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Liberals don't care about economic oppression

Even as they attack Bernie Sanders for unduly focusing on the economic dimensions of racism -- a charge that never actually made sense -- liberals have persistently vied for credibility on the left by sagely conceding that the economy does indeed plays (some kind of completely nebulous) role in racism. The stance works as long as the conversation is sufficiently vague and we can stay out of the weeds of specific problems of policies. But what happens when we get specific?

We found out today, when Bernie Sanders dismissed the idea of open borders as "a Koch brothers proposal." The responses were telling:

It's not at all surprising that liberals would respond to Sanders critically: liberal border policy is, after all, the orthodox liberal position. But what's extremely telling here is that the overwhelming majority of liberal critics aren't actually invoking the liberal critique of borders; instead, they're invoking the decidedly right-wing case for global capitalism.

ICYMI: Historically, the liberal critique of borders didn't turn on economic arguments. It was ordinarily advanced as a human rights critique, one which relies on a "freedom of movement" that states have no right to restrict. This right has never been a particularly visible stake in American political discourse, except perhaps among the radical left -- but it's a live and contentious issue in most of the rest of the world, where national borders and border issues are far more prevalent. And its argument is woven all throughout the fabric of liberal thought; it's closely related to popular civil rights arguments against unlawful detention, and appeals intuitively to all kinds of liberal notions about liberty and human rights. It's the basis of all kinds of liberal causes, though their partisans may not recognize this; it's why liberals have opposed the Berlin Wall, the West Bank barrier, and so on.

The implications for the debate over the US's border [read: with Mexico] are obvious. However convenient or advantageous a closed border might be, the US government simply has no right to enforce it. People have every right to travel to the US for any reason they like; the idea of armed government agents preventing poor migrant workers from simply stepping across a line is monstrous and completely antithetical to basic US ideals.

This (or something like it) is roughly the objection to Sanders' comments being voiced by the US left, and one would expect liberals to enthusiastically join them.

But instead, as noted above, the overwhelming majority of liberals have rallied around a different attack. Their argument is not that immigrants have a right to cross over into the US, but that allowing them to do so would be economically beneficial. This, of course, is the argument of global capitalism: the best way to redistribute wealth internationally is to rely on markets. That way, it will inevitably trickle down from the rich to the poor. Expanding the labor pool may give employers leverage to drive down wages and erode workplace protections, but surely that trend will be negated by all of the shared prosperity, since the market guarantees optimal outcomes for workers and employers alike.

Suffice to say that the left has never been particularly sympathetic to this argument. Even those who favor the abolition of borders on human rights grounds are under no illusions about how global capitalism exploits labor migration to improve its bargaining position, evade democratic governance and consolidate the power of the rich. This has been a central critique of modern leftism for decades, inspiring writers from Chomsky to Klein and animating movements from the NATO protests to the World Social Forum counter-protests.

More importantly, the left has always understood global capitalism as one of the primary drivers of global racism, serving as a mechanism to assert white supremacy over the mostly nonwhite global poor. After all, America's wealth was in part built on the backs of Mexican slaves; to leverage their poverty as an opportunity for cheap labor and pretend that they're better off under the exploitation of rich white men than they would be if we just paid them what we owe them is a direct and transparent extension of our country's continuing legacy of racism. This dynamic is present wherever the engines of international capitalism have funneled the profits of cheap labor into the pockets of the rich.

This, if anything, is what the left means when it talks about the role that economics plays in racism. It is a role intrinsic to the logic and agenda of capitalism itself.

So what, then do, liberals mean? They have made a play for the center-left by soberly agreeing that yes, race does have an economic dimension -- but at the same time, the people who concede this are precisely the people who think that immigrants would be better off if we let the Kochs exploit them. So if capitalism isn't the problem, what is? Perhaps opposition to capitalism?


Climate change is more important than absolutely everything else

Recent debates between liberals and leftists have largely been proxy debates over priorities. Leftists insist that the fight for economic equality and security is more fundamental to the fight against racism than various regulatory and legal initiatives involving police cameras, training, etc; liberals argue that those projects should be the focus. Leftists insist the fight for economic equality and security is more fundamental to the fight against sexism than various reproductive health and ecclesiastical segregation issues; liberals argue the opposite.

