Politics

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.

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!

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.

DSA died so that DSA could live

August 16th, 2017  |  Published in Politics, Socialism

Preferred pronouns on badges: a marker of the new era in DSA

From August 3rd to 6th, 2017, the Democratic Socialists of America held our biannual convention in Chicago. It was the 35th anniversary of the organization, which was founded in 1982 in a merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee–which in turn traced its roots to the old Socialist Party–and the New American Movement, which had a more New Left character. Many good accounts have been written already; this is just my own personal perspective.

Unlike past conventions, this one was the subject of a good deal of media attention. That’s because, after plodding along for years at around 6-8000 members, DSA has suddenly, in the past year, exploded to 25,000 dues-payers, an all-time record.

The reasons for this are many, and speak to the nature of the period, but the two crucial catalysts are easy to identify: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Bernie, though he was never really a part of DSA, activated a whole layer of previously demotivated young people, and popularized “democratic socialism” as a term for something to the left of mainstream Clintonite liberalism. And after Trump won, thousands of activists, seeking a political home to continue the struggle, found DSA.

All of this was rather shocking and odd for me. On the convention’s opening night, I suddenly found myself an old-timer at 37, when I spoke on the “socialism across generations” panel. Some of the other panelists were from the true old school, DSA veterans since the 1980s who organized alongside celebrity figurehead Michael Harrington. But others were from the new school, the massive influx of members who have come to the organization in the past year or so. I was there representing the somewhat forlorn middle school of DSAers.

I joined DSA in 1998, when I arrived as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I was already a committed Marxist, and my political sympathies tended more toward the legacy of the New Communist Movement, perhaps mixed with a bit of anarchism. But I took to heart the notion that “an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms.” So I identified DSA as the least sectarian and most politically relevant of the groups on offer; I duly walked up to their table at freshman orientation week and recruited myself.

Somehow I found myself running our campus chapter, and even becoming co-chair of the DSA youth section, the Young Democratic Socialists (now the Young Democratic Socialists of America). After college, I stayed involved intermittently, although nobody would have called me a particularly committed cadre. One of my contributions to DSA ended up being quite fortuitous for me, however: by contributing to YDS’s blog, The Activist, I met its young editor, Bhaskar Sunkara. That’s how I ended up on the ground floor of Jacobin Magazine.

Nevertheless, I had a sense that DSA was adrift, continuing on more by inertia than by any real sense of political purpose. Socialist organizations, I tend to think, have one generation to prove their relevance, before they have to give way to something else. I can hardly think of a better symbol of DSA’s decrepitude, early in this century, than the increasing centrality of bequests from dead members in the organization’s budgeting and fundraising.

And so it was, a decade or so ago, that I started to have the conversation with other comrades around my age: how do we let DSA die? That is, how do we acknowledge that this project has reached its terminus, without discarding the accumulated skill and knowledge of the comrades who do still have something to contribute to building 21st Century socialism?

Then the membership exploded, chapters popped up all over, and everything was uncertain. For the first time in years, I went to a DSA convention. And for the first time ever, I was an official voting delegate.

And I watched, on that August weekend in Chicago, as DSA finally did die, to thunderous applause. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Yes, the name and the organizational structure continue on, but what DSA is–and who it is–has been radically transformed in a matter of months. Of the 800 delegates in Chicago, the vast majority are newcomers to the organization. At the convention banquet, the MC asked us to stand sequentially according to the period when we had become involved in DSA or its predecessors: the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, the early 2010s, or since the beginning of 2016. Until that very last call, almost everyone was seated.

With such an inexperienced and untested group, there was no way of knowing how anyone would react. Would they be angered or bewildered at having to debate resolutions through the arcane procedure of Robert’s Rules of Order? Would some kind of wacky thing get passed as an official DSA position? Would we manage to agree on anything at all?

In the end, the assembled delegates acquitted themselves as well as I could possibly have hoped. People got the hang of the rules, votes mostly proceeded smoothly. And most importantly, the substantive decisions made were, from my point of view, almost all the right ones. And some of them would have been hard to imagine coming from the old DSA.

