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7/30/18

The left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct

Leftist writers and activists are still generally skeptical of allegations that the Russian government significantly influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. Their liberal counterparts, predictably, find this inconvenient. And now, of course, the dialectic of Russiagate has given us a synthesis: a handful of leftists who voice some skepticism of the liberal position, but who insist that their leftist comrades are getting it wrong, too.

I'm not going to wade through all of the nuance and hedging in this latest genre of take, but I do want to touch on one issue that's emerged time and time again. David Klion insists that "Russian interference was real and significant."

Sarah Jones:
It isn’t clear that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election...But it seems increasingly likely that there will be more hacks, and the consequences could be more explosive than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. 
  Ryan Cooper:
...whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary...is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence...It probably won't move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with.
What do all of these takes have in common? All three writers call for policy responses to the threat of Kremlin meddling - and justify this by entertaining theories that the Kremlin had a significant influence on 2016's outcome. And for that reason, all three takes are factually not credible.


What We Know About Kremlin Vote Acquisition In 2016

Three simple points.

1) There is still no direct evidence that the Kremlin managed to change election 2016's outcome.

The task is simple: one has to prove that Russian influence operations won Trump at least 35 votes in the electoral college. This means crediting the Kremlin for his margin of victory in enough states to give him those votes. There are all kinds of ways that you could set about drawing a line from the Kremlin to those margins - and yet no one has actually done this.

Look at our major media outlets, and you might think otherwise. Through blatant implication and just-so proclamation, our pundits routinely declare that the matter has been proven; and even the judicious agnosticism of "it isn't clear" statements can create the impression that there is some real controversy at hand. But this is not a matter of contradictory studies creating uncertainty, or of researchers establishing a probability and skeptics demanding proof - the problem here is that no one has successfully made the specific demonstration that needs to be made. Look for yourself: the studies just aren't there.


2) There is not even direct evidence that the Kremlin even managed to win Trump 10,704 votes in Michigan.

This is the same point that I made above, but I want to press on it a bit to show how flimsy the Russiagate narrative is. Routinely, the left's critics point to just how small Trump's vote margins were as proof that Kremlin meddling probably made a difference. That's why Cooper writes that "Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with." Elsewhere, Kevin Drum puts it explicitly:
given how close the election was, there’s a pretty good chance that Putin’s campaign of cyber-chaos had enough oomph to swing things all by itself.
This logic is absurd. The likelihood of a Kremlin-swung election depends on the size of vote margins and the Kremlin's absolute capacity to win Trump votes. And that latter point - not the size of the vote margins - is obviously the point in dispute. Even if we focus on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where Trump won by the narrowest of margins, there's just no reason to take for granted that the Kremlin won the votes he needed. Not even in Michigan, where Trump just won by 10,704 votes.

Again: the bottom line here  is that we have no research, no polling analysis, no systematic investigation of probable ROIs that takes into consideration Russian spending, message propagation, and estimates of votes earned - nothing that demonstrates over 10,000 votes won by the Kremlin in Michigan. The left's critics can talk about denialism or call for agnosticism all they like, but this remains an extraordinary claim that lacks even ordinary evidence.


3. There is significant reason to believe that the Kremlin did not change 2016's outcome.

Let's stay with Michigan. Here's what we do know:
  • Throughout the month of October - when the Podesta Emails, allegedly a major prong in the Kremlin's influence operation, were released - Hillary Clinton's numbers in Michigan actually improved. [1] This is consistent with Mike Enten's observation for FiveThirtyEight about the national trend: 
Clinton’s drop in the polls doesn’t line up perfectly with the surge in WikiLeaks interest. When WikiLeaks had its highest search day in early October, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising. They continued to go up for another two weeks, even as WikiLeaks was releasing emails. 
  • In the same article, Enten relies on Google trends to argue that "Americans were clearly paying attention to the WikiLeaks releases". Thomas Ferguson, however, observes that
outside of Washington, D.C., it is not obvious that that these details engrossed many voters, particularly in the battleground states...This claim is testable...Google Trends allows one to compare the relative volume of searches on topics by state and time. 
The evidence seems to bear this out in Michigan: there, interest in the Podesta emails was less than half what it was in DC. And this, in turn, supports a common intuition on the left: a lot of the palace intrigue and media controversy that captivates our pundit class just isn't that interesting to the rest of the country.
  • As we learned during the Senate's 2017 hearing on "Social Media Influence In The 2016 U.S. Election," the "Russian-linked Facebook ads [that] were specifically aimed at Michigan" represented a total investment of...$827 dollars.

