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The limits of anti-Trumpism

July 6th, 2020  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

Max Elbaum is a friend and sometime political mentor. He's also the author of Revolution in the Air, the definitive history of the "New Communist Movement" within the New Left, a tendency that has been broadly influential on my politics as well. So I always pay close attention to his comments on left strategy.

In a recent article for Organizing Upgrade, Max lays out his view of the current terrain for socialists. And while there's much there to agree with, the clear and unambiguous way that he makes his case shows some clear limits to the kind of popular front he wants to exhort socialists to join.

In Max's view, the Left after the end of the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign is divided into two camps. One, the "Never Biden" camp, views the central dividing line in American politics in 2020 as being between workers and neo-liberal capitalists. This means that the enemy is not just Trump and the Republican party, but much of the Democratic establishment as well. Within my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, Max identifies this analysis with the so-called "Bernie or Bust" resolution adopted at our 2019 convention, which bars DSA from endorsing any non-Bernie candidate for President in 2020.

Max goes on to reject this analysis in favor of one which sees American politics as being defined by the popular front against Trumpism:

Today’s which-side-are-you-on dividing line is between a racist authoritarian bloc led by Donald Trump vs. a larger but much more heterogeneous array of forces that, from different angles, regard Trumpism as a dire threat to their rights and interests.

Both the Trump and anti-Trump camps are multi-class alliances. Both contain advocates of neoliberal economics. The conflict between them is nonetheless quite sharp. The dividing line is the system of white supremacy. This racist material relation is not an “add-on” that piles oppression on top of exploitation for certain groups of workers. Rather, it is integral to and interwoven with relations of exploitation in ways that have decisively shaped political conflict in the U.S. since its origins in 1619.

Max goes on to persuasively argue that segments of the ruling class have self-interested reasons to oppose the Trump regime, both because they are personally threatened by its authoritarianism, and because they see it as opposed to the true long-term interests of the U.S. ruling class. But his payoff, and the point that is bound to me most controversial, is what he thinks this implies for socialist strategy.

The long and short of it is that socialists are exhorted that we must above all prioritize "throwing ourselves into the anti-Trump coalition is the best route for both ousting Trump and building the strength of progressive movements and the socialist left."

The problem is not that the analysis is entirely wrong, but that it divides the political options in such a way that important features of the present moment are left out. In his closing, Max presents the possible slogans as being either "Beat Trump" or "Never Biden". That is, socialists must choose either to direct all their energy to electing Biden, or dismiss the significance of this fight on the grounds that Biden is too reactionary and compromised to be worth fighting for. The former, he suggests, is the path toward building strength, the latter towards political marginality and isolation from rising multi-racial progressive coalitions.

This would be a more persuasive argument if---as, from reading Max's text, sometimes appears to be the case---the sum total of what is happening in U.S. politics at the moment were defined by the Presidential election. But the concrete organizing situation is more complex like this, as we can see by considering something that Max refers to repeatedly but never analyzes in detail: the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

From the way these uprisings are discussed in the article, you would think that they were protests against the Trump regime and the Republican Party. It is certainly true that the police themselves---both rank and file and leadership---are part of Trump's base. So too, the "blue lives matter" counter-organizing overlaps substantially with the hardest core of Trump's support.

But the elected leadership that the protests have targeted most directly are mayors and city councils that are largely Democrats. The call to defund the police, which has arisen as the most exciting and distinctive demand of the current wave of struggles, is directed at municipal governments like those of Minneapolis and New York, where police departments have only become more brutal and taken up more of the municipal budget under decades of supposedly liberal leadership.

Mayors like Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Bill de Blasio have found themselves at odds with movements in the street and on the side of the police. And yet, according to Max's analysis, these politicians are part of the very anti-Trump front we are being asked to join!

This might be possible, and even desirable, if the only issue in play were the Presidential election. (Although Biden himself has made this difficult by being very clear in his pro-police stance.) But defunding the police is an issue now, as budgets are being written and passed in a context of pandemic-driven austerity.

A similar argument can be made about the other major driver of politics at the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic. It is true that Trump's total failure to deal with the pandemic, and his attempt to politicize epidemiology and promote conspiracy theories instead, has created a powerful basis for opposing him and the forces he represents.

And yet once again, it has been not just Republicans but also neoliberal Democrats, who Max wants us to see a sallies against Trump, who have been the ones botching the response and using the coronavirus as a pretext for their pre-existing pro-capitalist agenda. In New York, it was Governor Andrew Cuomo---whose media strategy for a time made him a liberal darling in contrast to Trump---who forced through cuts to Medicaid in the middle of a pandemic in a way that managed to provoke even the reliably pro-business Senator Chuck Schumer to rebuke him from the left. And in Philadelphia, mayor Jim Kenney responded to call to defund the police by proposing a budget that increased police funding while cutting social services.

These are only two examples relatively close to where I'm located, but there are others around the country. The point is that it's easy to make politics all about the anti-Republican popular front when you abstract away from the context and the content of the protest movements and organizing that are actually going on.

My intention in arguing all of this is not to uphold the "Never Biden" pole of the argument, which, as Max constructs it, is not particularly appealing. But this is because the argument is laid out in a way that presumes that we all organize in a context where the only choice is to be all in for Biden, or to be politically irrelevant until November. And this, as the foregoing suggests, is manifestly not the case.

As a final example, I'll use my local organizing context in New York's Hudson Valley, a couple of hours north of New York City. Like much of the rest of the country, we've seen waves of unprecedented mobilization in the past weeks, with crowds of hundreds or thousands gathering in the small towns and cities that dot our region. And the call to defund the police has been raised into consciousness and put before local elected officials in unprecedented ways.

Our region is divided between de-industrialized, mostly non-white cities and more affluent and white exurban and rural areas. The threat of the Right is very real here, in both its generically pro-Trump and overtly Nazi forms. But the Biden-Trump contest itself lingers more in the background, even as we pursue police defunding campaigns in cities largely run by Democrats.