The two most significant–symbolically, if not necessarily in terms of DSA’s practical work–were the votes to endorse Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and to leave the Socialist International.

Both of these were moves that had been repeatedly attempted in years past, with no success. The founders of DSA were by and large Zionists or at least friendly to labor Zionism, and any too-severe criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine tended to run aground on accusations of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the Socialist International was taken as a mark of legitimacy and a link to those powerful social democratic parties–the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democrats, among others–that an older generation of DSA took as an inspiration and a model.

But this year, despite a few vocal opponents, support for BDS and opposition to SI membership passed by what appeared to be at least 90 percent margins. Since the convention, there have been a few showy displays of horror from erstwhile democratic socialists, particularly about BDS. But these people are largely irrelevant geezers or ex-Left renegades who would never lift a finger to build DSA in any event. Likewise with the (more muted) criticism of the SI position, which has mostly come from superannuated social democratic cosplayers, clinging to a fantasy version of the old socialist parties that is about as connected to contemporary politics as a Brezhnev-era Communist Party member’s faded hopes in the USSR.

The votes we took were tremendously encouraging to me, and made me feel closer to the mainstream of DSA’s politics than I ever have. We also passed a solid political priorities document, prioritizing universal health care, labor organizing, and electing socialists to office. We instituted a grievance procedure, and took some boring but incredibly important steps toward increasing our dues rate, and hence increasing our ability to hire staff and support all of our new chapters. And we elected a strong new National Political Committee, with a broad mix of ideological perspectives, and incorporating a solid core of experienced DSA veterans alongside many new faces.

(And yes, there is an ongoing controversy involving one newly elected NPC member, Danny Fetonte of Austin, who did not disclose his employment with a police union during his campaign. The NPC is engaged in an ongoing process with Fetonte, which I am still hopeful will be resolved amicably. My personal preference would be for him to resign, but for the NPC to negotiate the appointment of a replacement member who will reflect his region of the country and his ideological tendency within DSA.)

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I saw all weekend, however, was what took place during the final parliamentary session on Sunday. Throughout the convention, comrades with disabilities had become increasingly frustrated with what they felt was a lack of accessibility and acknowledgment of their issues during the proceedings. On Sunday, they decided to make a forceful intervention.

I encourage everyone to read the DSA Disability Working Group’s own detailed account of what went down. But the short version is this: after attempting, and failing, to add language about disability to our national priorities document, a protest broke out. Comrades scattered through the room began chanting “nothing about us without us.” At that point the chair, Chris Riddiough–who, I want to emphasize, did a heroic and indispensable job presiding throughout the rest of the convention–made the unfortunate decision to call for the removal of the protesters.

This was an extremely fraught moment. The protest immediately divided the room, with some delegates furious at the chair, and others furious at the protesters. I confess that I myself wavered for a moment, and I was afraid that the entire proceeding was about to devolve into chaos. But I soon realized that what was at stake, at that moment, was far more politically significant than keeping to a schedule or voting on a few remaining resolutions. This was about whether we, as the assembled delegates of DSA, were going to show some flexibility in order to affirm our solidarity with our comrades with disabilities, and by extension with all those who may find themselves marginalized or excluded in DSA.

And I’m proud to say that we passed this test. Our Robert’s Rules acumen had been sharpened by days of parliamentary procedure, and someone quickly realized that we had the authority to vote to overturn the chair’s ruling, which we thankfully did before there could be any question of carrying out the disastrous option of forcefully removing protesters from the hall. After that, the original motion on disability language was affirmed by huge margins, order returned, and we proceeded with the agenda. That one moment isn’t sufficient to address the larger issues raised by the protesting comrades, of course. But I’m hopeful that it was a sufficient display of solidarity to avoid permanently alienating some of our most committed members.

