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Alienation and the proletarian state - 8/29/18
Though Marx himself had little to say about what a communist society would actually look like, his critique of capitalism implicitly calls for a world quite different from ours. Historically, Marxists have read in his call for communism a call for the abolition of class, of the state, of property, of bureaucracy, of markets - of all sorts of things. Again, Marx pointedly refused to detail any of this, and had nothing but contempt for those who expected him to write "recipes for the kitchens of the future."

There are, nevertheless, two points that Marx is quite clear about:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Between capitalism and communism, there will be a state. There is no way around this. Capitalism has reshaped our society into a massive, extraordinarily complex apparatus of oppression and exploitation; only the awesome power of the state, wielded by the proletariat, can dismantle this. It will be a multi-front war, demanding offensives against every pathology of capitalism you can name; absolutely nothing in the Marxist tradition suggests that we can somehow wipe them all out simultaneously, and without a role for the state.


I'm spelling this out to make a simple point: until the state withers away, it will continue to play a basic role in mediating economic relations. It will for example define basic roles in control of the means of production, specifying who gets to control it, what control means and does not mean, what is being controlled, and so on. The proletariat needs a state to do this so that the bourgeoisie doesn't seize control right back. The proletarian state will also mediate economic transactions for all of the same reasons: if the state doesn't play an active and intermediary role in all of this, capitalist forms can survive and metastasize. It is this weed-like tendency of capitalism to sprout up anywhere it can that demands what Marx called a dictatorship of the proletariat; to wipe out capitalism, the proletarian state's economic jurisdiction and ambit must be absolute (even if, in practice, the proletariat forbears from intervention).

This is Marxism 101, and yet it is directly at odds with a persisting form of criticism on the left which insists that any role the state plays in governing or facilitating economic relations is alienating, and thus "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary".

To be clear, the error here is not that the state plays an alienating role in its mediation of economic relations - of course it does. If my community lives in an area of the world that does not have arable land, and the socialist state intervenes to ensure that we have a reliable supply of produce, shipping in some minimum quota on a regular basis from some distant farming community - in this case, it is absolutely true that my community is alienated from the farmers who have grown our food. We have not developed personal, human relationships with each other; our exchange emerges not as an organic expression of our social life, but as the result of a bureaucratic process administered by third parties.

And yet historically, Marxism has not regarded this sort of arrangement as "reformist" or "counterrevolutionary," even though it is indeed alienating. There are many reasons for this, but ultimately they all come down to a simple point: the dictatorship of the proletariat is not communism. Even if you expect full communism to abolish entirely things like state-managed trade, it does not at all follow that the dictatorship of the proletariat will do this, and in fact it would be both theoretically inexplicable and practically shocking if it somehow did.

None of this, of course, is an argument that Marxists should dismiss the problem of alienation in their fight for socialism. There is, however, a genre of critique that, in the guise of criticizing "alienation", is ultimately criticizing any role whatsoever for a proletarian state. In response to any set of laws or policies that the socialist proposes to mobilize as a weapon against capitalism, the critic can always reply: this system you want to set up stands between the worker and worker, and between workers and the means of production; these rules, administrators and enforcers are your substitutes for voluntary, direct, and human relationships, and are therefore alienating. But clearly, this is not simply an argument against alienation - it is an argument against socialism, and should be regarded as such.
Solidarity with Alexander Cohen - 8/25/18
Some folks who read this blog will probably be familiar with Alexander Cohen - or rather, with DudeSlater, which was his handle on Twitter until about a month ago. Cohen maintained an utterly ordinary presence online: he had about a thousand followers and an even smaller circle of friends who he chatted with regularly. Like most people online, he joked in the currency of memes and references that are instantly recognizable within his little microculture (weird left Twitter), and that are utterly incomprehensible outside of it.

I'm writing this in the past tense because late last month, Cohen was arrested and his Twitter account was suspended. Most of us just found this out yesterday when an article about it surfaced online. Since Cohen is neither a journalist, a politician, nor a prominent public figure, I doubt that the media will bother to clarify what's happened to him; so here, I just want to lay out a few basic facts.


