Sunday, December 4, 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism (II): the free trade bait and switch

The support of mainstream economists (think, say, Brad DeLong or Larry Summers) for free trade agreements goes something like this:

1. Economists say that free trade mathematically helps everyone -- makes everyone richer.

2. But if hurts certain sub-populations within countries who work in certain industries. Center-left economists will then say that the "losers" of globalization or free trade should be compensated, helped or supported in some way.

3. But this hardly ever actually happens. Even though it doesn't happen, economists continue to call for free trade.

4. The losers of free trade revolt at the ballot box.

Why does it work this way? "Free trade" agreements are not simply agreements that countries will hold down tariffs. They are bundled in with all sorts of items that favor global elites and the global financial system: intellectual property, restrictions on regulation, restrictions on support of national industries. They are a vehicle for the managerial/professional class, negotiated in secret and without public input. These elites never will spend money on compensating the losers of free trade. For them to do so, these agreements would have to arise from popular politics, the product of organizations that would demand that vulnerable segments of the public not lose out. That is not the class background or ideology that produces free trade agreements, and that is not the power that backs them.

Mainstream economists have a dual function (or perhaps a singular function) as the ideologues of the global managerial class. That is why they will never cease supporting free trade even as the compensation of losers that they say should happen never does.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism

As one European country after another falls to right-wing populism, people in the U.S. should stop treating Trump as if he is a total outlier, or thinking that his supporters are a peculiarly American phenomenon. The election was very close, and I'm not writing that the result was preordained, but that something larger than U.S. politics is going on. If you accept that all of these elections are part of an international pattern, you have to explain them in large part as due to some international cause. And that brings us back to neoliberalism. I don't think it's credible that all of these countries turned more nativist at the same time as part of some cultural syndrome unrelated to a world system that features austerity and ever increasing capture of wealth by elites.

I agree with a lot of this article by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, but I'm even more interested in what Ian Welsh has to say about it. Ian Welsh has, for a while, been making the very simple point that people will not put up with neoliberalism indefinitely and if the left can't stop it, people will turn to the right.

There is no mass base for neoliberalism, no group of people beyond perhaps a couple of percent of any population who really want free trade agreements, austerity, privatization, monetization, and all the rest. Neoliberalism depended on there being no alternative, and now that it appears that there is an alternative it's starting to come crashing down everywhere. The alternative isn't a left alternative, because the left was destroyed by the failure of left statisms. The right-wing alternative that is emerging is going to be worse than neoliberalism, but that always was a predicted problem with neoliberalism, because neoliberalism can't solve certain problems and always was unstable.

The first article linked above talks about coalitions and movements coming together. I hope so, but from my American vantage point the most salient fact about recent history is that when left movements spring up, they are destroyed by police. And the role of theory is not so easily replaced by evolutionary praxis. The strength of state repression requires horizontalism in organizing, but horizontalism in turn requires some kind of widespread basic understanding of common purpose. The last American election revolved on the center-left around a deliberate attempt to discredit leftists as racist or sexist (the whole Bernie Bro trope, cynically created by the HRC camp) and on a larger scale the left has never really fully incorporated ecological value into its basic economics, or (from my point of view) incorporated an anarchist critique.

No one really knows what will emerge from this era. But I think that it's time for people to stop trying to put everything back just as it was. Like it or not, I think that neoliberalism is not simply the natural center-left and waiting to return in the next electoral cycle.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The horrible politics of Recount 2016 scolding

Jill Stein and the Green Party have embarked on an effort, Recount 2016, to recount the Presidential votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As of yesterday, they'd raised more than $6 million in small donations, and are on track to raise about twice what they raised in the campaign itself. And predictably, this effort has been greeted by a wave of scolding. I'll take this article by bmaz as the reference case, although as another example Rich Yeselson tweeted about how the recount effort was a scam or "mass grifting". From the bmaz post: the effort is "folly", "cynical", "a crass vanity project at the last second by a bit player glomming on for self promotion". John Cole is shorter: grifter, idiot, or attention seeking diva.

Before I describe why this is probably the worst possible reaction, I'll clarify a few things: I don't expect the recount effort to find any evidence of hacking, and I don't expect it to change the results of the election in any way. The most likely direct effect is a shift of a few hundred votes, although there is a small chance of a major scandal of some kind which I'll address below. So why is this kind of scolding bad?

1. Democratic Party won't fight for you

It's clear that this recount is being funded by money from Democratic Party small donors, not Green Party ones -- given that the amount raised in the actual election was much smaller. So they want to continue to fight. What is everyone saying about the coming age of Trump and possible neo-fascism? Don't give in, don't preemptively surrender, don't normalize, resist. OK, so why isn't the Democratic Party doing this? They are doing what they always do, which is to preemptively give in. Why aren't they supporting what their base wants to do?