The reason for this is fairly obvious: New York State will almost certainly vote for Biden, due to the power of New York City's vote. Where electoral politics in my region has been contested lately, it has once again been a matter not of anti-Trump popular frontism but rather, the left-versus-neoliberals fight that Max's analysis seeks to strategically sideline. Jamaal Bowman won his primary over Eliot Engel, a fairly conventional Democrat (if especially hawkish on foreign policy), in a contest that pitted progressive forces against everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Hillary Clinton to Republican Super PACs.

Virtually nobody on the left disagrees with the proposition that defeating Donald Trump is important and necessary. And in some places and some political contexts, prioritizing Presidential-level electoral organizing will make the most sense. But the reality for many of us is that the fight against capital's liberal face and its conservative one are both happening right now, and it doesn't make sense, as either principle or strategy, to put one of these struggles on the shelf until after November.

Scenes for a May Day

May 1st, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized

Brad DeLong:

In the email inbox:

In Agatha Christie's autobiography, she mentioned how she never thought she would ever be wealthy enough to own a car - nor so poor that she wouldn't have servants...

Malcolm Harris:

Me:

Hence the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one.

Happy May Day, on to fully automated gay luxury space communism!

Erik Olin Wright: An Appreciation

January 15th, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized

It is with great sadness that I've learned that one of my major intellectual influences, the Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, is in his last days. But as he bravely narrates his last weeks, I can at least offer my own appreciation of his intellect while he is still with us.

Those who recall the last time I wrote something like this may find a surprising juxtaposition here. Both Wright and Moishe Postone, of course, are prominent contributors to Marxist theory. But they came from very different corners of the Marxist philosophical bestiary. Postone worked in the knotted, dialectical and post-Hegelian tradition of Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, and came out of the scene associated with German value-form theory.

Wright, meanwhile, was a proponent of the school of "analytical" or "no bullshit" Marxism. Along with figures like Jon Elster and G.A. Cohen, he promoted an approach that paired Marxist political commitments with the tools of analytical philosophy and mainstream empirical social science. Particularly in his theoretical work on class relations, he drew as much on Weber as on Marx, promoting elaborations of the core distinction between capitalists and workers that could encompass complex concepts like "contradictory locations within class relations" to explain various aspects of the petit bourgeoisie or the professional-managerial class.

Most formative for my own development, however, was Wright's later work, which eventually developed into the "Real Utopias Project". This was an attempt to, as Wright described it, "combine serious normative discussions of the underlying principles and rationales for different emancipatory visions with the analysis of pragmatic problems of institutional design." The books produced by the project tacked questions of democracy, markets, equality, and, of most interest to me in the two later books, distribution (particular the proposals for Universal Basic Income and stakeholder grants), and gender equality (in a book edited by my former adviser, Janet Gornick.)

Before engaging with any of that, however, I found a 2006 New Left Review essay called "Compass Points", which briefly and elegantly describe's Wright's own "real utopian" conception of the socialist project. Anyone familiar with my project in Four Futures will find the schematic structure of this essay familiar, as it engages with many themes found in my work, though from a different perspective.

His explication of different modes of economic regulation---state socialist, social democratic, capitalist, etc.---is built out of different configurations of the civil, economic, and state spheres. Though not one I completely adopt, I found this clear and refreshing, an application of "no bullshit Marxist" principles that was actually clarifying and precise, rather than crude and one dimensional as that approach sometimes feels.

More influential on me, however, were the other two components of the essay: the criteria for evaluating alternatives, and methods of historical transformation, even if I ended up putting this theoretical material to quite different purposes.

The three criteria, once again elegant but powerful, were those of desirability, achievability, and viability. I've written elsewhere about my appropriation of these terms, which correspond simply to the question of whether a given utopia was somewhere we wanted to get to, somewhere we actually could get to, and somewhere we could maintain and stay with once we did get there.

My break with Wright's approach, conditioned perhaps by the more dialectical side of my intellectual inheritance, was essentially just to reject the viability criterion as mis-specified. In my view, the places we want and can get to from capitalism are inherently not places we can stay. In the specific instance of social democracy, I elaborated this in the above essay in terms of the "Kalecki point" and the inherent tension between socialists challenging the foundations of capitalism and capitalists trying to impose discipline on the working class. This reflects something of an ideological difference: whereas Wright's perspective tended toward a Polanyian vision of humanized social democracy, I have always attempted to inject the Marxist perspective of crisis and rupture into my analysis of reformist politics.

This also relates to the final part of the Compass Points formulation, the distinction between ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic transformation. These correspond, roughly, to the concepts of a revolutionary break and seizure of power, a building of alternative institutions and dual power in the interstices of capitalist power, and reformist class compromises that simultaneously win class power and solve contradictions internal to capitalism.

Again, I took these ideas in somewhat different directions, but I think I have always shared an emphasis on these being historically contingent and strategic distinctions, not matters of principle. And so in the analysis of the welfare state mentioned above, winning social democratic reforms, building dual power, and preparing for the inevitable moment of destabilization and rupture, all have their role to play.

Now to turn to another aspect of Erik Olin Wright, unfortunately one I only had brief personal experience with. He has been, rare among prominent academics, extremely generous and encouraging to those of us less experienced and established. Which is not to say that those sharp analytical instincts, honed in years of seminar combat, would not be turned on you at the slightest provocation. My first meeting with him, arranged through Janet Gornick, quickly turned into an interrogation of the ideas I was working on at the time, as Erik poked and prodded at the weak points of my arguments.

But Erik was also someone who, back before anyone knew or cared about me and my writing, wrote unsolicited to me praising my early work in Jacobin, and telling me to keep up the good work. And he was someone who, years later when I self-effacingly described my book as being about a 2x2 diagram, lit up at the thought in a way that only he could.

Finally, Erik Olin Wright has been someone who is equally serious about intellectual rigor and political relevance. He might not initially be everyone's ideal of the Gramscian organic intellectual. By his own accounts, his initial exposure to Marxism came in academia, where he remained for the rest of his career. You can find that story in his lovely little essay, "Falling Into Marxism, Choosing to Stay". Though I must warn those of you from my academic generation and later: you may find yourself a bit exasperated as Erik narrates his almost accidental journey from Harvard to Berkeley to Madison to the crowning heights of academic sociology, the kind of charmed career that was only available in a certain time and place, notwithstanding Erik's formidable talents.

