Sunday, February 28, 2016

Trump vs. Clinton

Nathan J. Robinson believes that Clinton can't beat Trup in the general election. I don't really follow electoral politics (shameful, I know), but he seems to have some good points. Clinton is a little sleazy, not well-liked, and a terrible campaigner. Robinson thinks Trump will eat her for breakfast.

I do know that if Clinton wins the nomination, I won't vote for her, even against Trump. I think Trump will be a better impetus for revolution than a Clinton or Sanders. I won't vote for Trump, but I'm not strongly motivated to work against him.

It should be an interesting few years.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Race, class, money, and power

Fredrik deBoer is spot on. In economic reductionism, again, deBoer denies the claim that socialists are typically economic reductionists with regard to race, that race is "just" an expression of class and that socialists believe that eliminating class would eliminate racism. deBoer is basically correct: he doesn't believe that, doesn't say say that, and most socialists who know what they're talking about don't say that. I won't say that nobody holds such naive reductionism — the internet is vast and full of stupid — but it's a fringe belief.

deBoer's makes his important points, and I have argued elsewhere that the liberation of black people, women, queer people, etc. within a capitalist system is to liberate only a fraction of those people: it is to ensure that black people, etc. are proportionally represented in the both the 0.1 percent of the actual ruling class, the 10 percent in the professional class (who serve the ruling class with privilege), and the 90 percent who are exploited and oppressed.

I want to make an additional point: the eradication of racism (and sexism, and all other forms of discrimination) requires power, especially regarding the material effects of discrimination. Black people will eradicate anti-black racism when they have the material power to do so. There is, of course, a moral dimension, but that moral dimension is useful only to the extent that it helps black people accumulate power. And in a capitalist economy power is money.

There are two ways for black people to gain money, and thus power. The first is for a few black people to break into the capitalist ruling class by becoming wealthy. No small few exceptional black people have done so, and (with the possible exception of Bill Cosby) good for them. I think they've done important work to fight racism.

However, if someone has power, it's very tempting for them to justify having that power, to believe their power is well-deserved. I don't think black people are angels. I don't think a black person with a million dollars wants to give up that power any more than a white person wants to. So, fundamentally, I think that rich black people are not going to be strongly motivated to address class issues.

Furthermore, the majority of black people will not be able to escape oppression unless they themselves have money. No matter how many black people are million- or billionaires, so long as a black person has to hold on to some shitty job under some racist asshole because they know that the only alternative is at worst starvation and at best some other shitty job under some other racist asshole, they won't escape racism. The only cure is to make sure that black people have good jobs paying good wages, with a good choice of jobs; then they have the material power to resist and overcome racism, not just in the workplace but in civil society.

A strike for black rights is effective only if the strikers have the direct and indirect economic power to survive it and actually use the strike to coerce the owners. A boycott for black rights is effective only if black people have enough purchasing power so that their boycott has a real effect. And it's stupid to argue — and nobody actually does — that only black workers should be privileged: to raise up the 90 percent of black people (and women, etc.) in the working class entails addressing class issues.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Freedom of speech

In Twitter is a Business, Not the Government, Tod Kelly defends Twitter for suspending misogynist and general shit-disturber Robert Stacey McCain. According to Kelly, Twitter's decision is justified by the fact that Twitter is a business, McCain is toxic for their business, and while freedom of speech is an important right, just depriving someone of some specific platform does not seriously impair their freedom. It's not a bad argument, and I've used it myself: this blog and its comments, I've argued, are not a common carrier, and I get to decide arbitrarily what I do and do not publish. But I'm beginning to think this argument is very weak. It's probably sufficient for this tiny little blog, with its ones of daily readers, but Twitter is kind of a big deal, and what does or does not get published on Twitter has a real impact on the political landscape.

The general case is thus: to what extent do rights extend to private businesses? The position "not at all" seems to have already been dismissed, at least in the legal system. Private businesses may not, for example, arbitrarily discriminate on race and sex in both hiring and service. Rights of non-discrimination apply very deeply within civil society, and the government enforces those rights. Even more so with property: property rights do not only limit the government, they limit everyone. If you subscribe to natural rights (which I, of course, do not), a universal natural right should restrict not only the government, but everyone; otherwise the right is not universal.

