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.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Employment threats against Rania Khalek are violence. If you're okay with this, admit it (UPDATED)

Capitalism forces people to work if they want to survive - an arrangement that the global left has always regarded as violent and oppressive. Chomsky, voicing the standard critique:
...people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery.
I don't think this perspective is particularly radical or difficult to square with basic ideas most people have about fairness and morality; in fact, it's probably one of the most basic leftist positions you can take. Labor is important, and a functional society will probably have to find ways to encourage it - forcing people into labor against their will, however, is a form of violence. Similarly, just as forcing people to work is a form of violence, so is forcing people to do particular kinds of work.

Again, this is pretty remedial leftism - which is why I'm surprised that there isn't much more outrage about this:


Katerji could not be clearer about this: he is engaged in a deliberate, continuing campaign of attacks on Rania Khalek's economic livelihood in order to force her to abandon a political position. His hope is to leverage capitalism towards inflicting as much violence on her as he possibly can. He wants to threaten her with food insecurity. He wants to threaten her with unsafe living conditions. He wants to threaten her with cut off access to health care. He wants to use all of the things that come with poverty in order to make Khalek say and do what he wants.

There are all kinds of reasons why people of conscience should find this behavior absolutely revolting, but here the point I want to make is simple. If Katerji has the courage of his convictions, and wants to posture as some brave and principled critic, he should come out and admit what he believes: that violence against Rania Khalek is good and justified.

This is an extremely easy challenge, and one that Katerji should be able to meet if he actually means what he says and stands behind his actions.

There are plenty of leftists who disagree with Khalek on Syria, but who have at least been consistent and honest about their position and motives. Katerji, meanwhile, is making threats like "change your rhetoric or we will continue to campaign against you" - but it seems pretty clear that he is neither honest nor brave enough to spell out what he actually means. Because if he did, he knows that even people who generally agree with him on the issue would find his behavior creepy and abhorrent. Katerji will continue to try to bankrupt Khalek into submission, leveraging violent capitalism against her where his powers of persuasion have failed - and then, if he is called on it, he will retreat into patently right-wing arguments about how no one has a right to income.

If the left stands for anything, it has to stand behind this basic point: capitalism is violence. This was true in McCarthy's era when blacklists and political firings were the main tools of discipline the right used against American communists. This is true all over the world, where American empire still relies heavily on sanctions, debt-collection, trade leverage, and other instruments of economic coercion to impose its will upon other nations. This has been true during the endless parade of employment threats that liberals have rolled out against the media left over the past year, most notoriously during their rabid campaign to silence Matt Bruenig. And it's true here and now, as Khalek suffers continuing, relentless attacks on her basic livelihood. If you're on the left and you're okay with this kind of violence, step up and admit it. And if you aren't okay with it, then it's time to speak out on Khalek's behalf.


UPDATE: One need look no further than the responses to this article to see that I've read Rania's critics right. They're all in a double-bind. On one hand, they want to maintain their leftist credibility, and this means accepting the very basic point that within capitalism, blacklisting is a tactic of violence. But even as they admit this, they don't want to own up to a point that follows directly: if you are working to blacklist Rania Khalek, and blacklisting is violent, then you are committing violence against her.

As comrade Eleanor has noted, this should not be such a hard thing for them to admit. Except for a very small group of principled hardline pacifists, everyone believes that violence is moral and justified in certain situations. And given the seriousness of the charges that Khalek's critics throw at her on a regular basis, it seems like they ought to be able to argue that this is one of those circumstances where violence is indeed necessary.

The reason that they can't do this is obvious. It's an utterly implausible and embarrassing position to insist that Rania Khalek should be subject to violent retaliation for her views on Syria. Even if she is in the wrong, aggressively working to cut off her entire livelihood is a patently draconian and disproportionate response. And the creepy overtones of a clique of largely male critics obsessively using their personal and professional connections to bankrupt a young woman of color are impossible to miss, particularly as they largely ignore far more influential white male voices who say the exact same things.

The challenge remains: if Rania's critics believe that violence against a young woman of color is justified, they should say so explicitly. If they believe that socialism is incorrect and that capitalist blacklisting is not a form of violence, they should admit it. The refusal to take one position or the other reveals, generously, a failure to think through what they're doing - and more likely, bad conscience, and a dishonest fear to own it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Prison Planet guy accidentally endorses socialism's approach to crime

This morning, alt-right provocateur Paul Joseph Watson made the hilarious mistake of offering to cover travel and accomodations for any journalist willing to live in Malmö, Sweden. Predictably, since then, he's been deluged by folks who want to take him up on his offer, and the obvious joke has been to point out that this was all bluster and that no one in the universe is actually afraid to go to Sweden.