But beyond the campus, Erik Olin Wright traveled the world listening to students, organizers, and anyone else willing to seriously engage with his work, listening and learning all the while. That, along with the body of work, is what he will leave behind, and that we will sorely miss.

Breaking the Norm

November 2nd, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

I was pleasantly surprised with the response to my last post (thanks Red Wedge and Commune and the Art and Labor podcast). But there was one specific misinterpretation that I want to try to clarify. It arises specifically among the "normie" socialists I was targeting in my previous intervention, and it pertains to just what it means for the left to be a "subculture".

I saw multiple people state that in calling for a left that was openly weird, I was calling for a left that set itself apart as a "subculture" that self-consciously stands against the values and norms of the "mainstream" working class culture. And that is, indeed, what the apostles of the normcore left often accuse people like me of doing. But it is not at all what I was trying to do. I wasn't trying to oppose the normal, I was trying to abolish it. I'll try to explain that better in what follows.

It's telling that a certain portion of my readership---and it seems to be disproportionately other white men---sees me talking about trans people, or black people, or queer people, and immediately begins thinking in terms of "subculture". I think this arises from a genuine blind spot and not, in most cases, a conscious bias. The reflex---and it is one that does not only occur in white men, to be sure---is to implicitly associate "mainstream" with whiteness, maleness, cisness, heterosexuality, and the traditional family.

It was this bias that I was critiquing, and that Kate Griffiths critiques in the "what is normal" passage I quoted in my last post. Moreover, both of us were making the point that the "normal" is really a set of expectations that are imposed on the working class by a patriarchal capitalist system. And the real working class, far from adhering strictly to those expectations, is constantly in a state of either failing to live up to them, or not even wanting to try.

So the point is not to set the left up as its own separate subculture. Rather, the point is to embrace the full diversity and weirdness of working class culture as it already exists and to embrace that, and accept the inherent weirdness of then adding to that a politics that demands the overthrow of the entire capitalist mode of production. All the variegated parts of the working class have to come together to form the only subculture that matters: a class implacably opposed to capital, rejecting the powers of accumulated wealth. Composing that class will not happen by subsuming all of our various subjectivities under some blank normality. A lot of people intuitively get that; how else to explain socialists' infatuation with the juggalos?

And in any case, normie is itself a subculture. In a Facebook thread discussing my post, Jesse Kudler notes that in many cases:

Young white educated people actually universalize from their rather particular circumstances and orientation. So being a queer communist or whatever becomes "weird" or "a subculture," but being a white 20-something with an advanced degree who likes Chapo and spends a lot of time shitposting on Twitter is "normal" and "universal" when in fact it's clearly actually its own hyper-specific sub-culture.

As Kudler said in a later post, learning Roberts Rules of Order is itself very weird subcultural behavior. But people don't see it this way, often because they come from a demographic background that has been socialized to think of whatever it is they do as "normal".

One consequence of this mental habit is that it inhibits the ability to distinguish between not centering some particular part of the working class, versus actually dismissing or attacking that class fragment.

This came up in the debate I referenced earlier, about Asad Haider's Mistaken Identity. In response to a poorly argued review at Jacobin, Samuel Schwartz responded with a clear explanation of what was wrong with the entire premise of an argument that says certain demands, like Medicare for All, are superior by virtue of being "universal".

The problem becomes immediately evident when Medicare for All is opposed to some supposedly "particularist" and therefore divisive demand such as abolishing ICE or abolishing prisons. What is it, exactly, that makes these demands particular? They do not demand abolishing ICE or prisons only for certain people, they simply demand that nobody should be deported or incarcerated.

The charge of particularism can only made to stick if it is taken to describe, not who is affected by a policy, but who is most perceived to be affected by it. And this brings us to another rhetorical move that is routine in normitarian universalist circles: the insistence that some "universal" demand like Medicare for all is "really" the most anti-racist or feminist demand, since in practice women and people of color will benefit the most from it.

There are two related problems with this. First, as an organizing strategy it amounts to a belief that white and male workers are fundamentally racist and patriarchal, and can only be won to socialism if they can be tricked into believing that they are not fighting for the interests of women or people of color. This is, I think, contrary to reality and historical experience, but worse than that it is self-reinforcing: a politics that deliberately avoids talking about race or gender will never be able to challenge racism and sexism and homophobia in its own ranks, and the movement and the class that forms around that politics will, in fact, be more reactionary than it might have been otherwise.

Moreover, after the interests of marginalized fractions are pushed aside, once "universal" demands quickly lose their universality. One can easily imagine a compromise version of Medicare for all that leaves out reproductive rights, or the trans health services that, as Fainan Lakha notes, are critical to a left-wing health care politics. And the very fact that health care delivery has those specificities, for particular groups, shows that all "universal" policies are particular in their implementation.

All of this is why all of our "subcultures" of the working class are important---and yes, that includes the subculture of straight white couples who want to form nuclear families and raise kids in the suburbs. What's objectionable about normie socialism isn't that some people desire that lifestyle. It's that they insist on making it the center of attention at the expense of everyone else. That's what many found odd about Jacobin's recent embrace of socialist pro-natalism arguments. On a policy level I find much to agree with in the linked articles. And I don't have anything against people who want to be in heteronormative couples and have children. I just have a hard time believing that such people represent a specially persecuted group on the left. More likely, I think some people get uncomfortable when their particular needs and desires aren't treated as if they are more normal or healthy or important than everyone else's.

A related problem came up in the debate over the Haider review that I mentioned above. What critics had to point out, whether explicitly or not, was that the entire premise of the call for universalism was patriarchal and white supremacist. That is, it measured universality not in terms of who a demand applies to, but in terms of how much the implied "normal worker" (white, male, cis, straight) could feel it applied to them. When this is pointed out it immediately leads to defensive reactions, because, unsurprisingly, a political tendency that assiduously avoids talking about race and gender is not very good at structural understandings of race and gender. Instead, people tend to fall back on the kind of liberal ascriptive politics they paint onto their opponents: an argument that a particular argument or strategy has racist premises gets turned into an accusation that the people making that argument are, themselves, irredeemably racist as people.

