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Mob Terror and Police Politics

April 15th, 2021  |  Published in Uncategorized

Near the end of Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois reflects on the role of mob violence in the counter-revolution of the 1860s and 1870s, which overturned Radical Reconstruction in the south. Of the Regulators, Ku Klux Klan, and other extra-legal forms of white terror, he remarks that "the kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night. The method has certain advantages."

Prominent among these advantages is the plausible deniability available to the ruling class, when racist violence is undertaken outside, and nominally against the state—though Du Bois does note the porous boundary between the police and the mob, as when he remarks that "the New Orleans riot in 1866, which stirred the nation and influenced a presidential election, was due primarily to the fact that the head of a secret order was also Chief of Police."

In the era of "Defund the Police" and in the wake of the police murder of Daunte Wright, however, these passages take on a different significance. Consider a comment from Imani Perry, who says that "In some important ways what we see now is worse than lynching. Because it isn't a mob that engages in extra-legal violence. It is an agent of the state, with the authority of the state, killing people without any process..." That is, the police no longer need to enforce white supremacy by looking away from mob violence; instead, they can murder Black people and dissidents openly, before retreating to their fortress and raising the Blue Lives Matter flag, a symbol that differs from the Klan hood or the Confederate flag only in that it signifies loyalty to a racist terror organization that is also treated as a legitimate arm of the state.

Du Bois' commentary also illuminates stories like this one, one of many recent examples of rightist legislators attempting to officially recognize and legalize vigilante attacks, in this case the use of cars against protestors. (Transportation advocates might note that this move builds on the longstanding bipartisan project of legalizing vehicular murder, but that's a whole other topic.) So rather than merely allowing extra-legal violence as in the Reconstruction era (though that happens too), the police and their representatives in government are engaged in a project of extending their monopoly on legitimate terror to include select civilians as well.

All of this is relevant to the issue I considered in a recent Jacobin article: the way police, who take up a third or more of many municipal budgets, are able to undermine local democracy. Examples of this abound, including in my own back yard.

The attempt to extend state legitimacy to right wing vigilantes looks a bit different when we recognize that at a local level, the police already operate beyond democratic accountability, and therefore the difference between what is and isn't considered legitimate violence isn't dictated by the law, but by the police themselves. Laws like the Oklahoma let-them-run-over-protesters law is only codifying the facts on the ground, and making it harder for popular pressure to force police to enforce the law in ways they would prefer not to.

Which leads me to a final thing I thought about in light of Du Bois' comments on mob violence: the January 6 siege of the Capitol. Countless words have been expended in debates over whether this event represented a terrifying fascist assault on democracy and narrowly-avoided coup, or merely a cartoonish spectacle that will serve only to prop up the reputation of conservative Democrats and justify new powers of government repression.

But perhaps we should consider that what made the Capitol attack both ridiculous and terrifying was the place it occupies in the larger framework of what we might call modern, 21st Century American "police state politics". The genealogy of this politics can be traced directly to slavery and Reconstruction, which is why Du Bois' account remains so essential today.

If the attempted coup of January 6th seemed half-assed and farcical, perhaps that's because at the national level, the right still prefers to contest power through the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy. Which is not to say they do so democratically—witness the reliance on counter-majoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court and the Senate, as well as the central place that voter suppression now occupies in Republican strategy.

Nevertheless, this use of elections differs from what happens at the local level, where the police, and the capitalist interests they serve, have undertaken a very successful effort to completely separate the coercive apparatus of the state from democratic accountability, leaving city mayors and the like to bluster and deflect even as they are seemingly unwilling or unable to impose any sort of authority on the police forces they nominally control. You can see why a bunch of cops (a constituency well-represented on January 6) would think that occupying the Capitol might work. If they did that at my local City Hall, it might just work, and the reason it doesn't happen may just be because my mayor and city council are (with admirable but largely ineffectual exceptions) such reliable servants of police interests.

There's more I want to work through and think about here, but I think this way of seeing things helpfully complicates a lot of debates on the left over "electoralism" and the supposed alternatives to it. Much confusion is produced by an assumption, implicit in many of these arguments, that the United States is a bourgeois democracy, and that such a thing can be defined clearly in opposition to some kind of "authoritarian" alternative.

But capitalist democracy is always an unsteady tension between the rule of the people and the rule of money. And as Dylan Riley recently observed, the capitalist class has never accepted democracy except grudgingly and in limited ways. Socialist strategy, if it is to take seriously the argument that socialism is the project of making society genuinely democratic, must grapple with the obstacles to winning that struggle within a system that is not, as it stands, particularly responsive to democratic pressure—or where socialist elected officials may find that when they gain access to the levers of power, those levers have already been disconnected.

Bernie and the movement

February 20th, 2019  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Uncategorized

I swore I wasn't going to do this, but here I go joining in with the endless commentaries on Bernie Sanders, who has at long last announced his candidacy for a Presidential election almost two years away.

To get one thing out of the way: I support Bernie Sanders. I will vote for him in the primaries. I will canvass for him. I still have a Bernie Sanders sign in front of my house, just waiting for me to take a marker and scrawl "2020" across it. None of the other candidates are remotely a match to Bernie; they range from obvious frauds and hacks like Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, to plausibly left liberal but non-socialist options like Elizabeth Warren.

For even social democracy, let alone socialism, it's still Bernie. I still wish there was another option, someone a bit fresher, a bit less of a lone-wolf survivor politician. But it's clear that the rising generation, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generation, isn't quite ready for the Presidency. So Bernie it is.

What I'm concerned with however, is less Bernie's campaign than its effect on the left in general, and on my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, in particular. Already, the National Political Committee is contemplating a formal endorsement, and a number of local chapters have already committed to going all in on Bernie 2020.

It's obvious why this is tempting. Bernie 2016 was both a huge surprise and an enormous boon to the left, and there's no way DSA would be pushing past 50,000 members without Bernie-mania and the attendant newfound interest in "democratic socialism" among a newly activated layer of young and old activists.

