Friday, December 30, 2016


The world does not, as far as I know, have any democratic governments. We have republics (and a few monarchies), where some elite, a congress/president or a parliament/prime minister, have privileged political authority, i.e. authority to actually govern. Some republics deserve the name of democratic republics, where all citizens have (more or less) equal voice in privileging the governing elite. Years of gerrymandering and the legally privileged duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties (never mind the economic power the capitalist and professional-managerial classes use to influence elections) cast into serious doubt whether the United States republic is actually a democratic republic.

In contrast, as I define it, a democracy has no one with privileged political authority. The people govern themselves. The kind of radical socialist vanguard party must support democracy.

Although a democracy will often use majorities to decide issues, a democracy is not the sovereignty of the majority. A democracy must have limits on the will of the majority. Although the people might decide on additional limitations, a democracy must have institutions that prevent a majority from disenfranchising any minority. No one may legitimately barred or limited from participating in the political process as an equal.

Second, institutions and practices must exist to devolve power away from the center, i.e. to localities and regions, rather than the nation (or the world) as a whole. For the people to govern themselves, they should preferably not be governed by people far away, who do not share their interests. There are certain issues that must be governed by the center (notably macroeconomic policy), but it should be institutionally difficult to centralize and easy to regionalize and localize.

All governing institutions in a democracy must be absolutely transparent. Secrets must be limited in only the most extreme cases. (The technical details of military hardware is one example: the people gain nothing important by knowing exactly how to construct a nuclear bomb.) Not even the majority may arbitrarily keep secrets from the minority.

A reasonable template for an institution that can thwart the will of the majority when it acts undemocratically is the institution of supreme judicial authority with the power of judicial review, such as the Supreme Court of the United States. Note that the Supreme Court has been exceptionally effective at preserving the United States' specifically capitalist republic against the threat socialism, but has been flexible enough at times to yield when the socialist pressure proved too strong. People who condemn the Supreme Court for having a poor history of upholding individual rights fundamentally misunderstand the Court's role in a capitalist republic: their role is to preserve capitalism against the majority of the people or their trustees. The role of the Supreme Court can be easily replicated to protect a democracy.

(No political regime is foolproof; if enough people try hard enough and long enough, they can undermine and corrupt a democracy, just like they can and have undermine and corrupt any regime. Sometimes to the benefit of humanity: undermining and corrupting monarchism and feudalism was a Good Thing. However, institutions can slow the process of corruption enough that a democracy does not fall "by accident" or happenstance.)

Implementing an actual democracy presents technical challenges, but we can surmount these challenges. There are a variety of options.

One possibility is to just let everyone vote on everything. Such a method would have been impossible before, but today we have the internet and sophisticated privacy-preserving and identity-establishing encryption and authentication technology.

This approach poses two political issues that cannot be solved technologically. First, the problem of harassment and intimidation, well known today on the internet. This problem can probably be ameliorated by a blend of anonymity and identity: we can establish a medium for political discussion that protects the physical anonymity of individuals, but establishes a "political" identity. Anyone can see all of a citizen's political contributions, but it is nearly impossible to tie that political identity to their personal identity (e.g. where they live and work). Additionally, this medium would probably require some form of institutional moderation.

The more important political issue is establishing and maintaining a consistent focus, to keep the people's individual voices from becoming mere noise. I don't know how to fix this problem, hence I prefer other solutions.

Another possibility is delegated democracy: people elect delegates, who take on the actual work of forming public policy. The difference between a democratic delegate and a republican trustee is that while the delegates provide a point of focus, they are not autonomous. The people can recall their delegates at any time, and might possibly retain the power of changing their delegates' policies directly. Hence delegates to not have privileged political authority, although they will almost certainly have unusual political influence.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher 1956-2016

Drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

A socialist vanguard party

Donald Trump and the Republican party beat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats because the people are thirsty for radical social change. The Republicans won because the Republican party, although initially hostile to Donald Trump, pivoted quickly to embrace him and his message of radical social change. Indeed, the Republican party has embraced, it its 21st century American way, the underlying approach of the radical vanguard party, and it has so far been successful.

