Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

I am not overly enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. I think he's more right — a lot more — than anyone else running for President, but he's wrong about a lot of other stuff (never mind communism or even socialism, he's wrong even about what I consider bog-standard progressive capitalist liberal stuff). If he actually runs in the general election, as the Democratic Party nominee or otherwise, I'll vote for him. I've even thrown him a few bucks, mostly because fuck Clinton.

However, even if I were to agree with him completely, even if he were an actual communist (and he's not even a real socialist), I will not join the Democratic Party to vote for him in the primaries, just as I would not join the Republican Party to vote for his nomination.

The Democratic Party has utterly, completely, absolutely lost my trust. Fuck the Democratic Party. Fuck Clinton, both of them. Fuck Obama. Fuck these triangulating neoliberal welfare-destroying union-busting embezzler-coddling drone-bombing police-murder-apologist Guantanamo-torturing assholes. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are about corporations fucking us in the ass; the only difference between them is that the Democrats are oh-so-sorry they can't use any lube. (The Republicans are buying up sandpaper: "This is supposed to hurt, scumbags.")

Bernie Sanders is a "radical" not because he doesn't want the plutocracy to stop ass-raping the people — he's down with that — he's a "radical" because he actually wants to use the lube. And because of that, he has zero chance at the Democratic Party nomination.

I wouldn't vote for Clinton if she were running against the zombie corpse of Ronald Reagan with cyborg sociopath Dick Cheney as his running mate and my vote would swing the election. Because fuck you: if you're going to dry-rape me in the ass, don't insult me by shedding crocodile tears about it. Do it with some fucking pride.

I won't get the chance, but with the goddamn curtains closed, I would vote for Sanders' sorry welfare-capitalist ass: lube is better than sandpaper.

But I absolutely will not put my name, in front of God and everybody, on the Democratic Party rolls, not even for the 30 seconds it would take me to vote for Sanders' nomination.

Power and Political Correctness

The always excellent Arthur Chu has a good column in Salon: Don’t blame me for Donald Trump: The liberal “p.c. police” didn’t make this monster, a response to How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump by Tom Nichols. Chu is spot on; Nichols is completely full of shit.

There is a standard in academia sometimes labeled as "wallowing in complexity." (Google will give more examples.) All well and good; it's our job to wallow in complexity, to bend over backwards to find as many different perspectives on a question as possible, and treat them all as fairly serious.

The whole point of academic discourse (even the physical sciences) is to actively avoid making a shared decision. Every now and again we have to make a shared decision — we rightly can't hit on the undergraduates any more — but we try to avoid it as long as possible. This philosophy underlies the notion of academic freedom: that professional academics can resist almost any position, however widely held, without losing their jobs. Everyone has a personal bias, and the norms of academic discourse (well, the good ones) exist not to eliminate bias but to make bias more transparent and try to overcome it.

And its fine. That's what we do. Someone has to look at things from every possible angle, and explore every topic until we're sick to death of the "complexity."

Academic discourse is fine in academia, but it's not at all a universal norm, and academic discourse actively poisons real-world politics. Academic discourse is about not changing anything until we absolutely must; in the real world, politics is about changing things right now, not by intellectual exhaustion but by the exercise of power. Indeed, absent politics, academic discourse would rarely change anything in society: there is always more complexity to wallow in.

(The physical sciences tend to move a little more quickly than the social sciences, because protons and electrons, and even organisms and ecosystems, are orders of magnitude less complicated than human society. Even then, scientists typically take a generation to change paradigms.)

All societies, from hunter-gatherers to modern industrial capitalist "democratic" republics, are characterized by power relationships. I don't think there ever was a single power relationship that was ever overturned by intellectual argument or moral suasion. Chu offers an excellent example in slavery: all that argument and suasion ever did was make the slavers double down on their own intellectual and moral justifications for slavery. It took a literal war and the deaths of more than a half million soldiers (2 percent of the population) just to move from literal chattel slavery to Jim Crow, wage slavery, political oppression, and economic hyper-exploitation, and the South still hasn't dug itself out of the moral hole it dug itself into before the Civil War.

People can and do overturn social, political, cultural, and economic power relationships without actual war and killing. But these efforts still require power; argument and moral suasion are useful for gaining power, but only the use of power, the ability to inflict suffering on opponents, can actually change the social power relationship.

We must remember that existing power relationships exercise actual power, including violence and killing, to employ and preserve that power. Oppose segregation and the oppression of black people, and the police will arrest, imprison, torture, and kill you. Try to build a union and use it to secure rights already guaranteed by law, and the company will fire and blacklist you, and the national guard will massacre you. Even observe (adhering to the most rarefied standards of academic discourse) that video games often depict female characters ways that marginalize and subordinate women and you will receive fatwahs that would make Salman Rusdie paranoid. Those who hold power actually use it with no moral restraint, but only the restraint forced upon them by the power of their victims.