Some among DSA's current leadership clearly see a renewed Bernie campaign as a recipe for more of the same: get people out for Bernie, and then recruit them into DSA to continue the struggle. And no doubt this will be true to some extent. But it seems unlikely that there is another huge pool of people left to be activated in this way; more likely, we will mostly see a re-activation of the same people who were Bernie die-hards in 2016. That's reflected in the hundreds of thousands of people who rushed to give him their small donations yesterday. Certainly that's what's been happening in my social media environment, for whatever that's worth. And of course he is also reactivating the small core of liberals and leftists who are heavily invested in resenting Bernie and his fans.

Moreover, the expectations and potential impact of Bernie's candidacy are completely different this time around. In 2016, he came out of nowhere and offered, for the first time in many years, a clear alternative to a field that was still stuck in the doldrums of 1990s-vintage Clintonian centrism. For 2020, he will be competing against savvy opponents who realize that they need to co-opt his positions; witness the embrace of "Medicare for All" by figures who would have dismissed it out of hand a few years ago.

But even if the 2020 campaign isn't going to have the same payoff in terms of new socialists or DSA members, it might still be worth it. And I think it's inevitable, and probably wise, that a lot of DSA energy, nationally and locally, ends up going into the Bernie campaign at some point. There are, however, some costs to creating a too-close identification between DSA the organization, democratic socialism the ideology, and Bernie Sanders the person, whose own idiosyncratic "democratic socialism" doesn't necessarily match mine, Michael Harrington's, or anybody else's.

The short term problem with identifying DSA as the party of Bernie (who may still not even be a member, and certainly is neither a leader of DSA nor accountable to it), is that we end up forced to either defend or repudiate his less enlightened positions.

I'm not even talking about the vague insinuations that Bernie is racist, or sexist, or that his followers are all a bunch of harassment-crazed Bernie Bros. Off social media, I think these charges are neither very compelling nor very effective. And given the makeup of his staff, I anticipate less awkward missteps this time around, even if the candidate himself is sometimes still prone to awkward "color-blind" rhetoric.

What's more concerning are substantive political stances that are, to me at least, inconsistent with emancipatory socialist politics, of which two leap immediately to mind. First is the legislation called FOSTA-SESTA. These bills are promoted as remedies to sex trafficking, but sex workers have repeatedly warned that their real impact is to make their work and their lives more difficult and dangerous. Bernie was far from the only progressive to support these bills, but that's all the more reason to stake out an independent left standpoint from which to critique him on this.

Another example speaks to Bernie's overall weakness on foreign policy, which has been a consistent shortcoming throughout his time in the spotlight. When right wing opposition leader Juan Guaído attempted to seize power in a coup in Venezuela, Sanders released a tepid statement that, while not endorsing the coup, led with a denunciation of the elected Maduro government and its alleged "violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society." While Maduro certainly deserves criticism, this is hardly an adequate response.

One could also mention, in this vein, the response to the bogus controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar's "anti-semitic" criticism of AIPAC. It's nice that Bernie eventually called to offer her his support, and nothing he said about it was particularly bad. But in a situation where Bernie is treated as the mascot for American socialism, even an inadequate response can look like a bad one.

All of this makes the case for both diversifying our figureheads and maintaining some critical distance from any elected politician. And it's possible that DSA will succeed in doing that even if it gives Bernie an early endorsement, as seems likely. But I'm also concerned about the ramifications for DSA in the aftermath of the campaign, whatever its outcome. So let's run through the possibilities.

First, Bernie could lose in the primaries. This, of course, is what happened last time, and it led directly to a huge surge in DSA members and chapters. But there's no reason to think this phenomenon would repeat itself. Recall that both the near-success of Bernie and the election of Trump came as big surprises to most people who experienced them. Thus Bernie's loss felt like a win relative to expectations, while Trump felt like an unexpected defeat that could be attributed to the weakness of Clinton and her ideology.

None of that will be true this time. "Bernie would have won" has already turned into "Bernie will win," and any other outcome will be demoralizing and demobilizing. Moreover, it will lead to a period of recriminations over whether and how to support the Democratic nominee, who will, superficially and at the level of rhetoric, appear far more appealing to the left than Hillary Clinton. This does not strike me as a recipe for building socialism.

The second possibility is that Bernie wins the primary and loses the general election. This might be marginally better for the left, as it would at least feel like progress, and some sort of victory. But that would likely be outweighed by the immense demoralization caused by four more years of Trump (or Pence, or whoever), an outcome that liberals will rush to pin on Sanders and his supporters. In the aftermath, we will be asked to fall in line with liberals and centrists in the name of a popular front against fascism or some such.

The third and best case scenario, of course, is that Bernie Sanders becomes President of the United States. The problem with this scenario, however, is that now Bernie Sanders is President of the United States. Even with a favorable congress, he is unlikely to be able to pass a lot of his agenda, and so we will begin to see what compromises a President Sanders is actually willing to make.

That will be fine as long as we get that thing we're always promised when the left goes into electoral work: a mobilized mass base to hold those damn politicians accountable! This is going to be hard to pull off, though, if a big chunk of the left, including DSA, has gone even farther down the road of a personality cult around Daddy Bernie. If Bernie is equated with socialism, then criticizing him---much less protesting him---must be a betrayal of the political revolution. That's not to say we'll end up totally demobilized the way the Obama movement was after 2008, if only because Sanders has much better politics and is unlikely to actively work against an independent left the way Obama did. But all of this will be easier if we clearly separate the socialist movement from the Sanders campaign.

I'll add one final caveat to all of this. The impact of the Bernie 2020 campaign on local organizations, DSA and otherwise, will greatly depend on the viability of local socialist candidates---one, two, many AOCs and Julia Salazars. In any of the three scenarios outlined above, it will be possible to declare victory based on local struggles even if Bernie is a bust. Which brings me back to the In These Times editorial I linked at the outset: local base-building and cultivating successful local candidates is still the key task. Bernie-related energy will hopefully provide a boost to that work, but hopefully that can happen without conflating the movement for socialism and the movement for Bernie.

Keep Socialism Weird

October 29th, 2018  |  Published in Everyday life, Feminism, Fiction, Politics, Socialism, xkcd.com/386

Gritty says: "our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

"our power isn't in being less different or strange...it's in making strange things seem possible".

The above statement, though today often attributed to antifa mascot Gritty, was actually made by Kate Griffiths of the Red Bloom Communist Collective. It reiterates themes discussed in a wonderful interview they did with Red Wedge magazine, entitled "Normie Socialism or Communist Transgression".

