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5/18/15

O'Reilly is exposing the impotence of liberalism

Today we've learned that Bill O'Reilly has been accused of domestic violence against his wife. This should not lead to him losing his job. Neither should revelations that he's repeatedly lied about his reporting on the Falklands War. Neither should evidence that he lied about his account of George de Mohrenschildt's suicide. Neither should Andrea Mackris's sexual harassment lawsuit.

The fact is, O'Reilly should have lost his job long before any of this. In a capitalist economy subject to the demands of meritocracy, O'Reilly would have become a major liability for his employer long ago. In a world of rational liberal discourse, he would have no credibility with any audience. We should have never even heard of these scandals, because O'Reilly would have been fired sometime in the late 90s.

The reason that O'Reilly has not been fired is obvious: liberal media doesn't work. No amount of rational criticism, however substantiated or rigorously argued, can take away O'Reilly's credibility - because people are psychologically inclined to trust those who say things they want to hear. And no amount of boycotting or pressure on advertisers will seriously compromise his value to his employers. The people who watch his show will watch him no matter what. The people who advertise on his show will continue to advertise for him, or will be replaced by others who will.

After nearly two decades, liberals still don't seem to get this.

To be sure, some of the criticism is counterprop aimed at neutralizing misinformation for centrist/low-information voters. Some of it's agitprop meant to inflame outrage and the donations / turnout that comes with it. Some of the economic actions are just meant to impose a cost on O'Reilly's patrons -- one that won't stop him, but that may deter other investments. Obviously there is some strategic nuance at work here.

But one can't watch the inevitable calls for O'Reilly's head and miss the subtext: liberals still think they can make capitalist media work for them. This is probably the most damning criticism of his opponents he has ever managed; O'Reilly makes a mockery of liberalism every night, simply by keeping his job.

5/15/15

The racism of bad faith

Almost universally, the modern American right understands left antiracism as a cynical political ploy. It is also, of course, an expression of leftist vanity, which is why Ann Coulter writes that “Liberals luxuriate in calling other people ‘racists’ out of pure moral preening” -- but she then goes on to add that “What really made the Democrats sit up and take notice was that blacks began voting.” That, we are told, is what ultimately drives the left’s rhetoric against racism: it’s a useful smear, and it consolidates support among misguided racial minorities.

This is of course is almost entirely garbage, the defensive, self-serving bad faith of people who don’t actually care about racism – points that become entirely clear when we consider how their argument proceeds.

After all, if we take the problem of racism seriously, we have to take accusations of racism seriously. They have to be given a hearing, addressed on their merits, and either accepted or rejected. There’s an obvious and inescapable conflict of interest if the accused can simply dismiss the charge without argument by declaring it “dishonest” or “offensive”; and the stakes are just too high to place the debate over racism at the mercy of such judgments. Of course it’s unfair and inconvenient when people make spurious charges of racism, and when others credulously accept them. Does that warrant abandoning the debate over racism altogether? Is your personal reputation, or your political agenda, more important than maintaining subtantive debates about race? Probably not!

But that is precisely the conclusion the right arrives at. Ben Shapiro, in How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them, makes this point quite explicitly. “There will be no conversation in which you call me a racist, and I explain why I’m not a racist,” he writes. “That’s a conversation for idiots.” This logic, of course, directly and pre-emptively disqualifies every possible accusation of racism – even those that are potentially legitimate. To accept Shapiro’s view is to insist that victims of racism no longer have standing to make their case.

This is not an argument that we should care about racism -- it's an argument that we should not care about racism, not even enough to ever take it seriously. That's what makes the line of defense so odious. In order to deflect any charge of racism, the right is willing to delegitimize every charge of racism, dismissing the entire problem as a political contrivance that should be pointedly ignored.

5/13/15

There is no reason to believe that Hillary has moved to the left

It may be unfair to single Bouie out here, since he is merely repeating what has become internet consensus: Hillary Clinton, after years of occupying the party's center-to-center-right, has suddenly reversed much of her agenda.