There are alternatives.

The Democratic party has tried hard to be a party of incremental change. But the status quo has been so hostile to so many citizens that so long as elections mean anything (and they do mean something, just not what most people think), incrementalism cannot generate positive mass appeal; the Democrats' support has come only from conservatives who sensibly fear any kind of radical change for any reason.

The Occupy (and related) movements tried hard to be a "party" (in the loosest sense of the word) of purely bottom-up change. While they did important work, it is difficult to see how an Occupy-like movement can itself radically change our actually existing social institutions.

I have no small sympathy for both Democratic incrementalism and Occupy-like bottom-up action. If you believe either of these approaches are the best way to make progressive change, then do them with my blessing. I will merely note that I have not seen any progress — I have seen only a slowing of reaction and regress — from these approaches; any true progress they have made — and they have made some true progress — does not address the fundamental evils of capitalism. It is without question laudable that there is more racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality, but class inequality has increased. I am against oppression itself; it is not enough for me that oppression has become less racialized and sexualized.

I have been patient: I have watched class regression for more than thirty years. But my patience is not limitless. The final straw was the Democratic party's 2007 spineless appeasement of the war in Iraq, and Obama's pro-capitalist anti-worker response to 2008 Global Financial Crisis and his expansion of military imperialism just sealed the deal. If the Democratic party wants to turn itself into a vanguard party for socialism or even actual class progressivism, strengthening the working class against the capitalist and professional-managerial classes, all well and good, but doubt they can. The post-FDR Democratic party has always been the organ of the professional-managerial class (the technocrats), not the working class, and the technocrats will not easily cede the party to the working class.

I reject the incrementalists and the "bottom-up-ists." I do not think they are wrong in what they want; I think they are wrong and how to get there. I do not reject these strategies because they cannot quickly implement the radical changes to our political and economic institutions I see as necessary. I reject these strategies because I have not seen them make any progress at all for the working class; I say again: at best they have slowed reaction and regression. But slow death is still death.

I am in favor of a radical socialist vanguard party simply because radical vanguard parties work. They work on the left: Lenin's Bolsheviks, Mao's communists, and numerous small countries, notably Cuba. They work on the right: The National Socialists were a vanguard party, and the Republicans turned themselves into a vanguard party, and have just now been successful.

Note that I have neither the talent or inclination to actually organize a vanguard party. I am at heart a math teacher; at best I can offer only a bit of theoretical advice.

A radical vanguard party is a self-organized group of people with a clear ideological position that seeks to acquire state power and use that state power to implement its ideology.

In a socialist context, the vanguard party is more problematic than in an authoritarian context. Because all hitherto existing ruling classes have been authoritarian, parties are more easily expressed and organized in an authoritarian form. And the use of state power per se is to some extent inherently authoritarian. Hence, any vanguard party is especially susceptible to authoritarianism. For a vanguard party with an authoritarian ideology, such as the Republican party, there is no danger at all; a vanguard party with an anti-authoritarian ideology faces the serious danger of becoming authoritarian.

I cannot deny these criticisms. The best I can say is that the danger might not be inevitable; careful attention to the organization of a vanguard party might mitigate the danger of becoming authoritarian in its success. And even if authoritarianism is inevitable, there are gradations of authoritarianism: capitalist authoritarianism is better than monarchical, feudal, and fascist authoritarianism, technocratic authoritarianism is better than capitalist authoritarianism, and I would argue that socialist authoritarianism is better than both capitalist and technocratic authoritarianism.