Thus too with freedom of speech. If freedom of speech were a universal natural right, then the right should apply to civil and private society as well as government. Contrawise, that freedom of speech applies only to government means that the right is not universal, and we must socially construct its application. Furthermore, it's dodgy enough to argue for a universal natural right; arguing on the basis of nature for a limit of rights is that much more complicated: you have to argue not only for the right, but the foundations in nature for its limitations... which always (surprise, surprise) pretty much line up with the proponent's contingent interests.

Now, I definitely support (with presently limited information) Twitter's decision to suspend McCain. Not because I think that businesses are exempt from the principles of freedom of speech (as a communist, I will rarely endorse a propertarian justification for anything), but because I think we should actively and coercively prevent McCain and people like him from having such a large platform as Twitter: I believe McCain's actual freedom of speech should be limited. I don't think we should implement limitations on freedom of speech lightly (to say that some right is not absolute or universal is not to say that it is nonexistent), but I do think that after due consideration that some limitations are indeed justifiable.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Terrorism and communism

I don't want fisk CK MacLeod's article, The Libertarian Praxis Problem: Part 1, but it's useful background for my communist perspective on the same issue.

I want to push back against the "spectrum" view of politics. There is not a neat continuum that can capture the "far left", i.e. communists and socialists, the "far right", i.e. authoritarians and fascists, with opposing capitalist viewpoints: the capitalist left is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from the socialist "left", and similarly for the capitalist right and the fascist "right". There are probably more points of similarity between socialists and capitalists leftists than capitalist rightists, but points of similarity do not make a continuum. Fundamentally, the capitalist left upholds the private ownership of the means of production, and it upholds the right of the elite to rule, and the "true" socialist left opposes those ideas. (The capitalist left and right differ on the composition of the ruling elite, and the modes of interaction between economic production and elite rule.)

"Liberal values" are of the same nature as most religious myths, as a mask and apologia for specific power relations; no one with any actual power regards them as fundamental. Freedom of speech, freedom of property, etc. are always highly selective. As it must be so logically: without qualification, "freedom" is incoherent, because freedom is always in conflict, and the purpose of government in general is, and has always been, to determine and enforce whose freedom's give way when freedoms are in conflict. The purpose of all social systems is to determine which freedoms are legitimate, to what degree and under what con

MacLeod charges,
The Left, in [pillsy's] depiction, does not favor freedom of speech as an end in itself, but as a practical necessity in relation to the Left’s actual primary interests, including its organizational self-interest or survival interest. . . . Because the Left’s commitments are not to those values and institutions, it can, once in power, or once the organizing objective has been achieved, discover their dispensability, and, cut to the chase (at least as the critics write the movie): the Terror, the Purges, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields – or, rather less climactic, “PC” speech. [emphasis original]

This quotation delivers several elements of egregious nonsense. First, it is completely stupid to compare "'PC' speech" to terrorism. MacLeod asserts that it is tantamount to terrorism to demand that people speak professionally — i.e. not speaking as utter racist and sexist assholes — in a professional setting, be it academia or the popular press.

What MacLeod charges to "The Left" is true of capitalism itself, true not only of the socialism and the capitalist left, but also of the capitalist right and authoritarianism and fascism; indeed it is true of Libertarianism itself.

Part of that truth follows from the incoherent nature of freedom. Freedom always engenders conflict: one person's freedom is another's oppression. The slave-owner is free to oppress the slave, and the slave can gain his own freedom only at considerable cost to his owner; the forced imposition of a cost is, objectively, always oppression. The distinction between the slave-owner and the slave is not a matter of principle but of preference.

Additionally, the tools — "terrorism" broadly defined — that MacLeod attributes to the left are, in fact, ubiquitous in the formation and maintenance of state power. (Even in the utter absence of anything even vaguely resembling state power, individuals use terrorism to dominate and subordinate other individuals.) One cannot deprecate terrorism itself, one can honestly only approve or condemn the ends to which one or another employs terrorism: to maintain or overthrow (in various directions) the status quo.

