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Predictive writing probably will not change language use all that much - 9/24/18
It seems like every few weeks another pundit notices Smart Compose, a Gmail feature released earlier this year that offers to complete your sentences as you type. And every time this happens, we get a new set of speculation about how this is going to fundamentally change how we use language. The paradigm case of this appeared in a Twitter thread by some guy named Jude Gomila:


A few points:

1. Spelling standards relax and tighten all the time for all kinds of reasons - technological changes, institutional enforcement, changes in literacy rates among different socioeconomic groups, the introduction of new sounds and spelling from other languages, and so on. Generally, however, they remain bound by at least one constraint: both the writer and the reader has to be able to comprehend what has been written.

Predictive text does nothing to this constraint. The writer will still have to be able to recognize, in the auto-completed text, something resembling what she would have written; and the reader has to be able to understand it. For this reason, everyone will still have to understand a "correct" spelling in the sense that it reliably conveys one word and not others.

2. If anything, it seems to me like predictive text would play a standardizing role, since it will tend to spell certain words certain ways. You will almost always encounter the word "orthography" spelled with a ph rather than an f, whether you are the writer or the reader; you will constantly be reminded of this spelling, and will presumably internalize it accordingly.

3. Gomer writes that "[V] is going to change [W] forever." He predicts that it will have "profound implications for our [X]". He concludes, "Long live [Y]. Long live [Z]." These, of course, are all stock phrases and formulations that English speakers routinely use in the course of communication. As it turns out, "using similar phrases" is an utterly ordinary and unremarkable feature of language use; predictive text allows us to transcribe them more quickly, but it is not somehow creating a cognitive opportunity that was not already there.


Anyway, my guess is that predictive text will probably make it quicker to say things you would have said anyway, and will occasionally become a nuisance when you want to say something statistically unpredictable, a problem we already run into with auto-complete. Probably won't do much more than that.
Anti-socialism is real, and recognizing this can help socialists cope with it - 9/13/18
A while back, I wrote a piece noting that leftists often complain about "ideological sectarianism, social tribalism, and interpersonal feuding". In explanation for this, I argued that "the problem is anti-socialism", which can infiltrate socialist spaces through liberals who are not substantively committed to the socialist project.

Noah Baron has responded with a critique of this argument - you can read it for yourself here. I don't think it would be productive to respond to everything he says in this post, but he does make four major points that I want to respond to.


1. Has socialism's popularity changed?

Much of my original piece asks readers to reflect on "how marginalized and reviled socialists are in the United States." In response to this, Baron heralds "the appeal of socialism in the United States today," insisting that my data is "outdated" since "over the course of the past three years, things have changed significantly."

Have things changed? Here's the data Baron provides:
  • A Gallup poll which reports that Democratic views towards socialism are "little changed from 2010", that millennial views towards socialism are "the same as in 2010", and which concludes that "Despite the increasing prominence of socialism in the public discourse in recent years, little has changed in Americans' attitudes toward the concept at the national level."
I think Baron's perspective is understandable - first because there is, as Gallup alludes to, a lot of hype about ascendant socialism in the discourse today; and second, because Gallup's latest poll was widely misread as evidence for ascendant socialism, when it's really just evidence that support for capitalism is cratering. Look at the overall data on socialism's popularity, however, and what you'll see are fluctuations within the margin of error; a marginal bump in 2016 among a few demographics; and since then, returns to the norm across the board.


2. How does opposition to socialism compare with opposition against other identities?

Baron also takes on a Gallup poll I cited in which respondents said they were less likely to support a socialist for president than a president who identified with any other identity category - such as "Black," "gay or lesbian," "a woman," and so on.

His first objection - that "the results are dated to June 2015," before socialism's supposed ascendance - is not difficult to handle. As noted in point (1), attitudes towards socialism only improved marginally among certain demographics in 2016, and have since then deteriorated back to the norm. That DSA's membership has, since then, grown "by a factor of ten" - from .002% of the population to .02% of the population - does not call those numbers into question. Neither does the fact that some self-identified socialists have won some primaries since then; as it turns out, all of these other categories have won primaries, too.

Baron's second argument, meanwhile, is deeply confused. He observes that the poll would be different if you replaced identities that are more popular than socialist (Catholic, gay) with identities that are arguably less popular (such as Catholic Republican and gay Democrat). He also suggests that it would be different if you added the identities "liberal" and "conservative", which he implies are even more unpopular on the logic that self-identification for those numbers is lower than "would you vote for a socialist president" numbers.