But Bouie should know better, just as all Democrats should know better. Clinton may very well have changed her campaign rhetoric, at least for the moment, while it's important for her to pre-empt as much opposition from the left as possible. But it doesn't follow at all that she will actually govern to the left, and in fact there's significant reason to assume that she won't govern that way.

One major reason is that the Congressional stalemate provides significant political cover for any liberal candidate who fails to deliver on her promises. Clinton can posture about immigration, criminal justice, inequality, and anything else she likes, knowing full well that any liberal bill she proposes to Congress will be dead on arrival.

A second major reason is that Obama's 2008 campaign taught her a hard lesson about the expectations of the modern electorate. Clinton in many ways ran a more honest campaign than Obama, a point that clearly exasperated her by the end; she refused to pander to the party's liberal base, and it cost her dearly. Obama, meanwhile, understood that he could win by telling party activists what they wanted to hear, even if he had no intention of pursuing that agenda.

But the third and most important reason to doubt Clinton's posturing is also the most obvious: her record, and the record of an allies. Whenever she has had any kind of power, as the First Lady, as a Senator, and as a Secretary of State, she has wielded it like a centrist neoliberal. Her husband, her advisors, and her patrons have always done the same.

For me, these points are more than decisive; but at the very least, they should incline liberals to view her new progressive rhetoric with some minimal degree of skepticism.

5/9/15

A wrongheaded reaction to internet racism


Obviously the odds of persuading anyone of anything they disagree with are always pretty slim. If you want a good reason to block internet racists, this is probably it.

What does not work, however, is for a white person to complain that fighting racism is some kind of onerous burden that they should not have to bear. You know what's even more unpleasant and inconvenient than yelling at someone on Twitter? Getting murdered by white supremacists!

This isn't to say that white people therefore have some kind of affirmative obligation to wage perpetual scorched-earth internet war against bigots. Some people have the luxury of doing this; other people need to use their free time more productively.

But I think it's worth bearing in mind that as futile as the task of persuasion can be for friends, it's even less productive with strangers. Our relationships are precious, and often the only leverage we have when trying to pry someone out of a toxic culture. Sometimes the best way to shame someone is, as Allison suggests, simply cutting them out of your life -- often they'll know why it happened. But sometimes you may be the only person whose voice of disapproval would matter to someone else, and the only person in a position to pressure them to change. That is not an opportunity we should throw away simply because it's hard.

5/4/15

Bernie Sanders is not running for president

A lot of left-criticism of Bernie Sanders is beginning with an odd but telling assumption: that he is running for president. This is only colloquially true. At this stage in the process, when we say that Sanders is running for president, that's just rhetorical shorthand for what is actually happening: he's running for the Democratic nomination. Then and only then will he possibly run for president.

The distinction is important, because at this stage he is only running against Hillary Clinton and whomever else decides to compete for the nomination. He is not running against Green Party candidates like Jill Stein or Cynthia McKinney. He is not running against whomever the SPUSA eventually nominates. He is not running against the radical with much better politics who is going to get swept into office on a wave of popular acclamation in a year or so.

Maybe you think that a Sanders presidency would co-opt popular support for socialism towards another four years of neoliberal hegemony. This is a good reason to oppose a Bernie Sanders presidency, but it doesn't necessarily follow that you should therefore also oppose a Sanders nomination. For instance, one could argue that a truly radical opponent would be more likely to beat Sanders than Clinton in the general election - he is, after all, a far weaker candidate. Perhaps a Sanders nomination would be a better way of bringing into sharp relief the contrast between Socialism In Name Only and a real, principled socialist agenda.

How you come down on such matters is mostly a question of strategic calculus. It does not necessarily have anything to do with supporting a Sanders presidency.

5/2/15

The left should make executive action an election issue

The obvious consequence of the GOP's domination of Congress for the foreseeable future is that we shouldn't expect it to pass any progressive legislation.