Cohen's suspension and arrest are the result of a by-the-numbers outrage campaign by the radical right. Within a matter of days, it made its way from Twitter and /r/The_Donald to signal boosts from Dana Loesch, Sarah Palin, Joe WalshTwitchy, and so on. Immediately, of course, their audience coordinated a massive retaliation campaign, which quickly escalated from mass Twitter reporting to tagging in cops and federal agencies to more aggressive measures. "Don't just tag. CALL!" one user tweeted. Another gloated on Reddit, "I called his work....he might be fired! Lmao". Others, of course, began to suggest more direct action:
If you have your concealed carry permit, and see this man walking towards you, you absolutely may use deadly force. Whether it's a bat, a knife, or any threat of physical harm, you are LEGALLY allowed and encouraged to "stand your ground" and fire.

So what was Cohen's crime? Two jokes:
1. First, Cohen tweeted out what appeared to be a selfie of a man holding a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. This, among Cohen's friends, was an instantly recognizable picture of another Twitter user, who submitted the picture for The Talking Dead's Ultimate Fan Search contest (the barbed wire bat plays a prominent role on the show.) Thus, while he captioned the photo by remarking that he was going "to greet the nice conservative teenagers," the joke was tweeted with the understanding that its audience would not interpret it as an actual threat. 
2. Second, Cohen tweeted out lyrics from Chief Keef's Faneto: "I'm ridin' through New York...Finna go and shoot New Jersey up...We gon' come and blow New Jersey up." Again, these lyrics would be instantly recognizable to Cohen's friends, as well as millions of fans (the track has 19 million views on YouTube alone). Thus, though Cohen swapped "New York" and "New Jersey" with "D.C." and "GWU", the joke was tweeted with the understanding that his audience would understand it as a reference to rap lyrics - not an actual threat.
In both tweets, the same dynamic is at work: guy tells a joke that depends entirely on the shared cultural references of his intended audience, and people outside of that audience misrepresent it by insisting that those references don't exist.


As Libby Watson noted in Splinter last month, there is a clear "proliferation of campaigns to get people fired because of ideological disagreements but ostensibly on the basis of tweets." Here, of course, we aren't talking about a New York Times columnist, and the outcome is far more draconian - but that's precisely why I think the case of Alexander Cohen deserves our attention. He's not a politician, or a celebrity, or an academic, or even a journalist; he doesn't have a big platform or any kind of formal political power. He's just some guy most of us knew as "DudeSlater", and now he's in jail.


UPDATE: I've learned that Cohen has been released on bail.
Can niche market capitalism protect minorities? - 8/12/18
Reading through Connor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I'm struck by how much of his argument depends on the magic of niche markets. Democracy, he argues, can't "render reliably just judgments about how an entire society should produce and consume" - especially when it comes to providing for the needs and rights of minorities. But capitalism can handle this, because capitalism has niche markets. 

The beauty of niche markets is that businesses, "per their preference," can always provide for minorities - "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". In this way, "capitalism...frees us from the preferences of the majority". Most of Friedersdorf's article is devoted to listing all of the products capitalism's niche markets can provide:
Muslim prayer rugs...Korans...head scarves...halal meat...new mosques...vegan meat or milk substitutes...hair products for African Americans...sex toys...binders for trans men...sexually explicit artwork...birth control... 
This goes on for five paragraphs. What I find curious, in any case, is that there's evidently one niche market that capitalism can't protect from the tyranny of the majority. Friedersdorf, again:
Today, if I went out into Greater Los Angeles and chatted up owners of mom-and-pop restaurants, I'd sooner or later find one who would decline to cater a gay wedding... Should we destroy their livelihoods? If I recorded audio proving their intent to discriminate against a hypothetical catering client and I gave the audio to you, would you post it on the Internet and encourage the general public to boycott, write nasty reviews, and drive them out of business, causing them to lay off their staff, lose their life savings, and hope for other work? 
...I believe that the subset of the gay-rights movement intent on destroying their business and livelihood has done more harm than good...
 There's a real contradiction here! Friedersdorf has given us two theories of capitalism:
1) When it's time to defend capitalism, niche markets are a reliable bulwark against the tyranny of the majority; business owners can serve whoever they like, "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". 
2) When it's time to defend homophobes, however, capitalism can't defend niche markets from the majority: all it takes are boycotts and some nasty reviews to drive them out of business.
This is really just the latest variation on a phenomena I wrote about a month ago: when the left fights for socialism we are told to go to the private sector, and when we fight in the private sector we are told that this won't do, either. Still, it's remarkable how completely Friedersdorf, in making this move, buries his own defense of capitalism. If the second theory holds, capitalism can do nothing to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority; its niche markets are always a boycott away from oblivion, and not even the homophobic pizza industry can escape the invisible hand.
Conor Friedersdorf can't make up his mind about democracy - 8/9/18
Reading through Conor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I've been able to tease out two distinct critiques:
1) First, "minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained" under socialism; the virtue of capitalism is that "it frees us from the preferences of the majority" through various "anti-democratic protections" and "anti-democratic methods". 
2) Elsewhere, however, the problem with socialism is that "the increased 'democracy'...revolution would supposedly harken in" never actually emerges; thus "socialist experiments end in atrocities precisely because extreme consolidations of power are necessary to attempt them".
So is the problem with socialism too much democracy, or not enough democracy? The answer, of course, is both. When socialism promises to put an end to the terrors of capitalism through the power of the state, it's time to start warning about the "unaccountable bureaucrats" and "regimes" that impose "socialism from above" (see Friedersdorf's previous article). When we clarify that we'll rely on a democratic state, however, the critique reverses: first the bureaucrats were unaccountable, but now "their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will".

