Socialism

Breaking the Norm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

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?

Class War Trumps Hate

December 10th, 2016  |  Published in Politics, Socialism

Sent on a whim while I was killing some time in Troy, New York, this appears to be my most popular tweet of all time. (Not that there’s much tough competition.) Explaining a tweet seems sort of like explaining a joke, but I’m going to make a run at it anyway.

“Class war trumps hate.”

The reference, of course, is to those squishy liberal “Love Trumps Hate” bumper stickers. As though warm feelings are enough to combat the bigotry of the Right.

As for my alternative slogan, maybe part of its appeal was its ambiguity. In one reading, I’m saying that the way we respond to the haters is not by embracing them, but by fighting them in the streets. And when it comes to hipster fascists like Richard Spencer and his ilk, I couldn’t agree more. We should all admire anti-fascist street fighters like this guy, my favorite of Keith Ellison’s clients from his days as a leftist lawyer in the Twin Cities. (And that’s a story I hope I can tell at greater length sometime in the future.)

But that wasn’t actually what I was thinking about when I wrote that tweet. What I was thinking about was the picket line I had just visited with Jon Flanders, near Troy in upstate New York. Jon is a veteran socialist, a veteran unionist (former Machinist local president), and the mastermind of the wonderful James Connolly Forum, a non-sectarian lecture series that I visted for a discussion of my book.

Jon took me to see the workers who have been on strike at Momentive, a chemical manufacturer and former GE subsidiary where the workers have suffered a decade of brutalization from the company’s private equity owners. “Picket line” isn’t even the right word; the vast Momentive complex stretches on for perhaps a half mile, and each entrance is staffed by a small crew of workers, with a tent for shelter and a large pile of broken-up pallets to be burned for warmth.

At the Momentive strike

They were a range of ages, but mostly men, mostly white. Some of them, Jon told, me, would have voted for Trump: “Drain the Swamp”, he said, was a sign he had seen from some younger strikers. But out here, they were just union brothers and sisters, so I said to them what I would say to anyone fighting a similar battle: solidarity with your struggle, the verbal equivalent of the stream of supportive honks from the passing truck drivers. The little spark of joy I noticed whenever I said that was heartwarming, but also a depressing indicator of just how little solidarity these workers have received.

Which brings me to the inspiration for that tweet. Jon told me a story about a particular form of strike support that he had helped facilitate. The Capital District Coalition Coalition Against Islamophobia organized a visit to the strikers by three women from the local Islamic Center. They brought food, and introduced themselves to the workers on the picket. Jon himself was apprehensive beforehand, concerned about potential bigotry and Islamophobia coming from the strikers.

In the end though, the strikers were grateful for the support–they know they are in a fight for their lives, and they know better than to refuse an ally. And their visitors learned something about a labor struggle that had been obscure to them. “I can’t honestly say that I knew much about strikes or have ever visited a picket line, so I learned a lot today”, one of them wrote on Facebook. “I’m pretty sure most of the strikers had never met a Muslim before but they all thanked us profusely for taking the time to give them some support.”

It’s a small thing, this one little act. But small acts like that are the elements of any sustainable reconstruction of the Left, one that is “intersectional” in practice, not just in rhetoric. So that was what I was thinking when I wrote that tweet, just after getting my picture taken with the statue of Irish revolutionary legend and onetime Troy resident James Connolly: class struggle trumps hate. That is, a solidarity forged in struggle can overcome the abstract indoctrinations of race hatred. Which is not to say that the realities of imperialism or white supremacy can simply be ignored or left in the past. Merely that the overcoming of those systems begins where people are thrown together in common struggle.

Me with James Connolly statue, Troy NY