I've thought about it a lot these past few weeks, through Kavanaugh, the attacks on migrants, the transphobic attacks of the Trump administration, and now the synagogue massacre by a far right anti-semite. And how in each of these cases, I've had to step back and try to really understand how these political events feel to the people directly targeted by them, in contrast to me, who is of course enraged by it all but still feels mostly safe from it.

In particular I'm thinking about something the interviewer mentions, the "cries from some quarters of the Left bleating about transgression, pathologizing broader Left culture --- implicitly queer folks, but others as well, notably cultural producers. . . . the core of the complaint from some circles is that the Left are a bunch of oddballs". This is what Griffiths calls "normie socialism", a belief that we will somehow better relate to the "real working class" if we adapt to its supposedly bourgeois and patriarchal norms rather than running around like a bunch of freaks.

But what is it to be normal? Griffiths notes:

Mostly, it involves being rich enough not to be embarrassed, but it also involves not being too queer; participating in de facto and de jure segregation along lines of race, gender and citizenship in housing and the labor market; getting a job that matches your “potential” or education; or which can afford you signs of stability and affluence. The ideal is a life organized around the moral imperative of providing the best possible future for your children (which you should probably have) or at very least one which keeps you from being “dependent” on your extended family, the state, or other people at all beyond the medium of exchange. But that kind of “normal” is increasingly a pipe dream for anyone who ever had access to it and has always been tenuous-to-unattainable for much of the working class. For some parts of the working class it has always been, in fact, recognized as such and undesirable.

They go on to observe that the normie socialist discourse evades many conversations about the left's historical limitations, the way patrarchial, heterormative, or white supremacist norms and practices have held back organizing and distorted revolutions. And about how being "out" as a communist isn't separate from being out as queer, or trans, say. They all work together. And they're all weird. The vision of this communism isn't just one of traditional nuclear families with nice suburban lives, only with health care and a union and free education and a guaranteed government job.

It's a questioning and recombining of all identities and forms of social life, for which securing the basic physical necessities of life is merely the pre-condition. It's rejecting gender, the family, work as we understand them. It's the radical revaluation of values that, as Jasper Bernes observes in Commune, can be found in both the value form Marxism of Moishe Postone and the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin.

In other words, communism is really, really weird. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

And yet we have liberals and ostensible socialists, the Jonathan Chaits and Angela Nagles and even other writers at Jacobin peddling the fantasy that the alt-right is somehow a consequence of the left being too weird, too queer, too willing to question white supremacy or heteronormativity.

The resurgence of fascism, also documented in Commune, and the horrifying synagogue murders, should finally slam the door on those who want to blame the left for fascism, to pretend that if we just toned it down on Tumblr and got everyone back in the closet, sad boys in the suburbs would flock to us instead of the alt-right. But of course people like Chait and Nagle will keep peddling the same tired old line, as long as people are willing to pay to hear it.

And there are deeper, more important political battles ahead. The most popular socialist podcasts traffick in the supposed normality of themselves and their listeners, even as they flirt with right-leaning transgression in the form of "ironic" racism or anti-semitism. Leading figures in the Democratic Socialists of America seem to be captivated by a paranoid fixation on a supposed plague of "wokeness" and "identity politics", which they are certain will reduce a resurgent American socialism to solipsistic white-guilt struggle sessions if not ruthlessly supressed.

But what does it mean to take our weirdness seriously as political practice? The Le Guin and Postone idea can sound abstract and moralistic, detached from the concrete work of politics. But for me, it amounts to consciously trying to weird my politics and myself.

I am, in certain respects, pretty "normie": straight, cis, white, middle class, the stereotype of a DSA socialist. The point of saying this is not to navel-gaze or self-flagellate or essentialize identity categories, much as the anti-identitarians want to misrepresent it that way. It is to do the opposite, in fact---to try to trouble those categories and get weird. I can't change the advantages my social location gave me, and in fact I want to put them to use for the revolution. What I can do is try to spend more time in spaces that aren't full of people like me, and more time trying to develop political empathy, to see what being a transfeminist communist means, and what it is to struggle with, and against, identities other than the ones ascribed to me. In the process, I can get a little more weird.

I can, in other words, through listening and understanding, try to approach the kind of psychic mobility that would grant me, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it, "a command of the conditions of existence and the social mechanisms which exert their effects on the whole ensemble of the category to which such a person belongs (that of high-school students, skilled workers, magistrates, etc.) and a command of the conditions, psychological and social, both associated with a particular position and a particular trajectory in social space." This is not a distraction from socialist or communist politics, it is that politics in practice. I would go so far as to say that without developing this command, good organizing is impossible.

Just as importantly, armed with greater empathy and knowledge, I can bring what I know back to the political work I do, and to the "normies". That means, at a larger scale, making sure that, for example, DSA is getting more involved in things like the International Women's Strike and the Trans Book Bloc, rather than recoiling from them in favor of some supposedly pure, "universalist" "class" politics. It means, at a smaller scale, talking to and encouraging fledgling comrades, whose politics may not have gotten much past the Bernie Sanders campaign, to think and act more radically and more deeply.

That's the way forward because it's ideologically and morally right, but also because it's strategically what is most likely to work. Certainly the anti-woketarian inquisitors in DSA mostly seem to have succeeded in generating a lot of ill will, disillusionment, and anger from people who could have been comrades. It's their excesses, and not some over-investment in being self critical about racism or patriarchy on the left, that I'm worried will drive people away and shatter promising organizing projects.

And as Griffiths argues:

I don’t think it will work on its own terms, that is, simply electing socialists or even more Democrats to office. It relies on an already unrealistic and static account of the commitments and sympathies of working class people, who like me, each have their own individual political stories of change, through relationships, through organization and through action. If any of this works, to the extent that it recruits newly politicized socialists, they aren’t going to stay still; we see that I think in a lot of the political expressions of local DSA chapters and working groups, and in even in the development of the Chapo Trap House fandom, which often exceeds its authors in political sensibility and vision.