    To put this into perspective, a widely-circulated investigation by Business Insider concluded "that to sway about 10,700 voters you'd need a budget of $42,800." And even this number was (correctly) dismissed as "fantastical" and "utter bullshit" by reporters and digital marketers; as NYMag's Brian Feldman pointed out, the $42,800 figure "represents an absolute edge-case scenario, in which Facebook ads are supernaturally effective and persuasive", winning over Trump voters at $4 per voter. So even with that kind of magical RoI, we have, at best, evidence that the Kremlin might have won over 206 voters - less than 2% of what it needed.
That's what the case looks like in Michigan, where the lift for anyone who wants to argue for decisive Kremlin interference is the lightest. Elsewhere, of course, the burden gets even heavier: by the time you get to Pennsylvania, you have to argue that the Kremlin won more than four times as many votes for Trump as it needed in Michigan. Generally, the reasons to doubt that this happened are identical across the board: no analysis suggesting adequate investments or capacity on the part of Russia, and significant evidence that it was nowhere near up to the task.


What This Means For Critics of the Skeptical Left

So where does this leave the left and its critics? In general, I think it demonstrates that the left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct, and has been for quite some time.

The question at hand is whether Kremlin influence operations in the United States warrant a significant policy response from the left. You could, I suppose, make absolutist arguments about protecting the integrity of our elections from even one sullied vote - but generally, even the left's critics tend to recognize that it's worth asking whether the Russian government actually swung our election. If they didn't even manage to do that, one begins to wonder why we should prioritize Kremlin meddling over voter impersonation or the malevolent propagandizing of Lyndon LaRouche.

As far as I can tell, that is the question still facing critics of the skeptical left. There may very well be legitimate grounds for arguing that the left should change its politics towards Russia, but if critics want to argue that the Kremlin elected Trump, their work is still ahead of them.

7/22/18

The "Russia is backing the US left" conspiracy theory has a major flaw

Harper's columnist Scott Horton has blown the lid off of an international conspiracy:
European intelligence analysts I have spoken with over the last month say that they have picked up clear data suggesting that Putin has authorized and put in play a major active measures campaign designed to split and disable the Democratic Party...The method used...will generally follow what was done during the 2016 campaign...persuading key Democratic constituencies that it wasn't worth going to the polls to vote. This included general demonization of Hillary Clinton and other candidates as "establishment" or "organization" candidates, and repeating claims that the DNC had "rigged" the vote against Sanders (designed to persuade Sanders supporters not to vote or to vote for another Russia-backed surrogate, Jill Stein); alienating blacks and Hispanics, and persuading them that the Democratic candidates really did nothing for them, etc. The Russian operation will also aim...to pick Democratic candidates in the primary period who, for whatever reason, are seen as likely not electable. Some evidence of this is clearly at play now. The key thing to look for is...negative messaging attacking other Democrats.
I'll be blunt: I think that Horton is lying. Either by fabricating the whole thing, or - more likely - by presenting as substantiated what is in fact pure speculation from like-minded "analysts".

Consider for example the claim that there is "data suggesting" that the Kremlin is supporting "Democratic candidates who...are seen as likely not electable." What kind of "data" could actually prove this? It wouldn't be enough to prove that the Kremlin is supporting particular candidates. It wouldn't even be enough to prove that these candidates "are seen as likely not electable" by various pundits. The thing you would specifically have to prove is that the Kremlin also sees them as unelectable, a necessary assumption if what they are trying to do is sabotage Trump's opposition. But Horton does not actually make this claim, which is why he uses the passive voice ("are seen as"); so what this comes down to, in other words, is pure inexpert speculation about who is "electable", projected onto the Kremlin, with a whole massive conspiracy theory built around it.

That said, let's suppose that Horton happens to be right, and that the Kremlin does indeed see certain Democratic primary candidates as unelectable. So what? Unless the theory is that the Kremlin has also been conducting a massive, ongoing and somehow-still-under-the-radar national polling operation compiling data on how different candidates would perform against Republicans in head-to-heads, the Kremlin's conclusions would be utterly baseless. Even US-based firm have barely conducted any of the relevant polling, and as we were constantly reminded during the 2016 primaries, polls taken this far out are not necessarily all that reliable anyway.