I would also argue that anti-authoritarian absolutist "bottom-up" radicalism has never proven itself effective. I don't believe that bottom-up radicalism can succeed so long as any ruling class institutions still have any legitimacy; bottom-up radicalism cannot, I think, even begin to succeed until almost all of the ruling class institutions have decisively crumbled. However, regardless of their moral evils, our current capitalist institutions are in fact keeping billions of people alive. Were these institutions to simply disappear with no immediate replacement, billions would die. I am unwilling to sacrifice billions of people to any morality, however much I agree with it. The only hope I can see is to try to use presently existing institutions, and their inherent authoritarian context, to at least try to make progress towards true human freedom and liberty rather than wait passively or ineffectually for the absolute collapse of capitalism and the deaths of billions.

The collapse might come regardless of any efforts to the contrary, however great. If so, there it is, and the bottom-up radicals will have their day. If I were to survive (which I probably won't), they would have my unqualified support. Until then, and unless they show me they can be effective, I will endorse a vanguard party.

I will briefly lay out the fundamental principles of a socialist vanguard party, which I hope to later explore in more depth. I claim a radical socialist vanguard party must:

  • adopt the ideology of political and economic democracy (not democratic republicanism);
  • organize itself as much as possible along the lines of its own ideology;
  • strive to seize state power to implement its ideology;
  • make careful plans and preparations for its use of state power to prevent itself from becoming authoritarian and anti-democratic

Monday, December 26, 2016

The revival of the working-class concept

The Revival of the Working-Class Concept: Trump, the Class Struggle and the (Somewhat Overstated) Specter of Fascism, by Gary Leupp

What’s really needed is for the Sanders supporters to join with the Trump supporters who would have voted Sanders, and the bulk of the working class—including those who supported none of the candidates, thinking none of them deserving support—to join to fight what should unite them: the capitalist globalization and imperialism that have so badly hurt them. This is a tall order given cultural divides. But maybe a wake-up call for the radical left that has long written off the “labor aristocracy” (as bought off by white privilege and U.S. global hegemony) while betting on the lumpenproletariat and identity politics to bring on a revolution that wouldn’t need the working class once so assiduously courted and organized by the left in this country.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Socialism and morality

Socialism is the notion that the material well-being of each member of society is the collective responsibility of all the members. We collectively see to people's material needs because we must.

In this sense, even a thoroughly capitalist society such as the United States can be partly socialist: to the extent that we take some responsibility for some material needs of some people, we are partly socialistic. So, yes, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc. are socialistic.

The opposite of socialism is autonomism, i.e. that no member of society has a responsibility for the material well-being of any other member of society. Autonomists can certainly be charitable, but individual acts of charity are voluntary, not a matter of duty.

There's no objective truth as to whether a society should be socialistic or autonomism, or to what degree. It's a matter of what the members of a society want, with the understanding that peoples' desires and social institutions are in a dialectical relationship — each shapes the other — and all are historically contingent. So, in addition to person-to-person persuasion, autonomists try to shape social institutions to encourage people to want autonomism, and socialists try to shape social institutions to encourage socialism. Additionally, there is always reality to contend with: neither socialism nor autonomism are objectively true, but both have objective consequences, and people have preferences about those consequences.

Marx argued not only that capitalism would have disastrous economic consequences, but that capitalist autonomism would have disastrous effects — which he labeled as alienation — on people's personal, social, and moral psychology.

People have been making moral distinctions since the beginning of time; most social mammals (and perhaps birds) probably make moral distinctions. And, while I'm not an anthropologist, there are some hints that even pre-agricultural human societies struggled with a dialectic between moral distinctions and wealth (in the broadest sense of economic power). When there was no storable surplus, reality imposed strong constraints on the connection, and my very cursory studies suggest that the need for collective solidarity entailed that moral worth and wealth were only weakly connected if at all.