When all was said and done, we did make it through our agenda, and we closed with a singing of the Internationale, in traditional socialist fashion. As well as, in more of a new school touch, breaking out into chants of “eat the rich, feed the poor” and “DSA ain’t nothing to fuck with!”

And then we all went back to our chapters, where we’ll take up the hard work of building up our base and taking up the day to day struggle for socialism. It remains to be seen whether the current burst of enthusiasm can be sustained, or if it was just a flash in the pan. But for now, at least, I’ve been convinced that the historic rebirth I’ve long dreamed of is a reality.

DSA is dead. Long live DSA!

Left of the Dial

July 18th, 2017  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

Elizabeth Bruenig has written about the distinction between “liberals” and “the left.” She proposes that everyone in the broad tent of what she calls “non-Republicanism” is actually a liberal, in the following sense:

The second sense in which almost every non-Republican is a liberal is that they all agree with the tenets of liberalism as a philosophy: that is, the worldview that champions radical, rational free inquiry; egalitarianism; individualism; subjective rights; and freedom as primary political ends. (Republicans are, for the most part, liberals in this sense too; libertarians even more so.)

This is an easy statement for me to agree with–but I also think it brushes past some political distinctions that are important.

Am I a partisan of “radical, rational free inquiry”? I suppose I am, in that, like Marx, I endorse a “ruthless criticism of the existing order,” one which “will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

Do I believe in “egalitarianism”? Naturally–one of the basic structural features of my book is the distinction between a hierarchical society, like our own, and one where everyone shares in both the benefits and the sacrifices that are possible or necessary given our level of technological development and ecological constraint.

Individualism? Also uncontroversial, although it’s not entirely clear what the term is supposed to mean. I side with Oscar Wilde, who said that “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.” That instead of the false freedom of those condemned to work for others for a paycheck–free in Marx’s “double sense” of being free to sell our labour power and free of anything else to sell–we can have what Philippe Van Parijs calls “real freedom”, the freedom that comes from having the time and the resources to pursue self-actualization.

As for “subjective rights,” I’m not completely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Rights that are politically stipulated and democratically assigned, I guess, rather than arising from some divine concept of natural law? In that case, again, I’m on board, and I think the “social rights” arguments of people like T.H. Marshall can be usefully synthesized with the politics of opposing oppression and exploitation.

And then, of course, there is freedom. A word lodged deeply in the liberal tradition, and in the American tradition. And one, I think, that should be at the center of socialist politics as well. But freedom from what, and freedom to do what?

Here is Bruenig’s gloss on the meaning of socialism: “the economic aspects of liberalism (free or freeish market capitalism) create material conditions that actually make people less free.”

I like this, yet again I find it vague. In describing my own political trajectory, I often talk about my parents’ liberal politics, and my own journey of discovery, through which I concluded that their liberal ideals couldn’t be achieved by liberal means, but required something more radical, and more Marxist.

But what would it mean to escape “the economic aspects of liberalism”? Would it mean merely high wages; universal health care and education; a right to housing; strong labor unions?

To be clear, I am in favor of all of those things.

But we’ve seen this movie before. It’s the high tide of the welfare state, which is nowadays sometimes held up as an idyllic model of class peace and human contentment: everyone has a good job, and good benefits, and a comfortable retirement. (Although of course, this Eden never existed for much of the working class.) Who could want more?

The historical reality of welfare capitalism’s postwar high tide, though, is that everyone wanted more. Capitalists, as they always do, wanted more profits, and they felt the squeeze from powerful unions and social democratic parties that were impinging on this prerogative. More than that, they faced the problem of a working class that was becoming too politically powerful. This is what Michal Kalecki called the “political aspects of full employment,” the danger that a sufficiently empowered working class might call into question the basic structure of an economy based on concentrated property rights and capital accumulation.

Sometimes socialists will emphasize economic democracy as the core of our politics. Because as the Democratic Socialists of America’s statement of political principles puts it, “In the workplace, capitalism eschews democracy.” According to this line of argument, socialism means taking the liberal ideal of democracy into places where most people experience no democratic control at all, most especially the workplace.

