. Liberalism, meanwhile, can play a different game - for example, it can issue constant, one-sided calls for civility across its massive industrialized media apparatus, knowing full well that only a few voices (like Chapo Trap House) will ever respond. As Stanley Fish put it, "Liberals...need not be so aggressive (although they will always be passive-aggressive) since the field, as it is presently demarcated, is already theirs."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Two points about that Jacobin climate change piece

Daniel Aldana Cohen, writing for Jacobin, is critical of The Uninhabitable Earth - a new piece on potential climate change outcomes by David Wallace-Wells. As far as I can tell, Cohen is making two distinct arguments - but while he scores a few point on the way, I don't think they amount to a case that DWW's article "gets it painfully wrong."


The political story

First, Cohen argues that "the real climate danger" will hit before any of DWW's worst-case scenarios. In a few cases, he probably has a point: if Bangladesh launches sulfates into the stratosphere, or if Pakistan starts a nuclear war over control of the Indus river, things could go wrong for the human species quite quickly. These risks are far more immediate than the remote Canfield ocean scenarios DWW goes into, and deserve our attention.

But DWW, we are told, hasn't just ignored a few specific threats. Repeatedly, Cohen insists that what DWW neglects is "the real...(and political) story"; thus, The Uninhabitable Earth is only "ostensibly" a "discussion of what humans are doing to themselves". Instead of grappling with things like "brutal inequalities" and "a vicious right-wing minority imposing the privilege of the few over everyone else," DWW has focused on "pure weather scenarios"; damningly, "the word capitalism appears [only!] four times in this many-thousand-word piece."

This framing turns Cohen's specific objections into a full-blown, systematic leftist critique - but not, I think, a fair one.

DWW is not ignoring "what humans are doing to themselves" when he writes about the ecological consequences of human behavior. To insist that he "misses the action around poli-econ" is to imply that the scenarios DWW surveys are not themselves political-economic outcomes - consequences of inequality and antidemocratic privilege. And DWW is quite explicit about this: he blames "fossil capitalism" for its "devastating long-term cost: climate change."

Recognize that DWW is taking on a political problem, and Cohen's left critique falls apart: DWW is neither ignoring the sociopolitics of climate change nor neglecting to implicate capitalism. Instead, he's just guilty of an analytical error. DWW has written about some of the dangers of climate change, but neglected a few of the most immediate.


The hopeless cause

Early on in The Uninhabitable Earth, DWW offers an important caveat:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.
And Cohen, for his part seems to agree: "obviously," he writes, "absent any real action to reduce emissions we're fucked." But even as he affirms DWW's account on the merits, Cohen thinks that it "is socially and politically hopeless" to have published it; what is needed, he concludes, "isn't a better grasp of science," but rather "political campaigns that foreground...hope."

It strikes me as odd to insist that DWW is pessimistically peddling "disaster porn" and to argue that he has omitted "the real and scary" story - dangers that are even more imminent. Still, setting that inconsistency aside, Cohen is raising an important question for the left: is the science of climate change so profoundly hopeless and depressing that we should just keep quiet about it, particularly when it comes to acknowledging some of the worst-case scenarios?

On one hand, climate science is objectively depressing - it's even depressing the scientists themselves. And it's true that hopelessness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Chomsky put it, "If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope." So I suppose that one can't entirely dismiss this objection, either; if your end-game is stopping climate change rather than education for the sake of education, perhaps it makes sense not to draw attention to the most intimidating worst-case scenarios.