I'm still reading Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism. Based on a quick skim, part of the work seems like a justification of specific measures Lenin's ruling Communist Party and Trotsky's Red Army used to actually implement communism under extremely difficult circumstances including the violent hostility of the West, which I might or might not agree with. But I absolutely agree with the fundamental message. The bourgeois state uses every means at its disposal, including violence and "terrorism" (which Trotsky uses to generally denote the violent exercise of state power), thus there is no moral justification to deny those same means to those overturning the bourgeois state. There are always pragmatic considerations — the point of any revolution is to establish and maintain legitimacy, and revolutionaries should avoid means that legitimize their opponents or undermine their own legitimacy — but the only moral consideration is the ends.

If you approve of the bourgeois state, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to maintain the bourgeois state; if you disapprove, then it is morally coherent to approve whatever means are necessary to overthrow it. It is morally incoherent to condemn the bourgeois state and approve its efforts to maintain itself and condemn efforts to overthrow it. In other words, we cannot separate the judgment of the ends from the means that must be used to achieve those ends. To approve the ends but condemn the means is simply to appear sentimental while maintaining one's own power and privilege.

What is true of revolution is just as true of reform. I personally have zero confidence that substantive long-term reforms are possible under capitalism, but I might be (and hope I am) wrong, and even if I'm right, even failed attempts at substantive reform undermine capitalism. But even the tiniest reform requires the exercise of power: not asking, not even demanding, but making people change and punishing people who refuse to change. The punishment need not be violent — loss of social status is an extremely effective punishment — but it needs to be forceful.

To argue otherwise is simply to protect your own privilege behind the shield of sentimentality.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Feminism and utopian socialism

Although most of Why I Became a Feminist Socialist is incomprehensible mush, Hilary Wainwright does make some important points. It grates, I think, for a self-selected elite to simply impose "socialism" on a recalcitrant, obdurate population. The whole point of socialism is that it should not just be better for the masses of people, but clearly better, and socialism requires the enthusiastic support of the masses of people from the very beginning through to the end. And once in power, simply setting up another oligarchy will not bring about socialism: no oligarchy, however "Marxist" in its internal ideology, will ever voluntarily transfer power to the people.

I really cannot tell what Wainwright is for, but I know she's categorically against the use or capture of state power. "I rejected both the Soviet model and the Harold Wilson, Fabian model. . . . I rejected the so-called Leninist relations of state power and party power, and the Fabian understandings of power whereby the state delivered concessions and policies, rather than power coming from within ourselves." Wainwright seems to reject both a revolutionary capture of the state and a gradual reformist transformation of the state; presumably, she also rejects a perpetuation of the already existing capitalist state. We cannot, of course, build anything even vaguely resembling socialism under the thumb of the capitalist state; the capitalists will simply, and from their point of view justifiably, violently suppress anything that threatens the structure of capitalism.

The only thing left is to abandon the state entirely, and try to then build socialism with nothing that even vaguely resembles a state. But this strategy is profoundly problematic.

First, how do we abandon the state? The capitalists are nothing if not clever. The capitalist state exists not just to enforce the domination of the bourgeoisie and the subjugation of the workers; the state exists to enforce relations of domination and subjugation throughout society. Whites, especially white men, dominate and subjugate black people, men dominate and subjugate women, mental workers dominate and subjugate manual workers, etc. ad nauseam. Even if they want to reform the state, anyone with even a little bit of privilege will always support the idea of the state. The very best that socialists at the individual can do is to contract the legitimacy of the state around only those with a little privilege. But then who fights that state?

There is a problem in Wainwright's article that echoes through the infantile anarchism (including Libertarianism) in general: the distinction between the state as an institution of violence and the state as an institution of domination. But there is no objective distinction between violence and domination: violence is objective, but domination is just violence one does not like, in the service of ends that one does not like, or contrary to one's interests. Thus, racists see state violence used to end racism as domination: surely the state demands that they give up their own interests without satisfactory compensation, ultimately at the barrel of a gun. Domination is entirely relative and subjective; any "objective" construction of domination that does not equate violence and domination must rest entirely on subjective criteria. Thus, The definition of the state as an institution to legitimize domination, is incoherent. Domination is just illegitimate violence, and state violence is legitimate by definition.

Violence by itself precedes the state. Any individual can use violence against another individual. Even technologically (there is no such thing as an impregnable defense), it is logically and physically impossible to eliminate violence. Because the criterion of domination is incoherent, we are left with Weber's definition of the state as a particular kind of institutional relationship to violence: the state is an institution (or coherently connected set of institutions) that monopolize the legitimate use of violence. (Note that Weber's definition does not entail that any violence employed by individuals who comprise the state institution(s) is necessarily legitimate; this definition entails only that all legitimate violence is necessarily employed or sanctioned by the state.) If we get rid of the Weberian state, then we must distribute rather than monopolize the legitimate use of violence. While the monopolization of violence entails some serious problems, its distribution does not seem to solve those problems; only the lunatic Libertarian fringe even tries to theorize about distributing the legitimation of violence. The infantile left-anarchists merely shut their eyes to the problem of violence, pretending, in the most literally infantile sense, that if they cannot see it, it does not exist.

