Friday, August 17, 2018

Tony Judt, What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?

Moral corruption

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages. — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments ch. III

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Historical materialism

The scenario imagined not only by the right but by some on the left starts with a good-enough society. There are real problems, some of them quite serious, but on the whole most people are working, eating, having fun, raising families, not rioting in the streets. But the socialists condemn this society as profoundly immoral. So they recruit a few hundred people, and get some guns. They storm the capital, arrest and imprison (or worse) the government, and install themselves as the new government. They then impose a more moral society on the recalcitrant population. Which, of course, completely fails, making society worse off than it was before.

The paradigmatic "real-world" narrative is, of course, the Russian Revolution. Russia has some real problems, some of them quite serious: notably, they are doing quite poorly in WW I under the Kerensky government. However, they are a functioning society. Lenin, however, after being infected by the Marxist brain worm, decides that he cannot tolerate the immorality of Russia's burgeoning capitalism. He assembles and arms a few hundred Bolsheviks, arrests the Kerensky government, and imposes Communism on the recalcitrant Russian people. A successful defense against a Western invasion, conquering an empire starting with only wood for fuel, becoming a nuclear power, developing a somewhat successful space program notwithstanding, Russia under Lenin and his successors starts off a complete failure and only deteriorates from there, proving that anything other than laissez-faire capitalism can do nothing but doom society to poverty and misery.

For those of you who unable to detect the creeping sarcasm, the above is complete and total bullshit. The first paragraph does not represent how any social change, much less a social change to socialism, actually happens. The second paragraph is not at all how the Russian Revolution happened.

There's another scenario: human society is making progress. Not any old progress (which is just the trivially true change over time), but a certain kind of progress. Our society today is better than it was 100 years ago, and that society was better than it was 500 years ago, which was it was a 1000 years ago, and so on. The progress has not been linear of course; there have been interregna and backsliding, but overall society has been progressing. We are not yet at an ideal society, but we are closer than we were. And progress towards an ideal society might be asymptotic, but we should be closer still in another century.

This scenario too is bullshit, albeit more subtle bullshit. There's no objective way to evaluate any society. Most of us like our own society because it's the society we were indoctrinated as children to like. And, of course, those of us with privilege like our society because we have privilege; therefore, we believe we deserve privilege, and it would be an injustice to lose that privilege to those less deserving. We see our society as closer to the ideal than any other kind of society just because it is what we actually have, not because it actually is closer to some mythic ideal.

Historical Materialism

Marx himself believed his great contribution to the world of ideas was not class struggle (Smith and Ricardo precede him) but the idea of historical materialism, which hardly anyone really understands or takes seriously. I take historical materialism seriously. I'm not sure I myself understand it, but I will share my thoughts anyway.

The "materialism" part means that human beings are constantly faced with material (concrete, real-world) problems presented by the environment Which berries are good to eat, and which will cause sickness or death? How can I kill this beast and eat its tasty flesh? What do we do about that asshole who hogs all the good food?

The "historical" part means that we reproduce these solutions in consecutive generations. Our children don't have to think too hard about the solutions their parents came up with, at least the solutions that work well enough. One specific part of these historical solutions are patterns of social relations. Hunter gatherers get used to one pattern of relating to each other, pastoral, horticultural, agricultural, and industrial societies get used to their own specific patterns.

Marx argues* that the material problems of the production (as well as distribution and consumption) of material stuff are of if not exclusive then at least primary importance and these problems "determine" (or at least strongly constrain) historically transmitted social relations. In other words, the means of production determine the social relations of production.

*Marx might not really argue what I say he argues. I put the arguments in his mouth not only to lend them additional authority but also because I present my understanding of Marx's arguments with considerable and possibly undeserved charity.

We have heritable variation and natural selection, so we expect that the "determinism" is in some sense evolutionary. Specifically, patterns of social relations that have relatively better (more or better distributed) material production will have a selective advantage over patterns with relative worse production.

Marx argues that "materialism" means that big changes in the means of production cause big changes in the patterns of social relations rather than the opposite. Marx further argues "historical" means that the the specific character of the pattern of social relations obtaining at any specific time and place as the means of production are undergoing a big change there cause the specific pattern of changes to the social relations of production in response to the changes in the means of production.

(Please remember social scientists look at causality very differently from physical scientists: societies have orders of magnitudes more moving parts than even the most complex engineering projects. I will try to be more precise in more detailed explanations, but for here, causality in the weak sociological sense, as opposed to the the physical or even economic sense, is sufficient.)

Although this basic description is good enough for now, we can improve this theory considerably (notably that social relations can also cause changes to the means of production, hence the alternative label of dialectical materialism). I will also discuss some good and bad criticisms of historical materialism elsewhere. Here, I want here to discuss some implications of Marx's theory assuming he's really on to something worthwhile.

One implication is the denial of idealistic progression as mentioned above. We do not, we cannot, improve society by coming up with radically new and better patterns of social relations. Instead, we change our patterns of social relations in response to changes in the means of production. Briefly, Adam Smith and capitalism did not cause industrialization; industrialization in the specific historical context of late 18th and 19th century Europe, especially Great Britain, caused capitalism and Adam Smith. Similarly, if we end up with something like "socialism", it will not be because we imposed a socialist pattern of social relations on a more-or-less working capitalist society, but because capitalist society has itself created the conditions for revolution.

Revolution

Revolutions happen because of the specific way we create social systems. Human beings rarely think everything through from first principles: that's a prohibitively cognitively expensive way to solve most problems. Instead, we "reason" by habit, analogy, and tradition. If the means of production are relatively stable, then social relations will stabilize and reach a local maximum of productive efficiency. However, when big changes to the means of production happen (whether exogenously or endogenously), the regime of social relations of production are adapted to the old means of production. We retain this old regime out of habit and tradition.

Marx argues that new patterns social relations better adapted to the new means of production emerge within the old pattern. Because social relations generally entail power differentials, those with more power under the old regime are loathe to change it, protecting their power with even the most frightful violence. But because the new regime is more economically efficient, it has a real opportunity to successfully overthrow the old, but usually only after violent struggle.

Coda: The Bolshevik Revolution

In Russia in 1917, the Tsar lost legitimacy and abdicated, Kerensky's bourgeois "democratic republic" lost legitimacy, and everyone else, including the soviets, lacked the power or will to form a government. The Bolsheviks were not just a few (or even a few hundred) people: they had influence and popularity across Russia. Once literally everyone who might have had more power bowed out, only the Bolsheviks had sufficient legitimacy to form a government. So they did. And then they started solving Russia's considerable problems. From that effort arose Soviet communism, with all its pros and cons.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Intractable problems

In In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, Cosma Shalizi makes a good case that the optimization problem for a national economy is more-or-less computationally intractable. This news does not come as any kind of a surprise to me.

But so what? Intractable problems are intractable. It doesn't matter if we call this or that heuristic "capitalism" or "socialism"; because we know that it is impossible to calculate what the "optimum" economy looks like, we know that neither capitalism nor central-planning communism (I refuse to call these synonyms) nor anything else is going to deliver an optimum economy.

It's worth repeating for emphasis: intractable problems are intractable: there is no way to find a solution even if it were known that a solution exists. If capitalism could solve the optimization problem, then the optimization problem would not be intractable. But it is intractable, so capitalism can't solve it any better than central-planning communism.

I really don't know much about the actually existing economies of the USSR or of the Maoist PRC. I have very little information: the East wasn't talking, and the West wasn't listening. What little information is available is so obviously biased I can't put together an historical narrative reliable enough to draw general conclusions.

But maybe we can draw some general conclusions from information theory. We can't solve the economy, but we can employ heuristics to make it good enough, and give directions for improvement. The key is, of course, feedback and a dynamic rather than a static view. We need to implement intentional inefficiency, i.e. redundancy and slack (unused capacity).

The Internet, for example, is "ideal" in a sense precisely because it is inefficient. It is inefficient, for example, to have multiple paths from Denver to San Francisco; it would be more efficient to have only one path, which was optimized to provide exactly the required throughput. Instead we have many paths, none of which operate at full capacity.

Capitalists argue that capitalism is such a feedback system, and the "anarchy of capitalism" affords precisely the required redundancy and slack. Partially granted. But capitalism is not the only possible feedback system, and the "anarchy of capitalism" is not the only way to afford redundancy and slack.

Worse yet, Marx and Lenin argue* that even in its ideal form, capitalism, while yes, a dynamic feedback-oriented system, and yes, far better than mercantilism or feudalism, is still a "bad" system, prone to destructive positive feedback (financial crises) and the tendency to monopolism, which destroys beneficial redundancy and slack. (Marx levels many other charges against capitalism, but the above are especially pertinent here.)

*You know what I mean.

I am generally agnostic at an ideological level about "mechanisms". The important differences between capitalism, socialism, and communism are not differences about methods, static or dynamic, feedback-oriented or command-oriented, etc. Static top-down methods are probably not particularly useful, since they are brittle: either exactly right or disastrously wrong. (In what little information I've seen about the economy of the USSR that I don't completely dismiss as hopelessly tendentious, Western economists argued that effective feedback systems did evolve in the supposedly rigid and inviolable Soviet central planning mechanism.)

Any time we're dealing with a heuristic, we have to ask, good enough for whom? Improving for whom? By what measures? What do we mean by "efficiency"? What are the numerator and denominator? The answers to these questions are more easily answered with algorithmic solutions: they're right there in the specification of the problem. They're harder to answer with dynamic feedback systems, because the answers often emerge from the feedback mechanism itself, and emerge in non-obvious ways. Moreover: how does the system provide enough positive feedback to grow, but enough negative feedback to not grow pathologically or self-destructively?

And I think the important differences between capitalism and socialism are that the former answers, good enough for the bourgeoisie, and the latter, good enough for the proletariat. The rest is implementation detail.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Don't be a d-ck

Brad DeLong gets it right: (Early) Monday Smackdown: Bard College Has a Quality Control Problem Here: Roger Berkowitz Needs to Learn to Quote Fairly and Accurately

I think that almost every discussion about "cultural appropriation" should be, instead, a discussion about: "don't be a d-ck". Clarifies matters immeasurably.

The brilliant national treasure Roxane Gay is, in my opinion, 100% correct when she writes: "stay in your lane.... The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and effort..." That is not "being a d-ck". But When I read these exchanges (and Jennifer Schuessler's piece), I think Jennifer, Nina, and Burleigh are all being d-cks—especially Roger Berkowitz, who I think is being a major a--hole here, and doing so while claiming to be the heir and channeler of Hannah Arendt. . . .


[I]t is distinctly odd that [Roxanne Gay] is being accused of being too confident about her opinions, and is being held up as some authority over what is and is not legitimate to publish. It is (still) a free country. People can do what they want. People need to understand how their work is going to be read, to be able to handle those readings and the responses they generate, and to think about whether all of that together is moving the ball downfield.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The base alloy of hypocrisy

"When it comes to [anti-immigration nativism,] I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. — Abraham Lincoln, qtd. by Manisha Sinha

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The superficial criticism of communism

Museum Pieces

focusing attention exclusively on the failings of "Communism" is a great way to allow people of a certain mindset to walk out thinking, "See? Communism sucked!" without prompting any kind of reflection about the system we live in now. Because aside from the obvious gap in ability to make cheap shit to fill store shelves, every criticism in the entire museum was as applicable to modern capitalism as to Soviet-style communism.

Oh, under communism lots of people were imprisoned? People didn't feel free? Government was corrupt and unresponsive? Wow interesting tell me more. Through that lens even the line of argument that capitalism is awesome for consumption looks a little wobbly; "Most people couldn't get the things they wanted or needed" sounds an awful lot like "Most people can't afford the things they want or need" and the difference is semantic [sic]. I guess if the reason people end up under-provided for is the most important thing to you, that argument is worth having. In practice it isn't.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If I had any money, I would donate to her campaign. But she is not, as Jacob Silverman claims, "an inflection point in Democratic politics."

She probably won't be elected, and if elected probably won't serve more than a term or two, but if she survives, she'll be corrupted by power. Everyone becomes corrupted, no matter how idealistic they start out.

I don't mean corruption in the legal sense; I'm not saying she'll eventually take bribes or something like that. But the Democratic party and the House of Representatives are institutions, and every institution exerts a powerful moral force on its members, and expel those who fundamentally resist its moral core. And the moral core of the HoR and Democratic party is to preserve corporate capitalism at any cost.

If elected, her choice will become plain: appease the corporations and retire to a cushy job on a few boards of directors or as a lobbyist, or oppose them, be buried, and go back to waiting tables for subsistence wages. Courage doesn't enter into it: it's not "courageous" in any sense, it's just pointless stupidity, to sacrifice oneself for no gain. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not going to drag the Democratic party one inch towards even New Deal social democracy, much less a socialist utopia.

I kinda hope she does sell out. She's not going to change anything, so she might as well cash in. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery a lot more comfortable.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Socialist economics part 3

part 1
part 2

<tl;dr>

A socialist economy is a temporary and unequal (but less unequal than capitalism) economic system where people receive not just their cost of living, but the more-or-less full value their labor. From this position, we can begin to work towards the precursors of a communist economy discussed in part 2.

</tl;dr>

We presently have a capitalist economy. We want to get to a communist economy, i.e. "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." How do we get from point A to point B? And how do we get there without just destroying everything and starting over from scratch, from an subsistence agrarian economy?

We have to start with a bit of theory: Marx's distinction between labor and labor power. Labor is the actual production* that a person performs; labor power is the ability to do that actual production. Labor power requires labor: a person must eat food, live in a house, wear clothes, drink water, dispose of their waste, etc., and people (usually other people) must use their time and effort to produce all of these requirements. Critically, an hour** of labor power takes less than an hour of labor to produce. Surplus labor, then, is the difference between the labor a person can perform and the labor required to generate the ability to perform that labor.

*There's considerably more theory underlying this paragraph, but I think we have a good enough starting point.

**I'm being deliberately vague about my units, but "hour" is sufficient to get the idea across.


The fundamental pillar of capitalism is that the capitalist pays "fair market value" for a worker's labor power, i.e. the social cost of the worker's ability to work, and receives all the labor thus created. The surplus labor is the ultimate source of the capitalist's profit.

Therefore, socialist economics must start by undermining this fundamental pillar of capitalism: a worker should receive, at a first approximation*, the value of their labor, not the cost of their labor power. If I work eight hours to produce stuff for other people, I should receive stuff — including the food, shelter, etc. that I need to generate tomorrow's labor power — that other people expended eight hours to produce.

*Marx offers a more detailed accounting in Gotha ch 1.

Marx claims (again in Gotha) that this change, from a worker receiving the cost of their labor power to receiving the value of their labor, is not enough. A worker who can worker longer with more intensity, or who is privileged to produce more desirable goods will receive more than a worker who cannot work as long, with as much intensity, or who is condemned to produce less desirable goods. Marx argues that this inequality is temporarily unavoidable, because we start with a capitalist economy. However, Marx argues we absolutely should not accept this temporary measure as our ultimate goal: it is just the platform to begin to dismantle "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor."

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Socialist economics part 2 (Communist economics)

In socialist economics, part 1, I raised some concerns with Frederik deBoer's definition of socialism. It behooves me to offer a more useful definition.

<tl;dr>
Marx tells us where we want to end up: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." That is communist economics. But such a society comes only as a result of precursors:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! Critique of the Gotha Programme ch. 1

So our task as communists, then is to begin to realize the precursors, to eliminate the "enslaving subordination" etc. I will label here as "socialism" the task of realizing the precursors, which will be the subject of the next post.
</tl;dr>

To understand socialist economics, I want to start with communist economics. Marx's "thousand year" goal is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." A critical feature of this slogan are that a person's demand on the social product is coupled not to their contribution, but to their "needs". Marx can be vague about "needs" precisely because this is a goal, not a plan: part of the implementation of this plan is to more carefully define "need". Another critical feature, where I will again push back against deBoer, is that this definition does specify reciprocity: each person has the social obligation to contribute according their ability.

Marx does not believe that this slogan can be arbitrarily chosen or imposed on a society; he names a number of ideological and structural barriers, mentioned in the passage quoted above. I'll unpack this passage later; the question for now is not would this work? but is this worth striving for? And by "this" I mean not just the banner and slogan, but the precursors. Is it worth striving to eliminate "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor"? Is it worth striving to eliminate "he antithesis between mental and physical labor"? Should we strive to make labor* "life's prime want"? Should we strive to increase the productive forces, the "all-around development of the individual"? Should we make "all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly"? Communists answer these questions in the affirmative; indeed, if we have these precursors, the banner and slogan will naturally follow.

*I'll need to talk about Marx's conception of labor another time.

The question then becomes how to begin striving for a communist society, which brings us to socialist economics, the subject of part 3 of this series.

Socialist economics part 1

On further reflection, I want to push back on Frederik deBoer's conception of socialism. deBoer is, of course, free to define these terms as he pleases: I don't claim he is mistaken, since there really isn't a matter of fact at stake; instead, I claim there are more useful definitions of socialism. deBoer's defines socialism thus:
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. To socialize an industry means to remove its products (whether medicine, education, housing, etc) from the market model and instead establish some means through which need is assessed and filled without the expectation of reciprocity. Socialism does not change who pays for necessary social services but replaces the very system of exchanging currency for goods entirely. A socialist viewpoint recognizes the impossibility of moral reform from within capitalism. [emphasis added]

The biggest problem is that this definition is vague. First, what is "need"? Do I need anything other than a mud hut, rice and beans, a straw mattress and blanket, a tunic and trousers? Yes, I probably do need more, but although I live frugally, I have a lot of stuff I definitely do not need, and I like having that stuff, and I don't want to give it up. So what do we do about the stuff we don't need but just want? And what precisely are the "some means" to allocate stuff? And what precisely are the "market mechanism" and "currency exchange"? I'm an economist, and I've read my share of Marx, but I don't fully understand either of these terms.

Second, deBoer does not tell us why we would want to replace the "very system of exchanging currency for goods." deBoer seems to imply that this "very system" is what's wrong with capitalism: that if we just replaced this very system with just about anything else (so long as there's no "expectation of reciprocity"), we would fix the problem that is capitalism.

And what about reciprocity? Marx does not abandon reciprocity even in his thousand year goal, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I suspect that deBoer means some sort of direct, immediate and personalized reciprocity (if you don't pay full price up front, you don't get medical treatment), but the issue of reciprocity remains important.

Of course, it would definitely be nice if there were enough stuff that any reasonable empathetic adult could just take whatever they wanted, but if that were the case, we would have no need of any means at all to assess need. And if we restrict socialism to just the provision of needs rather than wants, however socially determined, then why would social democracy, a.k.a. welfare capitalism, not be sufficiently socialist?

I do not think that the system of exchanging currency for goods in itself is per of a problem, much less the fundamental problem of capitalism. So long there are not enough goods for everyone to simply take whatever they want, we have to use numbers to allocate production and consumption, and "currency" literally is nothing but numbers, numbers used to allocate production and consumption. Unless you advocate abandoning using arithmetic in the production and allocation of goods, you have currency.

It's easy to read Marx's charge that capitalism reduces all social relations to the cash nexus as a condemnation of cash. However, I read Marx differently: the key phrase is "reduces all social relations". The problem is not the "market" (another unacceptably vague term), the problem is the totalitarianism of the market. The problem is not that I must somehow exchange currency for stuff, the problem is first that at the limit, I have to dedicate every waking moment, I have to dedicate every choice, to obtaining and managing currency. And, of course, the second problem is the terms of obtaining that currency: Most people have to rent their humanity to the bosses to have enough currency just to live. It's not the currency that matters, but how currency is used as a means of domination and control.

Even as the most basic "ground floor" definition, I think we need more than deBoer's economic definition of socialism. Stay tuned for part 2, where I offer what I think will be a more useful definition.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Seven theses

Seven Theses by Phil Green
Engels proclaimed in the 19th Century that the choice was “Socialism or Barbarism.” The suspense is over. The barbarians are not at the gates, they’re inside.

Read the rest. We are well and truly fucked.

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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

On conservatism

In A Conservative Manifesto, Holly A. Case laments the divergence between modern "conservatism" and the Peter Viereck's 1940 vision of conservatism, But—I'm a Conservative!. Case argues that Viereck espoused a "spiritual" vision of conservatism, as opposed to the crass materialism of the "conservatism" of the 1940s and 1950s. Case quotes Viereck's review of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale to highlight the rupture:
Is it not humorless, or else blasphemous, for this eloquent advocate of Christianity, an unworldly and anti-economic religion, to enshrine jointly as equally sacrosanct: ‘Adam Smith and Ricardo, Jesus and St. Paul?' And why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism in his own camp?
As quoted by Case, Viereck accused the "conservatives of the pocketbook" as divorcing property from moral responsibility and of suborning revolution instead of maintaining stability. If his chief complaint against Marxism had been against "its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," then how could he have seen the nascent conservatism of the 1950s — or what passes for "conservatism" in the first decades of the 21st century — as anything different?

But even Viereck's supposedly more "humanistic" conservatism is absurd and self-contradictory. His conservatism hinges on Law.
The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.
This old atheist's hackles rise when I hear the words, "So much the worse for existence!" For if these "eternal absolutes do not really exist," then they must come from human beings in historically contingent social, political, and economic circumstances. Specifically, those human beings who happen to have the power to enforce "eternal absolutes", and whose first concern must always be the preservation of their power at all costs. Like most self-described conservatives, Viereck suffers from a failure of the imagination. There is a vast middle ground between anarchism and mob rule on the one hand and eternal absolutes (that we must contingently imagine) on the other.

I would agree with Viereck that liberty is as much or more about discipline and restraint than it is about freedom. And I would also agree with Viereck that at least little-ell law is important to maintain discipline and restraint in a society. As an individual who depends on others for my very life, and whose lives depend on me, I want to know what other people believe I and they must and must not do (discipline) and what we may do (freedom). I want these norms to be about the same tomorrow as they are today. A body of little-ell laws, enforced by at least some violence, and subject to a deliberative process of change seems a workable way of establishing, maintaining, and, most importantly, legitimizing these norms. I can assent to the good laws not because they are Law, but because they are good. I can, in theory, tolerate the few bad laws knowing that they are susceptible to change. I do not need to believe the laws are or pretend to be "eternal absolutes"; I need to believe they are good enough for now, and can be made better.

There are excellent objective reasons why we should consider how we do things today one reasonable justification to do things the same way tomorrow, and to go beyond immediate expediency in our social institutions: bounded rationality and rational ignorance, the prisoner's dilemma, asymmetric and imperfect information, not to mention any number of cognitive biases and our abysmal lack of statistical intuition. As the saying goes, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future*, so we have to rely — at least to some extent — on history and tradition.

*Misattributed to Yogi Berra.

But to say that law is useful is not to say that it is transcendent, even in our social imagination. The law is a tool, and however useful a tool, it is not an end in itself. When we allow law to become Law, when we think of the compromises and negotiations we have made to live together in a little more peace today than yesterday as some sort of eternal verities, we limit our legitimate growth as much as we prevent decay. Viereck is clear: "You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal." What can Viereck mean but to condemn the hiding of Jews from the Nazis, the transportation of black slaves to Canada, and the execution of tyrants. The charge that Law itself is an end is nothing but a dishonest tactic to defend the privilege and power of self-appointed Lawgivers.

ETA:

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I've been reminded of King's remarks from Letter from a Birmingham Jail rebuking "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." This is my overwhelming sense when I read conservatives such as Viereck, who talk about Law rather than Justice. If there's anything that I can even imagine as an eternal absolute, it is Justice, not Law. Justice is about more than rules, more than just discipline and restraint. Even the most unjust can be disciplined and — at least in some things — restrained. It is possible that discipline and restraint are necessary for Justice, but unlike Law, they cannot be sufficient. In endorsing mere Law, conservatives at best set themselves too low a bar, and at worst argue that the rules matter more than the justice they should serve.

Administrators

Administrators - a parable after Kafkaby Emrys Westacott
In the beginning, there were only professors and students, and relations between them were very simple. A student would give the professor half of the fee for a course at the first class, and the remainder after the last class. A few poorer students, who could not pay the full amount in cash, would sometimes bring vegetables they had grown, or a fish they had caught, and the professors accepted these graciously. The widow of a former mathematics professor pickled the vegetables and salted the fish before distributing them among the faculty.

As the college grew, so did its reputation, and as more classes were needed, more professors came to teach. To make things easier for the professors, the widow began collecting the fees and depositing them at the local bank. She also began keeping simple records. At some point, no-one could remember exactly when, the professors agreed among themselves to pay her a stipend for the services she provided.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Hard work and luck

In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

Puzhong Yao. The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective

Monday, January 01, 2018

Black Mirror Season 4

Don't get me wrong: if season 4 had been Black Mirror's first, I would have called it one of the greatest science fiction shows ever. It's very very good. With the exception of "Crocodile" (a hot mess, with nothing to redeem it, and should, like "National Anthem", simply be skipped), the remaining episodes live with the best of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

And yet...

The first three seasons of Black Mirror had a theme: some tech — usually something we think we might like now — made the world a horrible place, and some ordinary person was crushed by this technology. Only Season 1's "National Anthem" (terrible) and Season 2's "The Waldo Moment" (funny, but not horrifying) depart from this trope.

Season 4 completely abandons that theme for more conventional science fiction plots. Instead of a technological dystopia, three episodes, "USS Callister", "Arkangel", and "Black Museum", feature some one-off technology with unfortunate consequences for its early adopters. "Metalhead" is a post-apocalyptic chase thriller, but with little if any commentary on the present. "Hang the DJ" is a cute romantic comedy in an unusual setting, despite brushing the enslavement and murder of 2000 sentient beings under the carpet.

I don't know that Charlie Booker could have sustained the first three seasons' dystopian trope. Although still excellent overall, season 4 feels like a retreat into conventional science fiction.

Black Mirror is dead. Long live Black Mirror!

Crush the Republicans? Sure, but...

In How to crush Trump, Ryan Cooper observes that
[I]n 2020, Trump must be crushed at the ballot box. His corrupt administration must be thoroughly investigated, and any criminal acts punished.
That could happen.
More importantly, the economic base of Republican plutocracy — Wall Street, monopolist corporations, and idle rich heirs and heiresses — must also be crushed. Monopolies must be broken up, taxes on the rich and corporations dramatically increased, and the size, profitability, and power of Wall Street sharply reduced with cricket bat regulations.
Not gonna happen, or at least the Democratic party won't do it. Where do you think the Democrats' money comes from? The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall Street as the Republicans.

More importantly, politics is class struggle. The capitalist class was checked in the 20th century by the professional-managerial class, but this class is barely a class (they have lost a lot of class consciousness), and even as a class, they are cowardly and weak. Even as a coherent class, the PMC is just as afraid of the workers having any power, and they know that the firm, not the government, can best restrain the power of the working class.

The chief difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats are less racist and sexist than the Republicans. The Democrats are the party of and for the 1 and 0.1 percent of women and people of color; they are not the party of working people.