Here, however, I want to make a different point: Watson is literally proposing to deal with the problem of crime with a program of lavish economic benefits. The entire premise of his gambit is that incentives like relocation and housing subsidies would normally be enough to encourage folks to live in high-crime neighborhoods - but in this case they aren't, because Malmö is that bad. One doesn't even have to dispute the second part of that argument to notice that Watson accidentally conceded a major point in the first!

Consider how this point would apply to the immigration debate in the United States - which is the direct subtext of Watson's trolling. If you want to blame immigrants for the problem of violent crime, then certainly one solution to that problem would be to pursue an aggressive agenda of deportations and border controls, like Trump is doing. But another solution, which Watson has accidentally endorsed, would be to simply pump money into high-crime areas until the residents decide that they're a tolerable place to live. You wouldn't even need to stop at housing subsidies; you could also invest in improved infrastructure, targeted welfare benefits, and even local cultural programs until the area is so nice that people are willing to put up with whatever crime problem may exist. And bear with me: perhaps if you put that much money into the welfare of a given population, that might actually have the effect of lowering the crime rate?

There are all kinds of possibilities here, but it's enough to notice that even the the loudest voices of the alt-right are aware of alternatives to Trump's draconian immigration agenda. And despite all of their bluster, they are absolutely terrified of actually giving the socialist approach a chance; that's why Watson will of course never put his money where his mouth is and pay anyone to move to Malmö. If people who voice such concern about immigration had to put their money where their mouth is, our government would be very different indeed.

Fascism can't survive majority opposition

Steve Randy Waldman briefly takes on a point I made recently:
Carl Beijer writes, “If you are seriously willing to entertain sympathy for a Nazi for any reason, it was probably just a matter of time until you found an excuse [to support a fascist crackdown]” If that is true, no political harm can possibly have been done by the violence and there is no reason to worry about politics or “think globally”. You are free to fight locally, by any means necessary and with no apology. 
But Beijer’s claim is not, actually, a supportable view of human affairs. Lots of people who under almost no circumstance would support a fascist crackdown oppose freelance political violence even against people whose views they actively abhor.
I'm not sure that the "view of human affairs" Waldman takes aim at here actually corresponds to my position. It's true that there are people who insist on civil rights for fascists who would nevertheless never actively support a fascist regime - but insisting on civil rights and acting out of "sympathy" are two very different things. And in fact, proponents of civil rights for fascists usually insist that they are not acting out of sympathy, but rather out of principle.

Here, my focus is simply on the genre of person who actually does become part of Trump's "support base" because they are "sympathetic to thoughtcriminals." That's the concern Jeremy Harding raises in this piece; one of his arguments against punching Nazis is that some people will actively support Trump in reaction to the attacks. My response, again, is to simply observe that this reeks of post hoc rationalization - if you decide to support Trump, and if all it took was some random guy punching Richard Spencer, you were probably always going to end up supporting Trump anyway. Perhaps there are good arguments against punching Nazis, but "doing so will create more Nazis" is not one of them.

Finally, it is always worth calling into question the notion that "supporting a fascist crackdown" just means actively putting on a brownshirt or wearing the swastika. Paxton:
To understand fully how fascist regime works, we must dig down to the level of ordinary people and examine the banal choices they made in their daily routines...For example, consider the reactions of ordinary Germans to the events of Kristallnacht...It is clear now that many ordinary Germans were offended by the brutalities carried out under their windows. Yet their widespread distaste was transitory and without lasting effect...If we can understand the failure of...citizen opposition to put any brakes on Hitler in November 1938, we have begun to understand the wider circles of individual and institutional acquiescence within which a militant minority was able to free itself sufficiently from constraints to be able to carry out genocide in a heretofore sophisticated and civilized country.
Certainly we are not at the point of Kristallnacht, but the point stands: fascism is historically a militant fringe movement, and it can only survive if the majority ties its hands with principles against "freelance political violence." This is particularly true once fascism has seized control of the state. None of this implies that punching fascists is always a good idea - but it's pretty difficult, from a historical perspective, to insist that punching fascists is never a good idea.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Anti-communism at the heart of the alt-center