Which brings us to the major flaw in Russia's alleged "back the left" strategy: to defeat it, all you have to do is vote for left candidates. Whatever Horton, his "European analysts" and these mysterious Russian operatives may think, there is in fact no reason to believe that leftists are "not electable" - so to beat Putin at his own game, all you really have to do is just vote the way he wants you to vote, and then laugh when his kooky chessmaster sabotage scheme backfires. Fortunately, this happens to align exactly with how you should vote even if Horton is making the whole thing up.

7/16/18

A brief defense of election meddling

The nation-state is a reactionary social institution built around accidents of geography, the historical legacy of war, and the dangerous pathologies of tribal identity. We all live in the same world, and we all have a stake in everything that happens everywhere. This is particularly easy to see when you look at problems like climate change and global inequality - problems that have emerged, in part, because the victims have little-to-no control over the nations that are causing them.

Those victims should have a democratic voice in decisions that effect them. Since current international arrangements (borders, privileges of citizenship, etc) prevent this, they should be torn down - and while they are still standing, resisted. Particularly in the United States, which controls a wildly disproportionate share of the earth's resources, and which wreaks havoc on so much of the world through our military and economic power, the left should welcome a voice in our elections from the international community.

This does not, of course, mean that everyone living outside of the borders of the United States has an agenda amenable to the left. The international bourgeoisie - embodied in multinational corporations, capitalist governments, and sundry oligarchs - has always been the primary culprit in so-called "election meddling", and they should be stripped of their influence altogether. But the way you do that is not to divide the world into exclusive jurisdictions and then enforce reactionary restrictions on democracy, fetishizing the nation-state, praising its allies as "patriots" and its enemies as "traitors"; the way you prevent election-meddling by the bourgeoisie is by destroying the bourgeoisie.

Socialism has always aspired (in the long-term, if not the short-term) towards some form of global governance that can embody the will of the international proletariat. As much of our political class broods over the dangers of "Russian" influence in our elections, we should guard against the ways that this discourse casually implicates an entire nation in the crimes of its bourgeoisie. If Russiagate were simply a matter of ordinary Russians fighting for some minimal influence over a global power that touches their lives, too, why would the US left consider this a scandal?


UPDATE: In the few hours since I published this, a video has emerged that illustrates my point quite directly:

CARLSON: I don't think Russia is our close friend or anything like that. I think of course they try to interfere in our affairs. They have for a long time. Many countries do. Some more successfully than Russia, like Mexico, which is routinely interfering in our elections by packing our electorate.

The obvious objection here is that undocumented immigrants from south of the border are not "packing our electorate" - a typical study on the topic by News21, for example, found only a couple dozen instances of noncitizens voting since 2000. Still, I think the left should at least consider a more controversial objection: who cares? Imagine that every undocumented immigrant in the United States were an active voter - would this not have an instant and enormous salutary effect on our politics? And would it not, moreover, give people who have been dominated by the US government for decades some minimal voice in how it exercises its power?

Correctly, the liberal-left backlash to Carlson's statement has overwhelmingly recognized it as the flailing of a racist man. And a huge part of that racism, of course, is expressed in his paranoia: he doesn't have a reality-based understanding of the scale of voter fraud in the United States because his tribal fear of Latin Americans is blowing it all out of proportion. But another part of that racism, we should recognize, is expressed in Carlson's entitlement: he believes that certain people should not be able to democratically participate in power, even though that power is routinely exercised over them and against them.

6/26/18

No good activism

Was catching up on some reading about restaurant protests, which deserves to be quoted at length:
We can easily imagine scenarios in which private nonviolent action could pressure bigots into changing their racial policies. 
But we don’t need to imagine it. We can consult history...It happened not out of the goodness of the racists’ hearts – they had to be dragged, metaphorically, kicking and screaming...Starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, lunch counters throughout the South began to be desegregated through direct but peaceful confrontation – sit-ins – staged by courageous students and others who refused to accept humiliating second-class citizenship... 
Students were beaten and jailed, but they won the day, Gandhi-style, by shaming the bigots with their simple request to be served like anyone else. The sit-ins then sparked sympathy boycotts of department stores nationwide. The campaign wasn’t easy, but people seized control of their own lives, shook their communities, and sent shockwaves through the country.
So who wrote this - a radical leftist calling for direct action? An outraged liberal finally growing a spine? Nope: this one's from Sheldon Richman, a radical libertarian capitalist who's worked for the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Cato Institute. And predictably, he's not arguing for a left agenda: he's arguing for the demolition of the Civil Rights Act:
...the owner of property should be free to set the rules of use, the only constraint being that the owner may not use aggressive force against others... Admittedly, that leaves room for loathsome peaceful behavior, such as running a whites-only lunch counter. Who imagined that freedom of association couldn’t have its ugly side? ...Nevertheless, individuals are either free to do anything peaceful or they are not. 
...Why is this inspirational history [of protest] ignored in the current controversy? I can think of only one reason. So-called progressives at heart are elitists who believe – and want you to believe – that nothing good happens without government.
If this seems out of character for a capitalist, it is - and it isn't. For reactionaries, the rule for fighting injustice always changes depending on where the threat is coming from. If the left has been shut out of power, and is left to its last-resort shaming and disruption tactics, reactionaries will insist that even these tactics are illegitimate since they violate various norms of civility and rationalistic discourse. But if, on the other hand, the left is actually in a position to exercise power, then we get arguments like this: capitalists graciously let us have our shaming and disruption, while insisting that we should not actually govern.