But the point here isn't to draw some kind of line in the sand dividing the woke from the backwards. Rather, it is to seriously investigate what it takes to actively take the working class as it exists in itself, in many different modes and combinations of everyday life, and combine and compose that into a fighting class for itself. That won't be done by ignoring the way we are divided into many "subcultures" that live class in different ways and uniting under a blank banner of the normal. It will be done by all of us learning to admit we aren't as normal as we might want to believe.

Geoengineering for the people

July 30th, 2018  |  Published in Politics

A new crew of organizers have re-launched the wonderful Science for the People, reviving a project that originated in the 1960s anti-war movement, and that was once represented by people like Stephen Jay Gould. It's a welcome and much needed development, and everyone should check them out and support them.

The first issue of the group's revived publication concerns geoengineering, an issue on which I've thrown in my own two cents. The prospect of directly attempting to manipulate the earth's climate, in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, has begun to seem more and more like a reality, and perhaps a necessity. So an intervention from scientists with solid leftist politics is timely and urgent.

The tone of the issue--and of the launch event I attended recently in New York--could perhaps be described as "against" geoengineering in some broad sense. That's not to say that climate manipulation schemes are rejected outright: Holly Jean Buck's contribution posits a "best-case scenario" for extracting and storing atmospheric carbon, one of the two main geoengineering strategies that are commonly discussed.

But the tone is set by Erik Wallenberg & Ansar Fayyazuddin, who use my own arguments among others as foils for their case against what they see as "a narrow focus on technical aspects" of climate change, as against the need to radically transform the capitalist political economy that underpins ecological destruction.

What strikes me about much of the geoengineering debate on the left, however, is precisely that it so often resolves to a contrast in tones. Which is not to say that the debate is superficial or irrelevant; in this case, differences in tone and emphasis have important political implications.

In Science for the People's anthology, writers like Wallenberg and Fayyazuddin, along with others like the sociologist John Bellamy Foster, portray geoengineering schemes as a dangerous ruse meant to distract us from the need for a zero carbon future, and to give fossil-fuel capitalism an alibi for going on with business as usual. It is "a way of defending an ecomodernist economic and technological strategy," as Foster puts it, with explicit reference to the recent issue of Jacobin that contains my own thoughts on the topic.

What these critiques target, however, is a proposition that all genuinely leftist "proponents" of geoengineering, myself included, reject. Namely, the idea that any climate manipulation scheme--whether the more sedate forms of carbon capture, or the more ambitious project of blocking some portion of sunlight from reaching the earth--can be considered substitutes for either ending the use of fossil fuels or overturning the capitalist mode of production. To be sure, this may be the general outlook of Bill Gates and others among the usual suspects of ruling class villains who crop up in attacks on geoengineering. But as applied to intra-left disputes, it aims at a straw target.

The anti-geoengineering line is thus left to fall back on the argument that even toying with climate manipulation strategies is a dangerous distraction, and plays into the hands of those forces that really do want to point to speculative techno-fixes as an excuse for maintaining fossil capitalism's destructive course. But the weakness of this rhetorical strategy derives from something that any serious analyst, in any aspect of this debate, has to acknowledge: we are far past the point of no return.

That is to say: suppose that we could completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels and overturn global capitalism immediately. If you doubt that this is what real eco-socialists are suggesting, look no further than John Bellamy Foster, who starts by demanding "an emergency moratorium on economic growth in the rich countries coupled with downward redistribution of income and wealth" and goes on from there. It's not that I oppose this program per se, but I don't think Foster or anyone else actually sees it as an imminent possibility, as opposed to the work of fits and starts, partial victories over years and decades.

But even if it were to happen, we would still be faced with the legacy of the past centuries of carbon emissions: an anthropocene environment with carbon levels far above those attested at any other time in recorded human history, and with broadly predictable effects on weather and sea levels. This, incidentally, is why I reject the well-intentioned attempts of left ecologists to rebrand our era as the "Capitalocene". Capitalism may have been at fault for creating our current geological age, but it is its successor system that will be tasked with adapting to this new era.

So if we are permanently living in the anthropocene period, and if drastically elevated atmospheric carbon levels are already "baked in", to use an ominous metaphor, what does that mean for the geoengineering debate? The anti-geoengineering scolds are not wrong to warn that the prospect of magical techno-fixes may be used to ward off the structural transformations of our political economy that are truly necessary. Where they are wrong, I believe, is in imagining that they can produce a compelling and convincing case for their position by simply repeating the litany of capital's crimes against nature, and invoking the need for an ecologically rational post-capitalism.

Once one has acknowledged the reality of already existing climate change, there are really only two ways to go. One is to simply repeat the mantra "this is all a distraction from the main struggle against capitalism!" Which, again, isn't false--it just isn't going to be convincing to anyone who has seriously studied the issue. The other option is to end up like the socialist science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who, in a recent interview, advocates an openness toward intentional climate manipulation and calls on us "to choose to put science, technology, engineering and medicine to good human and biosphere work, rather than let it be bought to serve profit for the few most wealthy."

In that same interview, Robinson expresses his unease with "geoengineering" as a term, preferring "geo-finessing" or "geo-tweaking" because "engineering implies we know what we’re doing more than we really do." But reading that pushed me to recognize something else, a different problem with the rhetorical approach of anti-geoengineering arguments on the eco-socialist left.

It's certainly true that any attempt to directly mitigate climate change will be sloppy and unpredictable and bursting with unintended consequences. But the force of the anti-promethean "don't mess with mother nature" tone of many anti-geoengineering screeds depends on the implicit claim that we aren't already deeply implicated in the human-made (and specifically capitalist-made) regulation of the human interchange with the rest of the ecosystem. This is why so much of my own contribution to this conversation was given over to a description of modern agriculture, artificial fertilizers, and the Earth's nitrogen cycle. The point I wanted to make is that the case for geoengineering is not "let's, for the first time ever, undertake the hubristic enterprise of controlling nature." Rather, it is "let's take account of the massive project of geoengineering we are already engaged in, and try to push it in an egalitarian and ecologically sensible direction."

