Making Sense of Freedom

freedom-sign“Freedom” is a word beloved by Americans, both left and right, liberal and conservative. No one in this country would ever explain their own political philosophy by saying, “basically, I’m against freedom.” Even those who wish to control others always present it as a mode of liberation. Everyone argues that they (and generally, they alone) are struggling against a sea of nefarious opponents to deliver true freedom to the world. But if that’s the case, why are we still struggling? If everyone agrees that freedom is good, the good, why haven’t we achieved it? If everyone is for freedom, then no one can be against it–so why is it always receding off into the distance?

And furthermore, isn’t this a rather strange situation, that everyone would agree–in word word, if rarely in deed–that freedom is the proper goal of all human political and economic activity? How is it that Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Marxists, and even Fascists all alike present their programs as struggles for freedom?

Perhaps this is only branding? That is: perhaps only one of these groups is really fighting for true freedom, but the other groups, having seen how popular it is, chose to parrot this in their PR? Even so, such a universal respect for something that so often seems controversial is still hard to explain. Everyone loves freedom, and everyone presents their opponents as the enemies of freedom. What’s going on here?

Considering how many different political groups all champion freedom, it isn’t surprising to find that they each understand the concept somewhat differently. What is surprising is how much continuity there nonetheless is between these various understandings of human freedom. Such a curious situation demands further attention, yet our enthusiasm for freedom has tended to result in less, not more, intellectual scrutiny towards the concept: when everyone agrees about something, it’s not likely to get discussed much. How often do we ramble on and on about how important breathing is?

The fact that these contradictions about freedom simultaneously sit right at the apex of our political culture and yet are simultaneously almost never explored suggests that ideology is at work here. Though in common English, the word “ideology” is generally synonymous with “a system of political and economic ideas”, in certain corners of the social sciences, the word has taken on a more technical meaning. In this sense, an ideology is an existent social system–that is to say, it’s not just a set of ideas, but is actually the social structure that truly pertains in the present–that actively seeks to obscure itself. Ideologies are social systems that maintain their dominance, at least in part, by hiding from plain view.

This may seem odd, but an example can flesh this out. Perhaps that most obvious and oft-repeated one is the claim by defenders of laissez-faire economics that unfettered capitalism is the natural method of allocating scarce resources. Note that word, “natural”. Using this word makes this particular politico-economic system seem to be the given state of affairs–as if if no one chose it, no one in particular benefits from it, and as if no alternatives are really possible. Presenting the current social structure as “natural” is an effective rhetorical tactic. Anyone who argues against such a structure can easily be denounced as uneducated, unrealistic, or immature. Once a given social system is presented–and received by the public–as “natural”, it becomes much harder to challenge. After all, how many political movements oppose gravity? If a system can present itself as inevitable as gravity, it will be nearly impossible to displace.

This is how ideologies function. They press certain contingent social structures onto populations, and then cover their own tracks, convincing a majority of the people living under them that they are natural, irreversible, absolute. And, of course, it’s not only defenders of capitalism that are guilty of this maneuver. Most Marxists argue that only they have a political program developed from an objective understanding of the science of human history; likewise, many religious institutions try to claim that only their view of spirituality reflects human, natural, and divine realities as they truly are.

But what does any of this have to do with the ubiquity–and simultaneous vagueness–of the word “freedom” in western political discourse?

Broadly speaking, especially in the West, “freedom” always has two aspects: it is freedom of the individual, and it is negative freedom. To say that we westerners celebrate “negative” freedom is just to say that we understand freedom as freedom from other people. Freedom of religion means that others can neither prevent nor require my religious practice. Likewise, freedom of speech means that the state may not prevent me from speaking my mind. And this leads to the other aspect: such freedom is always of the individual: it is the individual who can be free, it is the individual who strives to be free. Individuals strive to be free of the state, of natural events, and of other individuals.

One can characterize this understanding of freedom as ideological because it forecloses on other possible understandings of freedom without ever even alluding to the fact that such alternate view of freedom are even possible. During the Cold War, however, Eastern Bloc states made a point of arguing for a “positive” conception of freedom: freedom to certain things, rather than only freedom from certain people or institutions: freedom to work, freedom to health care, freedom to meaningful social interaction, etc.

This critique of a purely negative conception of freedom is therefore not unheard of, even if it is rare in the west and, indeed, utterly absent in any mainstream political discourse. But the second dimension of the ideology of freedom–that freedom is always freedom of the individual, generally receives less attention. Again, “orthodox” Marxist theory has generally critiqued this assumption as well, though perhaps less consistently, and certainly less successfully. By and large, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, most western Marxists have attempted to cast themselves in language that is more friendly to liberal conceptions of freedom (that is, the one we have been discussing above). In fact, this “softer” Marxism runs back into the pre-World War II days, when some intellectual Marxists attempted to present a more humanistic approach to Marxist theory (e.g. Walter Benjamin).

So even the primary pole of opposition to liberal capitalist hegemony has had a hard time sustaining the idea of freedom outside the confines of the individual. And the fact that this dimension of the ideology of freedom has been harder to name and counter makes a lot of sense–opposing a purely negative conception of freedom is easy to do because modern people understand the need for things like work, medical care, and education, and so the idea that freedom could be “for” as much as “from” is easy to grasp, even if it ends up having little actual political traction. But individualism is a much harder nut to crack. The very way in which most modern people understand themselves is through the lens of individuality. We see ourselves, separate people, as the subjects and agents of existence. This extends well beyond the realm of politics. In our romantic lives, in our spiritual lives, in our day-to-day activities, western culture is, through and through, a culture of individual experience and identity. The watchword of the 21st century is, I think, “authenticity”. Authenticity, not to one’s region, or ethnicity, or history, or religion–but to self.

Political projects are understood to be good or bad to the extent that they maximize the potential for individuals to act authentically. But is this the only way to characterize freedom? Is it possible to have a conception of freedom that is social, rather than individual? Of course, the idea of freedom for certain groups is not new–nationalists constantly decry the restrictions on their nations–but this attitude towards freedom is still fundamentally anti-social; that is to say: zero sum. One nation’s freedom necessarily means the loss of rights, property, or power on the part of some other nation.