Some readers will see this move as the worst of all possible worlds for Friedersdorf: not only does his new argument contradict the old one, but it now accuses socialism of something people generally approve of. The author realizes this: "To most Americans," he sighs, "democracy always sounds appealing." But just consider this nightmare scenario:
If a majority elected a populist demagogue like Donald Trump—which very nearly happened in 2016 (when he lost the popular vote) and may well happen in 2020—he would preside over not only our government, but also over our social and economic realms.
The problem with democracy, it turns out, is best illustrated by the case of a man who became president even though he lost the popular vote; if you want to appreciate the virtue of "anti-democratic protections," and especially what they can do for minorities, look no further than the Electoral College that elected Donald Trump.
Did Russian intelligence inspire Trump to depress Clinton turnout in Michigan and Wisconsin? - 8/2/18
A reader has asked:
I agree with your latest blog post on the points it covers, but what of the allegation that Russia could have provided the Trump campaign with DNC analytics?
This theory was recently popularized by Rachel Maddow, who argues that it was this data which inspired the Trump campaign to hone in on Michigan and Wisconsin with "three major voter suppression operations" targeting Clinton voters. If this campaign were successful, one would expect to see a significant drop in her numbers. Instead, here's what they looked like in both states during the final two months:


In both states, Clinton's numbers were actually higher by the end of October than they were at the beginning. Insofar as there was any real movement, it came from Trump's last minute three-point surge in Michigan, which overwhelmed Clinton's trivial gains.

One can try to salvage Maddow's theory with a few tweaks, but none of them are very convincing. For example, one can imagine that, instead of telling Trump to suppress votes, the Kremlin advised him to win them - but this fares no better at explaining Wisconsin's flat lines. One can also imagine that the Russian strategy (whatever it was) had an effect on the polls, but that this effect was cancelled out or buried inside countervailing trends; perhaps Clinton was going to enjoy a last minute surge, for example, until Trump's voter suppression campaign - which not only nullified her surge, but also nullified any detectable change in the polling. One can also insist, correctly, that the polling we have for these states was clearly incorrect - and then imagine that in a world of accurate polling, we would have seen shifts in Clinton's numbers that directly coincide with Maddow's theory.

Regardless, it should be clear that the point in my previous post holds: the case that Russian intervention was decisive ultimately depends not on anything we can see in the data, but on completely unsubstantiated theories about what's going on inside of the data, buried beneath an massive avalanche of statistical noise, bad polling, underdetermination, and pure fantasy.
The left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct - 7/30/18
Leftist writers and activists are still generally skeptical of allegations that the Russian government significantly influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. Their liberal counterparts, predictably, find this inconvenient. And now, of course, the dialectic of Russiagate has given us a synthesis: a handful of leftists who voice some skepticism of the liberal position, but who insist that their leftist comrades are getting it wrong, too.

I'm not going to wade through all of the nuance and hedging in this latest genre of take, but I do want to touch on one issue that's emerged time and time again. David Klion insists that "Russian interference was real and significant."

