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A brief take on primitivism

A couple of readers have asked for my take on primitivism, so here it is:

The earth has faced all kinds of horrific environmental catastrophes in its history - extinction events that wiped out most of the life on the planet, that exhausted its natural resources, that wrecked its natural beauty, and so on. It has seen apocalyptic-scale vulcanism, it has been entombed in miles of ice, it has been poisoned with oceans of methane, it has collided with rocks the size of planets. This sort of thing happens to the earth on a regular basis, and it will happen again soon enough.

Primitivists usually ask us to think of the welfare of the earth on geological time scales instead of narrowly considering our short-term interests, as humans are wont to do. I am not sure how we do this without concluding that recurring, natural extinction events pose the most serious long-term threat to life on earth. And if we do that, it would seem to follow directly that our ecological responsibility is to do everything we can to prevent these disasters.

This is not at all some utterly fantastic ambition: for example, we probably already have the technology to deflect near-earth objects using gravity tractors and such. But the point is that while some ecological dangers (climate change, resource depletion, and so on) arguably recommend primitivist solutions, other, equally real dangers would seem to demand the exact opposite: advanced technological solutions, some within our present reach, and some that we can only imagine.

This is by no means an exhaustive (or even fundamental) critique of primitivism, but I think it illustrates the selective, short-termist, and ecologically naive thinking that often afflicts the movement. Which is pretty funny since primitivists routinely claim the mantle of long-term, holistic, ecological realism. Bring down civilization, and you're just giving our world a fairly trivial stay of execution, and guaranteeing a pretty grim standard of living in the meantime. Work towards a just, sustainable, and technologically progressive world, and we'll at least have a chance, and you might even get to keep your XBox.


How reactionary individualism keeps liberals from understanding systematic oppression

Yesterday I posted a brief take on how left criticism gets co-opted by systematic features of our discourse towards liberal outcomes. And immediately, critics tried to reframe this systematic critique as the work of individuals. One reader - a Jordan Peterson fan - wrote:
These leftists you speak of aren't leftists. They're IDPol liberals & it isn't media control powering their overwhelming dominance of left discourse it's the simple fact everyone is either a liberal or afraid of ID call-out.
Meanwhile, Jeopardy gamer Arthur Chu - in a comment co-signed by Noah Berlatsky and Jill Filipovic - insists:
I don't see any possible reading of this article that doesn't say that if your primary political focus is reproductive rights and abortion on demand, you are by definition "liberal" and not "leftist"
In one sense, these complaints are directly at odds: one reader notices that I'm not calling individual leftists liberals and thinks that I should, while another thinks that I am doing this, and doesn't want me to. In common, however, both of these readings are trying to understand our discourse in terms of individual agency, individual identity, and individual responsibility. Both want to tease out from my analysis some kind of commentary on moral choices that individual people are making, and from there a judgment about who is liberal or leftist, good or bad, and so on.

This of course has nothing to with what I actually wrote. The problem I am describing is systematic, not the sinister work of malevolent individuals. It happens, I maintain, "even as individual actors maintain commitments to left principles"; the defense of abortion rights, for example, falls firmly "within the liberal-left consensus." The problems with Really Existing Purity Politics emerge from impersonal dynamics such as "capitalist control of the industrialized media," which will platform some points of political critique, but which is existentially hostile towards criticism of capitalism.

What is telling, I think, is that Chu insists I am making some statement about individual actors, about their identity and personal responsibility - and admits that he doesn't "see any possible reading of this article" to the contrary.

Because for all of the sympathy liberals have voiced in recent years towards left critiques of systematic / structural power, they cannot, in the end, escape reactionary ideas about individual agency and personal responsibility. For the liberal, power ultimately comes down to individual actors making personal choices. Our problems with capitalism, for example, are really just a matter of bad apples being greedy or breaking the law; if only everyone would behave themselves, the system would work fine. Similarly, because our discourse is a neutral free marketplace of ideas, its problems can only come from individual people saying things that are wrong; thus, if I am saying that our discourse creates liberal outcomes, I must "by definition" be saying that its participants are liberals.

In any case, while my last article was not aimed at liberals, this one certainly is. There are liberals who engage in Really Existing Purity Politics, there are leftists who engage in it, and there are - as we see with Chu, Berlatsky, and Filipovic - a handful of concern trolls who occasionally identify themselves as "the left", but who will reliably attack anything that resembles a left critique of liberalism. As we have seen, they will even attack a take affirming pro-choice politics if it dares, as I have dared, to suggest that this fight could be co-opted by capitalism.


