Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cultural boxes

In his comment to my post We can't just take what we want, Dustin Vinland Jarl writes,

So you don't think it should be the law, but that it should be angry online mobs that ensure that nobody strays from their prescribed "cultural box" into another "cultural box" for which they don't have "ownership"?

I will repeat my first response: "Mobs? This is the usual characterization of the people by anti-democratic elitists," but I want to add more.

We literally live in boxes — houses, apartments, etc. — about which we assert all sorts of ownership rights. The point is not to make sure that you never leave your own box and enter mine; the point is that you have to respect my ownership rights, and I yours. It's not that you can't come over and visit, it's that you need to ask permission or be invited: you need to respect my ownership. And if you have a history of breaking in by unannounced, and worse yet shitting all over my bed, I'm going to refuse permission for what I might otherwise grant it: I'm sorry you've become homeless, but no, you can't crash on my couch. Why? Because you've shown yourself to be a jackass.

So yes, I'm asserting that people in these "cultural box[es]" — boxes that I yet again note were constructed by white colonialists to dehumanize and exploit those they put in those boxes — are asserting ownership and demanding that we respect that ownership.

Do I think cultural exchange important? Of course I do. Should we engage in cultural exchange in a respectful manner, cognizant of the abominable history of colonialism? Absolutely.

If you disagree with the latter, why? Why should cultural exchange necessarily require abandonment of notions of ordinary respect and consideration?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Socialism, Marxism, and communism

Fredrik deBoer's offers his opinion about what socialism, Marxism, and communism mean. I largely agree.

The term “socialism” refers to an economic system in which human goods are removed from the market mechanism and currency exchange and are instead distributed based on need. . . .

The term “Marxist” refers to the teachings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their intellectual descendants. Marxism is commonly also called “dialectical materialism” . . . Marxism is the culmination of Enlightenment thought.

“Communism” is the political program of Marxists . . . Communism is a type of revolutionary socialism which calls for a worldwide workers revolution that destroys capitalism, kills God, and dismantles the state. . . .

deBoer goes into a little more detail; as the saying goes, read the rest.

It is pointless to argue that that's not what socialism, Marxism, and communism "really means"; the best you can do is say that that's not what <insert pseudo-authority here> thinks these things mean.

I personally would stress more the sense of socialism as the establishment of social welfare on the basis of the power of the proletariat rather than the sufferance of the bourgeoisie, but deBoer gets some of that sense in "communism", so I'm cool overall.

We can't just take what we want

I think non-Hispanics wearing sombreros at a tequila party is a maybe little bit racist, but not really a big deal: it was certainly not intended to be disrespectful, intended not as mockery but as homage. I think a young white woman wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom is completely fine: it's literally just a dress.

But the whole point of cultural appropriation is that it's pretty much irrelevant what I think: I drew a straight flush of cultural and economic privilege.

A long time ago, I was negotiating with a family member (the details are unimportant). I said that I wanted thus-and-such. The other person said that I should not want that. I was furious. Maybe I couldn't get what I wanted, but how dare they tell me I shouldn't want it.

I suspect Yassmin Abdel-Magied objects to Lionel Shriver for much the same reason. Shriver is saying to people of oppressed cultures that they shouldn't want to protect the integrity of their cultures from white expropriation. I agree with Abdel-Magied: Fuck you, and fuck your artistic white privilege.

It was not women, black people, brown people, Asian people, Muslims, gay people, trans people, etc. who drew boundaries around themselves and said, "None shall pass." It was straight white European wealthy men who drew those boundaries and said, "Everyone in those boundaries is not human, so we can take from them, and do to them, whatever we want."

Surprise, surprise, surprise! people in those boundaries are taking ownership: "You made the boundaries, but we're taking them back, and you can't have anything inside them without our permission." Sometimes permission is denied for what seems to li'l ol' privileged me to be petty or arbitrary reasons. So what? The whole point of you owning something is that absent exceptional circumstances, I must ask your permission, and I don't get to judge your reasons for refusing.

The intent of objections to cultural appropriation is not, I think, to maintain some mythical cultural purity. It is simply to start to take power away from European colonialism and imperialism, to say, "We are actual human beings, and we have the right to own this thing, our own culture. You cannot simply take what you want."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Cultural appropriation

I'm almost completely unsympathetic to Claire Lehmann's argument in The Evils of Cultural Appropriation. Lehmann mentions two cases, the furor over a young white woman's Chinese-themed prom dress and Yassmin Abdel-Magied's outrage over Lionel Shriver’s defense of cultural appropriation. The boundaries of cultural appropriation are fuzzy, but just because they're fuzzy doesn't mean they don't exist.