But when you talk about introducing democracy, you’re talking about giving people control over their lives that they didn’t have before. And once you do that, you open up the possibility of much more radical and disruptive kinds of change.

For it is not just capitalists who always want more, but workers too. A good job is better than a bad job, is better than no job. Higher wages are better than low. But a strong working class isn’t inclined to sit back and be content with its lot–it’s inclined to demand more. Or less, when it comes to the drudgery of most jobs. After all, how many people dream of punching clocks and cashing paychecks at the behest of a boss, no matter what the size of the check or the security of the job? The song “Take This Job and Shove It” appeared in the aftermath of a period when many workers could make good on that threat, and did. In the peak year, 1969, there had been 766 unauthorized wildcat strikes in the United States, but by 1975 there were only 238.

All of this goes to the point that even if we could get back the postwar welfare state, that simply isn’t a permanently viable end point, and we need a politics that acknowledges that fact and prepares for it. And that has to be connected to some larger vision of what lies beyond the immediate demands of social democracy. That’s what I’d call socialism, or even communism, which for me is the ultimate horizon. The socialist project, for me, is about something more than just immediate demands for more jobs, or higher wages, or universal social programs, or shorter hours. It’s about those things. But it’s also about transcending, and abolishing, much of what we think defines our identities and our way of life.

It is about the abolition of class as such. This means the abolition of capitalist wage labor, and therefore the abolition of “the working class” as an identity and a social phenomenon. Which isn’t the same as the abolition of work in its other senses, as socially necessary or personally fulfilling labor.

It is about the abolition of “race”, that biologically fictitious, and yet socially overpowering idea. A task that is inseparable from the abolition of class, however much contemporary liberals might like to distract us from that reality. As David Roediger details in his recent essay collection on Class, Race, and Marxism, much of the forgotten history of terms like “white privilege” originated with communists, who wrestled with the problem of racism not to avoid class politics but to facilitate it. People like Claudia Jones, or Theodore Allen, whose masterwork The Invention of the White Race, was, as Roediger observes, borne of “a half century of radical organizing, much of it specifically in industry.”

And so too, no socialism worth the name can shrink from questioning patriarchy, gender, heterosexuality, the nuclear family. Marx and Engels themselves had some presentiment of this, some understanding that the control of the means of reproduction and the means of production were intimately and dialectically linked at The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. But they could follow their own logic only so far, and so it fell to the likes of Shulamith Firestone to suggest radical alternatives to our current ways of organizing the bearing and raising of children. It took communists the likes of Leslie Feinberg and Sylvia Federici to complicate our simplistic assumptions about the existence of binary “gender.” And the more we win reforms that allow people to define their sexualities and gender identities, to give women control of their bodies, to lessen their economic dependence on men, the more this kind of radical questioning will spill into the open.

So that’s what it means to me to be on “the left.” To imagine and anticipate and fight for a world without bosses, and beyond class, race, and gender as we understand them today. That, to me, is what it means to fight for individualism, and for freedom.

That’s one reason that I make a point of arguing for a politics that fights for beneficial reforms–single payer health care, living wages, all the rest–but that doesn’t stop there. A politics that fights for the “non-reformist” reform: a demand that is not meant to lead to a permanent state of humane capitalism, but that is intentionally destabilizing and disruptive.

The other reason is that, for all the economic and political reasons noted above, we can’t just get to a nicer version of capitalism and then stop there. We can only build social democracy in order to break it.

Is that what every liberal, or even every leftist, believes? From my experience, I don’t think so. That’s not meant to be a defense of sectarianism or dogmatism; I believe in building a broad united front with everyone who wants to make our society more humane, and more equal. But I have my sights on something beyond that.