Regardless of what happened ten thousand years ago, it is true today that moral worth and wealth are strongly connected: poor means bad, not-poor means good, and rich means awesome. Capitalism did not invent this connection. Adam Smith saw it even at the dawn of capitalism:
To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem at all times agreeable. They connect them, not only with the splendour of fortune, but with many superior virtues, which they ascribe to their superiors; with the spirit of freedom and independency, with frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness. The virtues of the inferior ranks of people, on the contrary, their parsimonious frugality, their painful industry, and rigid adherence to rules, seem to them mean and disagreeable. They connect them, both with the meanness of the station to which those qualities commonly belong, and with many great vices, which, they suppose, usually accompany them; such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition.
Smith would probably be aghast that his name is connected to a political system that is today so contrary to his morality.

If people believe that that poverty is vice and wealth is virtue, then it is of course completely absurd to adopt a collective responsibility for the material well-being of the poor. To take from the rich and give to the poor is to punish virtue and reward vice. The concept is not merely nonsense, it undermines the very foundation of morality.

Although the connection between wealth and morality is strong, our actual moral beliefs are not so simplistic. When wealth and other notions of virtue and vice are no longer connected, when the possession of wealth is not seen as legitimately connected with virtue, and the lack of wealth is no longer seen as legitimately connected to vice, then social instability inevitably follows. And that is the current situation.

Never mind the electoral college and Republican gerrymandering; in a politically stable society, Donald Trump would never have gotten close enough for these technicalities to matter. What does matter is the connection between wealth and virtue has become disconnected. Specifically, Trump voters, I think, hold four important beliefs:
  1. People who are wealthy because of business are virtuous. Hence, despite his egregious vices, Donald Trump, wealthy because of business, is fundamentally virtuous.
  2. The white, non-urban working class believes itself virtuous, and yet has become poor.
  3. The white, non-urban working class believes that they have become poor because the vicious urban poor is stealing its wealth.
  4. The professional-managerial class is not virtuous, and deserves neither wealth nor political power, precisely because they are stealing the wealth of the white non-urban working class and giving it to the vicious urban poor.

These beliefs have traction because of the class struggle between the capitalist class and the professional-managerial class, and in no small part because the professional class threw away all its advantages: they did not have the will to destroy the capitalist class as a class. (The history of the last 80 years decisively proves that a dialect between the capitalist and professional classes cannot stabilize.) Enough capitalists want the kind of absolute power they had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (that gave us two world wars and the Great Depression), and the capitalists who see the theoretical value of the professional class have rightly abandoned the professional class because in practice the professionals are incompetent. And, of course, the professional class must be incompetent; to be competent, they would have to destroy the capitalist class, and they will not and cannot.

Donald Trump has finished what Ronald Reagan started: the utter destruction of the professional-managerial class as a ruling class, even as a ruling class wholly subservient to the capitalist classes. (In a truly brilliant exercise of propaganda, the capitalists have completely discredited the professionals by observing that the professionals are subservient to the capitalists. It worked because people don't like weakness.)

Getting back around to the main topic: the "good" capitalist/professionalist solution is to get wealth correlated to non-wealth perceptions of virtue. But trying to correlate wealth to virtue is, as history has shown, very difficult. Wealth always begets more wealth, and if some non-virtuous person manages to acquire wealth, he both lends his vices the imprimatur of wealth as virtue, and also acquires the power to gain more wealth.

As difficult as the task might be, socialists must transform the moral connection between wealth and virtue, at least to the extent that having more wealth than one's neighbor becomes as morally reprehensible as a person hoarding oxygen while his neighbor suffocates.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What should socialists do?

First of all, do what you want. If you prefer an anarchistic, Occupy-style, response to capitalist rule, do that. If you want to support progressive Democrats, fight for Bernie and his allies. Any resistance is better than no resistance, and any resistance to capitalism helps socialism.

So I will claim that, while socialists such as myself should argue for the superiority of socialism to other forms of anti-capitalist resistance, we should not claim that these other modes undermine socialism. We should treat all anti-capitalists as allies. We at least have the same goals. And if those in other modes declare hostility to socialism, our response should be "more in sorrow than in anger."