A truly social understanding of freedom would seek to create social institutions that free people for one another, not just from one another. Such an understanding of freedom would be much harder to articulate than those who have argued for a positive understanding of freedom alongside the negative, because it would require a completely new mode of subjectivity–we would have to know ourselves, and each other, in a new and different way, because the very way in which we understand self and other today already has inscribed in it the zero sum competition of individual against individual. The possibility of freedom with one another has already been foreclosed upon by the reality of our social relations. Only able to witness, and imagine, freedom from one another, we reproduce these social relations in our constant struggle to achieve more freedom for ourselves at the expense of others. We can’t imagine being anyone other than who we are–even if  who we are now is profoundly unfree.


What exactly this kind of social, rather than individual, freedom could mean is not–and, I think, at this time, cannot–be clear. And this is precisely because any change in the understanding of freedom (since this concept is so essential to the very way we understand ourselves, our identities, and the societies in which we live) would result in a completely different way of thinking. At this stage, I think it is only possible to discuss the limits of the current structure of our subjectivity, to continue to whittle away at its foundations. The answer is still well over the horizon–but we can ask the question today.

An example will be illustrative. When it comes to discussions of racial justice, many on the progressive Left are fond of saying that white supremacy is bad for white people as well as for people of color, and that therefore the struggle for racial justice is something that everyone should be able to get behind. Whatever one thinks about the factuality of this claim, it’s clear that the goal of this kind of rhetoric is to produce and maintain a sense of solidarity–that term so much-beloved (and oft-over-used) by leftists. To the extent, the thinking goes, that we can get white people to believe that anti-racist agitation, legislation, and direct action is good for them as well as for their non-white neighbors, we reduce the obstacles to achieving racial justice.

So far as it goes, of course, this makes sense. But there’s a problem: what if many white people realize that anti-racism won’t always benefit them, or that it will benefit them in some ways while harming them in others? Or that it will benefit them in the long-term, but not in the short-term? The problem is that this claim about the universal benefits of racial justice stumbles over the gritty details of our actual social existence. It would be ridiculous to deny that at least some white people benefit some of the time in concrete ways from white supremacy. Indeed, that’s the whole point of deploying the term “white privilege”: white supremacy gives white people real and desired advantages. So which is it? Is white supremacy ultimately a social structure that gives real, material advantage to white people? Or is it an obstacle to the welfare of all people–including white people–and therefore something that we can easily develop solidarity in resistance to?

Of course, I have oversimplified the reality of white supremacy as an existent social structure. The fact of the matter is that some white people benefit far more from others, and that white people in general both benefit in some ways and pay in others. It’s not possible to easily quantify the cost/benefit impact of white supremacy on white people in general or even on specific white individuals. This is especially true for white working-class people, for whom white supremacy provides both benefits–more likelihood of being hired, generally higher wages, much less chance of violence from police, etc.–but also real costs, since a working class divided by race will generate–and very clearly has generated–lower wages, fewer benefits, and less occupational security for all working people as a whole. And of course, this is the perverse genius of racism’s appeal to white workers in the US: it both acts to discipline and impoverish them while simultaneously drafting them to uphold, through political violence against their fellow workers (of color), the very system that limits their political possibilities.

Considering the complex nature of the situation makes it clear that, whatever we would like to believe, simply stating that racism hurts white people and therefore white people should be eager to combat it is imprecise at best, and disingenuous at worst. A more honest call to racial justice would take a different course, especially if one were speaking to middle-class or upper-class whites, whose benefiting from white supremacy is almost completely unalloyed by class costs: “white supremacy helps you, but you should resist it anyway.”

But there is an obvious question that they would raise here: “why should I?” And here our survey of the concept of freedom above is essential. To the extent that we understood the only proper goal of a socio-political system to increase the autonomy of individuals to act in their own interest–so long as this is what we mean by “freedom”–it’s clearly nonsensical to call on (especially middle- and upper-class)  white people to resist white supremacy. They are clearly, and materially, benefiting from the structures of racism. And it must be noted that while poor and working-class whites may actually be able to benefit more clearly from an end to white supremacy in some ways, many of them nonetheless identify so strongly with the accepted notion of freedom that they will respond to calls for racial justice as if they were solidly middle-class: the American “poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires“.  If politics is nothing more than the competition of individuals to maximize their own autonomy and access to property, why would any white individual choose to dismantle such an effective tool as white supremacy?

It is this question, I think, that can function as  crowbar at the site of the contradictions that must be explored here. Most Americans seem to want to both understand themselves as individual political actors and cherish their individual freedom to live their lives unfettered by others but also want to see themselves as moral beings who act in ethically consistent ways. But these two visions of human life are mutually exclusive. To the extent that one believes individual humans to have an absolute right to individual freedom, one cannot maintain the idea that humans might have an ethical responsibility to care for one another. One could, of course, choose, as an individual, to try and live up to some set of moral standards for a more or less arbitrary reason, but such a moral ethics would have no social, political, or philosophical force behind it. It would be a lifestyle choice, not a call to justice.

So, for progressives, leftists, and radicals, which is it? Do we understand ourselves primarily as individuals seeking unfettered freedom of action? If so, it’s hard to see how we can avoid endorsing a more-or-less libertarian view of government action, even if we adopt socially liberal attitudes towards sexuality, drug use, and entertainment along with our laissez-faire economics. Or, do we find ourselves committed to a set of ethical claims about our responsibility to care for each other? In this case, we have a strong intellectual basis in arguing for a more-or-less socialist mode of government, in which individuals sacrifice some degree of arbitrary autonomy in order to create a more just and more equitable society.

If we choose this latter option, though, we will need to think long and hard about what we mean when we say we are fighting for freedom, since the meaning that that word generally has in most of its contemporary uses will, I hope to have shown above, no longer be consistent with our political vision. This is not to say that Freedom and Justice are somehow mutually exclusive in an absolute sense, but rather that this particular understanding of freedom–which is the dominant and default one–is not consistent with our understanding of, and commitments to, social and economic justice. I think there can be a fruitful and mutually-reinforcing intersection of these two ideas as they inform our political and social vision of the future–but I don’t think we’ve arrived at that intersection yet. Instead, we find often find ourselves trying to talk out of both sides of our mouths, as discussed above in reference to leftist discourse around white supremacy.