It's not clear to me that socialism would actually come out ahead of these new groupings that Baron has introduced - but even if it did, this does not amount to a case that "the poll is misleading." Socialism as such is less popular than Catholicism as such; that you can make the Catholic less popular by associating her with Republicans doesn't change that. Neither does this argument that anti-socialist opposition is different than opposition against other groups (since it's "an expression of political and ideological belief, rather than animus against this or that identity group"). All this poll suggests is that socialism qua socialism is less popular than Catholicism qua Catholicism; they may face opposition for different reasons, and these reasons may be worth reflecting on, but this does not somehow make opposition to socialism any less real, or the poll any less credible.


3. Is left infighting a problem?

Here, Baron is responding to a post that exists almost entirely in his imagination. He writes that I "decry" and "bemoan" infighting on the left, which I supposedly see as a "crisis", and "as a 'problem' that must be 'solved'" - in fact, not just a problem, but "our fundamental problem, with no cure prescribed but presumably involving purging them or alienating" anti-socialists. 

The picture he's painted of me here is a popular caricature of those of us who insist that some leftists may in fact be opponents of socialism, and who hope that socialism prevails. It also, however, is a completely unfounded view of my position, with zero basis in either the text or my general politics.

I am a radical materialist. For this reason, I believe that support for socialism, opposition to socialism, the emergence of class consciousness, the phenomenon of liberal squishes, and so on - that all of these things express the material progress of history. I emphatically do not believe that it is the liberalism of various activists that empowers capitalism, or that socialists can overcome this supposed obstacle by winning the argument, or by purging and alienating them. This is why infighting is not, as I put it in my piece, a problem "at the level of world-historical politics".

Instead - and as I argue from the beginning - infighting is only "a problem" insofar as it "weighs on the mind of the modern activist left". Though it is not "our fundamental problem," it does create a "strain of anxiety" for many leftists that falls "somewhere on a spectrum between stressful and traumatic". My concern, then, is less political than therapeutic; I want to help activists to understand where a significant source of stress in their life is coming from, not because I think that this is an issue that will make or break socialism, but because I want socialists to be at peace. This is an essential concern of quietism - a philosophical tradition that I identify with closely, and that I have written about a number of times.


4. So what should socialists do about anti-socialists?

Try not to let them drive us crazy! For some people, articulating criticism seems to provide some personal relief; this often works for me, because it helps me pinpoint precisely what bothers me about a certain argument or a certain line of rhetoric. For some people, venting - by dunking on anti-socialists, or by commiserating with friends about them - seems to help. Some socialists seem to get a lot out of trying to mediate and diffuse conflict on the left, and if this helps them cope with class struggle, very well.

But regardless of how one wants to cope with the problem - a problem in the sense that it causes us anxiety - we would do well to recognize that political conflict is baked into our discourse. Anti-socialism has a long and ugly history in the US, and polling generally confirms that it is still with us. As I noted last time, "what would be surprising is if it didn't wreak a massive amount of havoc on the left" - but if socialists can understand their stress and anxiety as an affliction of this havoc, that insight might make their lives a little easier.


---

UPDATE (9/16): Cohen, responding to this post, notes in passing that "Beijer has provided little for me to criticize". Fortunately, as he demonstrated by fabricating a quote in his last reply, this is no obstacle - if I fail to say anything objectionable, he can always invent positions for me. Thus, he soldiers on:
  • Much of Cohen's reply sets out to prove that "the past several decades have produced significantly greater tolerance of leftists". This is supposedly in response to my "claim that there has not been...any change" - but of course, I never argued that there has not been any change since the Cold War. Things are obviously better than they were in the mid-twentieth century; this is obvious and uncontroversial.
The specific argument I make in (1) above is that attitudes have not significantly changed since 2015. I argue this in direct response to Cohen's claim that my 2015 polling numbers were "outdated".
  • Most of the rest of his reply attempts to debunk my "pessimistic claim that there...likely never will be (at least in the near future) any change in the acceptability, tolerance, or embrace of socialism". Among other things, he singles out as a "reason for optimism" the fact that "Millennials...would be willing to vote for 'a socialist.'"
This "pessimistic claim" of course appears nowhere in my post. And if Cohen were even remotely familiar with my politics and my writing, he would know that I have written extensively on Millennial support for socialism (See I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, etc.) as a reason for optimism. 
To his credit, Cohen admits that he is "not familiar with the rest of [my] work" - but unfortunately, this has not deterred him from repeatedly making wild and unfounded claims about my politics. My impression is that Cohen is interested in optimism vs. pessimism and multi-tendency vs, orthodoxy debates, and would like to use me as the foil for some polemic about hope and ideological diversity; that's why he's even willing to venture all kinds of elaborate armchair psychoanalysis (I have a "pessimism complex" (!) that is "undergirded" in "paranoia" (!!)) of a writer who he has barely even read.