Socialists, of course, should reject even that deal - what makes us socialists is that we will not limit our fight against reactionaries to the private sector. If the worst the right has to fear from us is a little incivility, we aren't doing our job.

6/17/18

What kind of Trump voters can the opposition win?

As the 2018 elections approach, a familiar question has resurfaced: should Democrats - or for that matter, the American left - even try to win over Trump voters? Naturally, answers to this question will tend to depend on our understanding of Trump voters and their motivations. If we suppose that some Trump voters are just contrarians, or fans of The Apprentice, for example, it is possible to imagine the left winning them over without compromising its principles. If on the other hand we decide that Trump voters mostly want capitalist ethnonationalism, it doesn't seem likely that the left can seriously pursue them without compromising its values.

Some recently released polling from The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (DFVSG) sheds some light on this question. Based on a series of surveys conducted from 2011 through 2017, the DFSVG has identified "five unique clusters of Trump voters":
  • STAUNCH CONSERVATIVES are "steadfast fiscal conservatives, embrace moral traditionalism, and have a moderately nativist conception of American identity and approach to immigration."
  • FREE MARKETEERS are "small government fiscal conservatives, free traders, with moderate to liberal positions on immigration and race."
  • AMERICAN PRESERVATIONISTS are "economically progressive, believe the economic and political systems are rigged, have nativist immigration views, and a nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity."
  • ANTI-ELITES is a group that "leans economically progressive, believes the economic and political systems are rigged, and takes relatively more moderate positions on immigration, race, and American identity than American Preservationists." And finally,
  • THE DISENGAGED "does not know much about politics, but what they do know is they feel detached from institutions and elites and are skeptical of immigration."
This schema, grounded in solid data, can lend some rigor to left discussions about Trump voters and can help us to avoid some of the common generalizations circulating about them in our discourse - both positive and negative. Consider, for example, the endless debates over whether Trump voters were motivated by some form of economic anxiety. Average out how all Trump voters feel about their income, and you get unremarkable ambivalence: 43.2% are satisfied and 40.1% are dissatisfied, leaving a near-margin-of-error gap of 3.1%. But look at the five voter clusters, and you see some remarkable variation:


The DFVSG's breakdown reveals that Disengaged Trump voters were dissatisfied with their income by a margin of 18.3%, while Free Marketers voiced a margin of 31.9% satisfaction - a gap of more than fifty percent. Average out Trump voters into a monolithic base with identical motivations and you miss all of this.

Once we make these basic distinctions, we can begin to consider what kinds of candidates appeal to what kinds of Trump voters. Consider, for example, what the DFVSG's polling shows us about Trump voter views towards Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:


Generally, while Trump voters have unfavorable views of both politicians, they remain significantly more opposed to Clinton than Sanders. Treat Trump voters as a monolith, and you can pretend that this gap comes from sympathy Sanders has earned from racists, ethnonationalists, and even capitalists. When we divide them into clusters, however, it is clear that the exact opposite is true: Sanders earns most of his opposition from Stanch Conservatives, Free Marketeers, and American Preservationists, and polls best among Anti-Elites and The Disengaged. Among the latter two - who account for nearly a quarter of Trump's constituency - unfavorable views towards Sanders drop by more than fifty percent.

The upshot here is that Democrats, or leftists, can demonstrably peel off support from Trump voters - or at least, soften their opposition - without pandering to his reactionary base. This should not be a controversial analysis, even among centrists or elite pundits: it is, after all, precisely what Clinton proposed in her attempt to divide Trump voters into various baskets, including the infamous "basket of deplorables." There was also, of course, the basket Clinton hoped to win:
people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they're just desperate for change.
This strikes me as a decent demographic for Trump's opponents to target in 2018 - but if the DFVSG's polling is any indication, the way you do that is to run to Clinton's left.