In other words, warmed-over minimalist social democracy may get you closer to high tide, but it won't prepare you for what you find when you get there. These days I'm sometimes reminded of the antics of some of the Maoist and Trotskyist students of the 1960s, who thought they could connect with "real" workers by cosplaying as clean-cut, conservatively dressed normies. The real workers, of course, were already quitting their jobs, growing their hair out, and getting into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now as then, the times call for a politics and a sensibility that is, as the old line of Lenin's had it, "as radical as reality itself."

Keep Socialism Weird!

High Tide Socialism in Low Tide Times

October 25th, 2018  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Some recent discussion on Twitter has me thinking again about one of my longstanding projects, and something I want to do at book length soon: the contradictions of building social democracy.

My basic outlook, as described in the linked essay, is that the socialist project must be conceived in terms of "building the crisis", or "building social democracy only in order to break it". That is, we win reforms that strengthen and nourish the working class, and lessen its dependence on capital. But in so doing, we create a situation that is intolerable to capital itself, a moment of truth that must either smash the entire system or restore a reactionary state of affairs.

To understand this dynamic, it may be helpful to periodize the historic tasks of the socialist movement, as they correlate with the political-economic environment.

There are, I would say, two distinct types of crisis that arise, when the class war between labor and capital reaches an intense pitch. One of them happens when labor and the left is extremely weak---wages are low, workers are disorganized, lack of effective demand leads to stagnant growth, and sheer desperation leads to an upsurge in militancy and protest.

What we have been living through since 2008, manifested in Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the new wave of socialist elected politicians and the teacher strike wave and even #metoo along with much else, is this type of crisis. I could write a book on the low-wage, high-debt, precarious economy that has driven millenial politics in this direction, but Malcolm Harris already did it so just go read that.

The politics of an age like this are what I call "low tide socialism". It is a socialism that aims to rebuild the organs of worker power and the social welfare institutions that shelter workers from the ravages of capitalism and the market. It is, in other words, the project of building 21st century social democracy. The parameters of its united front are defined by New Deal liberalism (and Bernie Sanders mind you, democratic socialist nomenclature aside, is a New Deal liberal). Its exponents include one of the most powerful tendencies within the Democratic Socialists of America, as represented by The Call

I support most of the demands of this kind of low tide socialism: health care and education and housing for all, green jobs, massive unionization, and so on. But once again: where does this project ultimately lead?

It leads to the second crisis. The crisis of "high tide socialism". That is, what do you do when your workers movement and welfare state begin to press against the limits of what the capitalist class will accept? Can you expropriate the expropriators and sound the death knell of private property? Or does capitalism's thermidor restore accumulation on the basis of private wealth's austere dictatorship?

This is how I view my various critical interactions with other socialists and liberals as to the necessary radicalism of socialist politics. I see myself, essentially, as a high tide socialist operating in a low tide environment. In practical terms, I am allied in my daily work with low tide socialists pursuing incremental reforms and a new social democracy. However, I think they greatly err by viewing the question of confronting the high tide crisis as something to be put off until "after the reformolution", as it were.

When last we were at high tide, we saw efforts like the Meidner Plan, policies that pushed the welfare state in the direction of true socialization of the means of production. These attempts were failures, beaten back by brutal capitalist counter-attack. And they failed, I believe, because the very parties and movements that had so successfully built social democracy had rendered themselves totally unable to conjure the militant forces that could have made society ungovernable, and truly overcome the rule of capital.

What would "the Meidner Plan armed" look like? We didn't know then and we don't know now. But we need to figure it out. And the time to do that is not when high tide finally comes---a high tide that, like the real high tide of the other second crisis, may be higher than ever before. The time is now.

Marx and the Two Crises in “New York 2140”

September 18th, 2018  |  Published in Fiction, Political Economy, Politics

What follows resembles remarks I made at an event marking an art exhibition at the Verso Books, to which Kathy Newman kindly invited me. The event took place on the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, one of the critical moments in the last great financial crisis. The artwork I mention is described here.

The unveiling of the photo, artist at right

The unveiling of the photo, Susanne Slavick at left, artist Alberto Jaar at right

Thank you for coming, and to Kathy for inviting me. Marx would probably be amused and a bit distressed to have pride of place here. I am of the camp that believes that Marx concluded, in his mature thought, that the theoretical system he had developed was suitable and necessary for understanding the capitalist mode of production, and for no other historical period or type of society. He would therefore be disappointed to find that he and his ideas had still not been rendered irrelevant.

Since we're here to consider a work of art dealing with the financial crisis, I thought I'd talk a bit about one of the best works of financial crisis art, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140. Robinson is both a Marxist a great writer of speculative fiction. New York 2140 imagines a future for this city that is very different from its present in one way, and very much the same in another.

The difference is that much of the city is underwater. Using extreme--but far from impossible--projections from current climate science, Robinson posits that the melting icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland have caused sea levels to rise by 50 to 60 feet. Such a dramatic rise means that all of Manhattan south of 34th Street is permanently underwater, while the region from there north to Central Park is the "intertidal", which is only dry at low tide. And yet people continue to behave like New Yorkers, stubbornly sticking around and trying to keep their partially-underwater buildings from collapsing. (The main characters live in the MetLife tower at 23rd and Madison.) Meanwhile the more cautious money has decamped--for Denver, wonderfully chosen as a symbol, as it is one of our highest elevation and most boring cities.

Now this is a different sort of crisis than the one we're marking here. Only it really isn't. The financial crisis and the climate crisis both stem from the operation of capitalism, a system that Marx showed us is prone to go into and out of crisis, again and again.

One fundamental reason for recurrent crises is capitalism's need for endless growth. The reason for this has do with something that's a bit futurist and science fictional about capitalism itself. It is a system predicated on deploying money in order to make more money--not merely in zero-sum competition between capitals, but as a whole. It is generally said, by bourgeois and left economists alike, that a healthy capitalism needs to average something like 3 percent growth a year.

How is this possible? How can all the capital that exists represent a quantity greater than itself? Because some of it is what Marxists call "fictitious" capital, which represents not value that exists in the present, but value that exists in the future, when some act of consumption will validate and valorize investments made in the present.

When this system is working smoothly, the magic of compound interest means that even growing at 3 percent or less a year, the amount of capital in existence can increase very rapidly. David Harvey notes that between 1970 and and 2010, the amount of global capital seeking investment outlets grew from $0.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion. Thus capital's historical record of rapid increases in material production and wealth is also, paradoxically, a problem for the system, because all of this capital has to be invested in something that will produce a positive return, and there are a limited number of such investment outlets, particularly in a world of rising income inequality and diminished purchasing power among the working class.