Because if we do all agree that the project of the left is predicated on a vision of freedom and individualism, then we also have to regard that vision as a radically uncertain one. We can only look a short way into the future–to a point where the working class has had its shackles loosened a bit, as happened in the best moments of 20th Century social democracy. At that moment we again reach the point where a social democratic class compromise becomes untenable, and the system must either fall back into a reactionary form of capitalist retrenchment, or forward into something else entirely. What our future selves do in those circumstances, and what kinds of people we become, is unknowable and unpredictable–and for our politics to be genuinely democratic, it could not be any other way.

Liberalism and Legitimacy

February 3rd, 2017  |  Published in Politics, Socialism

The ethics of punching Nazis may be exhausting its useful life as a topic for punditry. But there’s one aspect of the debate that perhaps hasn’t received sufficient attention.

In the wake of Richard Spencer’s punching, and the shutdown of Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech in Berkeley, debate flared over whether these actions were justifiable and necessary direct action against the far right, or whether they represented something counter-productive or even politically unprincipled.

First, it’s necessary to pull apart several different things that are being argued about, which tend to get confusingly mashed together.

Some want to argue the question of whether the Left should use “violence”. But most of what we’re arguing about should not be described as violence. Punching Richard Spencer in the head would certainly qualify, albeit in a fairly minor way; but much of what people are calling violence is really just property destruction, the smashing of windows or the burning of limos. We should make a clear distinction between the mere destruction of objects and actual violence against human beings. Spencer notwithstanding, the worst violence seen thus far has come from supporters of the right.

A second separation we ought to make is between the general strategy of denying fascists a platform to speak, and specific, more disruptive “black bloc” tactics, including the aforementioned smashing of windows. One can affirm the validity of the strategy while questioning the tactics. A good example of this, dating back to the aftermath of the Occupy Oakland protests of 2011, is this post from rapper and communist organizer Boots Riley. Here he is talking about acts like window smashing as impediments to organizing, not as things that are always wrong in principle.

So we have three issues: violence, black bloc tactics, and the strategy of denying a platform to fascists. I’m not concerned here with debating the first two. The first because there has been so little actual violence, and the most notable has come from the right. The second because, while I tend to agree that adventurist tactics are often counterproductive for the Left and can put other activists at risk, this is a problem of discipline that movement organizers have to figure out how to solve internally. I doubt I have much to contribute as an outside observer.

My concern is with the broader issue of denying fascists the ability to spread their message. Was it right to interrupt Richard Spencer’s interview? (Whether or not one thinks it should have been done with an elbow to the head.) And was it right to organize protests large enough to prevent Milo from speaking at the University of California, after the school had approved his event? My starting point is generally that the far right does not respect norms of liberal discourse, and advocates positions that should be outside the realm of reasonable debate. So we shouldn’t feel bound by the terms of liberalism either when dealing with them.

This is the point in the conversation where we conventionally move to debating “free speech”, and whether the unconditional right of speech is something to be defended by the Left in all circumstances. But there are some problems that arise when we try to define just what a “right to free speech” includes, or doesn’t include.

A recent Peter Beinart article is representative of the liberal line that says “you can’t shut down a talk, everyone has a right to free speech!” Beinart essentially says that every student at Berkeley should have an equal right to give a platform to whatever speech they like, and thus the Left has failed by denying the College Republicans their inalienable right to hear Milo.

One response to this is that it’s misleading to say that protesters are abridging “the right of free speech” by shutting down an event. The argument is summarized in this XKCD cartoon: free speech means that the state can’t censor your expression, not that you are guaranteed an audience and a platform wherever and whenever you want. When someone cries “free speech” and shouts “help help I’m being repressed” upon being banned from a blog comment thread, this makes for a handy response. And since almost nobody is calling on the government to ban fascist speech at the moment, we could say that “free speech” is an irrelevant argument in this context.

This is fine as far as it goes, but one could easily respond: sure, that’s the constitution’s definition of free speech, but it doesn’t have to be ours. Some would argue that it is simply contrary to core leftist principles to deny even the most odious people their opportunity to speak. Others argue from a more strategic perspective, claiming that shutting down right wing speech will inevitably backfire, because it will draw sympathy and attention to it, and because the right and their allies in the state apparatus are more willing and able to restrict expression than we are.