The terrorism of the status quo is, of course, always hidden, given the blessing of "justice" by the explicitly or implicitly religious nature of the dominant ideology (presently the religion of "liberalism": private property, rule of law, "civilized" behavior). But of course capitalism employs terrorism; without terrorism, the working class would never accede to its subordination and exploitation. Some of capitalism's terrorism is obvious and egregious: centuries of slavery, upon which capitalism built its economic strength, today's literal war by the police and courts on black people, the dominance and subordination of women economically and physically, the McCarthy-era suppression of anti-capitalism, the international imposition of neoliberalism, etc. ad nauseam. But most of capitalism terrorism inheres in the relationship between the capitalist owners and their workers. The majority of people who are not privileged to have jobs with tenure or personal power feel the pointy end of the boss's oppression every day. They submit to this oppression in part because it is blessed by the liberal religious ideals, in part because lacking organization (and attempts to organize are suppressed most violently), resistance is futile. (Even with organization, resistance is dangerous and difficult.)

In Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky is direct and explicit: terrorism is the only way to take power from the capitalist class. The capitalists will never voluntarily submit to the rule of the working class, so they must be made afraid of the working class's power. The only alternative to terrorism of the capitalists by the workers is for the workers to submit to the terrorism of the capitalists.

It is one thing to say that capitalism is better than communism, and the terrorism necessary to suppress communism is justified to preserve the better ideology from the worse. Obviously, I don't agree with that position, but it is at least honest. It is, however, rank hypocrisy to say that communism is worse than capitalism just because it requires terrorism to implement, while ignoring the terrorism capitalism must necessarily embrace to maintain itself.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The prestige economy

Kevin Simler has written at length about the prestige or social status economy: Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole, Social Status II: Cults and Loyalty, and Minimum Viable Superorganism. Wearing my economist/social scientist hat, Simler's ideas seem interesting; as a communist, I'm not at all impressed: the social status economy is Older Than Dirt. See, for example, Homer: the Iliad is about nothing but the social status economy. Homer begins the epic thus: "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles"; Agamemnon has diminished Achilles' prestige, and in his wrath, Achilles extracts a heavy price.

Marx himself argues in The Communist Manifesto that a positive historical material effect of capitalism was to break us from the status economy and allow material self-interest to unleash humanity's productive forces:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

George Orwell too casts a skeptical eye at the pure prestige economy (absent even domination, the darker side of social status that Simler acknowledges). In Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver's travels, Orwell claims that the prestige economy is at least as stultifying as any tyranny:
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Having lived in what was close to a pure prestige economy in the Kerista commune, I can personally attest to Orwell's opinion. Another commune member also concurs: in Afterword: What happened to Kerista?, Even Eve writes:
Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently. Often the matters were relatively inconsequential, but there were also many which were not that had major effects on the lives and minds of other people. There are memories of this sort about which many of us will probably continue to cringe for years to come . . . times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn't synch with current Keristan doctrine ... or times we sat by and watched while some of the "heavies" [i.e. those with prestige and social status within the commune] in our tribe verbally abused someone else in the name of honesty, growth, the pursuit of "righteousness" or some other such rationalisation.

It is readily apparent (as Simler frequently admits) that the capitalist system has quite easily commodified the prestige economy, probably its easiest expropriation. If you admire someone, you buy their merchandise to advertise your admiration.

The prestige economy is certainly part of "human nature" that plays a part in politics, and as such deserves study by social scientists; indeed, I imagine that there is already a considerable body of literature on the topic. But the prestige economy is not at all, either directly or indirectly, a revolutionary tool.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

On reparations

Coates writes Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?. C.K. MacLeod pushes back from the right with The Argument for Reparations, and the Question of Justice, and Cedric Johnson pushed back from the left with An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him. I don't really buy any of these positions.