What is necessary, then, is for some portion of this excess value to be destroyed, "devalued" in Marxist terms. This means only that things become worthless, not that they are necessarily physically destroyed. There are many ways this can occur. Of course, companies go bankrupt and their shares become worthless, in the ordinary course of capitalist competition. War is a popular method of devaluation. But sometimes, things are so out of balance that a massive, system-wide correction is the only way to get back to a baseline of positive growth. Ice Cube, rapping about the LA riots, once said that "riots ain't nothing but diets for the system." In a way, so are financial crises.

But what does this have to do with climate change, which is where I started out? Quite a bit, as it happens. For one thing, catastrophic climate change is a hell of devaluation method. In the last crisis we heard a lot about "underwater" homeowners, those who owed more on their mortgages than their houses were worth on the market. Now we face the prospect of houses being worthless because they are literally underwater. (Not that you would know that if developers and their friends in government have anything to say about it.)

Or maybe not totally worthless after all. I mentioned that New York 2140 is a financial crisis novel--Robinson has said he wrote it in response to the crash of 2007-8. And for all the geographic changes in his New York, what has not changed is finance capitalism, which seems almost implausibly similar to today's. A major plot point of the book turns on a property bubble related to investment in partially underwater properties, and a financial crisis triggered by a massive hurricane. One of the focal characters is a banker who specializes in betting on this intertidal real estate.

Climate crisis is coming--whether it will be as bad or worse than Robinson imagines is, at least in part, up to us and our political movements. But addressing it means confronting capitalism, just as dealing with financial crisis does. Marx himself understood how capitalism drove ecological destruction, because of the what James O'Connor called capital's "second contradiction" with nature, after its primary one with labor.

In Marx's day, the impact of carbon emissions on climate was not yet well understood. What was an object of intense investigation, however, was soil fertility. Marx followed the chemist Justus von Liebig, who observed that urbanization and industrialization were systematically depriving the soil of nutrients and harming crop yields. This happened because food was still being grown in the country, but it was then being transported to the cities to be consumed by the new industrial proletariat. The resulting waste, rather than being returned to the soil as in agrarian times, went into the gutters of London. Marx described this as a great disturbance in "the metabolic interaction between man and the earth". Later Marxists like John Bellamy Foster refer to Marx's theory of the "metabolic rift."

The missing shit of the absent proletariat was first replaced by bird shit, mined from guano deposits off the coast of South America, and then by industrial fertilizers. Those fertilizers were and are produced using large amounts of fossil fuel, meaning that the resolution of the soil fertility crisis fed directly into the atmospheric carbon crisis that we face today. I suspect that the resolution of that crisis, whether it is undertaken on an eco-capitalist or an eco-socialist basis, will, like the answer to diminished soil fertility, involve intensifying rather than reversing our manipulation of the human interchange with nature, managing rather than simply closing the metabolic rift. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson that along with a zero-carbon energy system, we probably need some kind of geoengineering--meaning either taking carbon out of the atmosphere, or blocking some portion of sunlight from penetrating the atmosphere--if we are to head off a human catastrophe.

What I want to leave you with, however, is the recognition that we are headed into a climate crisis, of which this weekend's hurricane in North Carolina is one omen, and that we are well overdue for another financial crisis. It's impossible to know exactly what will touch off that crisis, but one alarming indicator is student debt, which has astonishingly more than quadrupled in less than 15 years. (The concentration of this debt among a certain stratum of young adults should play a role in any explanation of phenomena like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Occupy Wall Street, which began seven years ago this Monday.)

But we should be wary of the tendency, indulged occasionally by environmentalists and leftists, to suppose that ecological or economic crisis can overturn capitalism on its own. Capital, remember, is not a thing but a form and a relation, a process of turning money into more money. That process does not require money to deployed in making any particular thing, or in making a thing at all (consider the value of intellectual property in the right to copies of an image; an image of Karl Marx's grave, say.)

There is a happy and only partially delusional version of the eco-capitalist story, in which big business makes money from recycling and solar panel installation; this view was on display just this week at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, attended by the likes of Starbucks and the financial firm Blackrock. But there's a darker side too, money to be made directly from the devastation of climate change. Naomi Klein popularized the term "disaster capitalism" to refer to the use of crisis as a pretext for neoliberal retrenchment, as seen for example in the gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But there is a way capitalism can also profit from the disaster itself--there's a lot of money to be made cleaning up, rebuilding, and relocating, not to mention selling gated communities and private security services to those who are rich enough to move to higher ground and hide from the victims of climate catastrophe.

In New York 2140, financial and environmental crisis coincides with a massive debt strike, so that instead of 2008-style bailouts, the system truly does begin to collapse and transform into something else. We won't have to wait until 2140 to face another crisis in the real world, the only question is whether this time, we can force a resolution that works for us, rather than for capital.

Building the Crisis

May 24th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal have an essay at Dissent in which they use the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as an opportunity to explain the theories of Karl Polanyi, and what they mean for the future of progressive politics.

Polanyi was a Hungarian emigré to Vienna and later England and the United States, a veteran of the interwar period that gave us the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. His most famous work, The Great Transformation, was written in the 1930's and 1940's. In it, he attempted to diagnose the failures of the free-market capitalism of his time, which in his view had given rise to the reaction and war he lived through.

His central point, and the one which has been most influential on contemporary liberals, is that there has never been any such thing as an unfettered or "natural" free market. Rather, all really-existing social formations involve complex ties between people based on a variety of norms and traditions. As Iber and Konczal put it, "the economy is 'embedded' in society--part of social relations--not apart from them." For this reason, the attempt to establish unfettered and unregulated markets is doomed: "a pure free market society is a utopian project, and impossible to realize, because people will resist the process of being turned into commodities."

This is an important insight, and to this point there's not much about it that I can disagree with. The problem arises when one tries to derive a complete political strategy from this analysis. This is where I part ways with the Polanyian analysis that Iber and Konczal offer.