5/28/18

Libcom's criticism of the Kill All Normies gender list is pretty confused

Another round of controversy this past week over Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies, this one centering around allegations of plagiarism that originally appeared in a Libcom post by Mike Harman. I'm not too interested in litigating that one, but there's a sub-controversy here that has mostly flown under the radar: in the same post, Harman also claims that Nagle makes "use of a gender list which describes itself as 'poorly attested' in order to criticize all actual non-binary gender identities".

There are actually two allegations here - let's examine both of them in turn, starting with the second.


2) Nagle criticizes "all actual non-binary gender identities"

This claim - by far, the most serious of the two - is surprisingly easy to dismiss, since nothing like it actually appears in the text. For all of his block-quoting, Harman cannot provide a single example of Nagle criticizing "all actual non-binary gender identities"; in fact, he doesn't even try. He quotes from the gender list Nagle pulls from Tumblr, and he quotes part of Nagle's "introduction to this list" - and that's it. Neither will anyone who cares to consult the passage in question (p.70-72 in KAN) find anything like criticism of all actual non-binary gender identities on their own; it simply isn't there.

But perhaps Nagle implies something about all non-binary genders, which we can somehow intuit from the text by reading between the lines or whatever? I suppose one could try to make that argument - but remarkably, Harman doesn't even do that! Here are the rest of his remarks, in full, about this allegation:
  • "Nagle's poorly sourced book on the online culture wars includes a copy and pasted definition of a fascist ideology and misrepresents non-binary genders."
  • "But Nagle uses the list to ridicule the discussion of trans and non-binary issues as a whole, much like the 4chan users that pasted the list uncited themselves."
That's it. No textual evidence that Nagle is criticizing gender non-conformity, and not even any conjecture to bring us to that conclusion; just the allegation itself, repeated three times. 


1) Nagle makes "use of a gender list which describes itself as 'poorly attested'"

The previous allegation, as noted, only accounts for about three sentences of Harman's article. The other twelve paragraphs, however, make a plausible and reasonably substantiated case that some of the genders Nagle lists as "directly from Tumblr" originated
from the MOGAI archive, a now defunct Tumblr blog...The important thing to note here is that MOGAI was happy to list completely hypothetical genders...that no-one, not the editors of the blog nor the people submitting them, claimed to identify with at all...It is quite possible that 4chan users submitted entries to the blog in order to mock them later.
It seems entirely possible that the etymology Harman puts together here is solid - but what I can't figure out is why he thinks this discredits Nagle. Doesn't it discredit what-the-heck-gender-am-i.tumblr.com, which includes most of these dubious genders - even as it claims to screen out "troll-created" genders, including them only "as long as there is one person who genuinely believes this is their gender"? Doesn't it discredit the "Gender Master List" at genderfluidsupport.tumblr.com? Doesn't it discredit Dara Hoffman-Fox's You and Your Gender: A Guide To Discovery, which recommends that list uncritically?

To put it another way: why does Harman think that Nagle compiled her list by looking for the origin of these terms? She is conducting a language survey, not an etymology; the point of interest lies with how words like "cadensgender" are commonly used, not with where they originally came from. There is therefore no reason to assume that she must have pulled her information from the MOGAI archive (or the non-binary wiki) - and even if she had consulted them, this would do nothing to discredit her argument, since these terms are used quite earnestly elsewhere.


So much for Harman's accusations. Nothing about the gender list's etymology discredits Nagle's argument; the claim that she consulted MOGAI and/or the non-binary wiki is neither proven nor damaging even if true (and it just so happens to be false); there is zero criticism in this passage of "all actual non-binary gender identities"; and Harman does not even make any effort to establish that there is.

Stranger still, by the end of the post, Harman agrees with Nagle. In fact, he signs on to language that is far more combative and personal: approvingly, he links to a post which accuses Tumblr users of "giving out genders and sexualities that make no fucking sense," genders that are "completely made-up shit" and "bullshit", invented by folks who, "in an attempt to fit in, will do anything to convince themselves (and the world) that they are not cis". Nagle, meanwhile, limits her editorializing on musigenders and chaosgenders to adjectives like "absurd" and "geeky".

In Harman's discussion of the gender list, then, we find no credible critique of Nagle's methodology or scholarship; no substantive disagreement with her basic claim that Tumblr folks say some wild things about gender; and not even any consistent tone objections, since there are belligerent and extremely personal comments about Tumblr gender politics that he's happy to endorse. There are, I think, some sound objections to be voiced about Nagle's broader argument in Kill All Normies, but what exactly is Harman complaining about here? I have some guesses - but as a lesson in what fair criticism looks like, I'll keep them to myself.

5/26/18

Don't fight for freedom

Corey Robin suggests that "freedom should be the central organizing idea of the left":
I mention this because as we see the policy debate move forward on the left—the jobs guarantee, single-payer, etc.—it becomes clearer and clearer that we lack an organizing synthesis, an ideology, story, and narrative, that brings together, that makes meaning of, these various policies and proposals. In the coming years, there is going to be more and more need for this kind of thinking about a central organizing idea for the left, I'm quite confident. This is an opportunity for all of you to be thinking about what that ideological motif is going to look like... 
The left needs a freedom program, among other reasons, because we need to start talking about how people must act to win their emancipation, collectively, for themselves. That is a critical part of the freedom program—not just freedom from systemic and personal domination and arbitrary power, not just the freedom of our leisure time, but also the freedom to act, collectively, on our own behalf, to win the world back for ourselves rather than to be protected from that world.
I am in full agreement with Robin that the left ought to center its messaging around some core idea or value - but I do not think that "freedom" is the way to go. And while I don't have time at the moment to flesh out my objections, some preliminary thoughts:


1. Freedom is the brand  of the right. This does not mean that the right actually values freedom in any meaningful sense. What it means is that the right has spent quite a long time and (particularly in recent decades) invested an incredible amount of resources into branding its politics as the politics of Freedom™. And the left, of course, has often accepted this framing instead of contesting it - agreeing that the right is indeed the movement of freedom, and simply insisting that freedom can be problematic (see left critiques of free speech, freedom of contract, etcetera). As a result, everything about our political discourse today is articulated so as to accommodate this uncontroversial and deeply entrenched equivalence between right-wing politics and freedom; it is what Lacan called a point de capiton, a part of our language that is ideologically fixed so as to give the rest of our language meaning.
What this means, practically speaking, is that "freedom" loses a lot of the political value that we were supposed to gain by rallying around a central message. Instead of giving the public an intuitive essentialization of left politics, we have given them a word laden with right-wing meaning, and are asking them to use it counterintuitively. As a matter of political marketing, this is like trying to come up with a brand for your new line of nutritious organic vegetable juice - and settling on "Coke."
It's worth adding, by the way, that the liberal-left has tried this before. As recently as 2006, George Lakoff's Whose Freedom proposed that we should "take back the progressive view of freedom," and laid out an elaborate, detailed messaging plan for doing so. But as Steven Pinker (of all people) noted at the time, Lakoff's proposal crashed against the rocks of popular intuitions about what freedom "actually" means:
It consists of appending the words "freedom to" in front of every item in a Berkeley-leftist wish list: freedom to live in a country with affirmative action, "ethical businesses," speech codes, not too many rich people, and pay in proportion to contributions to society. The list runs from the very specific—the freedom to eat "food that is pesticide free, hormone free, antibiotic free, free of genetically modified ingredients, healthy, and uncontaminated," to the very general, namely "the freedom to live in a country and a community governed by the traditional progressive values of empathy and responsibility."
I am absolutely certain that Robin could make a much more sophisticated and rigorous case for a socialist vision of "freedom" than what we see in Lakoff's slogans about pesticides - but the very fact that he would need to make that case demonstrates the problem here. What good is "freedom" as our political brand if we can only justify it, and take it back from the right, using all kinds of sophisticated argumentation? Lakoff's slogans are not substantively wrong, after all; they're just counterintuitive, which is another way of saying that they are, as slogans, useless.

2. Left arguments for freedom are really just left arguments for equality. As far as I can tell, any left argument for freedom is going to have to go something like this:
The right claims to value freedom, but clearly, it really just values freedom for the powerful. The powerless are not free, and in fact it is precisely those positions and policies we have advanced in the name of freedom that have made them less free. The principle of equality tells us that both the powerful and the powerless are equally entitled to freedom - therefore, for the sake of equality, we need to extend more freedom to the powerless.
Ultimately, the left would have to make an argument like this if it wanted to "take back" freedom - and the right, correctly, would point out that the left is really just back to making its usual argument for equality. From here, I think, the left has two choices: it can engage in a complicated meta-argument that freedom is indeed more important than equality, but that its call for equality is in fact a call for more freedom, while the right's call for freedom (because it ignores equality) is in fact a call for less freedom - *phew* - or it can simply say that yes, equality is more important than freedom for the powerful.
To echo a point already made: I do not think that "freedom" is a particularly good brand if we can only use it by upshifting three levels of abstraction into a remote philosophical argument over who gets the intellectual property rights. This is particularly true if we are doing all of this just to get around owning "equality," which is a perfectly good principle on its own terms, and which is what everyone will suspect that we are talking about anyway.  