Liberals may feel energized by a surge in political activism, and a unified stance against a president they see as irresponsible and even dangerous. But that momentum is provoking an equal and opposite reaction on the right. In recent interviews, conservative voters said they felt assaulted by what they said was a kind of moral Bolshevism — the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one. - Sabrina Tavernise, NYT
I suppose one can call Bolshevism a belief in the absolute supremacy of liberalism - particularly if we imagine that Bolsheviks believe in capitalism, individualism, Enlightenment theories of public reason and rational deliberation, and that they reject Marxism, communism, superstructural theories of discursive determination, and so on. But why not just call these liberals what they are: alt-centrists?

It should be clear what's going on here. Tavernise wants to raise the possibility that the activists in question may be narrow-minded, bellicose, and dogmatic; but our ideological orthodoxy insists that No True Liberal can be any of these things. It's simply an unspeakable proposition in our political discourse that a Centrist could actually be this reactionary, so intellectually rigid, so epistemically blinkered, and so intolerant.

So to get around this, Tavernise floats the bizarre theory that these liberals are actually Bolsheviks instead. Not only does this move let her erase the alt-center entirely - it also lets her turn what might have been read as a critique of liberals into a critique of Marxists.

None of this, of course, is at all unusual: our entire political discourse is structured around villifying the critics of Centrist neoliberalism as radical and dogmatic, all while denying that such labels could ever apply to neoliberal Centrists. Still, this is an unusually brazen illustration of how it often happens - and the non-sequitur indulgence in anticommunism suggests quite explicitly what lies at the heart of alt-Centrist rhetoric.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

No, centrists did not have credible suspicions about Flynn

As credible evidence of untoward dealings between the Kremlin and White House national security adviser Michael Flynn continue to emerge, centrist Clinton supporters are predictably running a victory lap:

One minor detail with the article Krugman links to, however: it doesn't actually mention Flynn. Much less his contact with the Russian government, the potential for blackmail, and his lies to Trump about all of this. Just read it - it's a short post. There is absolutely nothing there that indicates any specific foresight about this scandal. Instead, Krugman states three grounds for concern:
1. "indications that Mr. Trump would, in office, actually follow a pro-Putin foreign policy"
2. "Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's campaign manager, has worked for...a Putin ally"
3. "Trump...has substantial if murky involvement with wealthy Russians and Russian businesses"
That's it! And all three of these are easily addressed. The first point, Masha Gessen observed, was entirely redundant:
Trump’s foreign policy statements are perfectly consistent with his character and thinking...the idea that Putin is somehow making or even encouraging him to say these things is a work-around for the inability to imagine that the Republican Party’s nominee is saying them of his own accord.
As for the second point, it neither implies anything about Flynn nor even demonstrates evidence of significant foresight. News about Manafort's Russia ties had broken just that week, and within a month he resigned; as far as I can tell there was never any denial that this was a significant scandal. But neither did that scandal give us any information about Flynn.

Nor, of course, does Krugman's third point. Trump's substantial conflicts of interest around the world were always well known, but this of course does not particularly distinguish him from Clinton, and again, it does not tell us anything about Flynn. By the way, here's all we actually knew about Flynn last summer:
Flynn has advocated for closer ties to Russia, and questions have been raised about his participation as a guest on RT, also known as Russia Today, the Kremlin-funded English-language news outlet. Last year, he was pictured at gala feting RT, seated at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is why Krugman, in an article that supposedly demonstrates how "obvious...this scandal" already was, could only offer the vague horoscopic conclusion of "something very strange and disturbing going on here". And that's why those of us not engaged in frantic wishful thinking were willing to suspend judgement: as I wrote at the time,
As a matter of simple journalism and scholarship, none of the people peddling these attacks are doing the absic work of making their case...They don't rely on the minimal standards of substantiation and argumentation that you would expect of claims as extraordinary as "Donald Trump is [a] Russian agent"...
Of course, it was (and remains) entirely possible that Trump is compromised; there is no reason to put this past him or Putin. But the default assumption here is not conspiracy, and in the absence of hard evidence it has always made sense to be skeptical of these kinds of claims.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Yet another look at the preferences of the 2016 black electorate

I came up this evening with another way of breaking down the 2016 black electorate:


This chart does a few things that you don't usually see:

  • It distinguishes between Clintonites - general election Clinton voters who also supported her in the primaries - and Democrats - general election Clinton voters who didn't support her in the primaries. I based this proportion on typical Yougov / Economist polling, which gave Clinton about 68% of black primary voters.
  • As always, I account for non-voters. This was just a matter of subtracting all black voters from the eligible voting black population as given by Census data.
  • Finally, I made a basic attempt in this chart to account for disenfranchised black voters (D) - about 1 out of every 13 eligible black voters. I did this with the assumption that the disenfranchised populace would vote in similar proportions to the enfranchised populace, EG if half of the enfranchised stayed at home I assume that around half of the disenfranchised voters would stay at home too. This isn't an entirely reliable assumption, but we don't have any data that's more specific and it's better to at least make some minimal attempt to account for their preferences.
The big takeaway here touches on a point I made earlier today: the more you dig into the preferences of black voters, the weaker their support for Clinton actually appears. As far as I can tell, the number of black voters in the general election who supported Clinton and might not have voted for anyone else barely cracks the 30% mark. That even includes black voters who wanted to vote for her but couldn't because they were disenfranchised. The rest of all voters either preferred to stay at home, support Trump, or support a third party or independent candidate.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Some charts on generation warfare

I've written quite a bit about how age and generational conflicts are playing an increasingly important role in American politics - but it occurs to me that I've never actually spelled out how this is happening. So I've put together some charts.*

First, it's worth revisiting a few polls that reveal age inflections in our political polarization:


On basically every major political question you can name, young voters are more progressive than older voters. Young voters overwhelmingly prefer Sanders to Clinton, Clinton to Trump, and Socialism to Capitalism; older voters hold the exact opposite views.

This already is a recipe for generational conflict - but on top of polarized political preferences, we are also seeing massive changes in the sizes of different generational cohorts:


By 2040 Boomers will no longer be the largest generation, and by 2046 Millennials will have assumed that role for the foreseeable future. By 2053 there will be two Millennials for every Boomer.

Of course, age-inflected political polarization and changing population sizes will only impact things like electoral outcomes insofar as anyone bothers to vote. And while this may seem like bad news for Millennials, who vote at lower rates than everyone else, voting patterns tend to change with age. As the Millennial cohort grows older, they're likely to vote more frequently. If we assume that everyone's voting habits as they grow older will tend to match the age equivalent rates of 2016, future turnout will probably look something like this:


Here, superior turnout only buys Boomers an extra year on top - they lose their electoral plurality in 1941. Millennials gain the plurality a decade later, and by 2060 they outvote every other group combined.

Suppose, then, that these political preference and turnout trends all hold for future Democratic primaries - and suppose that for the next few decades, we continue to see primaries pitting Clinton-type candidates against Sanders-type candidates. Cross reference the above trends, and this is what our future politics would look like:


What this chart tells us is that by 2039, among Americans who are currently eligible voters, support for Sanders-type candidates will completely overwhelm support for Clinton-type candidates. This model relies on some awfully big assumptions, but most of them - population growth projections and lifetime political preference retention - are grounded in fairly rigorous science. 

The most significant unknown here is whether or not Sanders-and-Clinton-style candidates continue to run in the primaries. Another crucial consideration here is that by 2039, in addition to the voters considered here, at least 90 million Americans who are currently under 18 (or are not born yet) will have become eligible voters. We can't predict this age cohort's preferences with any certainty, but if the trend of younger voters being progressive voters holds, Sanders-style candidates would be winning well before 2039.

What we can be sure of, regardless, is that the age of the Boomers is coming to an end. Their generation is rapidly shrinking, and no amount of superior turnout will save them in the long-run. I think it fairly safe to assume that they'll resent this diminished influence after a good half century of political hegemony, and that they'll leverage all of the entrenched institutional and systematic privileges and advantages that they've built for themselves over the years in order to try to retain their power. That strategy can't last forever either, however, and as the rude teen barbarians crash against the gates of old privilege, it's gonna get ugly.


* Brief note on terminology: due to constraints on available data, I've divided the population into four age brackets - 18-29, 30-44, 45-64, and 65+. These brackets correspond roughly, but not exactly, to the commonly accepted "generational" divisions (between Millennials and Gen-X, Gen-X and Boomers, and Boomers and the Silent Generation). These divisions are completely arbitrary and artificial, but the difference explains why, for example, some analysts already consider Boomers a minority generation. For the sake of this analysis this difference isn't particularly important.