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How the liberal defense of capitalism prepares the ground for fascism

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

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

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?

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 mosques...vegan meat or milk products for African 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

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?

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.