5/19/18

Jordan Peterson doesn't understand Jung's ideas about gender

I was re-reading some Jung this morning when I came across a passage that Jordan Peterson would probably prefer that you ignore:
No man is so entirely masculine that he has nothing feminine in him. The fact is, rather, that very masculine men have - carefully guarded and hidden - a very soft emotional life, often incorrectly described as "feminine." A man counts it a virtue to repress his feminine traits as much as possible, just as a woman, at least until recently, considered it unbecoming to be "mannish." The repression of feminine traits and inclinations naturally causes these contrasexual demands to accumulate in the unconscious... - The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, 1938
Listen to Peterson and the reactionaries, and you'll hear about a Jungian theory that aggressively affirms and enforces gender roles, and that roots them in various just-so facts of sexual biology. Actually read Jung, however, and you'll encounter someone who consistently does the exact opposite. Jung was a writer who put words like "feminine" and "mannish" in scare quotes, who rejected popular stereotypes that (for example) characterized women as "emotionally soft" and men as "hard" - and who cautioned quite explicitly about the psychological and cultural dangers of identifying with these gender roles. His perspective on sex and gender particularly stands out when one considers how far ahead of his time he was: Jung was writing about this stuff in the thirties.

It is true that Jung had bizarre ideas about gender, but these weren't reactionary so much as, well, bizarre. He mostly talks about gender as a kind of abstract metaphysical concept that helps us to understand the paradoxical duality of the universe: for example, he will bring up some stereotype about masculinity, and then deconstruct it to reveal elements of behavior and psychology that we stereotypically identify as feminine. All of this ultimately echoes Taoist mysticism more than anything; Jung was fascinated by the religions of East Asia, and routinely invoked them to complicate and problematize the rigid simplifications that dominated psychoanalysis. Precisely, that is, the sort of rigid simplifications the Peterson hopes to reintroduce.

I have a hard time believing that Peterson is oblivious to all of this, and assume that he is either invoking Jung quite cynically, or relying on wishful might-as-well-be-true reinterpretation, imagining that Jung would agree with him about gender today despite everything he actually wrote. In any case, I think Peterson's critics would do well to stop granting him the benefit of Jung's intellectual prestige and authority; Peterson wants objections to his standard-issue misogyny to be understood as objections to Jung, but even a cursory reading of Jung should put that notion to bed.

5/6/18

Socialism and loneliness

The left has spent much of the past week pushing back against Ross Douthat's recent suggestion that socialism demands a "redistribution of sex"; as it turns out, socialists generally believe that women and material commodities are two different things. But while this is obviously a correct and necessary response to a pretty ridiculous line of criticism, it also - as Eleanor Robertson notes in the Saturday Paper - comes as unwelcome news for the involuntarily celibate:
Incels are not unaware of this. Many post on leftist forums and imageboards, pleading, demanding to know: “What will happen to incels under socialism? Will the state allocate us girlfriends?” How can we respond to this in a convincing way, without affirming twisted feelings of ownership over women? I don’t know.
I agree with Eleanor that the left needs to avoid pandering to the misogynistic entitlement that pervades incel culture, but this doesn't strike me as that hard a needle to thread. We can recognize that desires for sex and companionship are legitimate without adding that these desires trump the need for consent. And once we make that distinction, I think that socialism still has, for the lonely and the sexually frustrated, a lot to offer.

The Marxist critique of capitalism, after all, is not simply a critique about economic distribution, or even just a critique about inequalities of power - it is also, at its heart, a critique of what capitalism has done to human relationships. Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving, focuses on how this has shaped our ability to love:
Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature... everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety, and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome... [In] love and marriage the main emphasis is on finding refuge from an otherwise unbearable sense of aloneness. In "love" one has found, at last, a haven from aloneness. One forms an alliance of two against the world, and this egoism à deux is mistaken for love and intimacy.
This is just one dysfunction that capitalism has introduced into our relationships, but I think it is the one most responsible for the incel phenomenon. Capitalism has isolated us and atomized our communities, it has (for better and for worse) demolished cultural institutions that once connected us with one another, it has taught us to relate to each other as competitors and commodities, it has subjected our social lives to the ruthless standardization and regimentation of the market and incorporated them into all kinds of unimaginably perverse profit models - it makes us fearful and paranoid and depressed. Should we be surprised, then, when people are unable to form healthy, mature relationships? When they view each other as commodities and entitlements, or when they think of their social lives as an oppressive competitive market?