It is easy enough to conclude that these controversies just express a fundamental disagreement over capitalism: leftists oppose it as the root of oppression, whereas liberals see it as "problematic" at worst, and certainly not the center of any progressive agenda. There's something to that, but I want to complicate that picture a little by advancing a slightly different argument: liberals do not want to prioritize at all.

To expose that point, consider another issue: climate change. At the very least, climate change threatens to displace something like 2 billion people in the next 50 years due to coastal flooding alone; this says nothing of even greater threats like global famine and war. The worst case-scenarios are absolutely apocalyptic. And crucially, all of this is not only possible, and not merely probable - it's also imminent. If we are going to lower carbon levels before we start reaching climate tipping points, we have to begin immediately.

Given the scale and proximity of the danger, it seems to me to follow trivially that stopping global warming warrants literally any sacrifice we could possibly make. Nothing that we value is likely to survive the civilizational collapse that will accompany global warming; even if humans happen to make it, they will be cast into ruin, poverty and utter degradation, along with their lofty spiritual and intellectual achievements. If we get through climate change, we can live to fight another day the microaggressions in the latest Avengers movie or whatever; if we don't, both battles are lost.

Which is all to say that I can't think of any issues we should prioritize over climate change. And not only that, but we should be thinking about climate change the way #TCOTs think about Benghazi: everything we talk about that is not climate change is a distraction from climate change. If stopping climate change means accepting a totalitarian global autocracy that exercises absolute control over the world economy and carbon outputs with zero tolerance for democratic resistance, that is what we should endorse. If stopping climate change means that the US government leads a state-sponsored extrajudicial campaign of terrorism and assassinations against the global energy sector, that is what we should endorse. If stopping climate change means that we go back in time to when the Olsen twins were at their most innocent and adorable and drop them into a volcano as human sacrifices to appease the God Of Climate Change, that's what we should endorse.

I can't think of a moral argument against any of this, at least not one that is not entirely deontological. But are there any liberals in the universe who are prepared to think about politics this way? Would any of them be willing to vote against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or even FDR if their right-wing opponent promised, credibly, to stop global warming? If so, it would be entirely out of character. 

I fully expect any leftists who objects to this point to provide some explanation on how my priorities are out of order, or how my analysis is somehow flawed. Liberals, however, would almost certainly just make noises about "false choices" and "myopic obsessions" and so on, just as they do with leftists who prioritize economic issues. This is a problem with the way they think about capitalism, but it's also a problem with a way they think about the role of priorities in politics.


A telling problem with scolding Sanders about economic determinism

This idea that Bernie Sanders is an economic determinist is obvious baloney and leans on a stereotype of radicals that's more than a hundred years out of date, but it's also worth noting that even the people concern trolling him about this aren't actually concerned.

The proof is obvious if you just think about it for two seconds. If Sanders and his supporters are actually economic determinists, then any sincere normative dialogue with them has to begin by debunking economic determinism. Otherwise, you're just talking past them, and blaming them for behavior that they obviously understand as dictated by external economic forces.

If the concern trolls actually believed their critique, the debate over Sanders would be a completely philosophical debate about human agency. They would be laying out causal chains for human behavior that aren't conditioned by the material economy, which ultimately turns on invoking some fairly ambitious ontology. This isn't some impossible or even unreasonable task; most people are intellectually disposed to reject determinism of any sort, and there are all kinds of well-known, venerable arguments for free will that they could easily rely on. But this is necessarily how the conversation would need to go.

Of course, no one bothers with that conversation, because no one actually believes in economic determinism, nor seriously suspects it of anyone else. Sanders and his supporters obviously accept a significant role for things like political conviction, intellectual persuasion, and human agency; their critics know this about them perfectly well, which is why the critique invariably skips over the ontological questions and fixates on normative issues. Concern trolls who bring morality and politics into critiques of economic determinism are either being dishonest or simply have not thought through their position enough to make an internally consistent argument.

I get that this is an absurd argument to have to make, but it's the argument that insane allegations about economic determinism deserve.


How have Clinton, Sanders and his white media critics responded to protests?

Bernie Sanders came under fire this weekend for his response to a group of protesters who identified themselves with Black Lives Matter. I'm taking them at their word on this, though known BLM activists are voicing significant skepticism, and though Dave Weigel's discovery of "handlers" feeding them talking points is suspicious. Here, the point is irrelevant, because I'd just like to compare: how should we expect public figures to respond to protesters in general, and the BLM protest of Sandra Bland's death in particular?