First, MacLeod's position is fatally flawed. MacLeod argues that the Civil War is a credit to white people, that we spilled a lot of our own blood in an effort to eliminate the worst kind of racial injustice, literal chattel slavery. I agree with MacLeod, but only at the most superficial level. I don't think white people need to be ashamed of the Civil War, and I don't think Coates is correct to include it as a charge against white people. But Coates' case of the injustices perpetrated by white people against black people remains overwhelming, even with the war accruing to our credit: the "blood sacrifice" at the very best atones for chattel slavery, but the list of injustices runs far longer than just slavery itself.

MacLeod then descends into nonsense. He asks, "At what point in the process are alternative theories of justice to be considered?" Um... right in your column? This sort of meta shit (in the passive voice, no less) drives me crazy. By all means, propose an alternative theory of justice for us to consider. Indeed, MacLeod does so: he proposes for us to consider that the Civil War has wiped out all need to sacrifice to correct the oppression of black people in the United States; MacLeod believes we have sacrificed enough. I've considered it... and rejected it. But in general, right here, in the public debate, which includes Coates' essay, MacLeod's, and Johnson's is where we do in fact consider alternative theories of justice.

Johnson's essay addresses only an implication of Coates' essay, an implication I'm not sure is actually justified, although it might be. (I think that the author is this Cedric Johnson, and he's probably more hip than me to unspoken implications.) But the implication is really important, and deserves to be made explicit.

The implication is this: racial justice (and by extension other forms of status injustice, e.g. sexism, or homophobia) is in some sense in opposition to socialism. I don't think anyone, Coates included, believes that socialism requires racial injustice, but they are, to some extent, different things, and at least we must prioritize.

To a large extent, I disagree with Johnson, at least as a socialist. (I am white, so I entirely cede to black people the strategic and tactical decisions about how they fight for their own justice under present conditions.) As a socialist, I welcome Coates' efforts in general to hold our feet to the fire to actively work for not just socialism but also racial justice per se. And, similarly, I welcome women's efforts, and gay people's efforts. We cannot simply ignore these kinds of issues and focus exclusively on class issues.

I also don't think that we can ignore issues of class and general economic inequality.

First, I don't think it's possible to eradicate racism under the present capitalist system. If we prioritize the fight against racism without also fighting against capitalism, we will lose both fights. Theoretical considerations aside, 21st century capitalists have so deeply adopted racism and sexism that they will never abandon them. And without the fight against capitalism as capitalism, the present capitalist class will always have more power to perpetuate racism and sexism than people of color and women will have to eradicate them.

More importantly, it is theoretically possible to have capitalism without racism and sexism, but is that what we want? If we were to truly eradicate racism and sexism under capitalism, we would liberate only 0.1 percent — or at most 10 percent — of women and people of color. The 0.1 percent ruling, and the 10 percent serving with privilege — and the 90 percent exploited — would be racially and gender-neutral, but we would still be oppressing the 90 percent. If by "justice", you mean "justice for 10 percent", then I have to say our ideas of justice are entirely incompatible.

Which is why Coates' focus on reparations is, while not completely full of shit like MacLeod, at least problematic, because reparations rely on capitalism; reparations are incoherent under real socialism.

On the one hand, a pro-capitalist presidential candidate such as Sanders should support reparations (although Sanders probably sees tactical reasons not to). To the extent that reparations would be effective under capitalism, and capitalism is what we actually have right here right now, it makes perfect sense for Coates to advocate for it. Of course, reparations will never actually happen; as noted above, the capitalist class will never abandon racism as a tool to maintain social and political control, and anything more than token reparations would entail abandoning racism. But demanding reparations does make sense: you don't get half the pie by demanding only half the pie; you have to demand all of it.

However, socialism (real socialism, not Sanders' weak tea welfare capitalism, which was already decisively defeated in 1980) obviates the possibility of reparations because it already requires radical economic equality for everyone. Under socialism, there is no one to pay the reparations. If reparations are the sine qua non of racial justice, then racial justice is absolutely incompatible with socialism.

As a socialist, I have concerns about calls for "justice" of any kind that merely demands equal access for this or that group to enter the capitalist ruling class, and the privileged professional-managerial class that serves the ruling class. Yes, a racially and gender neutral capitalist ruling class is better than a racist and sexist ruling class, but not by that much. It sure is not justice.