On the other hand, however, I remain hopeful that the public can handle the science DWW lays out and continue with the hard work of climate change activism. Why? Ironically, because of Cohen himself: "Yes," he writes,
obviously, absent any real action to reduce emissions we’re fucked. BUT: That is not going to happen.
By the fourth sentence of his article, Cohen has conceded the entire premise of The Uninhabitable Earth - and he has demonstrated, through his own example, that one can be familiar with these scenarios and still expect to avoid them. Cohen has read the same scientific papers DWW has, and yet remains admirably committed to the fight against climate change. Can't we handle the truth, too?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What replaces discourse

I don’t think anybody has any idea about what replaces rights and discourse. Using “liberal” as a slur without showing your work and proposing a meaningful real-world alternative does not advance the cause of achieving socialism-in-fact in our own lifetimes, and that’s what I’m after — real democratic socialism, in the real world, before I die. To get it we need to be a movement of political substance, not a social circle. - Freddie deBoer
What I think will replace discourse, at least, is a greater recognition of the limits of human agency. People will lose faith in their ability, as individuals, to manipulate political outcomes at a significant scale. The psychosocial impulse to do so will be generally understood as a form of anxiety, and people will cope with it by embracing various forms of quietism. Liberals will be remembered for wildly overestimating their ability to influence others and change the course of history, and variously judged as controlling egomaniacs, laudably ambitious, or simply unenlightened.

Historically, this is not a new or even uncommon perspective; it broadly echoes the temperament and rationalizations of the ancient Sumerians, the Stoics, and various strains of Buddhism and Christianity. This sort of philosophy generally emerges in ages of hardship as the world increasingly feels malevolent and beyond our ability to control. "In bad times," Bertrand Russell writes, philosophers "invent consolations."

I don't predict any of this approvingly, but between capitalism and our accelerating ecological crises, it seems to me pretty likely. Freddie is correct in his observation that this skepticism of discourse expresses "an assumption of permanent powerlessness". And people feel that way for a reason.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Why is CAP pushing a center-right healthcare bill when it knows it's going to lose?

There are all kinds of subtle and complex problems with the Market Stability and Premium Reduction Act - the Center for American Progress's proposed alternative to Trumpcare - but the most telling one is pretty blatant:
Neera Tanden and Topher Spiro offer a simple plan to stabilize the individual markets that Republicans could easily support.
That's how Paul Waldman describes the bill's prospects in the Washington Post, and he's on-message with CAP. "Senate Republicans...can work with Senate Democrats," Tanden and Spiro insist in their write-up of the bill. And in Vox, Spiro repeated the same line: "We are at an inflection point where there’s an opportunity for senators to choose a different path."

But in that same article, Jeff Stein makes the obvious point:
The plan is almost certainly dead on arrival with a Republican caucus that has been bent on dismantling Obamacare for years.
This is an understatement. The MSPRA will not be enacted into law. It will not even come close. And everyone talking about this bill as if it's actually a potential alternative to Trumpcare knows that it will never pass. The Center for American Progress didn't commission this project with any real expectation that it will.


I point this out because it marks one of those rare moments in American politics where liberals cannot claim to be constrained by inconvenient pragmatism. Ordinarily, when liberal politicians and policymakers abandon their constituents, their go-to move is to insist that they are just doing what it takes to stop the Republicans. That's why terrible "compromises" are necessary; that's why Democrats have to constantly give up ground and settle for crumbs.

This, for example, was Representative Barbara Lee's excuse for abandoning single payer at the DNC platform committee just last year:
Every single Democrat in the House, we fought very hard for either single-payer or public option. We got as much as we could get as Democrats...The political dynamics weren’t there on the outside to do that.
But today, the political dynamics are there - precisely because CAP cannot win this fight. The odds of any CAP-crafted healthcare bill making it through Congress as an alternative to Trumpcare are effectively zero. The GOP may fail to pass Trumpcare, but if that happens it will be because of the GOP, not because of any clever maneuvering from CAP.

Once we dispense with the pragmatic-compromise explanation for the MSPRA, it's much easier to understand what CAP is doing. They are proposing a "bipartisan" patch on Obamacare, not because they think they can win through compromise, but because they largely agree with what Republicans want to do. They are promoting market-based healthcare instead of embracing popular support for single payer because they do not want to see single payer succeed. There's no counter-intuitive chess game going on here; liberals are telling the left exactly what they want, and we would do well to take them at their word.

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.