I will claim the second principle of socialism is implacable political hostility towards both the capitalists and the technocrats. The technocrats might have had a claim on the loyalty of the workers, but Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the post 1980 Democratic party have decisively and utterly abandoned the working class and made explicit their utter subservience to the capitalist class. Not only that, they have proven themselves ineffective at maintaining even their own class rule; if they cannot help themselves, they cannot do anything for the working class.

The only good reason to support a return to the technocracy is if you yourself are in the professional-managerial class and want to maintain or regain your class privilege. The technocrats will not treat the working class any better than will the capitalists: the only difference will be the capitalists' (possibly murderous) hostility to the technocrats themselves. Note that the technocrats and the capitalists share murderous hostility to socialists.

The technocrats' and capitalists' united murderous hostility towards socialism a difficult challenge. If socialists look like they are making real gains, both the capitalists and the technocrats will unite to try to imprison, murder, and torture us. Still, organization is possible even in countries more willing and able than the United States to use brutal force to suppress socialism (and other dissent). We should study those instances in detail to operate without too many of us getting killed.

Finally, I claim we socialists must actually organize workers. And we should organize the workers not to support us — we socialists are, after all, almost all technocratic class traitors — but to take power for themselves. Organizing workers for themselves, and not for us, is perhaps the most difficult challenge: by virtue of our objectively superior understanding of socialist theory, should we not have privilege to use this theoretical understanding to guide the workers? We should not: that way just lies replacing one murderous technocratic class with another. Our theory is the most flimsy barrier against repeating the brutality of capitalism, both pure and technocratic, and will evaporate at the first crisis.

Perhaps such an exercise is impossible. I myself am too old, too defeated, and too compromised, to lead a socialist resistance. The best I can do is kibbitz from the sidelines.

The current class struggle

The only true class struggle happening now is the struggle between the professional-managerial class (technocrats), represented by the Democratic party, and the capitalist class, represented by the Republican party. The working class is just along for the ride.

The technocrats seized state power in 1933 (FDR) and held it until 1980 (Reagan). After 1980, the technocrats changed orientation as more-or-less independent brokers between the capitalist and working classes and became, with Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama, the servants of the capitalist class. Surprisingly, this subservience was not enough for a large part of the capitalist class.

The capitalist class has two main factions: the first is willing to use the technocrats; the second wants to destroy the technocrats. We know they are true factions because the technocrat-friendly faction is willing to put its class interests first and work with the anti-technocrat Trump.

The technocrats themselves are all pro-capitalist: they want to help the capitalist class. They are literally dumbfounded — and have been for at least thirty years — that a substantial portion of the capitalist class not only refuses the technocrats' help but actually hates them.

Since I myself am mostly imbued with technocratic values, it's difficult for me to understand this antipathy. The independent technocrats "did capitalism" much better than the capitalist class; even the subservient technocrats did a better job managing capitalism than the capitalist class can do. The best explanation I can think of is that technocratic "competence" really is a thing, competence is what allows the technocrats to manage capitalism better than the capitalists, and the institutions necessary to develop competence cannot be "capitalized": technocratic institutions cannot be judged on any notion of capitalist profit. However, competent, a large number of capitalists just can't stand being subservient to anyone outside their class.

I suppose capitalist antipathy to the technocrats is best expressed in Atlas Shrugged, which is a polemic not against communism but against technocracy. (And it is possibly arguable that post-Stalin and post-Mao state "communism" were just different flavors of technocracy, with the Chinese version still extant.)

The most important point is that both the capitalists and the technocrats are dedicated to keeping the working class powerless; they differ only on strategy. The technocrat-friendly capitalists prefer the technocratic strategy, mostly welfare-dependency; the technocrat-hostile capitalists prefer a more thoroughly punishment-based approach. (The technocrats love punishment, of course; the anti-technocrats just want all stick and no carrot.)

