Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Great Chinese Famine, part 2

Commenter MLA writes (omitting a prefatory remark):
I disagree with your assessment [in The Great Chinese Famine]. it is no coincidence that the GLF failure happened after local markets (which could have alleviated the suffering) were made illegal, and after the shift to non-market rewards based on politically-defined economic incentives were put into place. Those two factors were straight out of the Marxist/Leninist playbook. If the measures of success for GLF were market metrics, there would be no ability to essentially lie one's way to success. They would have had to demonstrate sales in the marketplace, which while it could still be gamed is much harder to game than the face value bureaucratic reporting that seems to take place in traditional communist organizational structures. China had had famines before, but this famine was different, and the major key differentiators were top-down, non-market driven policies.

It is also a bit misleading to say that "once the magnitude of the catastrophe had become impossible to ignore, the Chinese Communist Party reversed course, changed its policies, and dealt as harshly as it could with Mao, removing him from power." In 1959, the failures of the GLF were discussed at the Lushan Conference, and yet it took a full two years of famine before Mao was effectively neutered. The chief critic of Mao's policy, interestingly enough, was also removed from power for this criticism.

I would highly recommend looking at some of the key aspects of the GLF policy, particularly Frank Dik├Âtter's excellent "Mao's Great Famine" [link added - Larry] (which, as far as I know, is the only Western history based on access to the Chinese archives from 1958-1962). The full intent of the GLF was to create a sterling path to communism that was uniquely Chinese (and not purely Leninist, significantly caused by the break from the USSR a few years earlier). The policy outcomes were based on Mao's and the CCP's interpretation of Marxism, and the results were disastrous.

I think we're making some progress. MLA writes, "The full intent of the GLF [The Great Leap Forward, a proximate cause of the Great Chinese Famine (GCF)] was to create a sterling path to communism that was uniquely Chinese," so we seem to agree that the intent was not Naziesque murderousness. Although there might be some controversy about the timing, MLA and I also seem to agree that Mao was eventually disciplined, which is further evidence of a lack of murderous intent. I also agree that the GCF was an inexcusable catastrophe, and regardless of ideology, we must make whatever modifications are necessary to avoid a recurrence. Millions, perhaps tens of millions of people may have tragically died, but they were not killed in the sense that anti-communists seem to allege or imply, i.e. murdered like the Nazis murdered Jewish, homosexual, and slavic civilians.* I think we have achieved substantial progress.

*The Nazi killings of communists and socialists is less clear-cut: the communists were in fact the Nazi's mortal enemies, and, like it or not, killing in war is universal. We could, with our present knowledge, hardly have objected to the opposite.

The question now is what were the causes of the GCF, and how can they be prevented. MLA claims that the shift away from markets was a substantial cause; adopting markets could have prevented the GCF. This is a tough claim to make; all we have is a temporal correlation and theoretical speculation. The problem is that the only concrete material template is capitalism in the west, and the historical and material circumstances were different enough in 1950s China to make direct comparisons unreliable. Unlike the capitalist west, China did not have a bourgeoisie that had developed under monarchism and finally taken power. The existing capitalist west seemed of little help; the only "help" the Chinese had reason to expect from the west was British colonial subjugation or Chiang Kai-shek's impotence against the Japanese (and the communists).

No one has ever successfully started a capitalist economy from a standing start without massive assistance from the West. Japan is a special case — most countries subject to American imperialism, such as the Philippines, remain economically crippled even today — and the Japanese had already industrialized substantially and had developed a lot of the technical infrastructure and expertise necessary for capitalism before the Americans occupied and rebuilt the country, and, somewhat surprisingly, did not colonize it. It is easy to ignore the hypothetical pitfalls of the choice not taken.

I am certainly convinced that we should not "do communism" the way Mao did it in 1958. I am not at all convinced, at least not by the Great Chinese Famine, that to eliminate private ownership of the means of production necessitates famine, poverty, mass death.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Great Chinese Famine

Commenter MLA opens his or her rebuttal with Mao's Great Leap Forward, which was one of the many causes of the Great Chinese Famine.

Regardless of its cause, the famine was an inexcusable catastrophe. There is no other response to the famine than to accurately identify its cause, and ensure nothing even remotely like it happens again. And, if the cause were communism, then communism must be abandoned. But, and I know this will come as a shock, I do not believe that communism per se was in fact the cause.

The charge, as I mentioned earlier, is that these communists killed a lot people, not that a lot of people died. Even absent natural or entirely excusable causes, people die by the millions all the time, with plague, famine, and war — hardly unique to communism — the principle causes. Again, I don't wish to excuse these deaths, but if we're going to make momentous political decisions, we must employ some measure of dispassionate analysis to accurately determine causes and lay blame.

I do not think I am being particularly controversial by saying that the Holocaust constitutes the paradigm of politically motivated mass murder. The Nazis explicitly decided to kill millions of people without even the shaky justifications of war, and this decision was rooted in ideological foundations not just of historically specific Nazism, but fascism in general. Indeed, that we know both theoretically and empirically that fascism causes mass murder is by itself sufficient

It is important to note that if we call the People's Republic of China "communist" on a minimal definition of communism, then we are entitled to call the Nazis capitalists because they endorsed the private ownership of the means of production. I am emphatically not saying that capitalists are therefore Nazis; I merely note that the fallacy of the converse is identical when applied to capitalists and communists. Fascism is an aberrant version of capitalism, and to their credit the capitalists have not (yet) repeated the horrors of fascism.

In contrast, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 caused massive death, and, like the Great Chinese Famine, was an inexcusable catastrphe, in the sense that we cannot simply say, "Well, that just happens from time to time," and do nothing in response. However, there was never any intent to kill anyone, nor was the scope of the catastrophe substantially magnified by gross negligence. Hence we can conclude that the pandemic was simply a natural disaster: while we must (and did) take serious measures to prevent a recurrence, there is little or no blame to lay. (When I attribute the pandemic deaths to capitalism, I do so to highlight the stupidity and hypocrisy of throwing around large numbers without detailed analysis of causes.)

The Great Chinese Famine falls short of Holocaust-like intentional mass killing, but because of gross negligence was more than a blameless natural disaster.

We can infer the lack of intent from two factors. First, the stated motivation of the Great Leap Forward was rapid industrialization to counter an existential threat to the Chinese people. The Chinese had only recently recovered from the depredations of the Japanese, the civil war, and had reason to believe that factions of the capitalist West were prepared to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese. Before the First Imperialist War, the Chinese had been subject to the most abject subordination of capitalist imperialism for more than a century, and it is notable that Chiang Kai-shek's capitalist friendly Nationalists had not fought the Japanese during the occupation. Additionally, any covert intention to kill millions of people seems implausible: one does not defeat a stronger enemy — and the West was clearly stronger than China — by casually killing millions of productive people.

Second, once the magnitude of the catastrophe had become impossible to ignore, the Chinese Communist Party reversed course, changed its policies, and dealt as harshly as it could with Mao, removing him from power. The Chinese were under no external pressure to reverse course, so had the intention been to kill millions of people, the Party would have had no reason to change their policies or discipline Mao.

Although the case for intention fails, gross negligence clearly exacerbated the situation, and plausibly turned what might have been mild consequences of a mistake into a horrific catastrophe. Had the communist bureaucracy not systematically hidden the consequences of the Great Leap Forward, it is likely that few or no people at all would have died of starvation. Again, it is notable that in response to the famine, the Chinese did in fact make thoroughgoing changes to their bureaucracy, going all the way up to Mao, and to my knowledge there has not been another mass famine in China.

Although it might be possible to attribute to communism the gross negligence that exacerbated the Great Chinese Famine (which I will discuss later), we cannot use the famine to condemn communism on the same basis that we can use the Holocaust to condemn fascism.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A hundred million people

I have often heard the charge, The communists killed 100 million people! (the number varies from tens to scores to hundreds); therefore communism is bad. This charge does not just come from a few internet commenters; I've heard it repeated by Ph.D. political scientists and economists. I'm skeptical of this claim for three reasons: I don't know that it's true, to the extent that people who called themselves communists killed people I don't know that these killings were caused by communism per se, and mass killing is so common in human society that I don't think think that the charge does much to differentiate communism from other political ideologies, especially capitalism.

Killing 100 million, or even 10 million, people is extremely difficult in practice, and should leave a lot of evidence. I have a Bachelor's degree in political science, and I have never seen direct evidence of mass killing on such a scale. My personal ignorance does not, of course, mean that such evidence does not exist, but in contrast, the evidence that the Nazis killed 10 or 15 million people is so ubiquitous that I was aware of not only the charge but the evidence and documentation before I started studying political science. I have, for example, actually visited Dachau. So that the evidence for such a massive charge is not readily apparent at least raises suspicion.

I have not studied the topic academically in any depth. However, what little I have studied indicates the evidence for the scope of mass killings is at best indirect, perhaps unsound, and at worst simply fabricated. In The Battle for China's Past, Mobo Gao claims that the "evidence" for the Chinese Communist killing of scores of millions rests on calculating how many people should have been alive in China at some point, subtracting the number actually alive, and counting the difference as mass killing. Not only is this technique unsound on its face, but Gao also rebuts the claim directly: he compares China's population growth India's (where no allegations of mass killings have been made) and finds no significant difference.

Also, despite their problems, both the Soviet Union and China had sufficient economic growth under Stalin and Mao to become world powers; it is difficult on its face to reconcile that economic growth with the incredible economic drain that the mass killings of scores of millions of people would have caused. And these mass killings would have to have been on top of those caused in the Second Imperialist War, unless we to blame the Nazis on Stalin and the Japanese on Mao.

Finally, the capitalist west has been explicitly struggling against communism since its inception. Western scholars, as well as Chinese scholars who, as Gao also claims, desire Western favor, have considerable incentive to interpret any evidence uncharitably. When someone has a good reason to shave the truth or lie outright, we do need to examine the actual evidence most carefully.

As noted earlier, I am not saying here that absence of evidence is evidence of absence; I have not made a thorough search for the evidence. However, this deficiency could easily be corrected by someone who has made a thorough search to send me at least their bibliography.

But my objections do not end just at whether or not mass killings actually occurred. Let us assume, arguendo, that at least some of the charges are true. I would also need to see evidence that the mass killings occurred because of communism per se.

There was a lot going on in the Soviet Union and China. Russia was devastated by the First Imperialist War, which cannot, of course, be attributed to communism. Then, as Trotsky observes in Terrorism and Communism, the Soviet Union faced massive shortages of raw materials because of the Western blockade and the West's prosecution and support of the Russian Civil War; Trotsky complains that the Soviets had to run their entire economy, including their transportation network, almost entirely on firewood. Soon after the end of the Civil War, the Soviet Union faced Hitler and the resurgence in its time of the most powerful industrial economy and the most skilled and disciplined military power, explicitly bent on the annihilation of the slavic people. To prepare to fight Hitler, Stalin required the absolute dedication of the Soviet Union's population and labor. (Very similarly, most Western nations also required near-total popular effort during the war, overcoming substantial resistance and dissent.) Finally, after the end of the Second Imperialist War, both the Soviet Union and China faced a nuclear-armed United States, with at least some US factions explicitly advocating nuclear annihilation, e.g. Patton for Russia and MacArthur for China. While Truman repudiated both, neither the Soviet Union nor China should be expected to rely entirely the United States' charity for their very survival.

There are other things going on too, of course. Both the Soviet Union and Communist China emerged not from bourgeois republics but directly from authoritarian regimes, without even the beginnings of political socialization of democratization provided by a bourgeois republic.

At the very least, those linking provable mass killing to the communists would need to show that these mass killing were not substantially related to the massive effort necessary for weak agrarian economies to industrialize rapidly enough to stave off genuine existential threats.

Finally, mass killing is hardly unique to communism. Mass killing goes back not only to the beginning of recorded history — Thucydides documents any number of massacres — but is shown in the archeological record. Capitalist countries have themselves engaged in mass killing and other comparable behavior, notably the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, the enslavement of black people, at least a million deaths in the American Civil War, the First and Second Imperialists Wars and the use of firebombing and nuclear bombing of civilians in the Second, the Irish Potato Famine, the Influenza Epidemic Pandemic of 1918, the Bengal Famine, etc. ad nauseam.

It is important to note that the reasons for these deaths are irrelevant in this context. It is simply the number of deaths that opponents of communism claim are relevant, not the reasons or justifications. If no justification could excuse communist mass killings, it would be rank hypocrisy to justify capitalism's mass deaths.

After studying socialism and communism both as an amateur and academic, I see absolutely nothing in socialist and communist theory to justify mass killings. It is possible that Stalin and Mao actually did kill a lot of people, with or without good justification. If so, a good communist such as myself must simply say that we must discover the reasons and causes of those killings, and ensure that they do not recur in the future. Even justified killing is not really acceptable: our goal is the liberation of all humanity, and even one death is a failure.

ETA (5:10 am): Here's another example of capitalism literally killing people: Public Health Takes a Hit Even as Uruguay Prevails in Infamous Philip Morris Investor-State Attack. According to the Centers for Disease control, tobacco kills 6 million people per year. What makes these deaths directly attributable to capitalism is the tobacco companies' powerful resistance to national democratic governments' smoking cessation programs. The perpetuation of these deaths follows directly from the capitalist premise that companies have a property right to profits, and those rights cannot under any circumstances be legitimately abridged by democratically elected governments.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Burning down the house

Regardless of the appropriateness of the comment, there is a substantive dimension to Burt Likko's criticism of a Black Lives Matter speaker's call to "dismantle the system". The question obliquely posed in the post, and discussed at more length in the comments, is whether it is desirable to dismantle the system.

Likko does not give us the context of the speech, so we don't know the speaker's intended meaning. We don't know what system the speaker refers to, and what he means to dismantle it. The phrase might well just be a rhetorical flourish, without specific meaning. But, in keeping with tenor of Likko's post and the subsequent comments, let's take the phrase to mean a radical overthrow of the capitalist system in favor of some variant of socialism. Aislinn Pulley's article, The System That Killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Cannot Be Reformed seems to support this interpretation.

I am a communist, and Likko and the majority of commenters at Ordinary Times seem to be sane Republicans, so it's perhaps unsurprising that I favor "dismantling the system" and Likko and his commenters do not. But declaring our preferences, or conducting an abstract normative discussion, misses the main points.

Under what objective circumstances will people actually dismantle the capitalist system? As human beings embedded in the capitalist system that might be dismantled, and who will (if we survive) inherit what follows, how can we think about the question effectively, and, on due consideration, what can we actually do about the issue?

The first question is mostly descriptive, not normative. The capitalist system will be dismantled when and if dismantling the capitalist system is in the interest a sufficiently large number of people, they become aware of this interest, and they have the will to gain the power necessary to dismantle the system.

In this sense, choosing to dismantle or preserve is a pure (as opposed to mixed) chicken game. To simplify for the sake of analysis, we can assume there are two "players": the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (and their respective allies). Because they are the existing ruling class, we say that the bourgeoisie "moves first"; thus their dominant strategy is to preserve the system. The proletariat "moves second", and because the consequences of trying to dismantle the system are worse than preserving it, the proletariat also chooses to preserve.

The goal of the sensible revolutionary is not to try to convince the proletariat to dismantle capitalism anyway and make themselves worse off in the short run; this strategy will never work. Instead, the goal is to change the game so that by dismantling the system the proletariat is better off in the short run.

The goal of the sensible capitalist is to not only preserve capitalism, but to keep the game a chicken game. They must convince the proletariat that they would be worse off by dismantling the system than by preserving it, however much privilege the capitalist class exercises. They have two classes of strategy to do so: increase the reward to the proletariat to preserve the system, or increase the punishment for attempting to dismantle the system.

The best strategy for the revolutionary is to sap the will of the bourgeoisie to impose punishment. The Soviet Union fell precisely when the Soviet Communist Party lost the will to punish the people for dismantling Soviet communism. (As it turned out, quite a lot of people were actually worse off, but thems the breaks. As some wag put it, "Everything the communists told us about communism was a lie; unfortunately, everything they told us about capitalism was the truth.")

Another strategy for the revolutionary is provoke the bourgeoisie into reducing the reward for the proletariat to preserve the system, or goad them into punishing the proletariat even if they preserve the system. This is the strategy that ISIS is using: to provoke western governments into repressing Muslims so severely that they have nothing to lose by dismantling the system, presumably in favor of some sort of Islamic theocracy.

Provocation poses considerable risk: if the proletariat believes that actions of revolutionary justify the consequent punishment by the bourgeoisie, the proletariat believes they have more to lose by dismantling the system. Hence kidnappings, bombings, and other acts of "terrorism" are so counter-productive for a communist revolutionary as to be dismissed out of hand. State repression against this kind of "terrorism" will be seen by the proletariat as justified.

Instead, the provocations must be so obviously righteous per se that the bourgeoisie lose credibility by attempting to blame the revolutionaries. The "riots" in Ferguson show the value of this strategy: protesting the actual police murder of a citizen and the state repression of black communities in the area is so obviously righteous that when they violently suppressed theses protests, the bourgeois state lost a lot of credibility by blaming the violent suppression on the organizers and victims.

All of these theoretical and descriptive considerations aside, it is actual human beings who act in political conflict, and human beings act in no small part according to moral reasoning.

The key moral question is not whether capitalism is better than socialism. For some people, capitalism is better; for others socialism would be better.

The real moral questions, the questions that each individual must ask him- or herself, are these: What am I willing to do to preserve or dismantle the system? What am I willing to suborn, to tolerate, to rationalize? Are there tactics that even if I have good reason to believe would be effective I still would not use or tolerate?

These question are made more complex because we must also contemplate them in light of the answers my opponents would give. We can see that the bourgeoisie and their allies are willing to use and tolerate assassination, murder, rape, torture, mass incarceration, the mass slaughter of civilians in war, the systematic repression of black communities, etc. ad nauseam, and they use and tolerate these means under the mantle of their own authority and thus bear full moral responsibility.

These questions cannot be answered out loud; more precisely, no one should ever trust someone's public answer. I pose them only for my own and my readers' private reflection.

As a revolutionary, I must consider my own actions in light of these answers the bourgeoisie has made manifest.

It is of course possible and not unreasonable to support the capitalist system while opposing these acts, calling them evil (a label I definitely endorse). By all means, work against the evils while supporting the system. But I recommend a sense of urgency: the longer these evils persist, the more the exhortations to work within the system ring hollow and shrill.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Daddies, “Dates,” and the Girlfriend Experience: Welcome to the New Prostitution Economy: A growing number of young people are selling their bodies online to pay student loans, make the rent, or afford designer labels. Is it just an unorthodox way to make ends meet or a new kind of exploitation?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Meaning and purpose

This is also how you do philosophy: good-humored nihilist Kevin Simler's A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning

I've never been plagued by the big existential questions. You know, like What's my purpose? or What does it all mean?

Growing up I was a very science-minded kid — still am — and from an early age I learned to accept the basic meaninglessness of the universe. Science taught me that it's all just atoms and the void, so there can't be any deeper point or purpose to the whole thing; the kind of meaning most people yearn for — Ultimate Meaning — simply doesn't exist.

. . .

Now, if [dancing and farting around] were the final word on the subject, I'd be perfectly content. Unfortunately, some of my favorite writers of recent years — Sarah Perry and David Chapman, in particular — can't seem to shut up about meaning. . . . What follows is my attempt at figuring out what people mean when they talk about meaning.

Yet another concern troll

Burt Likko does not want to hear about dismantling the system. That's ok. I don't think the speakers wanted to talk to him.

Likko doesn't really give any actual reasons why Black Lives Matter shouldn't want to dismantle the system. His only "argument" is that he has at least some standing as an ally: he agrees that black people shouldn't have to worry about being shot by the police, and he's done a lot of civil rights legal work (presumably he's an attorney). As an ally, he doesn't like their goals.

However well intentioned — and Likko does seem well-intentioned — he's engaging in pure concern trolling.

First, he has no right to declare himself an ally of anyone. Allies are chosen by the principals, not the other way around. If BLM wants him as an ally, they'll ask him. Similarly, while I stand behind BLM 100 percent, I do not declare myself an ally, and I don't presume to advise them their goals, strategies, or tactics.

Analysis is a different matter. If Likko wanted to talk about actual reasons why he doesn't think BLM should want to dismantle the system, it would be entirely appropriate (IMnsHO) to talk about those reasons. But he doesn't.

I happen to agree with the speaker Likko cites: racism and the police murder of black people are so deeply baked into American capitalism that they have become nearly inseparable. If you think that the police can be reformed without dismantling the capitalist system, you don't need to cajole BLM or its representatives into not calling for dismantling the system; all you need to do is actually, you know, reform the system. Good luck with that.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Link dump

I don't have time to write about these, but they're good, and I want at least to preserve the links.

Our Awful Elites Gutted America. Now They Dare Ring Alarms About Trump, Sanders—And Cast Themselves as Saviors: Both parties ignored workers, spewed hate, enriched themselves, hollowed out democracy. Now the problem's populism?

Who Got Rich Off the Student Debt Crisis:
A generation ago, Congress privatized a student loan program intended to give more Americans access to higher education.

In its place, lawmakers created another profit center for Wall Street and a system of college finance that has fed the nation’s cycle of inequality. Step by step, Congress has enacted one law after another to make student debt the worst kind of debt for Americans – and the best kind for banks and debt collectors.

The Millennial Generation Is a Perfect Fit for Socialism:
Few developments have caused as much recent consternation among advocates of free-market capitalism as various findings that millennials, compared to previous generations, are exceptionally receptive to socialism.

There's some good but a lot wrong with DeLong's article, The Economist as...?: The Public Square and Economists. I'll try to get to it soon.

The case against equality of opportunity: It's an incoherent, impossible ideal. And if we're really going to fight inequality, it needs to be abandoned.

In Why millions of Americans — including me — own the AR-15, Jon Stokes gives us a glimpse into the minds of a lot of gun owners.

Why Do the Poor Make Such Poor Decisions? Rutger Bregman argues persuasively that it's because they're poor. The best way to fight poverty is to give people money.

Revolution or reform?

Aislinn Pulley, a lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago, believes that The System That Killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Cannot Be Reformed: "What sense would it make to ask for a kinder slave patroller when the problem is slavery itself?" Pulley asks. "The same is true of US policing now."

Pulley argues (and I concur) that violence against black people and violence against poor people is inherent to capitalism. Capitalism produces not just inequality but poverty, and its production of poverty is not because capitalists happen to be evil, but because of the structural imperatives of capitalist economic and social relations. Capitalism rewards the accumulation and concentration of wealth without limit; those who concentrate the most wealth survive and prosper. But wealth concentrated in one place entails that it must be lacking elsewhere. It is no good for homo economus if everyone is wealthy; he has no power. The fundamental incentive of capitalism is for some people to have more wealth than others, and thus have power over them.

Before capitalism, most social systems were fairly upfront about how their social system worked. Under feudalism, the lord owned the land by virtue of noble birth and force of arms, and sent his soldiers to collect his share the peasants' product to feed himself, his servants, and his soldiers. Like it or not, everyone knew exactly where they stood and why.

Capitalism, on the other hand, systematically conceals and disguises its own true nature. Capitalism can survive only so long as its ideological contradictions remain hidden and its social and economic conflicts remain suppressed. The opacity of capitalism is not so much a conspiracy per se as a structural and social-evolutionary outcome: actors and actions that expose contradictions do not make money and thus wither; actors and actions that conceal contradictions do make money and thus prosper.

Capitalism thus always finds, reinforces, and magnifies any divisions within the working classes. When the workers are divided, the capitalists prosper; when they are united, the capitalists tremble. And, given the United States' history of slavery, there is no better way to divide the workers than by race.

It's not like the Bilderberg group sent out secret orders to American police forces; it's just that if some cop or or some police force shakes down black people, harasses them, and kills a few in the process, well, they don't make the capitalists tremble, and are thus tolerated. The pundits who blame black people for their own victimization don't make the capitalists tremble, and get published.

Trying to unite white and black workers makes the capitalist class tremble, and they do not pay for what they fear. Aislinn Pulley will not be published on the Op Ed page of the New York Times or Washington Post. She will not become a tenured professor. She will not sit on the board of General Electric. She will not become a partner at Dewey, Cheatem and Howe. She will not become a federal judge. At least not unless she sells out her cause and her convictions.

She might well sell out, at least sell out her socialism. Racism is a good tool, a sharp tool, but it's not the only tool. Capitalism is not fundamentally predicated on racism. We could have a capitalist system that exploited the workers but did not use the black-white division to maintain its exploitation. There are any number of alternative tools to divide the working class: immigration, drugs, skills, education, height, weight, even eye color. Why not? We can convince children in a few days that blue eyes are good and brown eyes are bad.

I stand 100 percent with Black Lives Matter. I would stand 100 percent with them even if they were not socialist: the continued police murders of black people is evil in itself, not just because it perpetuates capitalism. If Pulley and other Black Lives Matter leaders "sell out" their socialism just to end police murders, I would not utter a peep of complaint. And, if the capitalists are smart (and they're not completely stupid) that's just what they'll do: a judgeship here, a tenured faculty appointment there, a few partnerships and boards of directors, all to preserve capitalism. If the capitalists are really smart (and they have flashes of brilliance), they'll agree to a "process" and "statements" that preserve not only capitalism but the racial divide that helps perpetuate it. It worked on Obama, n'est ce pas?

But if the capitalists are stupid (and they can be just as obtuse as the next person), they'll dig in their heels and neither successfully co-opt Black Lives Matter leaders (and other leaders) nor give up the hyper-oppression and murder of black people. I don't hope this happens, but I don't have any control of whether or not it does happen. And sooner or later it will happen: the capitalists will choose to fight to the death over something, they will lose, and we will have another opportunity to liberate all of humanity.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Slavery and freedom

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is probably exaggerating for rhetorical effect, but in his essay, How to Own a Slave, he divides up the world into slaves and rugged individualists. To be sure, slavery today is much less malignant than before — we call them "employees" now, and there are more limits on how abjectly we can exploit them — but the metaphysical categories haven't changed: only the rugged individualists can get things done, whereas employees are mere instruments, mere tools. Worse yet, although employees are mere instruments, they are not instruments of any actual rugged individualist, who, of course, disdains the ineffectual and morally problematic assistance of the employee. Employees are simply free-floating instruments without any guidance. Taleb shows us, for example, the Vietnam war and the response to Saudi Arabia after 9/11: the disastrous consequences of groups of employees stumbling around, without guidance, doing what seems "safe", unable to take any kind of risk. Sadly,

Taleb does not draw any real conclusions. He opens his essay with a story showing the clear advantage of the employee over the individualist contractor, and he admits that a complex economy needs slaves employees, so he doesn't seem to advocate universal individualism. He's also unclear on what it means to have "skin in the game". Supposedly "skin in the game" is a good thing, but Taleb claims that unlike individualist contractors, an employee does have skin in the game: formerly his status with the company, presently his or her employability in the industry. As to alternatives, Taleb leaves us only with a teaser at the end: "Now compare these policies with ones in which decision makers have skin in the game as a substitute for their annual 'job assessment', and you would picture a different world." Unfortunately, I can picture any number of different worlds, from a techno-libertarian utopia to a law of the jungle dystopia.

Taleb is, at least here, himself a slave to capitalist ideological categories. The view of employees as merely slaves is, however, a capitalist idea. Employees are metaphysical slaves not because of some inherent Aristotelian slave nature, but because capitalism necessarily constructs the employee as a slave. Hence, I'm a revolutionary: socialism is not about some set of government policies, or even a different political regime; socialism is about a thoroughgoing transformation of all social relations, as thoroughgoing as the transformation from lord-subject relations to bourgeois-proletariat relations. A critical transformation is the elimination of the social relationship of the capitalist employee.

It's worth examining the story Taleb relates to open his essay. Taleb introduces the transportation entrepreneur who uses individualist contractors for all the tasks, including pilots. With a lucrative flight about to take off, his contractor pilot, having received a better offer, cancels his contract and pays the contracted penalty. Our entrepreneur is unable to find a replacement pilot and (presumably even with the pilot's penalty) faces financial ruin for not being able to actually make the trip. How much better, Taleb confidently asserts, if the pilot were an employee, with a reputation for reliability to maintain. An employee would never blythely abandon a task for a short-term financial gain. But Taleb poses a false dichotomy. Assuming that pilots really cannot be found at short notice, the obvious alternative to Taleb's contractor/employee dichotomy is to make the pilot a partner. Partners have "skin in the game" (presumably Taleb would thus approve) both financially and reputationally.

One transformation of socialism is thus to make most everyone a partner. Not disconnected individualists, maximizing their personal gain without a thought for others, and not employees, concerned only with pleasing or placating their masters immediate superiors.

Wittgenstein's golden turds

Now this is how you do you some philosophy! wittgenstein: on the fritz:
Now I’m thinking about all of those photos of Wittgenstein squirming around in the same tweed jacket, looking like he’s been repressing the same orgasm since 1922. Or maybe the same shit. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Wittgenstein was the kind of man who had trouble going to the bathroom. Even his philosophical style is basically a monument to sweaty triumph over constipation—squeezing out one little golden turd after another.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Fascism and violence

It's important to understand fascism in its historical context. Mussolini and Hitler used a complex of political, social, cultural, and economic ideas to seize and maintain state power. David Neiwert has done a lot of historical work on precisely what they did and how they did it.

But in another sense, I think it's important to analyze not just what fascism is or was, but what precisely we don't like about fascism. To no small extent, the specific ideas that the fascists promoted are historically contingent. They did what they did because material conditions in Italy and Germany in the 1930s made those specific ideas especially useful and effective. But it is no longer the 1930s, and the United States is not Italy or Germany, so we could relax some of the specifics of what fascism was, and concentrate on what was more generally bad about fascism.

So, for example, one element of fascism is subordinating the ordinary individual to the state, and the state to the Great Leader. If we're going to define fascism as the more-or-less "essential" elements of what Mussolini and Hitler did, this kind of subordination is pretty essential, and if someone we don't like doesn't have it, whatever they are, they're not fascists.

And on the other side, I personally don't want to subordinate myself to the state, but if that's what people want, why shouldn't they have it? Human individuality is at some basic level ineluctable, so if people were to individually choose to think of themselves as elements of the state, they are still actually individuals.

But what if the masses of Germans and Italians didn't actually choose to be good fascist citizens? Then our criticism wouldn't be that people chose some way to live that we personally don't like, but because the fascists violated the more general principle that people should exercise substantial freedom of choice. I'm not an historian, and I haven't studied the history of 1930s/1940s Italy and Germany in any detail, but from my cursory readings, it does seem that Italians and Germans didn't really choose to be fascists, but were intimidated into tolerating it.

And thus we can drill down into what's really bad about fascism in a more general way: legitimization of state power directly by violence. A regime is "fascist" in this sense to the degree that it maintains its legitimacy directly by its ability to perpetrate violence against its subjects, and not by its promise (even insincere) to maximize the well-being of its citizens. "We are the legitimate state," says the fascist, "because if you don't call us legitimate, we will beat you up or kill you." Such a state is a real state, it has legitimacy, but perhaps that's not the sort of legitimacy that we want.

Note that "legitimacy" in this sense is not the idea that some regime is legitimate by virtue of being the first unconstrained choice of almost all of its subjects; a state is legitimate to the extent that its subjects do not organize to oppose the state's monopoly on violence.

This idea subtly differs from the idea that the a state may legitimately use violence. Fascism is not the use or threat of state violence, but the establishment of legitimacy by means of violence. It is possible for a state to use considerable violence on its subjects — e.g. to punish unacceptably deviant behavior — so long as the mass of citizens legitimize that use on a non-violent basis. For example, people still murder their neighbors, and the state violently captures and punishes these people, but the prohibition on murder, and the state's legitimate use of violence to enforce that prohibition, is established morally and socially, not violently.

In this sense, then, a regime can be fascist to a greater or lesser degree, and can be more or less fascist towards different subsets of its population. So, for example, the American South* was absolutely fascist towards the black slaves, obtaining its legitimacy exclusively by its ability to perpetrate horrific violence against the slaves without organized opposition, and quite fascist against many white people, willing to use quite a lot of violence against white people who even hinted at opposition to slavery. In the South, slavery and the slave state was legitimate because any organized opposition to slavery was suppressed by violence.

*With the usual disclaimer that I'm not an historian of the antebellum South.

To a certain extent, it doesn't even matter that, in a climate of legitimacy-by-violence, some subjects will internalize what is supported by violence. Presumably, if the vast majority of citizens support some idea, it is unnecessary to use violence against a few idiosyncratic opponents. We do not, for example, presently hunt down and kill people who advocate biblical theocracy, despite this idea being completely contrary to our notions of a democratic republic. Thus we can infer that either opposition to slavery in the South was actually a majority*, or that allowing a minority to express opposition to slavery threatened the legitimacy of the Southern regime. Hence the South was strongly fascist.

*Of white people; we can confidently assume that almost every black person was opposed.

And too, the present neoliberal regime is quite fascist towards black people. At every level from local to federal, black people know that to effectively oppose state oppression of black people in any way means death. Organized opposition to racism is thus suppressed directly by violence. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter are tolerated only to the extent that they are ineffective. If BLM were to actually threaten the racist state, their leaders would be jailed or assassinated and their membership dispersed or slaughtered. (Most likely, BLM will be co-opted, their leaders inducted as junior members of the servants of the neoliberal ruling class, and the fascist violence against ordinary working-class black people will continue unabated.)

So too could socialists become fascists in this sense. A socialist state would be fascist to the degree that its legitimacy were established and maintained directly by violence. One of the core principles, therefore, of socialism should be that its legitimacy should never be established by violence, that socialism is absolutely anti-fascist. We must persuade the great mass of people that socialism is better, not that we have the soldiers and bullets to make people socialist, like it or not.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Fuller vs. Sullivan

Someone should do an epic rap battle on Roslyn Fuller's essay, Democracy — Too Much of a Good Thing?, a pointed rebuttal of Andrew Sullivan's Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic. Fuller argues that Sullivan's application of Plato's polemic against democracy (from The Republic) is inapt.

Fuller notes that the American republic is modeled not after the Athenian democracy of Plato's time but explicitly and intentionally after the Roman republic. Thus, whatever the reasons for our conflict, they cannot be about too much democracy, because we don't have any democracy. Instead, surprisingly enough, our problems closely resemble the problems of the Roman republic around the time of Julius Caesar. In Caesar's time, the republic was not democratic, but had some public participation in elections. The elites became out of touch with the common people, and Caesar was charming enough to harness their dissatisfaction to use the elections to gain control of the Roman state, and his heir was able to overthrow the republic. (Note that the Roman Empire lasted undivided for more than 400 years, and the eastern empire lasted another millennium; the fall of the republic does not necessarily entail collapse.)

In contrast to Fuller's direct and compelling comparison, Sullivan's analysis is vague and theoretical. Indeed, in his defense of his original analysis (appended to Fuller's essay), Sullivan explicitly disclaims attempting any historical analysis whatsoever. Sullivan further specifies that what he means by democracy is the "the very recent democratization of online media." But online media, however open to the public, is not democracy: it is not state power held directly by the people. If online media is Sullivan's "hyper-democracy", then it is difficult to see Sullivan's argument as anything but that the people should not even have an independent voice not carefully crafted by the neoliberal ruling class.

It is also important to consider Plato's criticism of democracy in its context: Plato argues that even his ideal republic (which is a "republic" only in the loosest sense that it is without an actual monarch) will eventually become corrupted, leading to a process of degeneration and renewal, in which democracy is but a single step along the way. Even if Plato were correct (and I don't think he is), using Plato to condemn democratization is like using Newton to condemn gravitational acceleration: yes, if you are falling, gravitational acceleration will have very bad consequences, but Plato claims that the process of political corruption is just as inevitable.

We must keep in mind that Andrew Sullivan is a neoliberal, and if successful, the neoliberal project must necessarily end in the absolute disempowerment of the people. Any actual power must be stripped from the people — they will simply use it unwisely — and the people must be left with only the illusion of power. Even the kind of individual power the various capitalist ruling classes thought would perpetuate their rule — the power of whites over blacks, natives over immigrants, men over women, parents over children, law-abiders over law-breakers — just fuels fascism, which the neoliberals fear almost as much as they do democracy and socialism. Any "democracy", any actual power held by the people, is too much democracy.