The liberal call for left purity

It rarely gets put explicitly, but unpack the rationale for a certain genre of left activism and you'll get something like this: to emancipate the poor and oppressed masses around the world, we must banish from left organizations and social circles people who believe and do reactionary things. In the discourse, this theory is usually litigated as a call for political purity. The theory's critics bring up all kinds of pragmatic considerations about the need to build political coalitions, about the subject's net contribution to the left given the pros and cons, about the position of the subject's crime in a ranking of priorities, and so on; the theory's partisans, meanwhile, maintain a simple, principled call for political righteousness.

If what we actually care about is justice, equality, and prosperity - and not just in our proximate social and political circles, but everywhere - I don't think that purity praxis survives much scrutiny. Here, however, I want to make a quite different point: really existing purity praxis, in its most dominant form in left discourse, has nothing to do with purity. Set aside the metaphysical Platonic ideal of what purity praxis could be or should be and watch how it actually plays out in the real world of left politics, and one can't miss how this really works. Left purity is enforced as long as it's in agreement with mainstream liberalism; when the two are at odds, left purity is ignored, or dismissed as negotiable.

Consider, to bring up the obvious example, the recurring call for a purge from the left of anyone who opposes legalized abortion. As a rule, this controversy always plays out the same way. Critics of the purge call for tolerance, or they call for a temporary suspension of judgment, or they try to insist that pro-life activists actually do meet left standards of political purity. The purge's partisans, meanwhile, assume an uncompromising political posture, waving away objections as trivial pedantry, or bad-faith rules-lawyering, or base, treacherous leniency.

Single out this controversy - bracket it off from the broader operation of political discourse - and it's easy to understand Really Existing Purity Praxis (REPP) as a principled defense of left politics. Take one step back, however, and it's clear that REPP abandons any interest in purity as soon as we enter the realm of left economics. I do not mean to say that we merely neglect efforts to enforce left economic orthodoxy - because it's worse than that. Consistently, REPP tolerates, normalizes, defends, and even promotes reactionary economic positions. And it does all of this while claiming the mantle of political purity, and excorciating its critics as heretics.

Hypocrisy aside, what I think the left should find most troubling about REPP is the way that its double standard just-so-happens to benefit liberalism. When our discourse only enforces leftism acceptable to the liberal consensus while treating everything distinctive about leftism as negotiable, or debatable, or even possibly wrong, the effect is to subordinate left politics to the liberal agenda. The problem with REPP isn't that it enforces pure leftism - the problem is that what REPP enforces is neither pure nor leftism. It's just an exercise in liberalism.

I don't think it makes very much sense to understand REPP as a conscious or deliberate tactic that liberals use to hijack left discourse, though this certainly happens in some cases. To appreciate how it works, all one really needs to notice is a few things:
  • Liberalism still has overwhelming control of our media and political institutions, and it still has more popular support among activists in the first world. For this reason, all liberal positions have a massive apparatus of ideological enforcement in place - even those that fall within the liberal-left consensus. Whether they enter left discourse as hostile critics, cynical concern trolls, or sympathetic fellow-travelers, liberals will inevitably exercise an enormous warping effect upon REPP, contributing to and amplifying critiques that are amenable to their agenda while neglecting or directly undermining those that they find inconvenient.
  • Even leftists who are committed to the entire left agenda - even those who are aware of the critique of REPP I have outline above - will nevertheless have more opportunities, and will find it far more comfortable, to practice REPP within the liberal-left consensus. Corporate media and medium blog posts pump out a constant, endless supply of critique within the liberal-left consensus for leftists to cosign; anti-liberal left critique, meanwhile, will receive far less positive feedback, and will often receive considerable flak. And while these dynamics prey upon the powerful psychological forces of conflict aversion and ideological conformity, neither of them require the leftist to betray their values and principles at any particular moment - so the leftist who does not make an active, deliberate effort to compensate for REPP will have everything to gain and nothing to lose by embracing it.
  • Meanwhile, within the nominal left, affirmative economic prescriptions remain controversial. And the absence of a consensus alternative to rally around often leaves liberalism’s economics critics fractured, or encourages a multi-tendency economic agnosticism that can subtly expand to accommodate liberalism itself. Thus, while left critique to liberalism is systematically inflated, left critiques of liberalism are systematically undermined.
This is how REPP can subordinate left politics to liberal discourse even as individual actors maintain commitments to left principles. It also explains how liberals who exclusively enforce liberal priorities can come to think of themselves as leftists: within REPP, their behavior is indistinguishable.