If we honestly believe that combating white supremacy will materially harm at least some white people (and indeed, all white people in at least some ways for at least some period of time) we should be honest about this and then still call for whites to fight for justice. But this will involve developing a political discourse that sees freedom as one good among many others, rather than the absolute and only political good. The difficulty is that, as I have suggested throughout this essay, most of the time, American political discourse has functioned according to a freedom-first or indeed freedom-only paradigm. All of this is to say that if we want to organize people around social and economic justice, we cannot simply try to insert our content into the form of political discourse that currently exists. If I may be allowed a short Biblical reference: we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Our politics is not just a variation of liberal democracy. We are not proposing some tweaks of and tinkering to capitalism. We are calling for a radically different mode of social, political, and economic organization. We are calling not just for some new political content, but wholly new forms of political life. For a completely different way for individuals to relate to one another. We cannot pretend that such a radical vision can be communicated with the political terms and assumptions of the very system we find so problematic–and yet, generally speaking, this is what we do.

This means that struggling against capitalism will mean imagining a different way not only of working, voting, and allocating resources, but a different way of thinking and indeed of existing as social creatures. Above all else, we need a completely new discourse, a new set of fundamental political terms to build our discussions on. The trouble is that the left in the US seems, more often than not, to simply try and radicalize the terms and assumptions of centrist liberalism, as if one can accept the need for socialism if one simply reads Paul Krugman, and then multiplies his position by ten. But this just isn’t the case. The very basis for what constitutes good and just governance for liberals is completely different than for socialists.

Part of what this means is that we need to be as focused on “theory” as on “action” (though dividing these two things as if they are not mutually interdependent is itself, I think, a faulty mode of thinking). Imagination must be seen as a critical political tool. We have to be able to imagine different ways of living together before we can be expected to work towards them; we cannot arrive at our destination if we have no idea where we are going. Much of what passes for “radical” thought today is, I think, little more than metastasized liberalism. Calls for “social justice” too often simply mask attempts to gain leverage within the structures of capitalist decision-making, rather than attempts to dismantle this system. We have to recognize the limits not only of the outcomes of the systems we are struggling against, but also the conceptual and linguistic foundations upon which those systems are built.

As I admitted above, I will not pretend to have any idea of exactly what structures of thought can replace those which we are struggling to break free from. Many leftists will attempt to build upon the work of Marxist thought; religious progressives and radicals may prefer to build on their own spiritual traditions for clues on how to build new modes of subjectivity. Anarchists and syndicalists will doubtless offer their own critiques (though the essential dimension of individual freedom for this lineage of radical thought must, I think, be admitted and addressed). I don’t have the answer, but I am convinced that we must incessantly, loudly, and seriously ask these questions about the very foundations of our political ethics if we want to have any idea of how to move forward.

On the Duplicity of Clinton’s Anti-Racism

hillary-clinton-bring-it-on-mic-getty-640x480In many ways political campaigns are like pop songs–they need a hook, a central point, image, or mood that animates them and drives them forward. For Obama it was the image (if, ultimately, not the substance) of Hope and Change at at time when the economy was collapsing and America’s image abroad was thoroughly tarnished. For the Republicans in ’94, it was the “Contract with America“; Reagan struck a similar tone in 1984: “Morning in America“–both this and Gingrich’s Contract were meant to invoke a return to past stability and prosperity.

What do we have this time around? Interestingly enough, for the Clinton campaign, race has played a major role. In some ways, this is not surprising: her husband was famously the “first black president” and both Clintons have long polled well with with African-Americans (and at times other ethnic minorities). Furthermore, the GOP nominee is especially abrasive when it comes to race, even for a Republican: Donald Trump has made xenophobia against Mexican- and Central-Americans, as well as friction, to say the least, with black protesters, central to his campaign. With such an opponent, it makes sense that Clinton would try to play on the anxieties of people of color to boost electoral chances.

But the story of Clinton’s race-strategy isn’t as simple as this. Her campaign and its many proponents did not begin to portray her as the anti-racist candidate only after the primaries were over. Race featured as a major issue in the Democratic primaries, with the campaign itself and many in the media suggesting that much of the support for Bernie Sanders was itself animated by white anxiety or even outright racism. Unlike with Trump, this accusation lacked any real basis apart from some irresponsible fidgeting with polling data.


For one, Sanders had many people of color endorse him. Secondly, he did as well or better with young people of color as did Clinton; it was only older POC who supported Clinton by large margins. Third, and most substantively, Clinton is on record for supporting a range of policies and laws that disproportionately harm POC–the omnibus ’94 crime bill and the welfare “reform” act of ’96 being the most infamous.

All of this considered, it’s not obvious that Clinton should necessarily receive the mantle as the champion of minority causes. And yet she has positioned herself as just that, and, by and large, most of the major media outlets have not questioned her on this (though some smaller outlets have). Now, explaining this phenomenon en toto could fill volumes of books, and ultimately would require an expertise I lack. There are a host of questions around political messaging, grassroots leadership, demographic trends, etc. that would have to be asked and answered to really get at the heart of this seeming paradox. Nonetheless, there is one dimension of this situation that I think especially needs to be discussed both because of its immediate relevance and its structural impact.

In short, Clinton’s successful posturing as the POC champion is linked to the way that journalists tend to talk about racism in this country: racism is the result of the ignorance of poor white people (it should here be noted that poor white people are actually more likely to vote for Clinton in any event–a fact which only underscores the deceptiveness of this whole narrative). You see this narrative everywhere, and its has deep roots. It’s apparent in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s clear in the coverage of Donald Trump’s support. It’s always in the background, framing the way we talk about race. Indeed, “racism” and “ignorance” almost always come as a package deal whenever the issue comes up in American discourse on these topics.

Now, undoubtedly, ignorance plays a central role in racist attitudes. But it does not play an exclusive one, and it’s all the things that are left out of this common analysis of racism that I think we need to talk about more.

First and foremost, racism-as-ignorance presents racism as a sort of massive and unfortunate accident, as if white supremacy just happened due to the lack of good schooling in the early colonies. And this presentation is intentional, because it fundamentally lets well-educated (and wealthy) whites off the hook. The actual fact of the matter–that white supremacy was and is a culture and ideology explicitly designed by wealthy and well-educated whites to justify slavery and the theft of land from Native Americans–is obscured by linking racism and ignorance in a linear and one-to-one fashion.

