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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Nazi punching probably doesn't matter either way

Controversy over the ethics and politics of Nazi-punching continues - re-ignited, this time around, by the macing of a young fascist woman. Fredrik deBoer thinks that this was bad on the grounds that she is a woman. @ItsTonyNow has tweeted out a more common line of criticism:


Meanwhile, a pretty significant faction of leftists (and even liberals) continue to support Nazi punching as an unmitigated good no matter who the Nazi happens to be, a perspective that I'm personally sympathetic to but that I also suspect is beside the point.

The point I would make here is that it probably doesn't matter either way. 

You can make fun propaganda-of-the-deed type arguments that punching Nazis is a good way to make racists afraid again, but while that may work on the specific person you happen to punch, it's pretty unlikely that leftists will actually be able to successfully engineer an enduring national climate of effective intimidation against Nazis.

Similarly, you can make all kinds of arguments that Nazi-punching is counterproductive:
Want his ideas popular? Physically assault him in front of a camera. His support base will grow simply by people sympathetic to thoughtcriminals...[And] if there ever is a crackdown, the more people you attack for what they believe or say, the more supporters will claim you deserve every bit of the treatment the fascist state gives you.
But realistically, both of these consequences would probably happen either way. 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; by the same token, Trump is probably already begun drafting whatever draconian anti-left executive order you can imagine, and if he can get away with rolling it out, he will whether you punch someone or not.

To me, these attempts to justify or object to Nazi-punching on consequentialist grounds read like a proxy debate for what is really a disagreement about irreconcilable principles. If your real objection to Nazi-punching is that you are a pacifist, you'll probably need to come up with a different argument against it, since most people aren't pacifists; so you'll probably try to look for pragmatic or procedural objections to Nazi-punching instead. If on the other hand you think that discourse, argumentation, ridicule and such are inadequate mediums for vying with Nazis, then you are going to have trouble communicating with people who think that the discourse is basically adequate for dealing with them. In that case, you're going to be tempted to come up with additional rationales for punching Nazis, like the theory that you'll be able to intimidate Nazis into silence.

If there's any good coming out of Nazi-punching, it's the simple fact that we're having a debate about it: long-unexamined assumptions about discourse, violence, and power are very close to the surface right now, and I think that they deserve to be examined. But as far as practical and political consequences go, I don't think it likely that any of this really matters. This is mostly a moral debate, not a strategic one.