The strategic argument is one I find wanting. The argument against “drawing attention” to the far right only makes sense if you think they will win because their ideas have so much inherent mass appeal, rather than because such movements rely on intimidation and force. And as for the backlash argument, it’s not clear to me how leftist actions are causally related to right wing moves toward censorship. The Right will certainly deploy the trope of free speech–as many of them did to me when I tweeted my support for the actions in Berkeley. But it would be foolish to believe that they have any actual intention of respecting our speech rights should they achieve greater power, whether or not we honor theirs. In other words, the Trump administration didn’t start shutting up the EPA on climate change because somebody interrupted Richard Spencer.

The argument from first principles seems harder to refute; you either believe it or you don’t. You could argue that the principle fails because the distinction between “speech” and “action” is impossible to cleanly maintain. That, as Austin and other speech act theorists argued, words can sometimes directly do things in the world. This is certainly applicable to Milo, who has been known to promote harassment of trans people and who apparently intended to directly target immigrant students at his Berkeley event.

However, this quickly gets us back into the world of legalism and logic-chopping, and debating what is or isn’t an innocent or “protected” act of speech. Is this mere rhetoric, or is it yelling fire in a crowded theater?

I think we can move beyond this to a deeper problem with the more wide-ranging definitions of the right to speech. Because once you disconnect the concept of free speech from the specific notion of keeping the state out of regulating expression, you run into a new problem. You need some way of deciding who does or doesn’t have the power to enable speech.

Sitting here at my desk, I have the unconditional right to speech, in the sense that I can yell out whatever I please, to be heard by nobody but my dog and my partner trying to work in the office across the hall. Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are similarly unconstrained. The problems arise when a TV network chooses to interview Spencer, or the University of California chooses to give Milo access to their facilities.

They have the right to do that, you might say, and we should respect it. But what is it, exactly, that gives them a right to decide who gets to speak, but doesn’t give a mass protest movement the right to say who shouldn’t get to speak?

I’ve seen some people argue that shutting down speech through protest is undemocratic–because, I suppose, we didn’t all get a vote on whether fascists should give speeches. But that’s precisely it–we didn’t get a vote on this, it was the media and places like UC Berkeley that made the decision. So in that sense all the decisions are equally undemocratic, and we have a contest of power, between two conflicting claims about who has the right to grant someone the ability to disseminate their message. And as Marx put it, “between equal rights, force decides.”

Here we get to what I think is the heart of the matter. This is about a principle that is fundamental to the mainstream of modern liberalism, one that tends to override all others. It is not the principle of free speech, or any other abstract right. Rather, it is an unwavering faith in the unquestionable legitimacy of the state, and of the rest of society’s powerful institutions.

This faith is distilled perfectly in this tweet from Shadi Hamid. “Can’t believe ppl on my Twitter feed are saying punching Richard Spencer is okay or encouraging it. I mean, it’s illegal to punch people.”

That’s it. That’s the whole argument. What makes this especially rich is that Hamid, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, is known for saying things like “the better, more just world that so many hope for is simply impossible without the use of American military force.” So an opponent of violence he most definitely is not. He simply demands that it be carried out by agents of the U.S. government.

This, of course, is a very old liberal faith. It is merely the insistence that, as Max Weber put it, a state, to even be a state, must claim the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”.

The presumption of legitimacy, for people like Beinart in the article cited above, extends beyond the use of force and beyond the core apparatus of the state itself. Public institutions created by the state, respected private institutions and private property guaranteed by its laws; all must remain inviolate. And it is these institutions alone that may decide who does or does not receive a platform to speak.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to give Richard Spencer a platform is presumed to be legitimate; a protester’s decision to deny him one is presumed not to be. The University of California’s decision to host Milo cannot be questioned, while the decision of the students and local community to shut him down must be denounced. (In other situations, the principle is ambiguous. Had Shia LaBeouf constituted the legitimate authority to shout down a white supremacist who attempted to shout a Nazi slogan on a livestream he had set up?)