The answer to this is presumably that this is a bad fight because it's doomed to failure. But that's a horrible political lesson even if it's realistic. Resistance to a more powerful opponent (i.e. one with the Presidency, Senate, House and SC) means that you resist whenever and wherever you can. And it isn't doomed to failure: there's a small but significant chance of some kind of scandal that will get turned up, because when people look at American election machinery in depth, it's badly maintained.

The second answer is that we *shouldn't* want this scandal to be turned up -- that we have to defend the legitimacy of American elections. Why? I'm an anarchist so maybe I'm constitutionally incapable of understanding this, but we just had an election won by the popular vote loser, with extensive voter suppression efforts. Maybe people shouldn't be told that they have to believe in the system as it is?

2. Technocratic lectures are just what we need right now

Foolish donor base, wasting your money on efforts that will fail because of complicated election law issues that you can't begin to understand! Don't you know that the experts know better? Get back in your box.

3. Insulting your way into an alliance

Now it's time for all of us to come together against Trump, so you leftists are fools / scammers / grifters / vanity cases. That lecture may have had some success against susceptible people back when you were selling the Democratic Party as the lesser evil, but guess what you lost big. If you're going to lose, you have no value as the lesser evil.

There's a big difference between a scam and a foolish project. One that you haven't observed, so why should people listen to you when you say that Trump is scamming? By the way, it is perfectly fine for the Green Party to promote themselves as political actors through activities like this: they are not your adjunct.

4. Blaming people for their marginalization

It's common knowledge that the Democratic and Republican parties have cooperated to make it very difficult for third parties in the American system. Most of the barriers are unheard of in almost any other advanced democracy. So now that you've helped to ensure that the Green Party is marginal, you're blaming them for not having the best election law experts and not being entirely up to speed on the mechanics involved. OK, why is that? The Democratic Party could have done this if they'd wanted to, with all of the expertise that they have.

5. The left /liberal alliance, redux

What, exactly, do people want this supposed alliance to do? What role is the left supposed to have? However you define the left as opposed to the center-left, it's numerically very small in America. The natural role would seem to be protest leadership and radical resistance in general: as the post below mentions, the tiny number of anarchists in America are encountered by police as 1/3 of their 3-part categorization of protestors.

But protest for what, and resistance for what? If it's to return neoliberalism to power, then no thanks! Serious protest is dangerous under Obama and will remain so or become more so under Trump. Are liberals going to support and defend protestors? Of course not. People can already hear the first rumblings of "they're too impolite, they have to not challenge American institutions".

So the message now is back off, crazy scamming vanity-driven hippies, we've got this. Is that really what you want to go with?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Current results of global warming activism

Activism against anthropogenic global warming is an unusual case. Almost all left activism opposes powerful interests, but few issues are so scientifically well supported and dire in potential effect as this one. And it has a fairly simple goal: decarbonization.

So it's possible to ask: how successful has activism around global warming been? This has two sub-questions: 1) is the world on track towards decarbonization, 2) if so, did activism bring this about or speed the process up. As far as I can tell, the answers are equivocally yes to the first and no to the second.

In a sense there were always two basic models of how decarbonization might happen. The first is the activist, or political model, in which people respond to science by organizing themselves and effectively demanding political change. The second is the technocratic, or techno-optimist, one in which experts respond to science by investing more and more money into development of renewable power sources so that they become cheaper than fossil, after which fossil gets replaced by the planners who actually control critical infrastructure. We appear to be on track for the second: renewable power is now cheaper than coal without subsidies and without even pricing in coal's externalities. Once it gets even more cheap, and with another round of battery development, I think it's on track to replace gasoline in cars as well.

How did this happen? Part of it is physics and engineering: it turned out to be technically possible. Part of it is that activists were never able to overcome resistance by elites and by national populations for whom this never became a core political issue. Neither one of these was inevitable. The history of this is waiting to be written, but I suspect that important turning points are going to be:

1. Formation of the IPCC. For experts to respond to science, science has to be very well founded. The IPCC reports are pretty much inarguable, scientifically.

2. Poor elite resistance to subsidies. It's easy for elites to stop an industry from being shut down, but it's difficult for them to prevent subsidies for new industries from being added. The machinery of local interest, political set-asides and so on has purposefully been made easy to run because it normally favors elites, and ways of stopping it were made difficult. This resulted in the early round of funding for renewable power.

3. China's investment in solar panels. To make new technologies cheap you have to ramp up production. This was done by Chinese state fiat -- as with almost all energy infrastructure, the market really had little to do with it. The Chinese state had the capital to do this and the ability to take speculative risks that, in actuality, capitalist multinationals are almost never willing to take. Someone who knows more than I do will have to figure out whether this was primarily due to industrial policy / support for national industry, as a way of combating Chinese coal air pollution, as an actual way to address this problem, or whatever.