Socialism has no miracle cure for the involuntarily celibate, nor for the plague of sexist entitlement that overruns incel culture. It seems odd to me, however, to suppose that capitalism does nothing to make these problems worse. Bring down capitalism, and you bring down a totalitarian economic machine that only persists by separating us from each other and pitting us against each other. Set socialism in its place, and you can create a politics that values community, compassion, and respect. I think that would probably be a step in the right direction.

5/4/18

Capitalism and the constitution of the self

Matt Bruenig, on a standard defense of private property:
They take as a given the general intuition people have that it's wrong to violate other people's bodies - it's wrong to hit someone, it's wrong to molest someone - and then they try to extend your person into non-person things. So they try to say, "This land is sort of like my body..."
Leftists, of course, devote much of their critique to laying out the ramifications of this first assumption: accept the institution of private property, and you run into obvious ethical problems if one person claims too much of it, or if there are competing claims on the same property, or if you run out of property that can be claimed, etcetera. The upshot of these arguments, inevitably, is that we need to do away with private property altogether - and to my mind, these arguments are typically pretty sound and easy to understand. So why, then, do we still have private property?

The short answer is that we still have private property because most people have yet to develop the class consciousness which calls for its abolition. But this explanation, I think, doesn't answer the question so much as reframe it: why hasn't sustained and incisive left criticism of capitalism done more to raise class consciousness? There is another short answer here, too - "it's complicated" - but for now, I want to focus on what could be one small piece of the puzzle.

Lacan, in one of his more enduring insights, observed that one of the first challenges a human child faces is to distinguish its own body from the exterior world. This is not a distinction that the fetus makes in the womb, but it becomes pragmatically necessary (and intuitive) as the child builds an identity as a discrete, autonomous being - a self. Famously, Lacan explained the psychodynamics of this process through the scenario of a child looking at itself in the mirror; but a child also develops a sense of self, he argues, by the way other people interact with it. The mother gives a name to the child, for example, and uses that name to refer to some things, but not others.

From this fundamental insight about the constitution of the self, Lacan elaborated an entire theory of human psychology. Much of our mental life, he argued, revolves around the need to define a self as distinct from the rest of the world - and to defend that conception of the self. Compulsively, we rationalize it and we fight to maintain its internal consistency against disintegration into the outside world.

This account of psychology seems plausible to me, and I think it also gives us some insight into capitalism's hold on the human mind. There is little doubt on the liberal-left that power and ideology work to impose socially-constructed identities upon us from the moment we are born, and that these identities can become a deeply rooted, psychologically entrenched part of the way that we see ourselves. Should we be surprised, then, to discover that capitalism does this too - by blurring, from the very beginning, the cognitive line between our selves and our property?

Obviously, there is a simple sense in which people recognize that their possessions are not actually a part of their body.* Capitalism does not need that distinction to collapse, certainly not at the level of formal articulation and conscious thought; all it requires is for our relationship with "private property" to trigger the same compulsive rationalization and defensiveness that gets triggered when the self is threatened. To the extent that capitalists really think of their property as in some sense an "extension of their persons," they will presumably act with the same instinctive irrational violence that you would expect if they were personally in danger.

If there's anything to this, then Lacan may provide us with the germ of an explanation for the frequent failure of left argumentation to foster class consciousness. The psychological compulsion to defend and rationalize the self is not something that you can persuade people to stop doing; neither logic nor appeals to conscience are going to get people to abandon a right to property that they see as a fundamental part of who they are. The first step, in this case, would be to break the unconscious identification that people have internalized between their selves and their property. This may seem like a remedial distinction, but I wonder, immersed in capitalist ideology, how clear this distinction actually is.


* Though there is, I think, a certain cognitive dissonance here that occasionally emerges in our language. If we think that someone should buy a shirt or a car, we might say that it "is so you"; if someone is always playing with a smartphone, we might say that it "is practically a part of his hand"; if someone feels a deep emotional connection with their garden or a picture they've painted, they might say that it "is part of who I am." Our language is full of turns of phrase that expand, at least rhetorically, the boundaries of the self to encompass property - such figures of speech, Freud taught us, are rarely unmotivated.