This is not a formula for a productive conversation, which is too bad because there is probably one to be had about our points of actual disagreement. For example, I think it is Cohen who is being too pessimistic when he warns that talking about anti-socialism would have a "chilling effect" and "cast a pall over the movement"; I think that leftists are perfectly capable of discussing the role that bourgeois ideology plays in our discourse without that somehow crippling our fight against capitalism. Whether Cohen thinks otherwise because of some "pessimism complex" or some other ideological affliction, I won't venture to guess.
Six new Supreme Court justices - 9/11/18
I remain baffled by this argument that the left should pack this Supreme Court - with two new justices. Any court-packing strategy is going to carry a certain amount of risk, which means that if you are going to do it, you had better get something out of it. Two justices don't justify that risk - and the case that this is somehow a safe or reasonable ask, in a way that four or six justices are not, is extraordinarily weak. Here are four arguments for six instead of two.


1. Two justices don't even guarantee you a majority - but six do.

When Republicans refused to vote on the Garland nomination, they didn't just steal a seat - they stole majority control of the court, which Democratic appointees would have gained for the first time since 1970. The liberal-left is not simply entitled to a seat or two. It is entitled to a controlling majority.

Imminent vacancies on the court threaten that entitlement, however. For the two-justice strategy to work, the liberal-left has to hope that the next president also gets to replace two of our three oldest justices. The arithmetic is quite simple:

In half of these scenarios, not even two new justices are enough to overcome a poorly timed vacancy - and the radical right majority remains in place. To ensure liberal-left control of the Court, activists have to call for at least six new justices.


2. Two justices do not remedy the Court's dramatic rightward shift in recent decades - but six justices do.

This is because even if two justices gives the liberal-left bloc a majority, the most likely outcome would be a one-vote majority. As the above table indicates, this happens in two out of three scenarios where Democratic appointees win control, putting every decision at the mercy of the most conservative Democratic appointee. Remember when Justice Kagan voted to destroy Obamacare's Medicaid expansion? She's now the swing vote in every case.

Six justices don't necessarily solve this problem either, since in the worst case scenario (Trump replacing Ginsburg and Breyer) court-packing would still only win the liberal-left bloc a one-seat majority. Nevertheless, in five out of six scenarios, six justices would expand the liberal-left bloc's majority to at least three, giving it the breathing room it needs to advance a progressive agenda.


3. The risks of the two-and-six-justice court-packing schemes are probably comparable.

Simplistically, one could suppose that court packing schemes assume more political risk with every additional justice you nominate; this is the implicit logic behind calling for two justices, but not six. In practice, however, any court-packing scheme is going to face the same maelstrom of outrage from the right: attacks about broken norms, unconstitutionality, ascendant dictatorship, the politicization of the judiciary, the launch of a court-packing arms race, and so on. Whether we add one justices or a dozen, the same script will inevitably play out: Republicans will shift into full-throated DEFCOM 1 "our very Republic is in peril" mode; conflict averse, procedurally-obsessed centrists will wring their hands; and a handful of liberal flakes will grandstand and bravely defect.

Beyond that, what would matter is not the number of appointments so much as the stories one can tie to them. Ten appointments would give the right a "double digits" attack; nine would give them "doubling the size of the court"; and seven or eight would give them a "historically unprecedented" talking point. But six is the number effectively proposed by FDR; six has a story of political necessity behind it (see points one and two); and there just aren't many attacks that you can make against six that you can't make against less ambitious proposals.


4. Six justices is a strong opening bid for probable political negotiations.

So far I have given reasons why six new justices is the correct demand on the merits, the one that can guarantee the liberal-left control of the court and pull it out of the reactionary center - but there are also reasons why activists who are willing to settle for less (?) should be willing to increase their opening bid. Both have to do with the enormous pressure that even a two-justice proposal will face to scale back its demand.

First: if any of the adverse vacancy scenarios identified in point (1) materializes after the liberal-left has made two new justices our signature demand, we will be cornered: we will have to either abandon control of the court, or abandon our previous demand and ramp up to a new one. The shift in demands and rationalizations would play into the inevitable right-wing narrative that this is not a matter of justice, but a naked power-grab; it would be far less palatable than if we began with six justices as the reasonable baseline.