Another way of making this point is to say this: racism was developed, and encouraged, and it thrived, and became hegemonic, because it was profitable. The political-economic circumstances of North America were rather unique: a massive amount of arable land was available (though by no means uninhabited) for exploitation, but there was insufficient labor to grow cash crops (like cotton and tobacco). So a) the indigenous people needed to be either transformed into cheap laborers or removed and b) massive amounts of labor needed to be relocated to the colonies. Early efforts by European governments and land-owners generally employed actual purchases to achieve the first goal, and indentured servitude to achieve the second. But neither of these worked quickly, cheaply, or completely enough. White supremacy was the stone that killed both birds. It justified ever-more rapid and violent displacement of Native Americans as well as the permanent enslavement of black Africans as chattel–itself an innovation in the laws and concepts of enslavement.

All of this is to say that racism was generated not by ignorance, but by a savvy–but also demonic–understanding of how agriculture functioned as a business. Natives Americans and Africans alike were nothing more than resources to moved, employed, and destroyed, depending on the wishes of property-owners.

White supremacy, of course, also had another vital function: it provided the necessary wedge to keep working-class and peasant whites from organizing with Native Americans or Africans. And this wedge was not only of theoretical value, since the 17th century witnessed a number of uprisings in which people of all three groups united to attack landowners. In regards to the poor white population, white supremacy functions in the classic divide-and-conquer strategy: under this culture and ideology, even the poorest, least-respected white has a dignity not afforded to any non-white. Such a white person perceives himself as having a place, a status, in the system–and something to lose if it were challenged–and therefore will act to uphold it, even if doing so is inimical to his own long-term material interests.

This latter point does bring us back to the issue of ignorance: how poor white people were and still are tricked into supporting policies that are not helpful to them through the ideology of white supremacy. But to treat this situation as simple “ignorance” is to ignore what’s actually going on. To lay the blame for white supremacy on the ignorance of poor whites is to act as if these people could and should know better, but due to their own sloth or inattention, simply haven’t figured the truth out. In fact–and of course–these people are actively deceived, have been and are continually barraged by propaganda, explicit and implicit, to keep them ignorant. You might as well tie a handkerchief around someone’s eyes and blame them for being blind.

That’s not to say that those poor whites who accept racist arguments bear no  responsibility for their own beliefs, expression, and actions. But to lay the blame completely and exclusively on them simpliciter is deceptive in the extreme. And this brings us back to the concrete axis of this discussion: the Clintons have been more than happy to benefit from white supremacy when they could; they only posture against it when they think it will be to their advantage. Let’s not forget Bill’s (and Hillary’s) statements about “super-predators” in ’94, or the eagerness with which he executed Ricky Ray Rector in ’92. Likewise, let’s not overlook Hillary’s own eagerness to bomb POC in Libya, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Palestine–as well as her own vocal support for the above-mentioned actions of her husband when he was in office.

If the Clintons’ opponents are overtly racist (as right now), they tack to the left, adopting the language of the civil rights movement and layering themselves with a thin veneer of concern. But if their opponents already sit to the left of them on such issues, they instead engage in dog-whistle politics, scaring middle-class whites into support of their centrist triangulation.

Now, supporters of Clinton’s are likely to counter at this point–well, actually, much earlier than this point–that none of this is relevant since Clinton is clearly preferable to Trump on any number of issues, race especially. And this is the frustrating wall that one always hits when criticizing the Democrats from the left: one’s opponents will argue with you until you actually bring up your evidence, at which point they switch to the with-us-or-against-us rhetorical tactics, suggesting that any criticism of Clinton is necessarily support for Trump.

But this is just pure nonsense. One might as well suggest (insert pithy remark on Godwin’s Law here) that to criticize Winston Churchill’s chauvinistic attitude towards the British Empire and his conservative values in domestic policy is somehow tantamount to supporting Hitler, because those two found themselves in conflict during World War II. But in truth, I can have criticisms of both without that criticism, in any way, shape, or form, implying any support for their rival. Of course it will be the case that my criticisms of Hitler are much more severe and firmly held than my criticisms of Churchill, but that doesn’t mean for a moment that I should refuse to criticize the latter.

And this is what is so frustrating about such discussions with Clinton-supporters. They see facts, if those facts reflect poorly on Clinton, as pro-Trump, and therefore inadmissible, despite their status as, well…factual.

Of course, as a leftist, my critique of Clinton is not meant to hurt her chances in this general election–I earnestly, if un-enthusiastically, hope she wins. Rather, the goal of such critiques from the left is to indict the whole set of assumptions which undergird the contemporary American political mainstream. When Clinton is the “leftist” option, we should know we are in trouble, and however much it might make sense for us to support Clinton in the short-term, we also need to be building consciousness to effect change in the long-term that pulls the Overton Window to the left.

Some Clinton-supporters may fundamentally agree, but then argue that we should reserve such conversations to non-election years so as to not damage the Democrats’ chances at election. The problem, of course, is that, first off, many Americans only really engage in political discourse in the months leading up to elections, and, secondly, in the off-years, the parties are focused on fund-raising and backroom deals. Election years may be the only time when leftists can get attention from both politically-disengaged citizens and the Democratic Party itself–the first because of the increased coverage of all things political at such times and the latter because of their anxiety over vote margins.

White supremacy is not some sui generis phenomenon that arises, like a fungus, from the woeful ignorance of poor white people. It has been and is an intentional strategy of propertied whites, a cultural technology (to use an academic term du jour) designed to justify horrific exploitation of people of color and, even at times, some poor whites as well. “Liberals” as well as “conservatives” have been happy to use it when it suits them, and critique it when it doesn’t. The Clinton campaign may have invited an undocumented woman and her daughter on-stage at the convention, but there’s no doubt that a Clinton administration will be deporting hundreds of thousands of such immigrants in 2017. Rhetoric is not substance. We need to see through this political posturing, recognize the real causes of exploitation and oppression, and organize to end them. Supporting Clinton may be a perfectly acceptable short-term tactical maneuver, but in the long-term, it is a strategic dead-end.

Election 2016: Of Candidates, Frogs, and Lifting the Lid

frogsWith the full convention nominations of Trump and Clinton, electoral debates have picked up in intensity over the last few weeks. Most notably, Democrats supporting Clinton have become increasingly hostile to any suggestion that leftists and progressives might not vote for her in November. The debates between Clinton supporters and her left-leaning detractors are almost always excellent examples of people talking past—rather than to—each other. Each side takes the other to task for missing the central point. Each side attempts to convince the other with arguments that rest on premises that the other does not accept. Unsurprisingly, these discussion generally lead nowhere.