We — white people, men, straight people, cis people — made this bed, and we seem shocked! shocked I say! to have to lie in it. For centuries, white people have been colossal dicks to people of color, men have been colossal dicks to women, straight people colossal dicks to gay people, and cis people colossal dicks to trans people. Ok, history, yadda yadda, but the thing is that we're still being colossal dicks. We have been literally victimizing people of color, etc., and now we're surprised that they're using their victimization? Seriously: grow up. Actions have consequences. We've been bullying the world for the better part of a millennium (and women for several millennia); we have no business complaining that they're fighting back in ways we disapprove of. You can't bully someone, and when they fight back, say, "Hey! Why can't we all just get along?"

I don't always agree with how people of color, women, gay people, trans people, etc. fight their oppression. But so what? I don't have to live with what they have to live with. I'm a straight white cis middle-class man. I don't have to fight any kind of oppression. All I can do is try not to be a colossal dick.

When people of color start getting their share of the awards and book deals, maybe then we can start talking about whether or not white writers get to write about people of color. Until then, let's stop trying to be colossal dicks about the whole thing.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Who bullies the bullies

Who Bullies The Bullies?

Super interesting. The Last Psychiatrist argues that the fight against sexism isn't really a fight against sexism; it's an effort to commodify sexism and distract us all from capitalist alienation.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Socialism and moral philosophy

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as "socialism". What follows are my own ideas about socialism.

The outrage against children receiving "participation trophies" and related practices such as not keeping score in sportsball, is a common enough trope. But why? I'm no expert in childhood education (I'm in adult education), so why should I or any other non-expert have strong feelings about how teachers teach children? The answer is that people who object to these practices see them as breaking an important moral norm, exactly as if educators were encouraging children to fight or lie. The objection is not to a method but to an outcome, which is a legitimate concern of non-experts. The outcome, the moral norm, is that invidious norms are of considerable importance.

Invidious norms draw distinctions within society. Contrast invidious norms with universal norms, such as the norm against killing. People who violate the universal norm against killing are cut off from ordinary society, either in prison or criminal gangs, or in the insulated and alienated communities of soldiers and police. The distinction is not really between "good" and "bad": people who kill others are not so much "bad" as alien, and people who don't kill others are not really "good", they are just ordinary.

In contrast, invidious norms really do divide people into superior and inferior, without alienating the inferior from society. For example, I consider generosity morally superior to selfishness. I think generous people are morally better than selfish people. But selfish people are still part of society; they are not cut off in the same sense that those who kill are cut off. There's nothing wrong with invidious norms per se, but as with any other element of society, we should think clearly and deeply about them.

Capitalism establishes an invidious norm: the superior should be economically rewarded, and the inferior should be not just not rewarded but economically deprived. This norm, however, is circular: there is no judgment of superior and inferior independent to economic reward: those who are economically rewarded are superior just by virtue of their reward; those who are deprived are inferior just by virtue of their deprivation. Thus, any attempts to reward the deprived is immoral, just as it is immoral to give the gold medal, indeed any medal at all, to the last-place athlete.

Of course, capitalist apologists deny circularity: poor people are inferior not because they are poor; they are poor because they are inferior, i.e. lazy, improvident, and impatient. Rich people are rich because they are superior, i.e. industrious, thrifty, and patient. But ask the apologist how they know that poor people are lazy, and they will answer that if the poor were industrious, they wouldn't be poor. And even if we could independently determine laziness, we cannot be sure that poor people are lazy because they are poor. (See especially recent criticism of the "marshmallow" test.) Just that Donald Trump, for example, is both rich (well, richer than me) and President of the United States is evidence enough that the connection in our capitalist society between merit and reward is completely broken.

A related norm that precedes capitalism is the norm that people do not want to be virtuous; they must be forced to be virtuous. It is the moral duty of the superior to force the inferior to be good. (See Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind and Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians.) It is not the virtue of the superior that makes them superior, it is their power to force the inferior to virtue. Hence we routinely forgive the powerful for their sins, so long as they retain the power to force the powerless to virtue. That no one has the power to force the powerful to be virtuous is a regrettable consequence, but if it were true that virtue must be forced, that consequence would be inescapable.

Hence the inferior must, as mentioned above, be deprived. Partly just because of simple human perversity — it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail — but there's more. It is not sufficient that the superior have more if the inferior still have enough. Only conditions of deprivation place the inferior under the power of the superior. The superior must have that which the inferior desperately need. The subordination of the inferior to the superior is constant across social systems; capitalism is unique in that the mode of this subordination is wage labor.

The moral progress of previous generations has been to refine and distill relations of subordination; hence Marx speaks of society coalescing into two classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. Capitalism strips the relations of subordination of previous eras of superstition and ignorance. If we commit ourselves to the project of separating the superior from the inferior and placing the inferior in the power of the superior, I can think of no better way of doing so than capitalism. Simply trying to change who is superior and who is inferior must be a step backward into superstition and bullshit.

We have reached the pinnacle of relations of subordination. The only way forward, then, is to eliminate relations of subordination. We must directly acknowledge and confront the underlying idea that it is a moral good to divide people into the superior and inferior, and that it is a moral wrong to reward the inferior at the expense of the superior. No small task, and a task, I think, that no would-be socialist society has successfully confronted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Socialism and Social Democracy

Socialism resembles social democracy. Social democracy is where a capitalist democratic republic distributes some of the social surplus, i.e. the difference between what workers produce and the minimum cost of living, to the workers themselves. Some of this surplus is distributed directly, by supporting higher workers' pay, vacations, sick leave, parental leave, and retirement; some is distributed through public goods such as infrastructure and control over monopolies (especially health care). Workers are materially better off under social democracy, and they have more emotional security and personal autonomy. Social democracy as actually practiced in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and even to some extent in post-Thatcher Great Britain does not lead to dystopia or poverty, nor does it seem, contra Kautsky, the start of a slippery slope into socialism.

Socialism is not social democracy*, but one of socialism's selling points is (or ought to be) that socialism will deliver the same sort of material benefits as social democracy. To a certain extent, then, social democracy undermines socialism: the workers get much of the (purported) benefits of socialism without the chaos and pain of a socialist revolution. I'm cool with that. As a pragmatist, I'm primarily evaluating outcomes, not the underlying structure; the structure is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

*The key difference is that socialism entails that workers, not the capitalists or PMC, dominate economic and political power and take the social surplus, not passively receive it from their "betters".

It's curious, though, that the United States, the wealthiest nation-state with the most productive workers has not only not developed a strong social democracy, but is busily dismantling what little social democratic institutions we used to have, whereas the much smaller Scandinavian nation-states have quite robust social democracies which have not slid into socialism. I suspect that the Scandinavian capitalist class though to themselves that they were never going to run the world, so they could tolerate the diminution of their economic power under social democracy; the Scandinavian working class thought to themselves that they were never going to start off a global socialist revolution, so why bother when they already had most of what socialism promises anyway.

Even social democracy, however, really does diminish the power of the capitalist class. And the American capitalist class really does think it needs every iota of power it can accumulate, both to appear strong in an anarchic international community, and because they think it's counter-productive to try and run the world without all the power they can accumulate.

Additionally, I think the American capitalist class fears the slippery slope into actual socialism more than the Scandinavians. An empowered and entitled working class in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world differs greatly from one in a much smaller country without much global influence. As the the European Union gains economic and political power, they seem earnestly trying to dismantle its own members' social democracies. The Swedish working cannot simply demand more and more; they are constrained by the rest of the world; the American and European working class, however, faces fewer external constraints.

I'm not, strictly speaking, against social democracy. If I thought the American ruling classes, the capitalist class and the PMC, could deliver social democracy, I would be all for it; I started calling myself a socialist and communist only because concluded that the American ruling could not deliver social democracy, and factions within the ruling classes differed only on how quickly they wanted to dismantle what little social democracy we already had.

The failure to deliver social democracy clearly starts with the "right", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want absolute power for the capitalist class. To these factions, social democracy is a Bad Idea on its own merits. But the capitalist "left", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want social democracy, bears a lot of the blame; the capitalist left has to demonize socialism, because socialism would almost completely disempower them. But to demonize socialism all to easily demonizes what socialists want, i.e. more economic and social welfare for the working classes. More importantly, most of the capitalist left is in the Professional-Managerial class (PMC), and the PMC needs to maintain an alliance with the capitalist class, but the capitalist class (at least in the US and EU) wants absolute power. By cutting off the pull for economic and social welfare from the socialists, the capitalist left is subject only to the pull for absolute capitalist power from the right.

There's really very little to be done. Socialists are in nearly complete political disarray, the capitalist left is losing power by the day, and the right is organized, militant, and has the will to power. It is, I think, inevitable that the West will slide into fascism, and, ironically enough, it will be the Chinese Communists alone who will retain the military and economic power to oppose them.

Friday, June 08, 2018

No such thing

Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison

(Image: Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison)

There's no such thing as Marxism or socialism. These are terms of broad tribal affiliation; they do not name a singular coherent, identifiable ideology or political or ethical philosophy. There are some broad commonalities between individuals and organizations who call themselves Marxist or socialist, but there is absolutely nothing essential one can say about these terms.