Rather than retitling geoengineering, as Robinson proposes, I'd rather find a different way to pose the underlying question of what the geoengineering debate is about. The way it is commonly put is: should we undertake unpredictable and dangerous experiments to alter the fundamental conditions of life on Earth? A better framework, I would suggest, is: can we take hold of the unpredictable and dangerous experiment that capitalism began conducting hundreds of years ago, and turn it in an eco-socialist direction? If we can't, I fear that all our warnings of fossil capitalism's destructive trajectory will amount to so many ineffectual jeremiads, of little comfort to the sweltering masses who come after us.

On the Politics of Basic Income

July 16th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

In the course of preparing some brief comments on the Universal Basic Income for another site, I decided to write up my attempt to clarify some of the politics behind the current debates about UBI as a demand and as a policy. This is adapted from remarks I gave earlier this year at the University of Leeds, for a symposium on the topic.

One of the major obstacles to clear discussion of UBI is the tendency to pose the issue as a simple dichotomy: one is either for or against basic income. In fact, however, it must be recognized that both the advocates and opponents of UBI contain right and left flanks. The political orientation one takes toward basic income--and in particular, whether one is considering it primarily from the perspective of labor, or of capital--has profound implications both for how one thinks a UBI should be fought for and implemented, and what one thinks it is meant to achieve.

The multiple poles of the UBI debate are represented in the following diagram: Diagram of pro- and anti-UBI positions The Left-wing version of Basic Income is associated with thinkers like Kathi Weeks and André Gorz. Their hope is that with a basic income, as Weeks puts it, "the link between work and income would be loosened, allowing more room for different ways of engaging in work." Moreover, Weeks argues, drawing on the legacy of the Wages for Housework movement:

Demanding a basic income, as I see it, is also a process of making the problems with the wage system of income allocation visible, articulating a critical vocabulary that can help us to understand these problems, opening up a path that might eventually lead us to demand even more changes, and challenging us to imagine a world wherein we had more choices about waged work, nonwork, and their relationship to the rest of our lives.

Left UBI advocates like Weeks tend to see basic income as part of a broader set of demands and proposals, rather than a single-shot solution to every social problem (though this monomaniacal focus does have its adherents on the Left.) They thus support what Los Angeles collective The Undercommons refers to as "UBI+," in which a baseline guaranteed income supplements other forms of support, which they contrast with "UBI-," "a basic income advanced as a replacement for labor regulations and other security-enhancing government programs."

The danger of Right-wing basic income, or UBI-, was identified by Gorz in his 1989 Critique of Economic Reason:

The guaranteed minimum is an income granted by the state, financed by direct taxation. It starts out from the idea that there are people who work and earn a good living and others who do not work because there is no room for them on the job market or because they are (considered) incapable of working. Between these two groups, no lived relation of solidarity emerges. This absence of solidarity (this society deficit) is corrected by a fiscal transfer. The state takes from the one group and gives to the other. . .

. . . The guaranteed minimum or universal grant thus form part of a palliative policy which promises to protect individuals from the decomposition of wage-based society without developing a social dynamic that would open up emancipatory perspectives for them for the future.

Something like this vision animates much of the advocacy for UBI in capitalist and conservative circles. The clearest exposition of this perspective comes from far-right writer Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous The Bell Curve. His 2006 book In Our Hands roots his basic income proposal in the right-wing tradition of Milton Friedman, and its subtitle makes explicit what UBI is supposed to be: "A Plan to Replace the Welfare State." He insists on "getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare."

It is something like this version of UBI that appeals to the likes of Elon Musk. It is also the prospect that drives some on the left to vociferously oppose the idea. Sociologist Daniel Zamora, who I've sparred with on occasion, argues that "UBI isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, but an ideological capitulation to it." He argues that a political and economically feasible basic income could only be something like Murray's proposal: too little to live on (thus promoting the spread of precarious low wage jobs) and paid for with drastic cuts to the rest of the welfare state. Moreover, he argues that even a relatively generous UBI would only intensify the logic of neoliberal capitalism, by perpetuating a condition in which makes "market exchange the nearly exclusive means to acquire the goods necessary for our own reproduction."

Zamora calls instead for reducing the scope of the market through the struggle for decommodification. This perspective is reflected by those like Barbara Bergmann, who emphasize the importance of directly providing "merit goods" like health care, education, and housing, rather than relying on the private market. This is important, because a Murray-style UBI- of marketized social provision would be radically inegalitarian for reasons I've explained elsewhere. Bergmann's prioritization of this substantive service provision is reflected in the advocates of "Universal Basic Services" as an alternative to Universal Basic Income.

Of course, Charles Murray and Elon Musk are still somewhat anomalous within the broader pro-capitalist Right. Some, like James Pethokoukis, argue that UBI is an unnecessary expense, because the breathless predictions of mass technological employment are unlikely to come true (echoing some of the analysis of leftist critics like Doug Henwood). Others, like Thomas Sowell, are philosophically opposed to "divorcing personal rewards from personal contributions."

Having set up four different poles of attraction, it's worth thinking about what attracts and repels each position in the debate to each of the others, again with reference to the diagram above. What unites the pro-UBI forces is a willingness to think beyond a society defined by work as wage labor. Even Murray, more of a traditionalist than some of the Silicon Valley futurist types, argues that reduced labor force participation is an acceptable and even desirable consequence of UBI, because it would mean "new resources and new energy into an American civic culture," and "the restoration, on an unprecedented scale, of a great American tradition of voluntary efforts to meet human needs." This finds its left echoes in those like Gorz and Kathi Weeks, whose UBI advocacy stems from her post-work politics.

Arrayed against the post-work vision of Basic Income are those who treat work as something to be realized and celebrated, rather than transcended or dispensed with. On the Left, this takes the form of various "dignity of labor" arguments which, to use Weeks' framing of the issue, insist that our main goal should be ensuring better work, not less work. Often this is tied to a defense of the inherent importance of meaningful work, as when the head of the German Federation of Trade Unions argued recently that "pursuing a job was crucial to structure people's everyday lives and ensure social cohesion."