The easiest way to characterize the difference is to point out that most Clinton-supporters’ rhetoric is focused on the near- or short-term, while most of her left-leaning detractors discuss the long-term. The trouble is, neither side seems to realize that their arguments develop from these differing frameworks and assumptions. Clinton-supporters continue to stress the catastrophic consequences of a Trump presidency; the possibility of a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice looms heavily in their minds, and the risks associated with him as commander-in-chief also stoke their anxiety. And of course, these are both serious threats. Recognizing these threats, such supporters focus all of their energy on electing Clinton, and see any criticism of her—however honest and well-supported by evidence—as necessarily supportive of Trump.

Meanwhile, most leftists and progressives respond that most of the major problems facing the nation and indeed the world will remain unaddressed, regardless of who is elected. Although on some issues—especially on so-called “culture war” issues—Clinton’s record and platform differ from Trump’s, on a host of other issues, including national defense, tax policy, regulation of the finance industry, combating global warming, increasing union density, regulating trade, etc. the differences are slight or even absent (the differences in rhetoric are at times substantial, but Clinton’s actual record of support—as First Lady, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State—betray the superficiality of much of what she says). The fundamental economic, cultural, and political structures that are destroying ecosystems and leading to massive exploitation of humans, especially of workers in developing countries, will remain completely intact, regardless of who is elected. From the long-term perspective, then, the fight between Clinton and Trump begins to look less and less important. What is needed is not a new leader of the system, but a radically different system to begin with.

The trouble is, neither of these perspectives—the short- or the long-term—has an exclusive claim to rationality or sound evidence. In truth, human decision-making always has to take both the short-term and the long-term into consideration. Problems arise when what makes sense in the short-term differs substantially from what makes sense in the long-term. Many leftists are pointing out that, with each election, the Democrats are moving more and more to the right on most issues besides the “culture war” ones which they use to differentiate themselves from the GOP and win otherwise undecided voters. They argue that unless leftists and progressives actually withhold their electoral support from the party, making it conditional on real legislative or executive action favoring working-class people, the Democratic Party has no incentive or reason to actually follow-through with any substantial progressive legislation.

But this kind of “disciplining” of the party would, in the short-term, mean risking giving whatever offices are up for election to Republicans, an even more reactionary political entity. Thus what seems necessary, if risky, in the long-term, looks absolutely suicidal in the short-term. There is no panacea to this tension between the tactical and the strategic, but some reflection on the intractability of our political situation may yield fruit.

It’s worth pointing out that “true” conservatives found themselves in a somewhat similar situation in the post-war period. From the mid-thirties onward, New Deal politics was ascendant, and by the mid-50s both parties both basically accepted a “mixed economy” as the default. (It’s important to remember that this was before the great realignment of the late 60s and early 70s; there were cultural liberals and conservatives in both parties, but the Republicans were the traditional party of capitalists whose businesses were labor-intensive.) Cultural conservatives and libertarians, especially the latter, were largely excluded from serious political decision-making. But instead of compromising endlessly with their opponents, these groups began to organize seriously, especially in academia and within think-tanks, and in fact soon became known for their absolute refusal to compromise. Though this meant that they were excluded from power in the short-term, it also meant that many working- and middle-class voters began to take their positions seriously, in part precisely because they were not publicly revealed as corrupted by abuses of power. And such ideologues were taken more seriously by rank-and-file Americans because they actually said what they meant and believed, year in and year out. They articulated a consistent vision for what they thought a just and righteous political order would look like, and they did not hesitate to withhold support from Republican candidates who did not play ball.

Eventually, of course, this strategy paid off. Not only in the Reagan period, but even more in the neoliberal turn of the 90s—when Democrats themselves began to pander to many neoliberal economic and neoconservative foreign policy demands (e.g. NAFTA, the ’94 omnibus crime bill, the ’96 welfare “reform” bill)—showed that, at least under the right conditions, a hard-line ideological stance can be effective in changing the very criteria used to judge what is accepted decision-making. They were able to change the context of what is seen as politically feasible. Of course, this lesson cannot be applied directly to leftist politics. All sorts of conditions affected the success of libertarian agitation in the late 20th century. Two obvious factors that were extremely beneficial were: first, lots of wealthy individuals and companies were eager to bankroll the movement, and second, economic trends—both domestic and global—were disrupting the post-war equilibrium. Nonetheless, their success might still point to a broad outline for how leftists can refine their organizing strategies for the long-term in a serious and disciplined way. My suggestion is that we must think in a more explicit and disciplined manner about how to act in order to effect this long-term change, rather than present our long-term anxieties within a political system that responds only to the short-term.

Next, I’d like to employ an extended metaphor to try and capture the existential difficulties of managing the tension between the differing incentives of the short- and long-term frameworks. Most people are familiar with the truism that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and leap out to safety—but if you place a frog in room-temperature water and then slowly raise the heat, it will die before it realizes it’s in danger.

Our electoral situation today can, I think, be meaningfully compared to such a frog. The Republicans are calling for an increase in temperature of one degree each minute. The Democrats, dismissing this as crazy and irresponsible, suggest the much more modest increase of only half a degree each minute. There’s no question that a half-degree increase is better than a full degree; being cooked later is better than being cooked now. In the short term, supporting the half-degree party makes perfect sense; in fact, not supporting it seems patently insane. But both parties are still trying to cook us alive. In the long-term, the only possible action is, of course, for the frog to get out of the pot.

The question is: how can we simultaneously support the party that is only trying to exploit us at half-speed, while also working to turn the gas off? If we find that there’s a lid on the pot and we can’t get out quickly, then by all means, let’s support the half-degree party in the short-term. At the very least, it buys us some time. But if that’s all we do, then we are still doomed.

Now, in this metaphor, the half-degree partisans insist that they, too, support cutting the heat off if and when possible. Democrats suggest voting for Clinton to guard ourselves in the short-term, and then organizing over the coming years to enable more substantial, if gradual, change by holding Clinton and other Democrats accountable. But history suggests this is a dead-end. We have heard this time and time again. Every four years, Democrat politicians and think-tankers warn us that the Republicans are about to turn up the flame, increasing the heat two or three degrees all at once: we have to support the Democratic nominee no matter what, or else we will face an existential threat in the person of McCain, or Romney, or now Trump.