There's nothing wrong with tribal affiliation, or markers of tribal affiliation; it's just that tribal affiliation is something very different from ideology and political philosophy.

A common rhetorical move is to argue* that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so if we give them anything, they'll have enough power to get the Bad Thing. This move is commonly enough targeted at those people over there who call themselves feminists that we can use it as a stylized fact. Those feminists want to kill all the men and reproduce by self-fertilization, so we can't give them anything they want, like legal equality or reproductive control, or they will eventually get enough power to kill all the men. (The related move is that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so they are Bad People, and we are entitled to ignore, oppress, or simply eliminate them.)

*I'm using the "some people say" move as illustration, not argument.

Obviously, killing all the men seems like a Bad Thing, and there are probably people who call themselves "feminist" who really do want to kill all the men, but that doesn't mean that killing all the men is essential to feminism.

The above is an obviously extreme example, so what about more common arguments? I've heard arguments that a lot of feminists, perhaps a majority, are insufficiently concerned with matters of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity*. Perhaps these arguments are correct, perhaps a majority of feminists are insufficiently concerned with racism, but so what? That would be something that feminists have to correct, not an indictment of feminism itself.

*Look up "Transphobic Exclusive Radical Feminists" or "TERFs"

Just like Marxism and socialism, there really isn't any such thing as feminism: by itself, it's not a coherent ideology; it's a tribal affiliation. I call myself a feminist not because I want to kill all the men or because I don't care about racism; I call myself a feminist because I want to affiliate myself with the tribe that (usually) believes the radical idea that women are people. There are some people who might reject my affiliation for one reason or another. Fair enough: if some feminists define feminism in a way I cannot be (or would not want to be) affiliated with them, then I'm not affiliated with those feminists. But I'm still affiliated with those that accept me. If the first wants to persuade the second to reject me, then they can argue the point without me.

I call myself a socialist, a communist, a Marxist* to assert a tribal affiliation, not to assert any specific ideology. A common response when I declare myself a socialist is to hear that socialism is bad because Stalin and Mao killed millions of people. Leaving aside the truth or context of this claim, even if it were true, so what? If killing millions of people is a Bad Thing, let's take that killing out of socialism. And, in fact, almost all people who call themselves socialists already have taken the killings of millions out of socialism: they argue that Stalin (and to some extent Mao) were at best bad socialists and at worst no more socialist than Hitler was.

*I actually prefer to not call myself a "Marxist" for the same reason that biologists don't like calling themselves "Darwinists" and rocket scientists don't like calling themselves "Newtonists".

I don't mind guys like Ben Garrison above. I think political propaganda in principle a Good Thing. Garrison loves him some Donald, so of course he's going to portray the real opposition as badly as possible. (Here are Khalil Bendib and David Horsey getting their licks in on the other side.) Politics is and will always be just as much about image and emotion as it is about ideas and substance. However, ideas and substance matter — at least to me — so rather than indulge in lazy caricatures or meaningless over-generalization, I want to talk about the actual ideas that socialists have, especially the ideas that this particular socialist has.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Socialized healthcare ate my baby!

the stupid! it burns! April Joy cranks the stupid up to 11 in By a thousand cuts. Ordinary Times hasn't published anything interesting in months, and then they publish this drivel. I'm done with them: even the "best" conservatives just can't escape the stupid.

For the occasional conservative who might stumble here and has has difficulty seeing obvious stupidity, let me explain.

I'm sorry Ms. Joy lost her child. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, however despicable they might be. And I'm sorry for Alfie Evans and his parents. But Joy turns this tragedy into a condemnation of... socialized medicine? Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick! What does socialized medicine have to do with it?

Alfie is going to die. But he's not going to die because the British have allowed "government to control who lives and dies outside of the criminal justice system." Alfie is not going to die because anyone has "[c]ed[ed] control of the well-being of one’s children to the government." Alfie is not going to die because a "faceless bureaucracy [has] unfettered access to your most intimate information, with which they can then do anything, including decide whether you live or die." Alfie is going to die because he has an incurable disease. He is going to die in Britain instead of Italy because even according to the obviously biased source Joy cites, a court of law — not any bureaucracy — has decided it is in the child's best interests to stay in Britain.

There is no connection whatsoever between Alfie and his parents' tragedy and Britain's health care system. Joy does not even allege that Alfie has received substandard care, or is being allowed to die because of resource constraints. His special snowflake parents don't get to do whatever they want with their dying boy, so socialism is bad?

This is beyond wrong. It's burningly stupid. And it's despicable. Shame on Joy for writing it, and shame on Ordinary Times for publishing it. I thought they had standards.