Nevertheless, Democratic presidential candidates are already running on agendas that implicitly demand the passage of progressive laws. Clinton's early calls for criminal justice reform, as widely noted, can make little progress without repealing many of the measures instituted in her husband's 1994 anti-crime bill. She has also endorsed a constitutional amendment establishing a right to same-sex marriage -- an even more ambitious ask from a right-wing Congress. Her only declared opponent, Bernie Sanders, is best known for proposals that somehow manage to be even less likely to reach his desk -- like a single-payer health care system, and expansions to Social Security.

This is madness on multiple levels. It dooms the Democratic agenda to four years of futile posturing and political theater, further undermining public confidence in the government. It severs any meaningful relationship between campaign platforms and policy outcomes, substituting a raft of dreams and quixotic aspirations for a plausible agenda. And most importantly, it abdicates the last and best tool the left has for overcoming the right's antidemocratic intransigence: executive action.

Liberals will flinch at the idea of candidates running on promises to make end-runs around the legislative branch -- but they shouldn't. The simplest reason is democratic accountability. As it stands, candidates simply aren't expected to articulate an executive agenda beyond indicating general dispositions on foreign policy. Pressuring them into doing so politicizes their plans, sets expectations, and creates the possibility of democratic feedback; it gives voters more control over their government.

The alternative defaults into the hands of the right: a presidency that is increasingly untethered from popular control, increasingly dictated by the powerful apparatchiks and lobbyists who will demand executive action. At best it ends in executive forbearance -- which in an era of legislative gridlock means governmental paralysis, again playing into the hands of the right.

That said, arguments that democracy is better facilitated by an archaic institution deliberately rigged to thwart it -- by overrepresenting landowners, by cynical gerrymandering, by supermajority requirements, and so on -- aren't particularly convincing. The presidency, too, is hobbled by the electoral college and the two-party system; nevertheless, it remains a far better instrument of popular control than the Congress. Moreover, those with a sentimental attachment to the Congress can console themselves with the reconfiguration of incentives an assertive presidency would impose on federal governance. It could force Congress to negotiate in exchange for continuing relevance, reversing the dynamic of polarization that has fomented much of the radicalism we see today.

It's easy enough to imagine all kinds of leftist policies and programs that could be implemented - or thwarted - by executive action. The limits of the president's authority, under the realpolitik norms governing our politics, are limited only by the democratic will and interpretive imagination. 

4/27/15

Some miserable thoughts on Baltimore

Elizabeth is right, of course, but it seems like one outcome is more likely than the other. Hype aside, the Baltimore riots have not been particularly threatening from the perspective of capital. A few small businesses and chain outlets were looted, some cop cars damaged, some ball games postponed. Those costs will ultimately be socialized to the 99% in the form of higher insurance rates and taxes. The rioting was mostly confined to the poorer sections of Baltimore, and even there massive armies of militarized police easily walled them off and kettled them.

Ian Welsh reminds the rioters that they should "move to the rich areas of town." But the riots were not simply contained because of strategic oversight or laziness; they were contained because they will not be allowed to have any consequence. Had the rioters posed a serious threat to anything they would have been instantly and violently destroyed.

"But what if enough rioters had rallied and fought back?" But they didn't, and there's a reason. Most of the people who have a stake in resisting, and even most of those who want to resist, have been cowed into submission. They've been successfully intimidated by a police state designed to intimidate. Capitalism has successfully isolated the people in our communities, alienated them from each other, and exposed them to all sorts of mechanisms of control. The Left has been aware of this problem, has actively resisted it for centuries, and has not found a way to overcome it.

When things get this terrible, we often hope that the sheer weight of misery will ultimately force communities to come together and effectively defend themselves. As I've written elsewhere, this strikes me as historically naive. Humans can endure suffering of scales and intensities unfathomable to the modern mind - particularly to the minds of sheltered, pampered Americans. And Capitalism is very good at self-preservation. When things get too bad, it backs off and throws the powerless some scraps.

If the system eventually breaks, it will probably be because of actual bio-physical constraints on human endurance and production - problems on the order of bones only being able to bend so far and metabolisms needing so many calories per day. It's frightening to imagine the degree of exploitation at which those limits would seriously jeopardize entire economies.

None of this is to trivialize the suffering the people of Baltimore have experienced tonight. Certainly the victims of police violence have already suffered as much as anyone can.

