Friday, June 29, 2018

Who bullies the bullies

Who Bullies The Bullies?

Super interesting. The Last Psychiatrist argues that the fight against sexism isn't really a fight against sexism; it's an effort to commodify sexism and distract us all from capitalist alienation.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Socialism and moral philosophy

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as "socialism". What follows are my own ideas about socialism.

The outrage against children receiving "participation trophies" and related practices such as not keeping score in sportsball, is a common enough trope. But why? I'm no expert in childhood education (I'm in adult education), so why should I or any other non-expert have strong feelings about how teachers teach children? The answer is that people who object to these practices see them as breaking an important moral norm, exactly as if educators were encouraging children to fight or lie. The objection is not to a method but to an outcome, which is a legitimate concern of non-experts. The outcome, the moral norm, is that invidious norms are of considerable importance.

Invidious norms draw distinctions within society. Contrast invidious norms with universal norms, such as the norm against killing. People who violate the universal norm against killing are cut off from ordinary society, either in prison or criminal gangs, or in the insulated and alienated communities of soldiers and police. The distinction is not really between "good" and "bad": people who kill others are not so much "bad" as alien, and people who don't kill others are not really "good", they are just ordinary.

In contrast, invidious norms really do divide people into superior and inferior, without alienating the inferior from society. For example, I consider generosity morally superior to selfishness. I think generous people are morally better than selfish people. But selfish people are still part of society; they are not cut off in the same sense that those who kill are cut off. There's nothing wrong with invidious norms per se, but as with any other element of society, we should think clearly and deeply about them.

Capitalism establishes an invidious norm: the superior should be economically rewarded, and the inferior should be not just not rewarded but economically deprived. This norm, however, is circular: there is no judgment of superior and inferior independent to economic reward: those who are economically rewarded are superior just by virtue of their reward; those who are deprived are inferior just by virtue of their deprivation. Thus, any attempts to reward the deprived is immoral, just as it is immoral to give the gold medal, indeed any medal at all, to the last-place athlete.

Of course, capitalist apologists deny circularity: poor people are inferior not because they are poor; they are poor because they are inferior, i.e. lazy, improvident, and impatient. Rich people are rich because they are superior, i.e. industrious, thrifty, and patient. But ask the apologist how they know that poor people are lazy, and they will answer that if the poor were industrious, they wouldn't be poor. And even if we could independently determine laziness, we cannot be sure that poor people are lazy because they are poor. (See especially recent criticism of the "marshmallow" test.) Just that Donald Trump, for example, is both rich (well, richer than me) and President of the United States is evidence enough that the connection in our capitalist society between merit and reward is completely broken.

A related norm that precedes capitalism is the norm that people do not want to be virtuous; they must be forced to be virtuous. It is the moral duty of the superior to force the inferior to be good. (See Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind and Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians.) It is not the virtue of the superior that makes them superior, it is their power to force the inferior to virtue. Hence we routinely forgive the powerful for their sins, so long as they retain the power to force the powerless to virtue. That no one has the power to force the powerful to be virtuous is a regrettable consequence, but if it were true that virtue must be forced, that consequence would be inescapable.

Hence the inferior must, as mentioned above, be deprived. Partly just because of simple human perversity — it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail — but there's more. It is not sufficient that the superior have more if the inferior still have enough. Only conditions of deprivation place the inferior under the power of the superior. The superior must have that which the inferior desperately need. The subordination of the inferior to the superior is constant across social systems; capitalism is unique in that the mode of this subordination is wage labor.

The moral progress of previous generations has been to refine and distill relations of subordination; hence Marx speaks of society coalescing into two classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. Capitalism strips the relations of subordination of previous eras of superstition and ignorance. If we commit ourselves to the project of separating the superior from the inferior and placing the inferior in the power of the superior, I can think of no better way of doing so than capitalism. Simply trying to change who is superior and who is inferior must be a step backward into superstition and bullshit.

We have reached the pinnacle of relations of subordination. The only way forward, then, is to eliminate relations of subordination. We must directly acknowledge and confront the underlying idea that it is a moral good to divide people into the superior and inferior, and that it is a moral wrong to reward the inferior at the expense of the superior. No small task, and a task, I think, that no would-be socialist society has successfully confronted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Socialism and Social Democracy

Socialism resembles social democracy. Social democracy is where a capitalist democratic republic distributes some of the social surplus, i.e. the difference between what workers produce and the minimum cost of living, to the workers themselves. Some of this surplus is distributed directly, by supporting higher workers' pay, vacations, sick leave, parental leave, and retirement; some is distributed through public goods such as infrastructure and control over monopolies (especially health care). Workers are materially better off under social democracy, and they have more emotional security and personal autonomy. Social democracy as actually practiced in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and even to some extent in post-Thatcher Great Britain does not lead to dystopia or poverty, nor does it seem, contra Kautsky, the start of a slippery slope into socialism.

Socialism is not social democracy*, but one of socialism's selling points is (or ought to be) that socialism will deliver the same sort of material benefits as social democracy. To a certain extent, then, social democracy undermines socialism: the workers get much of the (purported) benefits of socialism without the chaos and pain of a socialist revolution. I'm cool with that. As a pragmatist, I'm primarily evaluating outcomes, not the underlying structure; the structure is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

*The key difference is that socialism entails that workers, not the capitalists or PMC, dominate economic and political power and take the social surplus, not passively receive it from their "betters".