The liberal will respond that because we voted for our elected representatives, everything that they do, everything that legally constituted institutions do, and anything that is consistent with the laws of private property, is legitimate. All else is dangerous and subversive, and risks anarchy, fascism, or worse.

But for radicals, America is not already great, nor is it completely democratic. And so we are under no obligation to grant legitimacy to the existing order.

This is, and always has been, a crucial dividing line between liberals and radicals. It’s not that we necessarily think it’s ideal to decide questions of speech–or anything else–through ad-hoc clashes between protesters and institutionalized power. What we insist on, however, is that the legitimacy of the state and of other institutions of capitalist society can be questioned. This presumption is necessary to justify even something as basic as waging an illegal strike or marching without a permit. But it leads, for some socialist traditions, all the way to the idea that in truly revolutionary situations (which is far from where we are now), an actual dual power can be constituted, with new institutions arising to contest and eventually replace the existing ones.

Liberals instinctively resist these ideas, and fall back on their reverence for the process, the procedure, and the rule of law. But it will be interesting to see how their thinking develops in the era of Trump.

For we are now living in a moment where the executive intends to rule by decree, and where its agents cavalierly defy direct court orders. And at the same time, also one where, as Corey Robin argues, many horrors are completely achievable within the boundaries of the traditional institutions and rules. If all the rusty machinery of American constitutional democracy is so easily disregarded, or so easily turned to evil purposes, what will become of the liberal insistence that it is only the old institutions, and not the masses in motion, who represent a legitimate order?

Bedtime for Bannon

January 29th, 2017  |  Published in Politics

What the Trump administration has done, over the past few days, is horrific. And it has terrible human consequences for the migrants and other people caught up in it. I don’t want to minimize that.

If there’s a silver lining here, though, it’s that I have a feeling Steve Bannon is going to end up getting hellaciously dumpstered behind this shit.

Sure, he seems to be riding high now. Writing inauguration speeches and executive orders; even getting himself stuck on the National Security Council!

But things are already spinning out of control and falling apart, in the face of resistance from both mass street protest and the judiciary.

And Donald Trump is known to be a person whose primary loyalty is to Donald J. Trump. To stay in his inner circle, you need to have a “value proposition”, as the sleazy businessmen like to say. That is, something you have to offer, that can increase the revenue of the business.

And what, exactly, is Bannon’s value proposition?

It isn’t any special connection with the conventional Republican political elite. Paul Ryan and the like have always regarded him with something between indifference and contempt. And they’re probably starting to wonder if his agenda is crowding out more traditional conservative priorities, such as starving out grannies, enabling financial fraud, lowering taxes on billionaires, and ensuring that sick people die in the gutter if they aren’t rich.

Bannon also isn’t a gateway to the super-rich donor class. From the perspective of the billionaires, his pipsqueak Seinfeld-residuals-cashing ass barely registers.

What Steve Bannon provides–or was supposed to provide–is the mass base, the hordes of frothing Trump supporters, who would pour forth from 4chan and Breitbart.com to give aid and cover to the schemes of the Ayn Rand-worshipping ideologues and the cynical rich.

The problem is that he isn’t actually delivering this. Hence the half-empty inauguration, followed up with packed Women’s March protests. The definitive image from Trump’s coronation wasn’t hordes of his adoring fans; it was Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. This was an embarrassment so severe, Trump was reduced to harassing the Park Service for more flattering photos. And then we got the executive orders on migrants that presumably were supposed to bring out the grateful masses, but which only succeeded in bringing on a whirlwind of mobilization against Trump.

Trump’s vanity and idiocy are sufficient that it may take him some time to realize this. But once he does, it’s bedtime for Bannon, who will be defenestrated without ceremony. That leaves the rest of the ghouls in this administration and in congress, who are no less terrifying in their own way. But we’ll have gotten our first win, and hopefully far from the last.