People are talking today as if Trump is the exception, that he is a unique candidate, so vile that we have to do whatever we can to prevent him from entering the White House. This may be true, so far as it goes, but the rhetoric we are hearing from the Democrats is not at all unique. The sky was falling in 2008 and 2012, just as it’s falling now. And the only acceptable answer to this collapse is, always and forever, voting Democrat. They promise that this not only guards us against Republican malfeasance in the short-term, but also that it is the foundation for more profound change in the long-term.

But in the past, in in the intervening years between elections, these exact same politicians and academics have worked tirelessly to support the very neoliberal economic (and neoconservative diplomatic and military) agendas they denounced in the election year. We must remember that in the 50s and 60s the half-degree party was actually a quarter-degree party. This is the problem with the “vote for them now and then hold their feet to the fire next year” strategy. The only fire we have to hold their feet to is the election itself. This strategy is a bait-and-switch. It always turns out that the progress we asked for isn’t the progress we were really looking for—the Party knows what direction we should be going better than we do. Those trying to pose today as borderline socialists turn out to be hardcore neoliberals outside of election years.

So, again: I agree that, come November, a vote for a half-degree increase is better than a full-degree for those of us feeling warm in the kitchen (and considering the rapid onset of global warming, this metaphor is perhaps more apt than we’d like to admit). But we also need to recognize that those insisting that we vote for the half-degree are not necessarily allies in trying to get the lid off the pot. Their power comes from being the lesser-evil, from gaining control by presenting themselves as the less-unreasonable group. In the short-term, sure, let’s tactically support them. But we are fools if we think such support is sufficient, and we are still fools if we think that we can somehow turn supporting the half-degree party into support for a lift-the-lid party. They have no interest in doing so, because at the end of the day, they (or, at least those who fund them) want to cook the frog all the same.

So, what does any of this mean? What do I suggest should fall out from these reflections? I might say something like this: we could agree with Noam Chomsky and John Halle that lesser-evil voting makes sense in swing states, but then insist that radicals and progressives not living in swing states have just as much a duty to vote for a leftist party as those who do live in swing states have to vote for the Democrats. This must be said, because the lesser-evil argument only ever seems to stress the latter point. But if those advocating lesser-evilism are arguing in good faith, they should be as insistent that electoral decisions, when they are not required for blocking Republicans getting electoral college votes, should always be used to push a leftist agenda. This remains the case, I believe, even if some of these lesser-evilists deny that electoral politics in general is the primary avenue through which radical politics can be articulated, built, and pursued. And this brings us to another common critique, advanced by, for example, Dan Savage. Savage critiqued Stein and the Greens because they had no chance of actually winning the 2016 election—but of course, this critique only has teeth if Stein et al. actually think they can win this election. In truth, of course, the purpose of launching a third-party presidential campaign under current conditions is to gain visibility for issues that the two main parties are ignoring, and, if possible, to win the necessary percentage of polls to enter debates, and the requisite 5% of the votes on election day to secure federal funding.

Savage and others have argued that if Greens are serious, they should be focusing on local candidates and not the presidency. This critique is misplaced for two reasons: first, of course, there are all kinds of Green Party candidates for local-level elections, something that Savage seems not to have bothered to research before crafting his polemic. Second, though, this whole critique is built on a faulty understanding of how parties, and social movements more broadly, are built. The fact of the matter is that, especially today, in a media-saturated culture, movements need a visible national-scale presence to really get any attention and traction. Furthermore, radicals recognize that we need to not only propose alternate policies, but actually alternative frameworks for thinking about policies. That is, we need a change of context, a re-thinking of our values and our assumptions about what the state and markets really should be doing. It is unlikely that we will achieve that by running candidates for local boards of education—as worthwhile as such campaigns are, we need to be trying to change the very principles of the debate we are having. Or, to return to our kitchen metaphor, we have to start asking why we are in a pot of heating water in the first place.

It is this change of context, a change of values, a change in what most citizens see as good and possible, that is important. I should be clear that I have no particular attachment to the Green Party; it is just the case that, for the moment, they are one of the few institutions that critique the status quo at the national level and get any attention. The point here is not that the Greens can save us, but rather that we can use their campaign as an opportunity to change the conversation, even as we admit that in some states, we will have to try to win the current argument.

Brexit, Trump, Xenophobia, and Labor

brexit-flagThe past few days have seen much hand-wringing about the so-called “Brexit“: the referendum, held in the UK  on June 24, on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Somewhat surprisingly, the “leave” vote ended up receiving a majority. Most media commentators have presented this as an absolute disaster, for two main reasons. First, many have pointed to the likely economic and monetary downsides–be it the implementation of tariffs between the UK and other European states, the slide in the value of the Pound Sterling against other currencies, etc. The second claim is that the vote to leave the EU is both a manifestation of, and will strengthen, racist and xenophobic sentiment in the UK.

Now, both of these claims rest on a wide range of complex economic and sociological theories. I am not particularly well-qualified to enter the fray on, for example, European tariff policy. My goal here is rather to focus on the assumptions and rhetoric involved, because the discussion of Brexit reveals the way in which how we talk about something ends up shaping what we can think about it.

Comparing the pro-Brexit camp to US supporters of Trump–a comparison that has been frequently made over the last four days–really strengthens the deeper point I want to make here. Many commentators, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, have bemoaned the xenophobia and racism that rests, either implicitly or explicitly, in many of Trump’s speeches, and have themselves implied that this proves that most of the support for him is really just the racism of poorer white Americans become manifest in a demagogic presidential candidate who would otherwise have basically no support.

This is obviously an over-generalization, but I have no issue with this claim on its surface. I basically agree. What troubles me is that no one seems to think this situation needs further analysis. The racism of poor whites is simply taken for granted, rather than as a social situation that needs an explanation. And it is this reality about our mass media that I think points to the more important discussion. Because so long as racism is seen as the natural attitude of poor whites, those in positions of political and economic power can deflect criticism from themselves. If voters respond angrily to globalization, the message we hear is that a bunch of racists are xenophobic, and that’s why Brexit or Trump have support. The idea that there could be other concerns motivating these voters isn’t even discussed, much less taken seriously. In this way, people are given only two options: either admit that you are a backward, xenophobic racist resistant to progress, or you have to get in line with whatever social, political, and economic structures global elites have endorsed. So long as those are our options, of course, many people feel pressured to join the latter group.