During the Netroots protest, the BLM protesters chanted "say her name" -- a reference to Sandra Bland, and a demand with double significance. First, it was a demand that Sanders advance an agenda that acknowledges and fights the problem of police brutality. Second, it was a demand for immediate deference from Sanders, as a gesture recognizing his privilege and the moral authority of the BLM movement.

Sanders has clearly met their first demand: there remains some (mostly misguided and cynical) debate over his approach to police brutality, but that is not the same as questioning its priority or his commitment. Still, he clearly failed on the second point: it wouldn't have significantly derailed his speech to say a word or two on Bland. Since then, however, he has met that demand. So now, how do we weigh Sanders' history of advocacy and accomplishment, as well as his subsequent deference to BLM, against his failure on Saturday?


As long as we're looking at privileged white people who command national platforms and refused to use them to acknowledge the Sandra Bland protests, consider some of Sanders' loudest critics: David Dayen, Zack Ford, Joan Walsh, Elias Isquith, and Emily Crockett.

It's a bit much to call this extended record a "gotcha" while crowing about a single on-the-spot reaction by Sanders. All of these people have the backing and promotion of major institutional sponsors, prestigious white collar jobs, and considerable incentive to advance Bland's cause in their role as liberal columnists and journalists. These are precisely the people who *must* take an active role in the specific, day-to-day exposure of cases like Bland's, but none of them did.

And it's also a bit much to pretend there's no common thread in the sudden, simultaneous interest these people have taken in Bland. For too many white journalists and public figures, she simply wasn't worth talking about until her memory could be weaponized against Sanders. Except for Walsh, I don't think this has actually been an act of calculated cynicism; but political co-option has always been a considerable obstacle for progressive movements, and white progressive media needs to check its motives and actively guard against complicity in that problem.


On that note, the obvious subtext of much of the criticism against Sanders is that he's not worthy of the Democratic nomination. But this claim's only meaningful if set in contrast to the alternatives.

Hillary Clinton was conveniently absent from this weekend's events, but it's not like we don't have an extensive record of how she handles protesters - see below. In general, there is not a case to be made against Sanders that isn't infinitely more damning for Clinton. Her preferred method of handling protesters is simply to throw them out, usually with some degree of violence. She's also fond of patronizing them and even insulting them once they've been handled, even to the point of making some pretty reprehensible ableist jokes. She also typically either talks over them or prompts her audience to drown them out. She does this to everyone: minorities, climate change protesters, and critics of her ties with Wall Street. Are we seriously pretending she would have handled this any better?


What class-first politics would actually look like

But other progressives argue that Sanders’ laser-like focus on economic inequality is too narrow—not just because he talks about it to the exclusion of other issues, but because the way he talks about it only tells part of the story. They say he tends to pursue a one-size-fits-all populist message that ignores race and gender... 
Clinton, dismissed by many on the left as “corporate,” has still put some race and gender issues front and center in her campaign. - Emily Crockett

This is a telling line of criticism once you notice that it's exclusively concerned with the way Sanders "talks about" issues. Compare, for example, his response to police brutality with Clinton's. Short-term, their plans are virtually identical: both have called for body cameras, training initiatives, and end to police militarization, and so on. Long-term, both see it, in the words of Clinton, as "a symptom, not a cause, of what ails us today": inequality. Both propose different tactics to tackle the issue -- Sanders focusing on modest welfare expansions and taxing the rich, Clinton on economic growth -- but their basic conception of the problem is precisely the same.

The similarity is puzzling, because the implication here is that the "laser-like focus on economic inequality" in Sanders stump speeches reflects some kind of radical "class-first" agenda. That's quite obviously not in the cards, and the suggestion that Sanders would even consider it says more about his critics than it says about him. A quick sketch of what a "class-first" approach to police brutality would actually look like:

