Friday, November 11, 2016

Ignore all of the people who guided you to this point

I've been reading liberal blogs and articles, and the foolishness from all sides is too much to bear without comment. I'll go over some of the supposed solutions:

1. "Let's get rid of the Electoral College!"

Really -- how? Let's wait until the electoral left is at its lowest point of power, having lost the Presidency, Senate, House, and Supreme Court, and then push through massive changes to the political system. Maybe we could do this if there really was bipartisan agreement. Just writing that sentence makes it clear how ridiculous this is: it's the Grand Compromise all over again. Included in this category are all similar large-scale official structural solutions.

2. "It's time for us all to work together against Trump!"

Really? Why should people on the left want to work with neoliberals who through their actions created the opportunity for Trump to arise? How are we allies?

People are pointing out the horrors of an autocrat with access to mass surveillance, Presidential powers, the politicized security state, official torture, the prison system, the INS, etc. Liberals were fine with all of that as long as Obama was doing it. They have no principled objection and no real interest in removing these state structures: they only want them to be used by their side, and they were demonstrably ineffectual at doing anything about them when they were in power. Well, if liberals want to work together, maybe they can work on the left's projects, but that's difficult because the left really is not vanguardist and has no way of keeping liberals from guiding these projects back into the same tired failure.

3. "Let's do lots of small scale, virtuous things."

No -- this isn't the time to let political action be diverted into the usual personal virtue signaling and meaningless volunteerism for small scale solutions to problems that are large scale. If there was any time to turn back to large-scale politics, it's now. It doesn't really matter which American political party is the one to crack up: moving politics forwards requires that one of them does. The largest danger at the moment is that the Democratic Party gets reconstituted just as it was and then gets the inevitable win that will happen when the GOP flares out. If you're into electoral politics, join the Green Party or make a socialist one. If you're not, join or the local chapter of BLM or something else. Stop putting your personal energy into organizations that will disempower you and start putting them into ones in which your allies are your actual allies.

4. "Let's double down on scolding people."

If you spent the political season talking about the deplorables or the horrible Bernie Bro left, then you are part of the problem. Please break yourself of this before you go out into the political arena again. Do you need someone's help with something? Then don't start out by saying that they suck. You don't think that you need their help? But really you do, it turns out, if you want to do something like win an election.

I realize that there is tension between these points, of course. Figure out those contradictions for yourself. So many of our political problems are problems of scale and of choosing the right scale for organizations and efforts: what works at one scale will not if you go higher or lower. I'll write about this more later on.

Edited to add: more here.


  1. I was going to lead with, "still a liberal after all these years", but then thought to google my catchphrase. Aside from an obituary for Tom Hayden, my search led with an anonymous public defender ranting against poor black criminal defendants on a white supremacist website. So many contradictions alongside our commitments!
    People have strange social instincts: we organize so easily, but in a crazy quilt pattern of attraction and avoidance, loyalty and betrayal. If evolutionists have an explanation, I remain unaware of how this mix of instincts to cooperate and cheat, to conform and rebel, this mix of a thirst for justice and deep cynicism, altruistic punishment and gaming the system, enhances our collective survival chances.
    One of the earliest lessons I learned from reading blog comments was: "People like the opinions they have." Someone had to tell me that and then explain it. I didn't figure it out on my own. For the most part, the political opinions people have, they've chosen. And, those opinions are mostly mass-produced consumer goods -- like individually wrapped chocolates, or t-shirts* with logos or smartass sayings -- very few people are cooking these ideas up at home without a cookbook.
    (*The Nation has an article with this lead:"I’ve worn the same t-shirt to bed since the night of the election. It says, “When they go low, we go to the White House.” The writer Sara Benincasa produced them, an obvious homage to Michelle Obama’s stirring, “When they go low, we go high.” I bought it for my daughter, who worked her heart out for Hillary Clinton for more than a year, in five different states. Obviously, given Donald Trump’s devastating win, I couldn’t give it to my daughter. I can’t imagine wearing it outside the house. I was wrong, so very wrong." Good grief.)
    It's good to have an opinion shared by others, but not shared with too many others. Nice shirt, where'd you buy it? Tom Friedman's column? Mark Blyth's Twitter feed?

    It is big business, fabricating and distributing narratives to be consumed as bite-sized opinions. Ben Rhodes, with an MFA in creative writing, dominates American foreign policy from his White House office. His brother, David, runs CBS News. Brad Parscale is the genius driving Trump twitter (presumably not the 2 am porn tape links but who knows?). The flacks to hacks ratio is trending, so some people have noticed, though no one seems to know what the numbers actually are. One piece I saw guessed 4 or 5 PR flacks to each journalist hack, with the median flack earning roughly 40% more than the typical hack. I know you don't much like Adam Curtis' stream of consciousness documentaries, but the medium is the message and Ezra Klein's historical memory is 15 minutes long -- what would Andy Warhol do with that!? Meanwhile, in other news you can use, "A global conference of senior military and intelligence officials taking place in London this week" focuses on how to "exploit social media as a source of intelligence on civilian populations and enemies; as well as a propaganda medium to influence public opinion." (Vice News)
    It is a problem of scale, as you say, and social atomization and attention. You are asking people to think of the long-run consequences of their opinions in the operation of power, but that's not something they can observe and control as individuals. Most of us are naturally followers and we must trust. It is like asking consumers to manage hygiene at Chipotle Mexican Grill when they don't know a corn tortilla from pink slime.