They suggest that the vision of "socialism" offered by Polanyi, and also by Bernie Sanders, ultimately just involves subjecting capitalism to some humane and democratic limits. They quote a passage in which Polanyi defines socialism as "the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society." Polanyi does not seem to think that markets or capitalist property relations could be superseded (although the later parts of The Great Transformation introduce some ambiguity on this point.) Capitalism will only be humanized and controlled. Iber and Konczal attribute something like this idea to Bernie Sanders: "people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy."

There is a long tradition, especially associated with Leninism, that rejects this program on the grounds of "reformism." According to this view, the Polanyi perspective is inadequate because it embraces reforms that ameliorate capitalism. This is taken to be a distraction from the need to build a revolutionary force that can seize state power, overthrow the ruling class, and reconstruct property relations. This is a perspective that Iber and Konczal quickly dismiss: a "traditionally Marxist idea of having the state seize the means of production" which, they say, "has been abandoned even by most who identify as socialists."

I consider myself a socialist and a Marxist, although a questionably "traditional" one. My objection to the Polanyian analysis is somewhat different, however, from the one Iber and Konczal adduce. I am very much a "reformist" in the sense that my day to day politics involves working for things like universal health care or stronger unions or a less corrupt local government. (This, it should be noted, was also true of many historical communist militants, even if they looked forward to the seizure of power as their horizon.) Where I part company with the Polanyian left--and in some ways, also the traditional Marxist left--is in where I think such struggles ultimately lead.

Some time ago, I wrote a bit about the way Polanyian ideas influence advocates and defenders of the welfare state. In response to sociologist Daniel Zamora's attack on the theory of Michel Foucault, I noted that for many left critics of neoliberal capitalism, the project of the left is conceived in Polanyian terms, and is therefore limited to the struggle to "cushion workers from the vagaries of the market, while leaving the basic institutions of private property and wage labor in place." Thus there can be nothing beyond "a welfare state that protects the working class from the workings of an unfettered market."

There are two distinct objections that I would raise against this project. One is basically normative: a world of somewhat humanized wage labor isn't the one I want to live in, even if it would be better than the one we live in now. This is rooted in the anti-work socialist tradition, which insists that the ultimate goal of socialist politics isn't to make wage labor nicer, but to abolish it altogether. Since I've written extensively about that elsewhere, I won't repeat those arguments here.

The second objection has to do with the long-term viability of Polanyian welfare capitalism as an equilibrium within capitalism. The fundamental distinction I would make, between Marxist and Polanyian social democracy, does not have to do with debates over "reform" or "revolution". In other words, I accept the proposition that in the near term, the socialist project unfolds through incremental struggles that win material gains for workers, within the context of capitalism.

But the end point of Polanyi's socialism is really the regime that the theorist of the welfare state, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, called welfare capitalism. That is, it is still a society in which the means of production are privately controlled by a small elite, and most people must sell their labor to survive. It differs from unfettered capitalism because of the presence of things like unions, regulations, and social safety net programs, which partially--but never totally--decommodify labor.

It is at this point that we discover the divide between the Polanyian perspective and the Marxist alternative I'm proposing. It all turns on the question of whether this regime is viable.

What is viability? A concise definition comes from the sociologist Erik Olin Wright--who comes from a Marxist background, but whose work has strong Polanyian overtones. He has worked extensively on defining "real utopias" that could be offered as alternatives to the present system. He argues that any such utopia must satisfy three criteria: desirability, achievability, and viability. The first two are what they sound like: is this where we want to go, and can we get there?

As noted above, I think the Polanyian vision is somewhat lacking in terms of desirability. But it would still be a step forward. And on the question of achievability, I have no real quibbles: I support reformist struggles for the welfare state because I view them as achievable, compared to the alternative strategies of building an insurrectionary communist party, or writing sectarian polemics and waiting for capitalism to collapse on its own.

Viability is where all the problems arise. Wright defines the viability question as follows: "If we could create this alternative, would we be able to stay there or would it have such unintended consequences and self-destructive dynamics that it would not be sustainable?"

Recall the definition of Polanyi socialism as the situation in which "people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy." Is that a stable equilibrium, acceptable to both capitalists and workers? Or is it an inherently unstable situation, one which must break toward either the expropriation of the capitalist class, or the restoration of ruling class power?

Unlike the Polanyians, I think the welfare state is, in Wright's terms, not viable. Unlike Wright, however, I do not think that this invalidates it as a goal. Rather, I think that socialist politics is inevitably a task of "building the crisis." And the great tragedy of postwar socialism was the perverse division of political labor it gave rise to, between revolutionaries who refused to engage with reformist politics, and reformists who were unable or unwilling to deal with the crisis that their victories inevitably produced.

So, what makes social democracy non-viable as a stable system? For this, we need to turn to the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, and his famous 1943 essay "Political Aspects of Full Employment." The core insight of that essay is that economic struggles between workers and bosses are ultimately not about the size of the wage, or the stability of employment, or the generosity of benefits. They are about power.

It is possible to construct arguments showing that putting unemployed workers back to work would be good for capitalists too, in the sense that it would lead to faster growth and more profits. But as Chris Maisano explains in his exegesis of Kalecki, "the biggest barriers to the maintenance of full employment are primarily political in nature, not economic."

This is because in a situation of low unemployment, workers are less afraid of what Kalecki called the "power of the sack". As they become less afraid of the boss, they begin to demand more and more of the capitalists. Unions and social democratic parties strengthen; wildcat strikes proliferate. Eventually this dynamic calls into question not just profits, but the underlying property relations of capitalism itself. Welfare capitalism thus reaches what we could call the "Kalecki point," where its viability has been fatally undermined.

In that situation, employers become willing to take drastic action to get workers back into line, even at the expense of short term profitability. This takes many forms, including state-led attacks on unions and the refusal of capitalists to invest, a "capital strike" in which money is moved overseas or simply left in the bank, as a way of breaking the power of the working class.

David Harvey, in his Brief History of Neoliberalism, essentially portrays the right wing turn of the 1980's as a reactionary resolution of this crisis: a move away from the Kalecki point that entailed a restoration of capitalist class power rather than a leap into socialism. Jonah Birch provides a useful case study of France's Mitterand government during this period, which pushed the boundaries of the social democratic compromise and was finally forced back by the power of capital. The failure of the Rehn-Meidner plan, which was essentially a gradualist scheme to socialize the means of production in Sweden, provides a similar example.