Sarah Jones:
It isn’t clear that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election...But it seems increasingly likely that there will be more hacks, and the consequences could be more explosive than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. 
  Ryan Cooper:
...whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary...is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence...It probably won't move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with.
What do all of these takes have in common? All three writers call for policy responses to the threat of Kremlin meddling - and justify this by entertaining theories that the Kremlin had a significant influence on 2016's outcome. And for that reason, all three takes are factually not credible.


What We Know About Kremlin Vote Acquisition In 2016

Three simple points.

1) There is still no direct evidence that the Kremlin managed to change election 2016's outcome.

The task is simple: one has to prove that Russian influence operations won Trump at least 35 votes in the electoral college. This means crediting the Kremlin for his margin of victory in enough states to give him those votes. There are all kinds of ways that you could set about drawing a line from the Kremlin to those margins - and yet no one has actually done this.

Look at our major media outlets, and you might think otherwise. Through blatant implication and just-so proclamation, our pundits routinely declare that the matter has been proven; and even the judicious agnosticism of "it isn't clear" statements can create the impression that there is some real controversy at hand. But this is not a matter of contradictory studies creating uncertainty, or of researchers establishing a probability and skeptics demanding proof - the problem here is that no one has successfully made the specific demonstration that needs to be made. Look for yourself: the studies just aren't there.


2) There is not even direct evidence that the Kremlin even managed to win Trump 10,704 votes in Michigan.

This is the same point that I made above, but I want to press on it a bit to show how flimsy the Russiagate narrative is. Routinely, the left's critics point to just how small Trump's vote margins were as proof that Kremlin meddling probably made a difference. That's why Cooper writes that "Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with." Elsewhere, Kevin Drum puts it explicitly:
given how close the election was, there’s a pretty good chance that Putin’s campaign of cyber-chaos had enough oomph to swing things all by itself.
This logic is absurd. The likelihood of a Kremlin-swung election depends on the size of vote margins and the Kremlin's absolute capacity to win Trump votes. And that latter point - not the size of the vote margins - is obviously the point in dispute. Even if we focus on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where Trump won by the narrowest of margins, there's just no reason to take for granted that the Kremlin won the votes he needed. Not even in Michigan, where Trump just won by 10,704 votes.

Again: the bottom line here  is that we have no research, no polling analysis, no systematic investigation of probable ROIs that takes into consideration Russian spending, message propagation, and estimates of votes earned - nothing that demonstrates over 10,000 votes won by the Kremlin in Michigan. The left's critics can talk about denialism or call for agnosticism all they like, but this remains an extraordinary claim that lacks even ordinary evidence.


3. There is significant reason to believe that the Kremlin did not change 2016's outcome.

Let's stay with Michigan. Here's what we do know:
  • Throughout the month of October - when the Podesta Emails, allegedly a major prong in the Kremlin's influence operation, were released - Hillary Clinton's numbers in Michigan actually improved. [1] This is consistent with Mike Enten's observation for FiveThirtyEight about the national trend: 
Clinton’s drop in the polls doesn’t line up perfectly with the surge in WikiLeaks interest. When WikiLeaks had its highest search day in early October, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising. They continued to go up for another two weeks, even as WikiLeaks was releasing emails. 
  • In the same article, Enten relies on Google trends to argue that "Americans were clearly paying attention to the WikiLeaks releases". Thomas Ferguson, however, observes that
outside of Washington, D.C., it is not obvious that that these details engrossed many voters, particularly in the battleground states...This claim is testable...Google Trends allows one to compare the relative volume of searches on topics by state and time. 
The evidence seems to bear this out in Michigan: there, interest in the Podesta emails was less than half what it was in DC. And this, in turn, supports a common intuition on the left: a lot of the palace intrigue and media controversy that captivates our pundit class just isn't that interesting to the rest of the country.
  • As we learned during the Senate's 2017 hearing on "Social Media Influence In The 2016 U.S. Election," the "Russian-linked Facebook ads [that] were specifically aimed at Michigan" represented a total investment of...$827 dollars.