  1. THE ABOLITION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS - As dramatic as this sounds, it does nothing to necessarily change the status quo; everyone still possesses everything they already own. The difference is that now, continued ownership is subject to democratic referendum; the state can seize, manage and redefine property rights through all ordinary legislative, executive and judicial procedures, without rigid and absolute Constitutional prohibitions. One immediate consequence is that property laws are fewer and more flexible, therefore requiring less policing. There are significant second-order consequences as well, since it paves the way for nearly everything that follows.
  2. THE MASS REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH - Lots of ways to implement this, but the gist is that you're seizing most of the assets of the super-rich and giving them to everyone else until each American has around $300,000. The elimination of inequality destroys a major source of social conflict, and thus another major need for policing.
  3. THE REDISTRIBUTION OF LAND - This is implicit in (2), but is significant enough that it should be addressed specifically. One way that capitalism has maintained stability amid inequality is by segregating classes; the major pathologies of poverty are dealt with by ghetto-izing them into discrete slums and trailer parks. This is a major source of police violence, because on one hand it concentrates the dysfunctions of capitalism into a confined space where it feeds on itself; and on the other, because it gives the police a specific place to target their brutality and operate with impunity. The redistribution of land would in practice give people stuck in high-crime locations the opportunity to move almost anywhere they like, even if it means seizing control of property formerly owned by the rich. It would simultaneously short-circuit many of the police's large-scale-kettling tactics while diffusing some of the more sinister dynamics that cultivate social conflict.
  4. EXPANSIVE, GUARANTEED WELFARE - The basic framework described here by Matt Bruenig is an adequate start. The universal guarantee of a basic, decent standard of welfare immediately undercuts the fears of want and destitution that account for a significant amount of crime. Free health care, including mental health, addiction treatment and rehab programs, ameliorates another major contributor to crime.
  5. PROGRESSIVE TAXATION - The specifics are negotiable and there are other methods to accomplish the same thing without taxation, but in general you just establish some basic mechanisms to prevent the return of significant inequality. One obvious start would be a 100% estate tax to eliminate inheritances altogether. I would also establish a wealth tax that increases exponentially to 100% at around $5-10 million. This constrains inequality, which will inevitably produce social conflict, to socially acceptable levels.
  6. THE RECONSTITUTION OF POLICE - Police ranks are dramatically downsized and divided into two forces. The first force, which polices persons of below-average wealth, is completely disarmed. The second force, which polices persons of above-average wealth, is armed. This significantly impairs the ability of the rich to use the police as a weapon against the poor.
  7. COLLECTIVE MANAGEMENT - Workers control the means of production. This mostly prevents a bourgeoisie from rolling back the above reforms, and also curbs the possibility of workplace conflict.
This is just a back-of-the-napkin sketch, but it gives at least a basic idea of what class-first politics would actually look like. Note that every proposal here revolves around establishing and enforcing a particular economic regime; even the police reforms revolve around wealth, with the force that polices the rich actually growing more powerful than it is today.

Personally, it seems obvious to me that this platform is far better than anything being advanced by the Democrats, and that it would profoundly reduce if not completely eliminate the problem of police brutality. But one doesn't even have to agree with class-first politics to notice that it has little if anything to do with Bernie Sanders; and it's a testament to how far to the right our politics have drifted that anyone takes the comparison seriously.


A few points on the prehistory of inequality

Not to be outdone by Thomas Piketty and his treatise against inequality, Ian Morris, writing for the New York Times, claims to have discovered "even deeper insights": namely, that "each age has gotten the inequality it needs, different economic systems functioning best with different levels of inequality."

This seems like an extraordinary claim until you notice what he actually means: we had the economies we had, with their associated levels of inequality, rather than different ones. "Needs" is doing some hilarious work here, because usually people are the ones who need things; but for Morris, it's the age itself that needed the inequality, in order to be the age it was. It's exactly like saying that the Middle Ages needed the Black Death, which I guess is true in its own way.

Morris would probably object to this paraphrase, but the rest of his article doesn't add much. He flirts, rather artfully, with much stronger claims - for instance, he plainly means to suggest that people (not just "ages") need inequality, in order to flourish. The main points of evidence: a series of rigorous-sounding prices on living standards throughout history, which rise from $1.10 a day for hunter-gatherers to around $25 a day now.

Nevermind that the figures he is citing "are based not on empirical evidence, but on unsubstantiated and demonstrably implausible theories" - and nevermind that Morris himself called them "rather misleading" in a caveat he curiously omitted from this version of the article. Comparing living standards in such radically different societies is a notoriously intractable problem; it's easy to assume that we'd prefer modern life to the world of the caveman, but as Wittgenstein famously asked, "Would the caveman?" It's not clear. We may have better toys and creature comforts today, but the science suggests that we are psychologically maladapted to this world, and far more stressed.

But nevermind all that. These are serious objections, and it's remarkable how uncurious Morris seems about them - but even if we take his numbers at face value, he never actually makes the crucial demonstration that we "needed" inequality to earn them.