So far I've argued that the social democratic class compromise is inherently non-viable, and tends toward conflict and crisis. But another way to look at it is that welfare capitalism can be made viable, but only in a way that subverts its socialist promise. This is because "the power of the sack" can be reconfigured into other kinds of disciplinary power, depending on the nature of the particular welfare capitalist regime we're talking about.

Recently, I discovered (via Mariame Kaba), the work of Elizabeth Hinton. Hinton's work focuses on Lyndon Johnson's 1960's "Great Society" expansion of the welfare state, and its connection to the construction of the carceral state--the rise of mass incarceration and militarized policing. She shows that while the Great Society was expanding access to things like income support and health care, a simultaneous "War on Crime" was subjecting the poor, and especially the black poor, to increased surveillance and state repression. Her analysis indicates that this was not an accidental juxtaposition, but part of a cohesive reconstruction of the relationship between the state and the working class.

This is easily comprehensible in terms of the contradictory nature of the welfare state and the problem of the Kalecki point. Without the welfare state, workers are disciplined by the power of the sack--or, in situations where workers are sufficiently organized and cohesive to resist the boss anyway, by private militias.

In the era of the welfare state, however, the partial decommodification of labor creates a great danger to capital, because it enhances the autonomy of workers, whether employed or not, to make demands on capital and the state. It was just this recognition that drove organizers like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward to organize welfare recipients in the late 1960's.

Police violence, drug wars, mass incarceration, onerous requirements on benefit recipients: these are all ways of disciplining the worker in the era of the welfare state, in the absence of the power of the sack. This also means that struggles against police oppression and incarceration are not parallel or ancillary to class struggle and the movement for socialism, but are fundamental to it: they attack the disciplinary regime that maintains the stability of our particular regime of capital accumulation.

For the the more Polanyi-ish, and Pollyana-ish, it's possible for us all to get along in a world where workers have comfortable lives and the bosses still make money. That's the vision that seems to animate Iber and Konczal's explainer. The alternative Marxist argument is that capitalism is defined by the power struggle between workers and capital, and the Polanyian version of socialism attempts to elide that contradiction in favor of a vision of harmonious co-existence.

Where this vision fails is not in the short term but in the long run. It leaves the left ill-equipped to address the inevitable crises that a successful reformist program generates, and I would argue that the belief in the possibility of permanent class compromise contributed to the defeat of the left and the victory of neoliberalism.

So the problem isn't that we can't win reformist victories for workers. History has shown that we can. The problem is what comes after victory, and we need a theory of socialism and social democracy that prepares our movements for that phase.

A $15 minimum wage is too high and that’s great

April 15th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

How high is too high, for the minimum wage?

Dylan Matthews, in his wrap-up of the Democratic primary debate, says that his "off-the-record conversations with left-leaning Democratic economists" indicate that many of them "express grave concern about the $15-an-hour figure, about the danger that this time we might be going too far." His Vox colleague Timothy Lee is tagged in to make the same argument in another post.

This despite the fact that Hillary Clinton has now apparently joined Bernie Sanders in endorsing the $15 minimum, going back on her previous unwillingness to go above $12.

And you know what? I think they might be right. It might be the case that a $15 an hour minimum wage is, as Matthews put in a tweet, "dangerous". To which my response is: that's awesome!

The reason that bourgeois economists tend to think a high minimum wage is "dangerous" is because they think it will lead to reduced employment. This is for two reasons.

First, because if it becomes economically infeasible to hire people at $15 per hour for certain jobs, the employers may just go out of business, reducing the demand for labor. There is a large body of literature suggesting that this objection is overblown, dating back to Card and Krueger in the early 1990's. But it's hard to dispute that there is some level at which higher minimum wages will lead to reduced employment.

The second thing that could reduce employment, even if the minimum wage doesn't force any businesses to go under, is automation. If it costs $15 an hour to pay a burger-flipper at McDonalds, perhaps it will become more appealing to turn to a burger-flipping robot, of the sort offered by Momentum Machines. This is a retort often thrown at living wage advocates by conservative critics: joke's on you suckers, raise your wage and we'll just automate your job!

Together, these arguments amount to a radical case for high minimum wages, not against them. Because they both get at the underlying political principle that should motivate any argument for higher wages: people need more money. That's completely separate from the question of whether things like low-wage fast food jobs should exist at all, which they probably shouldn't.

In other words, if $15 an hour makes it a little easier for a McDonalds worker to survive, that's great. But if it leads to some of those jobs disappearing entirely, then that forces us to confront an even bigger and more important question. Namely, how do we separate the idea of providing everyone with a decent standard of living from the idea of getting everyone a "job"? I've argued before that job-creation is a hole that we should stop digging.

The fight for 15 should be dangerous. I hope it is! I hope it leads to shorter hours, and a universal basic income. That's what I'd call some real disruptive innovation.

Time Bubbles and Tech Bubbles

March 18th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Shameless self-promotion

The Time Bubble

The new issue of Jacobin is out. It's about technology, a longstanding preoccupation of mine, and I have the lead editorial. Check it out, along with all the other great stuff in the issue.

I also wrote something for the newest issue of the New Inquiry, which is themed around "futures". My essay is here. In some ways it functions as a companion piece to my editorial, although it's generally loopier and weirder. It was retitled from my editor's original suggestion, "The Time Bubble", following the Fantastic Four storyline I reference in the text.

The above is an image from that storyline, showing the FF penetrating said bubble on their "time sled". Which is named Rosebud II. I loved this series of comics when I first read it as a 10 year old, and I still have fond feelings about it. Walt Simonson was great on that run, which he both wrote and drew. He has a wonderfully angular and abstract art style, and he's a witty writer with a good science fiction mind.

So I'm glad I got to build an essay about Marxist political economy around this story. Not that I'm the first person on the Internet to build an elaborate and vaguely ridiculous theory around these comics. For a far more ambitious and absurd attempt, you have to check out this site. The author argues that the 1961-1989 run of the Fantastic Four actually constitutes the "Great American Novel", an unmatched examination and synthesis of all the big questions that confronted American society during the cold war.