It's curious, though, that the United States, the wealthiest nation-state with the most productive workers has not only not developed a strong social democracy, but is busily dismantling what little social democratic institutions we used to have, whereas the much smaller Scandinavian nation-states have quite robust social democracies which have not slid into socialism. I suspect that the Scandinavian capitalist class though to themselves that they were never going to run the world, so they could tolerate the diminution of their economic power under social democracy; the Scandinavian working class thought to themselves that they were never going to start off a global socialist revolution, so why bother when they already had most of what socialism promises anyway.

Even social democracy, however, really does diminish the power of the capitalist class. And the American capitalist class really does think it needs every iota of power it can accumulate, both to appear strong in an anarchic international community, and because they think it's counter-productive to try and run the world without all the power they can accumulate.

Additionally, I think the American capitalist class fears the slippery slope into actual socialism more than the Scandinavians. An empowered and entitled working class in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world differs greatly from one in a much smaller country without much global influence. As the the European Union gains economic and political power, they seem earnestly trying to dismantle its own members' social democracies. The Swedish working cannot simply demand more and more; they are constrained by the rest of the world; the American and European working class, however, faces fewer external constraints.

I'm not, strictly speaking, against social democracy. If I thought the American ruling classes, the capitalist class and the PMC, could deliver social democracy, I would be all for it; I started calling myself a socialist and communist only because concluded that the American ruling could not deliver social democracy, and factions within the ruling classes differed only on how quickly they wanted to dismantle what little social democracy we already had.

The failure to deliver social democracy clearly starts with the "right", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want absolute power for the capitalist class. To these factions, social democracy is a Bad Idea on its own merits. But the capitalist "left", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want social democracy, bears a lot of the blame; the capitalist left has to demonize socialism, because socialism would almost completely disempower them. But to demonize socialism all to easily demonizes what socialists want, i.e. more economic and social welfare for the working classes. More importantly, most of the capitalist left is in the Professional-Managerial class (PMC), and the PMC needs to maintain an alliance with the capitalist class, but the capitalist class (at least in the US and EU) wants absolute power. By cutting off the pull for economic and social welfare from the socialists, the capitalist left is subject only to the pull for absolute capitalist power from the right.

There's really very little to be done. Socialists are in nearly complete political disarray, the capitalist left is losing power by the day, and the right is organized, militant, and has the will to power. It is, I think, inevitable that the West will slide into fascism, and, ironically enough, it will be the Chinese Communists alone who will retain the military and economic power to oppose them.

Friday, June 08, 2018

No such thing

Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison

(Image: Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison)

There's no such thing as Marxism or socialism. These are terms of broad tribal affiliation; they do not name a singular coherent, identifiable ideology or political or ethical philosophy. There are some broad commonalities between individuals and organizations who call themselves Marxist or socialist, but there is absolutely nothing essential one can say about these terms.

There's nothing wrong with tribal affiliation, or markers of tribal affiliation; it's just that tribal affiliation is something very different from ideology and political philosophy.

A common rhetorical move is to argue* that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so if we give them anything, they'll have enough power to get the Bad Thing. This move is commonly enough targeted at those people over there who call themselves feminists that we can use it as a stylized fact. Those feminists want to kill all the men and reproduce by self-fertilization, so we can't give them anything they want, like legal equality or reproductive control, or they will eventually get enough power to kill all the men. (The related move is that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so they are Bad People, and we are entitled to ignore, oppress, or simply eliminate them.)

*I'm using the "some people say" move as illustration, not argument.

Obviously, killing all the men seems like a Bad Thing, and there are probably people who call themselves "feminist" who really do want to kill all the men, but that doesn't mean that killing all the men is essential to feminism.

The above is an obviously extreme example, so what about more common arguments? I've heard arguments that a lot of feminists, perhaps a majority, are insufficiently concerned with matters of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity*. Perhaps these arguments are correct, perhaps a majority of feminists are insufficiently concerned with racism, but so what? That would be something that feminists have to correct, not an indictment of feminism itself.

*Look up "Transphobic Exclusive Radical Feminists" or "TERFs"

Just like Marxism and socialism, there really isn't any such thing as feminism: by itself, it's not a coherent ideology; it's a tribal affiliation. I call myself a feminist not because I want to kill all the men or because I don't care about racism; I call myself a feminist because I want to affiliate myself with the tribe that (usually) believes the radical idea that women are people. There are some people who might reject my affiliation for one reason or another. Fair enough: if some feminists define feminism in a way I cannot be (or would not want to be) affiliated with them, then I'm not affiliated with those feminists. But I'm still affiliated with those that accept me. If the first wants to persuade the second to reject me, then they can argue the point without me.

I call myself a socialist, a communist, a Marxist* to assert a tribal affiliation, not to assert any specific ideology. A common response when I declare myself a socialist is to hear that socialism is bad because Stalin and Mao killed millions of people. Leaving aside the truth or context of this claim, even if it were true, so what? If killing millions of people is a Bad Thing, let's take that killing out of socialism. And, in fact, almost all people who call themselves socialists already have taken the killings of millions out of socialism: they argue that Stalin (and to some extent Mao) were at best bad socialists and at worst no more socialist than Hitler was.

*I actually prefer to not call myself a "Marxist" for the same reason that biologists don't like calling themselves "Darwinists" and rocket scientists don't like calling themselves "Newtonists".

I don't mind guys like Ben Garrison above. I think political propaganda in principle a Good Thing. Garrison loves him some Donald, so of course he's going to portray the real opposition as badly as possible. (Here are Khalil Bendib and David Horsey getting their licks in on the other side.) Politics is and will always be just as much about image and emotion as it is about ideas and substance. However, ideas and substance matter — at least to me — so rather than indulge in lazy caricatures or meaningless over-generalization, I want to talk about the actual ideas that socialists have, especially the ideas that this particular socialist has.