4. Possibly, the Paris Agreements. Not that they actually agreed to do anything definitive, but they agreed on something more important: that the science was settled and the problem had to be addressed. It was pretty much the death knell of international denialism.

Why did activism, broadly speaking, fail? Part of it was industry support for denialism, and the concomitant tribal adoption of it as a position of the right wing in the U.S. But this is a huge, international problem, and the left in the neoliberal era really didn't have an international presence. There was no organization that was critical to people's lives for them to accrete around on this issue.

Look at what is happening now in the U.S.: both one of the more conservative countries on the planet and one of the most influential. We just had an election in which global warming policy was one of the clearest differences between the candidates, and it wasn't important. And right now if the left is unified around anything, it's unified in support of the DAPL protests, but this protest is highly fragile -- I recognize the current state of it from the Occupy days. Once people who will support a protest are all in, that defines the boundary of who will respond to a protest being quashed. If the state fully comes in and destroys the protest, there will not be an uprising of additional support from people angered by the police action, there will only be resistance from the people who are already supporters. More generally, Obama's neoliberal era resulted in a lot of incremental, executive-power advances with no popular organization backing them, and when Trump takes power, there are no effective barriers to them being reversed, whether it's lowering car fleet mileage requirements, using the Clean Air Act, or starting up Keystone XL again. There are also ongoing efforts at "inside game" activism: pressuring corporations to make changes, divestment focussed on energy companies, and so on, which seem to me to have some effect but not yet a large one.

Activism is, of course, ongoing. It can't be dropped: the final results of how much warming we get are highly dependent on how soon decarbonization happens and the decisions made in the next decade. If activism can speed that up at all, it has to be done. And protests like #NoDAPL are local and have very important local effects that can't be abandoned. But both the elites and the general public have made activism around this quite difficult, and I think that it's likely that it's going to be one of those things that had to be tried but that in the end didn't have a critical effect.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Protest (II)

Unicorn Riot has obtained a federal training manual, Field Force Operations, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP). The federal government uses this document to train local law enforcement in techniques for quelling protests. It was acquired during our reporting on direct actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline when we filed a records request to the North Dakota Department of Corrections.
(From here)

This is a great find, and I encourage anyone planning protests in the U.S. to read it. If I have the energy I may do a series on it here. A few initial things to note:

* Why FEMA? You think of FEMA and you think of planning responses for natural disasters, mostly. But FEMA is part of Homeland Security now, and this training manual segues easily from methods for handling riots (arguably a kind of disaster) to methods for getting rid of nonviolent protestors who are blocking something. Essentially, riots and nonviolent planned protest are treated as two points along a kind of continuum of similar types of events, which allows for justification of a continuum of the same techniques used to suppress both.

* The three types of protestors. The Unicorn Riot article mentions this, but I'll repeat it: the document models all protestors as belonging to one of three basic types: everyday citizens, professional protestors, and anarchists. That says a whole lot about both the police and the left in the U.S. First, there may be "professional protestors" -- it's a big country -- but I've never met one. I've met a lot of committed activists, but "professional" implies protest for pay, and more than that, hiring yourself out for any kind of protest whose organizers will pay you. I think that this is projection on the part of the security services, who imagine that people have to be paid to do something they believe in just as they are. Second, given the numerically low number of anarchists, it's revealing that the police encounter them as a distinct category and don't have one for any other part of the left.

* The war-propaganda element. There are items scattered throughout the document that attempt to immunize the trainee against natural human feeling in favor of "professionalism" or "controlling the situation". According to the document, people screaming in pain may not really be hurt, they may just be trying to fool you into letting them go. If they say something like "We're peaceful protestors, why are you doing this?" they're just trying to make you feel bad. If protestor medics come in and try to gain access to protestors who they say need help, those medics may just be trying to disrupt your operations and are subject to arrest. Every natural reaction that people might have to police using violence against them is pre-explained as potentially part of a protestor plan. Needless to say, this is a very dangerous way to train police if the purpose of the training is to do anything but defend property (but of course see the NoDAPL protests for an illustration of what the real purpose of this training is).

* Maybe I missed out on the really well planned protests, but the document assumes that some protests are planned out to a level that seems greater than any actual protest that I've been to. What they seem to have done is taken all of the best planned out elements of any protest that ever happened and merged them into one big potential protest plan. If actual protests were this well organized, protestors would be in great shape. But they generally aren't, and as a result police are largely planning for the wrong thing (if we were going to take the goals of the document seriously) or using these imaginary superprotestors as an excuse for their own increasingly militarized operations (and see above).

Edited to add: the UK is even further along.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


One of my daughter's close friends, a 13 year old, is at the DAPL protest: her parent is volunteering there as a medic / healer. They arrived on the same day that water protectors tried to clear the highway and were attacked by various police and security forces with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas, and a fire hose wetting them down in below-zero weather. More than a hundred people were injured; one person had her arm severely injured by a grenade.