    At best, they might be able to figure out which opinions let them feel better about themselves, safer or scared in a somehow satisfying way. Maybe, a two-minute hate to get the morning started.

  2. Thanks for commenting here, Bruce.

    I don't think that it's completely necessary to go for getting people to think of long-term consequences, unless 4 years counts as long-term. (If it does, then yeah I'm stumped.) Either we're going to get a fascist takeover in which case all bets are off, or in 4 or 8 years the same processes in voter rejection of the party in power are going to operate and whatever the left party is in the American two-party system is going to take power. Pretty much whatever it is. This is how Obama won despite racism and despite his middle name being Hussein and all of the other things that the Democratic Party church of savvy people said would make him never win.

    So what party is going to win at that point? Neoliberalism redux? Or something that we actually want? I'm not writing just for leftists: there is no mass constituency for neoliberalism. Neoliberalism held control of the Democratic Party because of the consequences of failure, but that failure just happened anyways.

    So that's the important politics of this moment. Not coming together to fall in line behind the same leaders who brought us here. But rejecting their whole apparatus and making sure that it isn't what wins and leads us back to Trump 2.0.

    The rest of the current flurry is the usual: when Obama won his first term together with control of the Senate and House, the Democratic Party was powerless, but when Trump wins, he's an all-powerful dictator and there are no American political mechanisms that can be used to stop him. Well, there aren't if the opposing party won't use them. But then we're just back to what I wrote above: we can't keep supporting that party.

  3. Hey Rich (this is Z from CT),

    I totally agree with your 4 points but am I right to detect some contradiction between the inanity of doing small, virtuous things and the recommendation to join the Green (or some socialist movement)? My experience is that only political machines with long histories (in the US context, mostly the two parties, but elsewhere unions, the Catholic Church or various confederations sometimes qualify) can reliably deliver political results; an uncomfortable conclusion for anyone with anarchists leanings but I don't see that the displeasure makes it any less empirically true.

    Now, Trump or more precisely his appointees will have terrible effects on what I consider the two most pressing issues of our time: climate disruption and inequalities. Even remedying the damage they will do will, I believe, require mass collective action and thus joining a mass political machine. As disheartening as it may sound, now may be the moment to join the Democratic party.

    But perhaps your own analysis is that mass collective action of the sort I mentioned is doomed to fail (for standard localist anarchist reasons). But then what?

  4. Thanks for commenting, Olivier -- by the way, is the OpenID commenting system a problem? I turned it on in order to discourage comment spam, but I can turn it off if it is forcing people to not use nyms that they're used to.

    I'm commenting from two different positions at once: I'm an anarchist, but I'm also trying to talk to people where they are. As an anarchist I don't think that any statism is going to work in the long term. But I'll respond as someone living in the short term: we're in a short time period during which party realignment may really be possible. One's lived experience with political machines at this point in history says that they last and can reliably deliver, but non-lived history says that sometimes they crash and are replaced. I should write more about this in an actual blog post.

    But meanwhile, consider Sanders -- by far the most credible standard-politics leader. Is he staying with the Democratic Party? No, he's not: he's back to being an independent.

  5. " is the OpenID commenting system a problem?"

    Not to me at least. Most of my pseudonymous existence on the Net is under Olivier anyway so...

    "One's lived experience with political machines at this point in history says that they last and can reliably deliver, but non-lived history says that sometimes they crash and are replaced."

    What does that mean (honest question)? Well, perhaps your actual blogpost will clarify.

    "But meanwhile, consider Sanders"

    Yeah, I see your point, but then again Sanders is old. Maybe he's just not into politics so much anymore anyway. Let's hope someone acceptable emerges from the ruins.

  6. The American political system is two-party because of the mathematics of how it is set up. But that same mathematics can crush a party and make it disappear: parties that drop to third place can't continue to exist in power. We're currently (probably) in the Sixth Party System in the U.S., which means that there have been 5 previous ones and implies that there will a 7th and the current political machines will crash.

    Sanders is not losing interest in politics as far as I can see. He's been the most visible person against Trump so far, has been elected to a new (mostly ceremonial) Senate position, and is not disappearing. Unfortunately, he's not really a movement builder, judging by his past, but he's trying.

  7. The 6th Party System, which formed with Reagan after the de-alignment of the 1970s, just collapsed. After decades of trying to channel discontent into a third party where the math crushes all hope, there is the possibility of using the favorable math attendant on trying to organize or take over a second party. Is that what you are suggesting?

  8. Yes. I favor "organize" rather than "take over" because I think that the first one is more common, historically. It's very difficult to take over something that has had actual power without the existing apparatus absorbing the attempted takeover. The people who ran the old apparatus will be the last to go, and they will never stop sabotaging or trying to co-opt the newcomers. So I think that people are better off going with the Green Party, which seems to me to be ideologically closest to what we need in the U.S.