In his new book Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield concludes his chapter on automation with a defense of jobs, which "offered us a context in which we might organize our skills and talents," or at least "filled the hours of our days on Earth." A recurrent reference point for the job-defenders, like Ha-Joon Chang, is Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 novel Player Piano, which imagines a highly automated future in which people are made miserable because the end of jobs has made them feel useless. (I cite the novel myself in Four Futures, although I attempt to mount something of a post-work critique of the story.)

This has certain commonalities with the anti-UBI Right, which also sees waged work as inherently valuable and good, although of course only for the lower orders. This can be rooted in a producerist view that ""he who does not work, neither shall he eat." But it can also simply be a driven by a desire to cement and preserve hierarchies and class power, a fear that a working class with additional economic security and resource base of a basic income would get up to "voluntary efforts to meet human needs" that are a bit more confrontational and contentious than Charles Murray imagines.

The final point to make about my diagram of the UBI debate is the relationship between its diagonal terms, which also turn out to have certain commonalities. Put simply, the diagonals connect positions that agree on the effect of UBI, but disagree about its desirability.

Connecting pro-UBI Leftists like Weeks and Gorz with anti-UBI traditional conservatives is the belief that a basic income threatens to erode the work ethic and ultimately undermine the viability of capitalism. It's just that the left thinks that's a good thing. And the overlapping analysis extends to the relations of reproduction as well as those of production. Weeks explicitly presents basic income as an historical successor to the demands of the Wages for Housework movement, a way of breaking down patriarchy and the gendered division of labor.

Historical experience with basic income experiments lends some support to this view. Analysis of the 1970s Canadian "Mincome" program, in which a basic income was provided to residents of a Canadian town, found that "Families that stayed together solely for economic reasons were no longer compelled to do so, since individual members could continue to receive the [Guaranteed Annual Income] separately after a marriage breakup." From a feminist pro-UBI perspective, this shows the value of basic income in providing women the wherewithal to escape from bad relationships. But to the conservative UBI critic, the lesson is the opposite, as it shows how basic income can undermine the traditional family.

On our other diagonal, we find again an agreement on consequences and a disagreement on desirability. Charles Murray views Basic Income as a way to stabilize capitalism and remove the distortions and perverse incentives of the bureaucratic welfare state. Daniel Zamora views Basic Income as a way to intensify neoliberalism and remove the hard-won gains of decommodified services of the social democratic welfare state in favor of submerging all social life in market exchange. Unions fear that basic income will undermine solidarity based on organization in the workplace, a result that would no doubt be seen as a benefit by many of basic income's tech industry boosters (as well as nominally pro-labor renegades like Andy Stern).

I've been reading, thinking and writing about Universal Basic Income off and on for over a decade, and in that time my sense of its political significance has shifted considerably. I would still call myself an advocate of UBI, for similarly post-work and feminist reasons as Weeks or Gorz. But as the concept is increasingly co-opted by those with right wing and pro-capitalist motivations, I think it's increasingly important to situate the demand within a "UBI+" vision of expanded services, rather than falling victim to the shortcut thinking that elevates basic income to a "one weird trick" that will transcend political divides and resolve the contradictions of late capitalism.

Moishe Postone, 1942-2018

March 18th, 2018  |  Published in Political Economy, Socialism, Time, Work

UPDATE 2: The news is, sadly, no longer premature. I mourn the man's passing and celebrate his contribution to an open and liberatory version of Marxism.

UPDATE: I appear to have fallen prey to misinformation, and written a premature obituary. Apologies to Moishe Postone and his loved ones. The remainder of my appreciation of the man remains unchanged.

Moishe Postone was incorrectly reported as having died. This will perhaps be of only peripheral interest, to all but a handful of Marxist theory nerds. But it's of great interest, and great sadness, to me.

Postone emerged from the Marxism of the German new left, and spent much of his life teaching at the University of Chicago. He was teaching there when I was an undergraduate, but I never took his classes. It was only years later that I read his landmark work, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

That book was the great work of Postone's life. In a few hundred pages, it elucidated (a word Postone loved) what he called Marx's "mature critical theory". His central insight was that Marx's critique of capitalism was not about glorifying labor, or about promoting some kind of non-exploitative society in which workers could get the full value of what they produced. The point, rather, was to abolish labor as we know it, and with it a society in which labor, and the value placed on it, regulate our lives.

It was a thorough and relentless explication of one of Marx's famous asides. "To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune."

He wasn't the only one to grasp this point. Others like Georg Lukacs, Diane Elson--and recently even David Harvey--have made similar points. But my gateway to a post-work, post-laborist understanding of Marx went through Postone, on a winter vacation over a decade ago when I trudged through and broke my head against his work.

And what resulted was the most wondrous kind of experience I know of in social theory. It wasn't that Moishe Postone told me something I didn't know. He did something much more significant: he explained something I already knew, but didn't yet understand.

Rarely will you find me explicitly citing Postone. But to borrow a phrase from Joan Robinson: I may not always have Postone in my mouth, but I have him in my bones.

Moishe Postone, ¡Presente!

To Boringly Go

February 20th, 2018  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Now that I've finally finished off the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I can finally read the takes! See here for Gerry Canavan's round-up of some of them, including his own.

And since I owe my book, and much of my public reputation, to a blog post about Star Trek, I obviously need a take of my own.

I started out skeptical, if only because the most recent entries in the Trek franchise are the weak if underrated Enterprise TV show and the recent slew of movies, which are little more than generic action set pieces reskinned with Starfleet uniforms. And after the first few episodes, my misgivings about Discovery were straightforward to articulate. I worried that in the era of Peak Television, J.J. Abrams, and Battlestar Galactica, we were doomed to yet another Gritty Reboot, leaving behind the quirky liberal communist utopia that Gene Roddenberry had initially set forward.