News reports called the person whose arm was injured an activist, a perfectly good word for what she was on that day. Around the same time, an article by Astra Taylor in _The Baffler_ informed people that "Activists are types who, by some quirk of personality, enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail" and "Activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness."

When Trump started to win in the primaries, some people brought up violence against anti-Trump protestors at his rallies as unprecedented, as something that signaled a kind of proto-fascism that hadn't been seen in recent America. And they didn't want to hear about the end of Occupy, about the people arrested for wearing the wrong T-shirt at George W Bush rallies, about how almost every protest in America that ever made a difference has involved violence by security forces. That was official violence and, I guess, not as scary to some people as unofficial violence, even though official violence usually additionally results in the victim being arrested and charged.

People in America, in general, reflexively dislike protest and support authority. That's as true for most of the putative left as it is for the right. Liberals are already starting to denounce the anti-Trump protests as violent or just ill-mannered, old-style leftists are eager to denounce protest movements for "individualism", and the right is, of course, bringing out old standards about professional protestors.

The people injured in the #NoDAPL protests are not being injured by fascist brownshirts: they are being injured by traditional American use of state and local security forces. Those forces are just as unimpeded by Obama as they would be by Trump. Maybe Trump will be even worse. But what's happening at the DAPL protests is fully in keeping with American history, especially the history of what happens to native people when their land has some kind of resource.

Protest strategy in the Trump era is going to be difficult to work out. The people newly encouraging protests are the worst kind of fair weather friends: when someone like Jonathan Chait writes "The day after the election, protesters swarmed the streets of major cities shouting that Trump was 'not my president.' Good for them." you know that this good-for-them is going to last about a month before Chait gets alarmed and returns to form.

I'm not encouraged by the recent, brief upsurge in support for protest against Trump. It's not being generalized to cases like the DAPL protests where shocking abuses by security forces are ongoing, because that would involve condemning the system as a whole instead of just half of it. People are too eager to return the system to a nonexistent age in which stability and safety meant that protests really were bad for everybody.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Scott Eric Kaufman

Anyone who knew him will have heard the news already.

I really didn't know him. I only corresponded with him for a while.

I'm evidently going to have the Clash's Stay Free running through my head until I find some way to think about this, so here it is: I once, at his invitation, wrote an extended doggerel / drinking song about his death, adding on to an earlier one about the mishaps that he chronicled. That will have to be it.

[Begin chorus]

They tell of a man from Californiay
Who thought that his diss would be done some day
The Devil looked up, said "I'll make him pay"
So drink one for the troubles of SEK

[end chorus]

Now SEK's list of trials is long
And we'll see who's still standing after this song
He was beat up in high school, he didn't belong
But it was in grad school that things went wrong


And when his thesis had just begun
He turned against Theory, said that wasn't fun
The New Historicism is the one
He's stuck reading and re-reading Jack London


The doctor told him about his thyroid
He didn't want his wife to be annoyed
"If I hide it from everyone I'll stay employed"
So four months of concealment he enjoyed


Now SEK came to his office door
And found two students going at it on the floor
"This will make a good story" he thought before
The Sexual Harassment Office sent letters galore


And when he was down, and his thoughts were thick
His gloom was interrupted by Honda Civic
The car slammed into him and was gone in a lick
At least six months of rehab went by quick


But the most annoying were Internet trolls
Threats of bodily harm will take their toll
They sent letters to his boss, and to every soul
They could find in the whole county's Email roll


He got pictures of the husband of his friend
Having sex with a horde; he thought that was the end
Should he tell her? He went and hit "send"
Now he can't go home, or with thugs he'll contend


After all those troubles, he still wasn't drowned
Well, it was absurd, but this might be the crown
Overpayment of library fines will bring him down
He's no longer a student, just a proper noun


He told us all this when he started a blog
And how fate or the Devil made him jump like a frog
The hiring committee looked on agog
If we hire him -- then our luck will fog


The Devil looked up and laughed and laughed
The diss was done, SEK was on staff
His appointment wasn't tenure track
He'd be lecturing freshman till Hell and back


The Devil liked what he did see
"I'll make SEK live eternally
He'll crush people's souls, and turn them to me
Academics will cry as I laugh with glee"


When the Devil's plans caught up the poor sod
That brought the eye of an angry God
Volcanoes and plagues came down in turn
To stop the Devil, SEK must burn


He looked at his smoldering car in despair
SEK looked up, shook his fist in the air
"I've survived again, and as you can see
There's nothing more you can do to me"


As he raised his arm with a defiant shout
A massive lightning bolt snuffed him out
The electric charge was so whole-hog
A freak power surge erased his blog


And that was the end of SEK
To his memory we drink today
Lest we get his luck, get squashed like a bug
The rest of the bottle we now will chug