The site's coverage of the time bubble story can be found here. The author makes a bunch of metafictional arguments about the relationship between the stories and the upheavel in Marvel's editorial direction at the time, which was of course totally invisible to me when I was 10. The time bubble, he argues, represents the end of continuity and permanent change in the Marvel universe. It is about "all powerful beings"---i.e., editors---"who prevent the world from moving into the future" by dictating that writers cannot make permanent changes to the characters and worlds that they are writing.

Later on, there's another funny series of comics riffing on Marvel's internal bureaucracy, with a dimension of infinite faceless desk jockeys standing in for a directionless editorial team. It's all hilarious and wonderful. But really, just go read the comics.

The Tragedy of the Commons in the Rentier Mind

February 12th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek

Complementing my last post, here's a story about the twisted ideology that now surrounds intellectual property, where IP is considered not just as utilitarian necessity, but as some kind of inherent natural right. In the most absurd form, it is seen as a moral responsibility for creators to zealously defend any IP they can get their hands on, and maximize whatever amount of money they can squeeze out of it.

This article is about our trendy hot sauce of the moment, Sriracha. Specifically, it is about the fact that while the hot sauce in question is strongly associated with a particular product made by Huy Fong foods, the Sriracha name itself is not trademarked. As a result, everyone from your local twee sauce artisan to Heinz and Tabasco is now jumping in with their own Sriracha.

None of this seems to much bother Huy Fong's founder, David Tran. But boy does it bother all the people that look at this scenario and see a bunch of juicy lawsuits!

The author of the LA Times article calls it a "glaring omission" not to trademark the word.

"In my mind, it's a major misstep," says the president of a food marketing consultancy.

Even his competitors are baffled. "We spend enormous time protecting the word 'Tabasco' so that we don't have exactly this problem," says the CEO of a rival hot sauce company that's now going into the Sriracha market. "Why Mr. Tran did not do that, I don't know."

An IP lawyer laments: "The ship has probably sailed on this, which is unfortunate because they've clearly added something to American cuisine that wasn't there before."

That David Tran has added something to American cuisine is hard to dispute. But Tran also has a successful, growing business that has most likely made him very rich. One which he has said, on numerous occasions, he deliberately does not scale up as much as he could, in order to maintain the quality of his product and control the sources of his peppers.

So for whom is it so "unfortunate" that he doesn't spend his life in constant litigation against anyone who dares make a Thai-style hot sauce and name it after a city in Thailand? Tran himself gives the answer. "We have lawyers come and say 'I can represent you and sue' and I say 'No. Let them do it.'"

Intellectual Property and Pseudo-Innovation

February 10th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy

The most common justification for intellectual property protection is that it provides an incentive for future creation or innovation. There are many cases where this rationale is highly implausible, as with copyrights that extend long after the death of the original author. But even where IP does spur innovation, the question arises: innovation of what kind?

I've written before about things like patent and copyright trolling, where the IP regime incentivizes innovations that have no value at all, because they amount to figuring out ways to leverage the law in order to make money without doing any work or producing anything. But there's another category of what might be called "pseudo-innovation." This involves genuine creativity and cleverness, and the end result is something with real social utility. But the creativity and cleverness involved pertains only to circumventing intellectual property restrictions, without which it would be possible to produce a better output in a simpler way. A couple of examples of this have recently come to mind.

The first is the movie Selma, Ava DuVernay's dramatization of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like most dramatizations of historical events, the movie takes liberties with the historical record in order to compress events into a coherent and compelling narrative. But one of these liberties is particularly unusual: in scenes recreating actual King speeches, none of the words we hear from actor David Oyelowo's mouth are King's; rather they are broad paraphrases of the original words.

As it turns out, this was not a decision made for any artistic reason, but for a legal one: King's speeches are still the property of his descendants, who make large amounts of money by zealously guarding their copyrights. DuVernay was apparently barred from using the speeches because the film rights to King had already been licensed to Stephen Spielberg; meanwhile, the King family has had no problem lending his memory out to commercials for luxury cars and phone companies. DuVernay does an elegant job of giving the content and the feel of King's oratory without using his actual words, and one could perhaps even argue that some unique value arises from this technique. But for the most part it's pseudo-innovation, a second best solution mandated by copyright.

Another example comes from a very different field, computer hardware manufacturing. Here we turn to the early 1980's and the development of the "PC clone." Today, the personal computer is a generic technology---the machines that run Windows or Linux or other operating systems can be bought from many manufacturers or even, like the machine I'm using to write this post, assembled by the end user from individually sourced components. But in 1981, the PC was the IBM PC, and if you wanted to run PC software you needed to buy a machine from IBM..

Soon after the PC was introduced, rival companies began trying to produce cheaper knockoffs of the IBM product--the efforts of one leader, Compaq, are dramatized in the AMC series "Halt and Catch Fire". Building the machines themselves was trivial, because the necessary hardware was all publicly available and didn't require any propriety IBM technology. But problems arose in the attempt to make them truly "IBM-compatible"---that is, able to run all the same software that you could run on an IBM. This required copying the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), a bit of software built into the PC that programs use to interface with the hardware.

That BIOS was proprietary to IBM. So in order to copy it, Compaq was forced into a bizarre development system described by Compaq founder Rod Canlon as follows:

What our lawyers told us was that, not only can you not use it [the copyrighted code] anybody that’s even looked at it---glanced at it---could taint the whole project. (…) We had two software people. One guy read the code and generated the functional specifications. So, it was like, reading hieroglyphics. Figuring out what it does, then writing the specification for what it does. Then, once he’s got that specification completed, he sort of hands it through a doorway or a window to another person who’s never seen IBM’s code, and he takes that spec and starts from scratch and writes our own code to be able to do the exact same function.

Through this convoluted process, Compaq managed to make a knockoff BIOS within 9 months. Just as Ava DuVernay came up with paraphrases of King, they had essentially paraphrased the IBM BIOS. And the result was something genuinely useful: a cheaper version of the IBM PC, which expanded access to computing. But the truly inventive and interesting things Compaq came up with---the things that make the story worth fictionalizing on TV---are pure pseudo-innovation.

Looked at this way, the world of IP pseudo-innovation looks kind of like high finance. In both cases, you have people making money and even having fun figuring out the best ways to game and counter-game the system, but in none of the complicated trading algorithms or software development strategies add anything to social wealth.