At season's end, I find myself...uncertain. The finale was certainly a rather sloppy rush job, and the season itself was wildly uneven. But the characters are great. Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh and the rest comprise a more competent dramatic core than the franchise has ever seen. And at least things have been left in a state where something interesting can be done in future episodes, something that makes the existence of "Star Trek" something worthwhile in the first place, as anything more than an empty nostalgia engine and marketing opportunity.


It's by now a commonplace of Trek criticism that the first season is always bad. Those of us who apotheosize The Next Generation as the true expression of Trek, for instance, can only do so by assuming away the entire first season. (And ascribing "Code of Honor" to some kind of malicious imposition by a time-traveling Borg cube.) And here we find the real problem with the tedious fanboy argument over whether something like Discovery is "really Star Trek."

This argument is as unavoidable as it is intolerable, once one has accepted one's diagnosis as an incorrigible Trek nerd. We are then forced to grapple with a cultural icon spanning many decades and series. And when we do, we find that actually, the problem isn't with the new show. Actually, Star Trek is rarely really Star Trek. Our platonic ideal of Trek is a collage of fondly remembered--or misremembered--episodes, characters, themes. We edit out the parts that don't fit. Since we all make the collage differently, we'll never all see the same Trek.

Where does Discovery fit? Perhaps the problem doesn't lie primarily in its haphazard commitment to the political ideal of the earlier shows. Although that is a problem, as it leads the scripts to swing herky-jerky from grimdark blood spatter to cringe-inducing monologues about the high-minded mission of the Federation.

Maybe what's missing is the loose, almost ambient quality of life as a Starfleet officer, especially in the shows of the Next Generation era. It's about the hum of the idle engine, not the scream of a photon torpedo. In the early part of Discovery, I would happily exclaim, practically pump my fist, on the rare occasions I could say: "Yes! People standing around and talking! Now that's Star Trek!" (But not people talking in Klingon. Please, ease up on the subtitled Klingon.)

Out of some combination of lower budgets, longer seasons, and less investment in long bombastic story arcs and endless plot twists, the TNG-era shows revel in the banality of life on board. Couples bickering, people doing aerobics on the holodeck, mundane diplomatic missions or sensor sweeps. Of course, something always arises, episode by episode, to heighten the stakes and hold the viewer's attention. But we aren't immediately forced, as Discovery was in one short season, into an all-encompassing conflict that threatens not just the ship but the galaxy, not just the galaxy but the universe, not just the universe but every universe ever. Sometimes it's enough just to help a troubled Betazoid and a lonely space creature find meaning and happiness together.

Perhaps that's why I keep returning to "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad", the moment where the show finally began to win me over. And still probably my favorite of the first season's episodes.

The layers of fan service certainly didn't hurt--not only does this episode bring back Original Series rogue Harry Mudd, it directly rips off its central time-loop plot device from a TNG episode I've always loved. In the process, the episode demonstrates that Discovery is capable of relatively autonomous stand-alone episodes, freeing itself from the relentless drumbeat of serialized grand narratives that characterizes so much modern television.

Discovery chose the perfect TNG episode to knock off, because the plot of "Cause and Effect" directly encodes that ambience, that banality, that Discovery badly needed to get in touch with. Both the TNG original and this remake episode revolve around people going about their daily lives, only gradually realizing that something has gone horribly wrong. Of course, Discovery does still feel compelled to kick it up a notch: its focal point is a party suffused with social awkwardness, whereas in the first version it was a chummy poker game.

But still, the episode is built around two underappreciated ideas that make for great Trek: life is mostly boring, and not everything has to serve the main plot of the season.

The first point is one that motivated the approach to my book's chapter on "communism", which was directly inspired by Star Trek's post-scarcity and post-capitalist utopia. What I came to understand was that I was dealing with a problem similar to that faced by the TNG writers, as recounted in William Shatner's highly entertaining documentary about the show, Chaos on the Bridge.

Some of the early TNG writers describe their frustration with Gene Roddenberry's edicts about the nature of life in the 24th Century. This was supposed to be a society without hierarchies, without conflicts--so how the hell do you write a compelling drama about that? As it turned out, this dramatic constraint was a productive one, giving rise to the mix of soap-opera minutia and high-minded sci-fi weirdness that characterizes so much of the show. And it was a similar constraint that drove me to talk about communism, not just as a flat pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die idyll, but through things like Cory Doctorow's semi-dystopian reputational economies.

Directly following from the notion that life is often boring and annoying, comes the consequence that our characters cannot always be wrapped up in galactic struggles to save existence. Sometimes it just has to be a day at the office, and we keep watching simply because a Federation starship is a more interesting and inspiring office than ours. That thought motivated me to portray the communist future not as a magical resolution of the human condition but, to follow Freud by way of Corey Robin, the conversion of hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

The Next Generation shows appeared at a time when television was experimenting with long-form storytelling and long narratives, rather than self-contained episodes of the week. This was eventually facilitated, of course, by the Internet and the binge-watching culture it gave rise to. But before that, you had interesting blends of the episodic and the serial--the most fully realized was probably The X-Files, which interwove an ongoing conspiracy thriller with one-off "monster of the week" plots.

In the case of Star Trek, though, this historically determinate evolution of the form interacted in a very productive way with the underlying themes of the show's worldbuilding. So my hope for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery is that it can remain in touch with this way of making television, albeit in a way that suits our present historical circumstance.

Police State of Exception

February 16th, 2018  |  Published in Politics

Last night I once again had the pleasure of attending the James Connolly forum in Troy, NY, this time to hear Alex Vitale talk about his recent book, The End of Policing. I'll have more to say about the political implications of this. But first, this was a sort of tangential thing that Alex's talk brought to mind.

His work is an extended argument that, in a world of manifest policing-related atrocities, we should not regard policing as something to be reformed or perfected. Rather, we should acknowledge that "the problem is policing itself"--and, more than that, the problem is with a social system that treats the symptoms of deprivation and inequality as things to be policed, rather than addressed by other means.

One of the things Vitale is very good at is critiquing common-sense ideas about reforming the police. He roots this in his diagnosis of a kind of ideological substrate, unspoken but implicit in liberal ideas about the police. This is the idea that cops are the emanations of a stable and legitimate liberal order, based on consent, equality, and reasoned debate. Police, in this view, are the dispassionate conflict-resolvers who keep our passions in check and make liberal society possible. And to the extent that policing leads to violence and repression, this is a pathological dysfunction, a betrayal of policing's true meaning.