The technocrats will fight as best they can for the restoration of the technocracy, or at least some privilege for technocrats in a capitalist-dominated society. I do not think they will be successful; the technocrats do not understand political power; perhaps because of their technocratic nature they cannot. The capitalists understand what the technocrats do not: you must utterly absorb or destroy your enemies; you cannot merely cripple them. In his remarks to Ron Suskind, Karl Rove (probably) outlined the difference:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Much is made of the "progressive" Democrats, i.e. Bernie Sanders and his supporters and allies. They are trying to trade on the vague memory of the Democratic party's active support of labor; and they were successful only because the Clinton technocrats simply took urban and minority labor completely for granted. To the extent that the progressive Democrats actually want to give some power back to the workers, the technocrats will ally with the capitalists to crush them. The progressives might be useful to the socialists, but the progressives will not destroy the capitalists, and even if they are temporarily successful, the capitalists will quickly regain power: the capitalists learned much from their interregnum; the technocrats and progressives have learned nothing from their loss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Don't resist Trump, resist capitalism

The capitalist ship is sinking fast. That's just what we radicals have been waiting for, n'est ce pas? I've been arguing for a long time that a radical transformation of society is moral only if the inevitable pain and suffering of such a transformation is outweighed by the pain and suffering of the status quo. President Trump gives this argument considerable weight.

It is important to resist, but we should not resist Donald Trump per se. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Trump is not some sort of weird aberration of neoliberal capitalism: his presidency is the outcome of the actually existing institutions created by the actually existing members of the bourgeoisie and the professional-managerial technocrats. Trump is what capitalism does: we know this because we are capitalist, the capitalists have near total national hegemony, and Trump is what we actually did.

It is important to resist, but it is more important to resist in the right direction. We will do humanity no service if we resist Trump just to restore superficially bland (but deeply vicious) technocratic neoliberalism. The technocratic neoliberals gave us Trump and the coming authoritarianism. The technocrats assisted the authoritarians in undermining our republican institutions, thinking that they could control the authoritarians. They could not. They have decisively failed.

Although the technocrats have failed, they retain considerable power. They hate socialism more powerfully than they dislike authoritarianism. In this antipathy they are absolutely united with the authoritarians. The workers must not gain power, come what may. And by calling themselves "progressives" for throwing a few crumbs to the workers, they will erode support for socialism.

The few socialists who have been clinging desperately to intellectual legitimacy have an opportunity, but it is important to use the opportunity correctly. If we simply ally with the technocrats and progressives, we could at best return society to 2008. Not only would such a rollback be completely undesirable (economic depression, a half-dozen wars, torture, mass murder of black people by the police, etc. ad nauseam), it is impossible: too many people have decisively rejected that society (and their rejection is right, even if we might disagree with their alternative) and its reimposition would require exactly the kind of authoritarianism that we reject in Trump.

We must focus on one thing and one thing only: all power to the workers. The rest is commentary.

Such a goal is feasible. The authoritarian strain in the workers is both shallow and thin. It's big enough that a leader of great charisma and iron will could ride it at least a temporary success, but Trump does not have sufficient charisma to inspire adulation, and he is especially weak-willed. We should fear who comes next, but we are fortunate that American authoritarianism has begun in such a ridiculous way. (Not that I am deprecating the harm Trump will do, but in the hands of someone with real charisma and real will, authoritarianism could be much much worse; Trump at least does not have world war and mass extermination in him.)

The authoritarian strain is not so great that it cannot be opposed. The workers want to be listened to, and no small few workers voted for Trump, and vote for the Republican party, not because they want an authoritarian ruler, but because they thought Trump would disrupt the authority that they rightly believe just ignores and belittles them.

We must convince the workers that no one, not Trump, not the capitalists, not the technocrats, not the Republicans, will listen to them. They must struggle not for attention but for power.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Trump and the Hell's Angels

 This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson:  In Hell’s Angels, the gonzo journalist wrote about left-behind people motivated only by “an ethic of total retaliation.” Sound familiar?
By Susan McWilliams

What’s truly shocking about reading [Hell's Angels] today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind.