The limits of anti-Trumpism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernie and the movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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](https://scienceforthepeople.org/) 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](https://monthlyreview.org/press/the-science-humanism-of-stephen-jay-gould-reviewed-in-new-politics/). 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](https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/current-issue/) geoengineering, an issue on which I've thrown in my own [two cents](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/by-any-means-necessary/). 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](https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/best-case-scenario-carbon-underground/) 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](Ehttps://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/no-wiser-than-before/), 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](https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/making-war-on-the-planet/), 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](https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/24/graphic-the-relentless-rise-of-carbon-dioxide/) 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"](https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=779). 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](https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/climate-geoengineering-kim-stanley-robinson_us_5b4e54bde4b0de86f487b0b9), 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](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/by-any-means-necessary/) 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](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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](https://business.leeds.ac.uk/about-us/article/universal-basic-income-and-the-future-of-work/) 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](http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/08/22/feminist-case-basic-income-interview-kathi-weeks/), "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](https://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-race/undercommons-no-racial-justice-without-basic-income) 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*](https://www.versobooks.com/books/509-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](http://books.wwnorton.com/books/The-Mismeasure-of-Man/) *The Bell Curve*. His 2006 book [*In Our Hands*](https://www.aei.org/publication/a-guaranteed-income-for-every-american/) 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](https://www.fastcompany.com/4030576/elon-musk-says-automation-will-make-a-universal-basic-income-necessary-soon). It is also the prospect that drives some on the left to vociferously oppose the idea. Sociologist Daniel Zamora, who I've [sparred](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/beyond-the-welfare-state/) [with](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/06/social-democracy-polanyi-great-transformation-welfare-state) on occasion, [argues](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/universal-basic-income-inequality-work) 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](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/06/de-commodification-in-everyday-life/). This perspective is reflected by those like [Barbara Bergmann](https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/reducing-inequality-merit-goods-vs-income-grants), who [emphasize](http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0032329203261101?journalCode=pasa) 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](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/04/health-care-and-the-communism-of-the-welfare-state/) elsewhere. Bergmann's prioritization of this substantive service provision is reflected in the advocates of ["Universal Basic Services"](https://universalbasicservices.org/) 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](https://www.aei.org/publication/universal-basic-income-uncertain-need-with-worrisome-potential-costs/), 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](https://lbo-news.com/2015/07/17/workers-no-longer-needed/)). Others, like [Thomas Sowell](https://www.creators.com/read/thomas-sowell/06/16/is-personal-responsibility-obsolete), 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](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/04/the-politics-of-getting-a-life/) 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](https://www.dw.com/en/german-trade-unions-strictly-against-basic-income-concept/a-43589741) argued recently that "pursuing a job was crucial to structure people's everyday lives and ensure social cohesion."

In his new book [*Radical Technologies*](https://www.versobooks.com/books/2742-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](https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/5329/why-sci-fi-and-economics-have-more-in-common-than-you-think), 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*](https://www.versobooks.com/books/1847-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](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/01/hipsters-food-stamps-and-the-politics-of-resentment) 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](http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/2001-odyssee-espace/a-guaranteed-annual-income-from-mincome-to-the-millennium/) "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](http://time.com/4412410/andy-stern-universal-basic-income/)).

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](http://chicagojewishfunerals.com/funeral-detail-page/?case=4893F287-BFEF-445C-A361-07324D755EDA) 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](https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/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](https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch16.htm). "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](http://davidharvey.org/2018/03/marxs-refusal-of-the-labour-theory-of-value-by-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](http://www.peterfrase.com/2011/07/reanimated-marxism/) Postone. But to borrow a phrase from [Joan Robinson](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/07/joan-robinsons-open-letter-from-a-keynesian-to-a-marxist-2): 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](http://www.peterfrase.com/2016/12/class-war-trumps-hate/) 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*](https://www.versobooks.com/books/2426-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](https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/10/police-reform-prisons-racism-vitale). 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](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.C.A.B.), 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](http://lawandorder.wikia.com/wiki/Heartfelt_Passages) or a corrupt small town [department](http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1330434/) 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](https://twitter.com/icetsvu) are bastards too--and in the system they work under, couldn't be any other way.