Having recognized the way that liberalism can seize control of purity politics, it is tempting to propose, among leftists, a deliberate focus on policing economic discourse and practice - not because it is "more important" or "more fundamental" in some sense, but simply as a corrective to its overwhelming systematic erasure by REPP. Personally, however, I don't think this disadvantage can be overcome by clever discourse gaming by the left, particularly since it emerges from the basically insurmountable material advantages liberalism gains from things like capitalist control of industrialized media. As long as capitalism is with us, it will maintain a powerful ideological apparatus that is capable of co-opting the left agenda at any moment. The solution to this, of course, is the abolition of capitalism, but how you get from here to there while capitalism remains in control of the discourse remains a puzzle.


Did Trump's top economic advisor endorse a wealth cap?

Trump has tapped Larry Kudlow to head the National Economic Council, and I can't stop thinking about what Kudlow wrote a while back:
...while the Left has demonized Trump’s cabinet appointees as a terrible group of successful business people, free-market capitalists such as myself regard this group as very good indeed...Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.
Most pundits responded to this by explaining that the rich are often corrupt thieves, but what strikes me is how Kudlow is actually contradicting a major point of capitalist orthodoxy. In theory, the reason that we let the rich get even richer is that financial incentives motivate peak professional performance from our captains of industry. But here, Kudlow insists that the rich are not motivated by opportunities to make more money. If that's true, why not impose a maximum cap on wealth?

To appreciate just how off-message Kudlow's comment is, just look back to the 2008 financial crisis. As income inequality and executive pay came under more public scrutiny than it had in decades, here's how Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten, writing for the Cato Institute, responded:
Corporate boards design executive pay programs to attract, retain, and motivate executive to perform at high levels. Motivation plays an important role in companies' ability to achieve high returns and encourage executives to make decisions that increase shareholder values. Incentive pay programs are particularly effective motivators, especially at the top level of business.
This is all important, of course, because the "executive compensation system...has helped to generate great wealth for shareholders and millions of jobs for American workers." And that's how capitalism justifies itself to society: because income is what motivates our wealthy innovators and job-creators, we need to give them more money.

If pressed on this, Kudlow would undoubtedly revise his position and insist that the rich do need financial incentives - but that just exposes his comment as the empty rationalization of power that it is.


What do liberals mean by "authoritarian"?

The discourse on authoritarianism has significantly ramped up over the past decade:

Though Google trends can be an unreliable guide, the growth here maps onto some intuitive milestones: the first major spike corresponds directly with Donald Trump's Super Tuesday victories in the Republican primaries, and the next corresponds to his general election victory and inauguration. Much of the talk about authoritarianism clearly owes to liberal anxieties about Trump, though it has also, by association, become a choice adjective for Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Nicholas Kristof, writing on Trump's Threat to Democracy, offers a telling formulation:
“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “...But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized...” 
That seems right to me: The system worked.
For most of history since the emergence of the left proper during the French Revolution, this phrasing would have been unremarkable. "The system," of course, is our government; to say that it is "working" is to say that formal democracy is checking the power of some central authority. Some two hundred years ago, that meant subduing the monarchy; in the twentieth century, it meant binding the hands of various dictators. An "authoritarian" is the ultimate "threat to democracy" because that is how power works: some ruthless and ambitious person tries to personally seize control of the government.

If this theory of power sounds familiar, there's a reason: it's capitalism. Capitalism is the ideology which teaches us that all power is government power; since the free market operates on a principle of voluntary exchange, coercion only emerges when the state tells people what to do. That's why the only real authority is government authority. For libertarians, that's all authoritarianism is: the government exercising power. Liberals, meanwhile, carry on the Revolutionary tradition of opposing monarchs and neo-monarchs ("dictators", "tyrants", etc.) who wield government power; this may seem distinct from the libertarian formulation, but both see power and authority as exclusive properties of the state.

This notion of the "authoritarian" ignores precisely what capitalism ignores: every other form of power.

A crucial contribution of the modern left to our understanding of power is the insight that power does not just come from the government. Live in a patriarchal household and you'll see the authoritarian in the domination of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Listen to the way black folks are talked to and you'll hear the authoritarian in a white voice. Work for a micro-managing boss, or beg a bank for a loan, and you'll meet the authoritarians of the bourgeoisie. Every day we encounter tyrants who do not control the state, but who threaten our freedom and even our lives in a million different ways.

Liberalism may co-opt the language of intersectionality, but fundamentally, it believes precisely what Kristof believes: if we can just keep the government under control, "the system works." That's why liberals reserve "authoritarian" for villains in the government - to remind us where authority is, and to insist where authority is not.