Second: even partisans of the two-justice strategy should recognize that political negotiations will pressure them to bargain down. The right will frame their ask as a hardball, uncompromising demand; centrists will call for some kind of deal (for example, the recurring proposal to impose term limits and regularize appointments); and the liberal-left, having settled on two justices, will have no room to maneuver. Make your demand six justices, and if this proves unpalatable, scale it back; this wins you the mantle of compromise and four to two appointments.


The six justice proposal provides a wide range of strategic and political advantages that the two justice proposal cannot. It has no additional liabilities. There is, as FDR said of his own six justice proposal, "nothing novel or radical about this idea." If you want substantive and lasting justice on the Supreme Court in your lifetime, six new justices is where it begins.
Climate imperialism, and green jobs (for the US) - 9/6/18
Two questions for advocates of a green jobs guarantee:
1. Almost all of the growth in carbon emissions is coming from outside of the US. Moving forward, emerging economies will account for 90% of it. This is why so many international efforts, like the UN's Green Climate Fund, exclusively "support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenge of climate change". If the aim of a green jobs guarantee is to fight climate change, why would we focus on redevelopment in the first world rather than development in the third world?
2. Suppose, then, that we decided to launch some kind of green jobs program that pays folks from the US to work on development projects in the third world. Why are we sending people from the US to build windmills in China instead of paying people in China to do this? 
This is not an argument that we can ignore adaptation efforts in the US, but it does call into question our priorities. Though the liberal-left continues to give lip service to climate change as a "global challenge", our specific policy proposals - and all of the popular momentum behind them - are narrowly focused on the domestic front. The green job guarantee is just another chapter in the same story.
How the liberal defense of capitalism prepares the ground for fascism - 8/31/18
A Tucker Carlson video clip making the rounds today features a monologue that some leftists have found startling:
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is worth about 150 billion dollars... It's certainly enough to pay his employees well. But he doesn't. A huge number of Amazon workers are so poorly paid [that] they qualify for federal welfare benefits... If you can think of a less fair system than this, send us an email, we'd love to hear about it. This system is indefensible, and yet almost nobody ever complains about it.
This isn't actually all that unusual coming from the American right. Listen to AM talk radio in particular; its shows routinely play upon class anxieties, hammering the decadent, privileged lifestyles of "elites" and fomenting resentment from "ordinary, hard-working Americans". Still, you would think that this sort of rhetoric is anathema to the self-proclaimed party of capitalism - so where is it coming from?

(It's liberalism.)

The essential role of liberal ideology in our economy is to absorb class anxiety and channel it away from opposition to capitalism. It is the right-wing triumphalists who insist that capitalism is working, that inequality isn't a problem, that the poor are doing fine, that their lot is improving, and that changes to our economy threaten all of this. Liberalism, in contrast, is the ideology that admits that people are suffering, that the oligarchs have too much power, that the earth is being looted, poisoned, and pillaged. It recognizes our lived experience of capitalism, and that changes are in order. 

But then, having won the credibility of a sympathetic critic, liberalism proposes that the fault is not in fact with capitalism. To do this, of course, it has to invent an entire discourse that is detached from material reality. It has to imagine a capitalism that can work if you just fine-tune it enough, with just the right amount of taxation, regulation, and welfare (not too much and not too little). Or it dreams up problems like "crony capitalism," "corrupt capitalism," and "corporate capitalism" - imagining a world where capitalists don't do favors for friends, where they don't cheat the system, and where they don't build powerful businesses.

The problem here, as Carlson vividly demonstrates, is that when liberalism uncouples our class anxiety from material reality, it can be become a vehicle for any political agenda one can dream up. Socialism directs us towards a specific, limited, material goal: give society democratic control of the means of production. Liberalism, meanwhile, remains agnostic and vacuous: do something to make capitalism work. That something, of course, can become quite sinister. It will look for culprits other than the bourgeoisie, and it will direct against them all of the bitterness and rage that capitalism has sown into our politics.

This is a major way that liberalism prepares the ground for fascism. It does not just take overtly authoritarian, or nationalist, or racist, or anti-modern mythologizing of the past to clear a space for fascism; it also takes a persistent defense of capitalism, and a refusal to hold it responsible. Let class anxiety drift away from a critique of capitalism, and it will inevitably fixate on something else.
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.