Once we ask the question of why poor whites should be racist in the first place, though, we can begin to unravel this simplistic and dichotomous presentation of human societies. It is crucial to see that the very idea that poor whites just are racist is itself a claim meant to limit critiques of global capitalism. And here the word “ignorance” is thrown around a lot: the claim is that uneducated people are ignorant of other cultures, and that people who are ignorant in this way simply respond to the unknown with an automatic hatred. The solution, then, is both more (expensive) education or, considering the lack of universal access to higher education, to simply trust those with the advanced degrees from famous schools. If one questions the claims of this group, one is immediately dismissed as ignorant and therefore necessarily a manifestation of xenophobia and racism.

To be branded as ignorant is to be excluded from being taken seriously in policy discussions, and this is a way of cutting off whole dialogues, whole topics of discussion. No one seems interesting in asking why poor whites might be racist and xenophobic. Though I won’t pretend to have the expertise in general nor the space in this post to try and answer a question that would take a team of sociologists and economics multiple volumes to even begin to answer, I think there are two broad points that need to be made–and repeated in public.


First, the historical dimension: north-west Europeans have not always hated darker-skinned people. White supremacism is not some ethnically ingrained attitude of fair-skinned peoples. White supremacy has a history, and it was invented, at least in the English-speaking world, in the 17th century to justify a new and horrendous form of labor relations: chattel slavery. Two facts about the early North American colonies need to be made clear: first off, up until the 1670’s, English and African workers sometimes banded together to attack land-owners. They recognized what later Euro-Americans (who at that later point identified as “white”) frequently have and do not: that their interests aligned with other un-landed working people. The fact that other agricultural workers had different colors of skin didn’t matter to them, because they had not been taught to divide people according to this physical feature. But they definitely recognized the divisions of property ownership and class.

Second, the initial groups of enslaved Africans brought to colonies like Virginia were not treated as chattel slaves, because the legal and cultural categories of chattel slavery had not yet been invented. Some Africans were even freed and given land after a period of service, like European indentured servants. This is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that even the elites did not think of Africans as anything other than dark-skinned fellow human beings. They were treated more or less the same as white servants (whose rate of survival, it should be pointed out, was only about 50% while in indentured service).

Secondly, though, and more ominously, this fact also shows the reason that the social structure of chattel slavery  was developed. English land-owners had a lot of (stolen) land, but not nearly enough labor to really profit off of it. The big cash crops like cotton and tobacco required a vast amount of labor. Too few Europeans were motivated to sign on as indentured servants, and the flow of forced African labor was too slow to provide enough labor to be profitable on a large scale, precisely because those Africans were eventually freed (or died early) and even sometimes given land of their own. From the standpoint of Capital, a new form of labor relations had to be asserted that would guarantee more access to cheaper labor.

Thus chattel slavery, at least in its incarnation in the English-speaking world, was invented. But it had to be justified. Christian churches had been inveighing against slavery for centuries, and absolutely forbade the enslavement of other Christians. So political and economic elites needed to find a way to provide sufficient moral and legal justification for chattel slavery–especially one that would justify slavery for certain groups even if they converted to Christianity. And the answer, of course, was to regard some (indeed, most) humans as not fully persons–some humans, it was argued, were not intellectually and culturally capable of the kinds of sophisticated patterns of behavior necessary to own property in an efficient manner.

Of course, this argument is empirically ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. Not only did it provide a legal justification for slavery-in-perpetuity (that is, slaves were never to be freed and their children were to be regarded as property of their parents’ owners) but it also provided a crucial wedge between poor English people and African slaves, because no matter how poor or oppressed English colonists might find themselves, they were still regarded as better than Africans, as legally-recognized persons (even if often only in theory, considering the low rates of real property ownership among most colonists). This meant that such English colonists–now referred to as “white” people (and it is important to note that not all fair-skinned Europeans were yet regarded as “white”) would no longer be likely to make common cause with African agricultural workers, because they would risk their own privileged status, even if this privilege was often rather superficial in material terms. White supremacy was–and is–a double-edged sword. It provides the justification for objectifying a whole continent of people and simultaneously infects working-class European-Americans with a virus that prevents them from often acting in their own economic interests. From the standpoint of the landowners, perhaps no technology was more important than this cultural and legal innovation. White supremacy was a tool used to craft a new, profoundly racist, culture in North America.


Again, the above is only the barest possible sketch of this history. But we now need to swing centuries forward into the present, and ask the question: why might whites today still feel animus against foreigners and non-whites? Of course, part of the answer is historical–the culture that was invented in the 17th century very much continues today, despite major victories by people of color in their struggles for recognition, independence, and equality. But the modern global economy provides a new form of the same basic set of labor relations that underpinned white supremacism in the 17th century. Although throughout most of the world, slavery is of course illegal, the economic gains that land- and business-owners can realize through maintaining labor mobility are still massive. If English planters needed hundreds of thousands and then millions of laborers to make cash crops from the American South profitable, likewise today, corporations need to find the cheapest possible source of labor to maximize profits. And maintaining the ability of workers to move freely is part-and-parcel of the modern system for achieving this.


Nets deployed at a Foxconn factory in China to prevent worker suicides.

This is for two main reasons: first, labor and wage laws differ massively between different nations. Where wages, benefits, and labor standards are higher, of course, the price of labor will be higher, and so goods will be more expensive. Of course, from the workers’ point of view, so long as the gains in wages and benefits outstrip this increase in cost, this is completely worth it (thus it is crucial to distinguish between real and nominal wages). But for Capital, if a product or service can be produced by labor outside of that nation, but then sold back in that market where the prices reflect the generally higher cost of labor, then the marginal profit rate will skyrocket.


This is the reasoning behind outsourcing, of course, and most people recognize that this is happening, and most, even those who defend global neoliberalism, will generally admit that it has downsides. But contemporary labor relations are more complex still. To see how, I think we need a specific example: NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. It eliminated tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions of trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico. In theory, of course, “free trade” should mean that the country which is most efficient and effective at producing each kind of good should produce that good and then trade it for other goods which it is not efficient or effective at producing. This is just boilerplate Ricardo. And, actually, this is more or less true. Trade certainly isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But NAFTA didn’t actually institute truly free trade. For one thing, there was no way to ensure equal labor protections between workers in each country, which of course meant that business was going to flock to wherever labor was cheapest–that is, where labor was treated the worst. But NAFTA also did not address the issue of subsidies, and it it this issue, which perhaps seems equal parts arcane and boring, that we really need to pay attention to.