    To put this into perspective, a widely-circulated investigation by Business Insider concluded "that to sway about 10,700 voters you'd need a budget of $42,800." And even this number was (correctly) dismissed as "fantastical" and "utter bullshit" by reporters and digital marketers; as NYMag's Brian Feldman pointed out, the $42,800 figure "represents an absolute edge-case scenario, in which Facebook ads are supernaturally effective and persuasive", winning over Trump voters at $4 per voter. So even with that kind of magical RoI, we have, at best, evidence that the Kremlin might have won over 206 voters - less than 2% of what it needed.
That's what the case looks like in Michigan, where the lift for anyone who wants to argue for decisive Kremlin interference is the lightest. Elsewhere, of course, the burden gets even heavier: by the time you get to Pennsylvania, you have to argue that the Kremlin won more than four times as many votes for Trump as it needed in Michigan. Generally, the reasons to doubt that this happened are identical across the board: no analysis suggesting adequate investments or capacity on the part of Russia, and significant evidence that it was nowhere near up to the task.


What This Means For Critics of the Skeptical Left

So where does this leave the left and its critics? In general, I think it demonstrates that the left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct, and has been for quite some time.

The question at hand is whether Kremlin influence operations in the United States warrant a significant policy response from the left. You could, I suppose, make absolutist arguments about protecting the integrity of our elections from even one sullied vote - but generally, even the left's critics tend to recognize that it's worth asking whether the Russian government actually swung our election. If they didn't even manage to do that, one begins to wonder why we should prioritize Kremlin meddling over voter impersonation or the malevolent propagandizing of Lyndon LaRouche.

As far as I can tell, that is the question still facing critics of the skeptical left. There may very well be legitimate grounds for arguing that the left should change its politics towards Russia, but if critics want to argue that the Kremlin elected Trump, their work is still ahead of them.
The "Russia is backing the US left" conspiracy theory has a major flaw - 7/22/18
Harper's columnist Scott Horton has blown the lid off of an international conspiracy:
European intelligence analysts I have spoken with over the last month say that they have picked up clear data suggesting that Putin has authorized and put in play a major active measures campaign designed to split and disable the Democratic Party...The method used...will generally follow what was done during the 2016 campaign...persuading key Democratic constituencies that it wasn't worth going to the polls to vote. This included general demonization of Hillary Clinton and other candidates as "establishment" or "organization" candidates, and repeating claims that the DNC had "rigged" the vote against Sanders (designed to persuade Sanders supporters not to vote or to vote for another Russia-backed surrogate, Jill Stein); alienating blacks and Hispanics, and persuading them that the Democratic candidates really did nothing for them, etc. The Russian operation will also aim...to pick Democratic candidates in the primary period who, for whatever reason, are seen as likely not electable. Some evidence of this is clearly at play now. The key thing to look for is...negative messaging attacking other Democrats.
I'll be blunt: I think that Horton is lying. Either by fabricating the whole thing, or - more likely - by presenting as substantiated what is in fact pure speculation from like-minded "analysts".

Consider for example the claim that there is "data suggesting" that the Kremlin is supporting "Democratic candidates who...are seen as likely not electable." What kind of "data" could actually prove this? It wouldn't be enough to prove that the Kremlin is supporting particular candidates. It wouldn't even be enough to prove that these candidates "are seen as likely not electable" by various pundits. The thing you would specifically have to prove is that the Kremlin also sees them as unelectable, a necessary assumption if what they are trying to do is sabotage Trump's opposition. But Horton does not actually make this claim, which is why he uses the passive voice ("are seen as"); so what this comes down to, in other words, is pure inexpert speculation about who is "electable", projected onto the Kremlin, with a whole massive conspiracy theory built around it.

That said, let's suppose that Horton happens to be right, and that the Kremlin does indeed see certain Democratic primary candidates as unelectable. So what? Unless the theory is that the Kremlin has also been conducting a massive, ongoing and somehow-still-under-the-radar national polling operation compiling data on how different candidates would perform against Republicans in head-to-heads, the Kremlin's conclusions would be utterly baseless. Even US-based firm have barely conducted any of the relevant polling, and as we were constantly reminded during the 2016 primaries, polls taken this far out are not necessarily all that reliable anyway.


Which brings us to the major flaw in Russia's alleged "back the left" strategy: to defeat it, all you have to do is vote for left candidates. Whatever Horton, his "European analysts" and these mysterious Russian operatives may think, there is in fact no reason to believe that leftists are "not electable" - so to beat Putin at his own game, all you really have to do is just vote the way he wants you to vote, and then laugh when his kooky chessmaster sabotage scheme backfires. Fortunately, this happens to align exactly with how you should vote even if Horton is making the whole thing up.