4/26/15

Marxism and modern technology

Some points against Marx would be extremely damning, if only they were true - but the problem is that they aren't. Other points against Marxism, meanwhile, happen to be true - the problem is that they don't actually work as criticism. In the first category, place claims that the market can maintain perfect equilibrium; in the second category, place claims that some Marxists are smelly.

These are the most prolific genres of criticism against Marx, and they're dumb for their own reasons. But there is a third, elite kind of criticism so catastrophically stupid that it doesn't fit into either of those categories: points that wouldn't work as criticism if true, and that aren't even true. For an example of this, consider the idiotic attack trending on Twitter right now:
The premise here is straightforward: there's something hypocritical about Marxists who use technology that was invented within Capitalist economies. The problem, of course, is that this is not actually true -- and even if it were true, it would say nothing about the merits of Marxism. Suppose that there are Marxists who actually are hypocrites. What exactly does this prove about, say, the labor theory of value?

More to the point, the argument that Marxists should not use technology invented under Capitalism relies on premises that Marxists openly reject.

Simple example: Capitalists maintain that the economy is governed by the "law" of supply and demand. Products are supplied and produced in certain ways because that's what consumers have demanded; so if you buy a product, you are responsible for the way it is produced. Thus, if Marxists buy cheap consumer electronics or clothes made in sweatshops, they have no moral standing to complain about exploitative business practices.

Marxists would indeed be hypocrites if they agreed with this line of reasoning and yet still chose to buy products produced within a Capitalist economy. In that case, their actions would be inconsistent with their beliefs, and critics would be right to draw attention to the discrepancy.

And yet Marxists quite obviously do not think that the economy is defined by supply and demand. That is precisely what Marxists are arguing against. Marxists insist that no amount of conscientious consumption can resist the overwhelming, systematic incentive that employers have to exploit their workers. For that reason, the choices consumers make in the market are completely irrelevant; they are not what causes exploitation, and it will continue with or without them.

The honest critic of Marxism should at this point simply maintain that the law of supply and demand holds, and that Marxists who reject it are in error. But this is where the "hypocrisy" allegation becomes truly bizarre: because instead of acknowledging the disagreement, Capitalists pretend that Marxists actually agree with them about the market, and are exploiting workers anyway. That is a patently insane, bad faith premise - but it is the only basis on which the hypocrisy charge can make sense.

This general problem besets the "hypocrisy" complaint from every angle. Marxists do not believe that you can fix Capitalism by being a good consumer. They don't believe that technology produced in Capitalism could only have been produced in Capitalism. They don't believe that you can simply excuse yourself from the Capitalist economy, either. Marx is quite clear about all of this: people who are born in a particular historical moment and in a particular economy have to play the cards that they are dealt.

Thus, this point falls into the elite third category of dumb anti-Marxist criticism: Marxists who use technology aren't hypocritical, and even if they were that would prove nothing about Marxism. The point does, however, demonstrate something about the Capitalist. The assumption that Marxists agree with them about supply and demand is at best dishonest. At worst, it demonstrates an extraordinary intellectual failure - a complete inability to evaluate the world from a different perspective, even provisionally. That ability, of course, is the basis of empathy, so its absence among Capitalists is not all that surprising.

4/24/15

What is at stake in arguing about Cornel West?

Cornel West, in response to some infamous criticism from Michael Eric Dyson, has insisted that we should "focus on what really matters: the issues, policies and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!"

On its face, this is just an uncontroversial call for setting priorities. And when he specifies those priorities, the New Republic's Heer Jeet declares them "worthy" - West wants us to focus on "police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India, and ecological catastrophe".

So what, exactly, is Jeet objecting to?

In a brief post this morning, Jeet argues against the ethic of "actionism", which insists that "it’s never a good time to think and argue, since the world is always full of evils that need to be protested." Fair enough - but inexplicably, Jeet seems to think this point stands as an indictment of West.