To this, Vitale (like many others) counters that policing is not and never has been this liberal ideal, but rather functions to control and regulate property relations and inequality. He cleverly illustrates this by noting that the London Metropolitan Police, so often held up as the original model for modern, "professional" policing, were modeled on the forces used to maintain the British colonial occupation of Ireland.

Much more can be said about all of this. But one question that arose from the audience, after Vitale spoke, went specifically to the ideological aspect of policing. If we believe the above diagnosis, both of policing's current practice and its ideological underpinnings, how are we to counter a state of affairs in which so many people believe that the purpose of the cops is something so utterly different from what they have really always been for?

In the course of answering this, Vitale somewhat unexpectedly brought up the role of popular culture, and its function as, to paraphrase him, a relentless machine for producing and reproducing the legitimacy of policing in the public mind. In this connection he brought up two of his childhood favorites in the cop-television genre, Adam-12 and The Mod Squad. The first was a dry and "realistic" drama about sober and professional cops. The second was a fantasy of a kind of policing much cooler and more diverse than anything in its late-1960s environment. But as Vitale points out, they both ultimately express the same idea about policing: that it is benevolent, socially beneficial, and necessary.

Now, I'm a bit younger than Alex Vitale, so my mind immediately went not to The Mod Squad, but to Law & Order, and its innumerable variations and imitators. I confess to being a bit of a sucker for these shows, bingeing on them despite (or because of) their formulaic repetition, and even while knowing that they convey a distorted ideological picture of police and prosecutors.

But one thing I've become fascinated by is a particular, absurdly common trope in these shows, one that I think they played a unique role in perfecting. This is what I've come to think of as "ACAB-EU": All Cops Are Bastards, Except Us.

The trope works by consistently portraying its central characters as liberal fantasies of the good cop--whether it's the pseudo-scientists of CSI, the workaday victim-protectors of SVU, or the magical profiler-geniuses of Criminal Minds. At the same time, it makes a seeming concession to concerns about police misconduct, by constantly putting its protagonists in conflict with "bad cops" and their enablers, whether it be a rapist Corrections Officer or a corrupt small town department whose cover-up leads all the way to the Governor.

And in the end, of course, the good guys win. The bad cops become a perfect example of the ways ideological systems can coopt criticism. Once it becomes impossible to maintain the uniform "officer friendly" image in the face of obviously awful police behavior, the bad cops must appear on the stage. But only so that we can be reassured that the main characters, the ones we are emotionally invested in, are still the good guys who only want what's best for us.

So just as shows like the West Wing do for politics, the ACAB-EU trope in cop shows indulges the liberal fantasy that policing is ultimately a noble and admirable public service, and that its evil effects are malfunctions rather than, as critics like Vitale suggest, the system properly working just as intended. By making this move, this storytelling device impedes the viewer from acknowledging that, as much as we love Jerry Orbach and Ice-T, Lennie Briscoe and Fin Tutuola are bastards too--and in the system they work under, couldn't be any other way.

Put the Money in the Bag and 86 the Tricks

February 13th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Mixed in with the usual litany of concessions to billionaires and businesses, the Trump administration delights in a petty and banal sadism that at times seems to serve no significant purpose, if we take the purpose of right wing politics to be the accumulation of capital by the rich. Although nobody should be under any illusion about Trumpism, any idea that it is anything other than, as Corey Robin will happily tell us, a familiar iteration of conservatism, just a bit more crass and unmasked.

The latest and best in this cabinet of miniature horrors: a revision of the food stamp program that seeks to replace food vouchers with "a box of food that the government describes as nutritious and 100 percent grown and produced in the U.S.", on the model of Blue Apron and other purveyors of pre-fabricated (and ecologically terrible) meal kits.

This would, of course, be bad. And it hits the right venal notes of your workaday reactionary politician: if we must have a welfare state, how can we turn it into pork for my petit-bourgeois constituents?

But the food stamp program was already bad, and this merely intensifies its patronizing and paternalizing logic. Those of us who advocate things like the Universal Basic Income from a left perspective do so, in part, because we view the unconditional redistribution of money as something superior to--and more radical than--programs which require recipients to meet requirements and satisfy bureaucrats.

Food stamps are already like that. There are complex restrictions on what food you're allowed to acquire with your vouchers. Hot or toasted food, for example, is considered an unacceptable luxury. And don't even dream that poor people might deserve access to things like diapers or tampons. Hence the argument that instead of intensifying this logic with something like the Trump meal-kit proposal, we should go the opposite way, and just hand out cash.

For certain kinds of social-democratic traditionalists, such arguments are dangerous heresy. For people like Daniel Zamora, they are worse than useless--they are, in fact, concessions to neoliberalism, as packaged by such dangerous figures as Michel Foucault.

But without Foucault, or someone like him, how are we to understand something like this latest Trump atrocity? Yes, on one level it's simply a patronage handout to business. But we're also dealing here with "governmentality", and perhaps too "biopower", those terms concerning the way that states regulate and control the biological functions of their subjects. For it turns out that our political line can't simply turn on a distinction between reliance on "states" versus "markets", even though the right might like to pose the question that way. Capitalism is a state-dependent project all the way down, and the crucial question is what the state does, and to whom.

So here we come to a leftist perspective on the welfare state, which cannot just be a one-sided defense of welfare capitalism but also must be a dialectical critique of its authoritarian functions. That's where the Foucault comes in. As I've said elsewhere, we seek to build the welfare state only so that we can break it. And the capitalist class, for all its showy gestures about tearing down the state, builds it too--but it builds it to break us.

And there we find our task, when confronted with conservative welfare governmentality in its absurd Trumpist iteration. We fight for social rights not simply to win benefits, but to get free--free of what Marx called the "double freedom", where we are free to sell our labor, but also free from the means to do anything else.

Decommodify, decommodify! That is Moses and the prophets!

Or to put it another way, we are Taking these, if you don't please.