The implementation of socialism will require using violence to dominate and subjugate the bourgeoisie, who themselves cheerfully use violence to dominate and subjugate every other class, especially the proletariat. We can hold hands and sing Kumbaya as much as we want (and, under certain circumstances, that's an effective tactic), but at a certain point we have to say, "Comply or die." This is a harsh truth, but it's a truth that actually exists, however much we close our eyes to it. If you are without money and hungry or homeless, the state forbids you avail yourself of food and shelter; if you do not comply, the state will, in extremis,* kill you. The socialists must say the opposite: the state forbids you to withhold food or shelter from someone in need; if you do not comply, the state will, in extremis, kill you. The capitalist state forbids the workers from seizing the means of production; the socialist state forbids individuals from seizing absolute control of the means of production.

*Of course, we usually don't want to jump right to deadly force; however, "intermediate" force requires the real availability of deadly force if the intermediate force is resisted. A person will allow the police to imprison them only because the police can and in fact will kill them if they resist imprisonment.

The difference between capitalism and socialism is not that one or the other uses or abjures some means. The difference can be only in the ends to which those means are used. All of bourgeois "morality" is simply the social, cultural, and psychological deprecation of certain means when used to overthrow capitalism; those exact same means are "legitimately" used to perpetuate capitalism. And, similarly, socialism must use those same means to overthrow capitalism, because the means of violence are, ultimately, the only means there are.

Even nonviolent dispute resolution requires a foundation of violence. I cannot negotiate with my neighbor unless, at some level, violence of some kind is available to settle the dispute; otherwise, I can just say, "Fuck you. I'll do as I please." Not everyone always says so, but some people do always say so, and everyone sometimes says so. This violence can take the raw form of a police officer with a pistol enforcing the order of a court, or social exclusion from economic life, just as deadly as a pistol. Arguably, the pistol is more honest; as capitalism has shown us, it's too easy psychologically to ignore the violence inherent in economic and social marginalization.

Fundamentally, Wainwright's supposed abjuration of state violence just promoties quietism to preserve her own privilege.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Simple truths


In The Myth of Simple Truths, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse claim a rather annoying sort of false equivalence between conservatives and liberals. According to the authors, both liberals and conservatives have reduced big complex questions to "simple truths" that are obviously right; those who deny these simple truths are not merely mistaken but stupid. But Aikin and Talisse themselves are mistaken on a couple of grounds. First, they create their own "simple truth," that questions are big and complex, and label those who deny this simple truth as foolish. Second, the authors don't give us any examples of big questions that one side or another has unjustifiably reduced to simple truths. They simply assert their position, but perhaps there really are simple truths. As Rob Corddry notes, the facts have a liberal bias. Some truths are simple, and some people can simply disregard them.

More importantly, Aikin and Talisse miss the point that conversation in a democracy is rarely if ever about the truth itself; the conversation is about the good. Facts and truth (or lies and bullshit) might be used to support one notion of good or another, but the conversation is not about what is true; it's about what is good. And if the good really is good, and if one view of the truth, however farfetched, supports that good, then why not use it? And if indeed the important questions really are complex, with defensible positions on both sides, a person will very naturally pick the side that supports his view of the good. It's the good that is important, not one version of the truth or another.

From my experience in academia, there are two categories of "big questions," which academics address: questions with simple truths that are hard to find and questions with no real underlying truth, questions that have a lot of defensible positions, but no way of consistently distinguishing between those defensible positions. The physical and biological sciences are of the first kind, the humanities are of the second; the social sciences (including economics) are kind of in-between, but lean more toward the humanities.

Neither of these categories really help Aikin and Talisse. First, the "truths" of science really are simple truths, and one either accepts them or is mistaken. The force of gravity* is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance. This is as simple a truth as it gets; hard to get at, but now that we have it, it's just true. There's no nuance, there are no alternative defensible positions, at least none that matter to democracy. If you build your building without accurately taking into account the simple truth of gravity (and the simple truths of structural engineering), your building will fall down and people will die.

*Absent relativistic corrections that are small under ordinary circumstances, and more importantly don't fundamentally change the underlying relationship between gravity, mass, and distance.

On the other hand, the big questions of the humanities do not have any underlying truth. This position is not "relativism" strictly speaking, at least not truth relativism (which I assert is a contradiction in terms: by definition, "truth" is that which is not relative). Indeed it is a category error to even look for truth in the humanities. I don't mean by this position to at all deprecate the humanities; the humanities are not about trying to find the truth, they are about exploring what it means to be human, and the only truth about humanity is that we seem almost infinitely plastic. I think it is very important to talk about what it means to be human, but there's not truth about what it "really is" to be human.

The authors are trying, I think, to find a methodological explanation for the apparent polarization of the modern "democratic" republic. I think there is a methodological explanation, but theirs is indefensible (and if they

The real problem is, I think, that we are too focused the search for truth. The truth is important, but it's not everything. Most importantly, we mistake the conversation about the good for the search for the truth. These are two different, and equally important projects, but they are indeed different.