I have no idea how he gets there. West writes that "the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters" - and Jeet reads this as a call to actionism. This is the only point of contact his argument makes with West's post - but if this is the foundation of his entire critique, it is not particularly sound. Cannot a focus on Ferguson entail thought and argument?

The objection here seems to have less to do with actionism, and more to do with priority. Jeet sees Dyson's piece as an "intellectual critique" that deserves our attention, even if it happens to be "bitter and personal". That is debatable - but even if we happen to agree with Dyson, we can maintain that his criticism of West is less urgent, less consequential, and less worthy of our focus than what's going on in Ferguson.

That is clearly West's position, and it strikes me as pretty defensible. It is in any case hardly an instance of actionism - unless the only issues that count are the ones that Dyson wants us to debate.

4/21/15

What have we learned about ideology?

"Capitalism must draw upon cultural ideas that exist outside circuits of profit-making, some of which support the norms and structures of capitalism and some of which are critical of capitalism...capitalism needs both types...critical voices are productive and fruitful for capitalism, forcing capitalism to evolve and temporarily resolve some of its contradictions thus preserving it as a system for the long haul. Indeed, capital's ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis." - Nicole Aschoff, 2015

"NOTHING is more surprising to those, who consider human Affairs with a Philosophical Eye; than to see the Easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and to observe the implicite Submission with which Men resign their own Sentiments and Passions to those of their Rulers. When we enquire by what Means this Wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as FORCE is always on the Side of the Governed, the Governors have nothing to support them but OPINION. 'Tis therefore, on Opinion only that Government is founded; and this Maxim extends to the most despotick and most military Governments, as well as to the most free and most popular." - David Hume, 1742

How has our understanding of ideology advanced in the last 275 years? By the eighteenth century (and arguably earlier), we already understood that the powerful can only maintain their power through ideology.

From that point it would seem to follow trivially that ideology which is successful will have to incorporate criticism and accommodate adjustments to changing circumstances. This is not unique to capitalism. If you are King John and your rule is under threat by a gang of rebel barons, you may have to abandon the legitimating principle of vis e voluntas for the principle of treaty embodied in the Magna Carta. This move is functionally identical to capitalism's ever-shifting reliance on arguments of efficiency, meritocracy, and so on.

There are of course unique particularities to our present situation. For instance, because power in capitalism is depersonalized, the vicissitudes of ideology emerge not from some clever monarch changing his justifications, but from a vast apparatus of academia, marketing, electioneering, and so on. This is certainly interesting with regard to ideological production, that is, the process which creates and promulgates expedient ideology. Where before we had some individual intelligence playing politics, now ideology seems to emerge from a self-organizing process wherein some messages get amplified and others remain lost in the din of public discourse.

But does this difference in ideological production - perhaps the most substantial insight we've gained into ideology since Hume -  have any practical consequence for people who want to contest power?

Two possibilities seem likely to me. The first is that it doesn't, and that much of our political thought about ideology over the past three centuries has been a tactical spinning of wheels. Powerful people invent pretexts for staying in power, and our task is to debunk them through the hard work of critique and persuasion. It doesn't much matter that the ideology is coming from our marketers and politicians rather than from, say, royal proclamations; what matters is that we resist.

The second possibility is that the particularities of ideological production in capitalism do matter, though in a way we should find disquieting. Capitalism draws on the whole of the public imagination for its raw materal; it relies on a kind of marketplace of ideas to select among them; and it reacts in real time to ideological challenges, sometimes disseminating rebuttals even faster than the challenges themselves. It is something like what various biologists and computer scientists have referred to as a superintelligence: adaptive, spontaneously organizing, and aggregating the cognitive machinery of much smaller parts.

This latter understanding maps pretty closely onto conceptions of ideology advanced by writers like Ellul and Althusser, but I think the consequences are, in this formulation, much clearer. Critics of capitalism are not vying with some comparable intelligence like a king of a faction of aristocrats -- they are decisively and thoroughly overmatched by the collective wisdom of entire populations. In that case, there is no reason to assume that individuals can come up with criticism fast and effective enough to overcome capitalism's vast stores of creativity and capacity for adaptation.

Still, I suppose one must try.