Instead, that claim is simply assumed in the neoclassical capitalist lens through which he views history. Successful societies have always needed inequality because they "needed more complicated divisions of labor"; from that premise, it necessarily follows that "specialists providing crucial services can turn these into political and economic power, driving up inequality". Both of these claims are far more extraordinary than Morris is willing to acknowledge, and both, of course, are precisely the claims that critics of inequality typically dispute.

Perhaps societies don't need particularly complicated divisions of labor to flourish, even if such divisions have occasionally been productive; or perhaps you can divide and regulate labor in such a way that specialists can't leverage their position to accumulate power, even if attempts to do so have occasionally failed. History is replete with extremely similar claims about the economy that we now regard as obviously incorrect. Feudalism, for example, insisted that human flourishing depended on a division of labor that was not just complicated but completely static; it also insisted that specialists would always be able to turn their roles into political power, and were quite literally entitled to do so. All of this, of course, proved conveniently advantageous to the beneficiaries of the status quo by proclaiming the virtue and inevitability of inequality; it too was corroborated by simplistic historical anecdote, though the scientific mechanisms dictating inequality were never quite worked out.

So it is with Morris. Consider, for example, his claimed advantage over Piketty's analysis: his "longer-term perspective" which looks "all the way back to the end of the last Ice Age, 15,000 years ago." Morris credits an alleged improvement in living standards - dubious for reasons already noted - to the advent of farming, and claims that "farming society needed more complicated divisions of labor than the foraging world"; moreover, farmers are claimed to have "flourished at the expense of" those hunter-gatherers, so that eventually "almost all foraging societies went extinct." Thus, we have a case where human flourishing apparently depended on a division of labor, displacing any society that refused to adapt, and with the (perhaps) regrettable but ultimately advantageous trade-off of increased inequality.

This is tendentious every step of the way, and grossly simplistic.

First, the claim that foraging societies depended on a division of labor necessarily and significantly less complicated than farming societies simply has no basis in anthropology. As Michael Jochim notes, such arguments "have treated groups as if they were composed of undifferentiated foragers, but it is clear that hunter-gatherers are not homogenous." Their survival entailed a broad range of tasks: not just hunting and gathering, but food preparation, toolmaking, childraising, and so on. All of this labor was typically divided along sex and age lines, and based on skill levels as well; for instance, the Magdalenian groups of 15,000 years ago had their own specialist stoneworkers who had dibs on the highest-quality flint.

Second: the great advance of the Neolithic revolution was that humans discovered a food source which relieved them of some of their greatest hardships. It was reliable, it required fewer calories to secure, it didn't fight back, and it could be cultivated and harvested in a set location. All of these advantages could be enjoyed by a single or relatively small group of people, which is why we have subsistence farming. The domesticiation of agriculture had all kinds of well-known second-order effects as well - for instance, the sedentary lifestyle it facilitated led to the emergence of cities - but crucially, its immediate advantages required no division of labor.

So much for Morris's "necessity" of inequality. Just by going about their daily business, and unknowingly practicing artificial selection on preferred plants, foragers radically changed their ecology for the better. It's true that divisions of labor helped people exploit this resource even further, but humans might have foregone that entirely and they would still be better off today than they were before.

Of course, besides farming, there was something else that dramatically improved the lives of humans at the end of the ice age: the end of the ice age. Food supplies became far more abundant; vast tracts of previously inaccessible land opened up as the glaciers receded; even the weather was nicer.

That fact is worth bearing in mind, because for tens of thousands of years, living standards were crushed by climate conditions that no amount of human ingenuity could overcome. Which brings us to the third point: if, as Morris recommends, we take the long view, it's not entirely clear that inequality has brought us any progress at all. The domestication of agriculture is another matter, but the emergence of large scale farming through divisions of labor may represent the moment when human civilization began its suicidal, unconstrained mass exploitation of natural resources -- a trend that leads in a straight line to our pollution of the environment through our addiction to fossil fuels. What Morris sees as the key to human progress may very well be our undoing, because it threatens to bring on another climate change that will once again destroy human flourishing for the foreseeable future.

So we return to my paraphrase, which is probably fair: we could not have had a society built on inequality without inequality. This, of course, is entirely compatible with Piketty's argument, but it's not exactly a "deeper insight"; and looking back into prehistory adds little to any of this, except perhaps to give the usual apologetics for inequality an arcane new spin.