The US subsidizes the production of corn (maize), wheat, rice, cotton, and soy, among other agricultural goods. The reasons behind these subsidies is actually pretty compelling: first, to ensure that the US has the means to produce enough food to feed its own population, so that it is not dependent on other nations for this obviously vital supply. And second, to try and combat poverty among the rural population, to ensure that farmers can make enough money from their work and land to support their families (this is important due to the peculiar nature of agricultural markets, which is crucial in understanding the problems in developmental economics, but I can’t get into that here).

But once NAFTA was enacted, these subsidies had a new and wildly problematic effect: all of the sudden, US corn sold in Mexico was cheaper than Mexican corn. Importantly, this was not because US corn was cheaper to produce–in fact, just the opposite was true–but because of the subsidies. So long as US farmers knew that their government was going to pay them a set fee for each pound of corn produced, they could afford to sell that corn at under cost and still make a handsome profit. Once NAFTA went into effect, the Mexican government could no longer impose tariffs or quotas on American corn, and this meant Mexican farmers had to compete with US farmers, who had the financial assistance of the US federal government.

The results were predictable (and that’s important to remember). Millions of Mexican farmers, many of whom were working land that their families had owned for generations, went bankrupt. Of course, in the short-term, Mexican consumers benefited–the cost of corn, a staple of the Mexican diet, went down. But once the Mexican domestic corn market collapsed, the price of course increased dramatically, since US farmers no longer had to sell cheap in order to out-compete Mexican farmers, many of whom were now basically absent from the market (of course, corn is still produced in Mexico, but not nearly at the levels of the past). So in the medium- and long-term, working-class Mexicans lost in two ways: first, millions lost their land and their jobs and became unemployed; second, the price of a basic food staple ultimately went up, and Mexican national security was also endangered as the country could no longer provide its own food base.

Now we can see the source of the labor mobility mentioned above. With millions of Mexican farmers and agricultural workers suddenly out of work, two things happen: first, maquiladoras–factories built on the Mexican side of the Mexican-US border which produced goods cheaply with Mexican labor but then imported those goods into the US (an arrangement only possible, of course, because of NAFTA)–are able to depress wages even further due to the huge influx of these recently unemployed Mexicans. When workers know that there are hundreds of thousands of people desperate for work, they have no leverage to push for better wages, benefits, or working conditions. (Maintaining a certain minimum level of unemployment is actually a good thing from the standpoint of Capital. And this is crucial to remember, despite all the rhetoric from both parties in the US about wanting to fight unemployment.)

Second, of course, many of these displaced workers crossed the border to work in the US, for while the Mexican economy was in a tumult, the US economy was booming in the mid- and late-90’s. And the agricultural sector was doing particularly well, especially as it now had new markets in which it had a massive competitive advantage in the form of federal subsidies. So millions of Mexicans (among others) crossed the border in the years following NAFTA; although undocumented immigration is nothing new, the number of people crossing the border in those years was particularly high.

Now, just as the increase in unemployed workers depressed wages and labor’s power in Mexico, so too did the influx of labor have negative effects on US workers. Mexicans and Central Americans coming into the US took jobs not only in the agricultural sector, but also in the service industry and in certain other industries (especially meat-packing). This negatively impacted US workers in at least two ways: first, through directly displacing such workers (since undocumented workers are almost always willing to work for less than US citizens) and by simply increasing pressure on employed workers–again, if you know that there are a lot of unemployed people in your area, you are not going to have the leverage to push for better wages, benefits, etc. A higher rate of unemployment in general will lead to lower wages, all other things being equal, even if the actual number of Americans displaced is relatively small. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers has this effect regardless.

And this, of course, is at least one source of poor whites’ animosity towards foreigners and undocumented immigrants. Simply referring to this attitude as racist or xenophobic does not capture anywhere near the complexity of the situation. This is not to say that many poor whites are not, indeed, racist and xenophobic apart from economic conditions–although, again, as our short historical summary above pointed out, even this racism and xenophobia did not arrive out of a vacuum. But to simply dismiss workers’ concerns about jobs and wages as nothing more than an incoherent manifestation of latent racism, itself the product of nothing more than ignorance, is itself a wildly ignorant position.

The reality is that, paradoxical as it may sound, the reason that political and economic elites today are so happy to endorse multiculturalism and antiracism is the same reason that, in centuries past, they endorsed white supremacy and nativism. Those who own land and capital endorse cultural, political, and economic systems that suit their interests, especially that of keeping the cost of labor down. CEOs, entrepreneurs, and politicians aren’t mad about Brexit because they are kept awake at night worrying about the realities of structural racism. They are upset and scared because of the effect Brexit will have on their bottom line.


None of this, of course, means that Brexit was necessarily good. I know far too little about the intricacies of the EU to give any kind of opinion on that matter. My point is just this: if many white Britons were motivated to leave the EU because they were worried about the influx of workers willing to work for less money and security than British citizens, this is a completely legitimate concern. Of course, many of these people may also hold repugnant attitudes towards foreigners. I’m not arguing that Brexiters are morally perfect people, but I am arguing that one of the root reasons many people are upset about immigration is the economic insecurity that immigration really does help to generate.

BankerCookiesAnd of course, it must be said that my critique here is not against immigrants themselves. They are just looking to find work wherever they can, the best wages they can, to try and support themselves and their families. Indeed, my point is that both workers who stay in their home country and immigrants who leave theirs to look for better options are both the victims of these economic policies. And so long as this narrative about working-class whites–that they oppose things like the EU or NAFTA purely due to racist and xenophobic attitudes–is not questioned, we will not be able to have a serious discussion about what it would look like to create local, regional, and global economic structures that can actually generate prosperity for all working people. So long as we only have the conventional conversation, we won’t be able to present or talk about options beyond neoliberalism. Racism is a tool invented to keep working people at war with each other. Liberal hand-wringing about the ignorant masses and their xenophobia is not meant to actually combat racism, but rather to profit off of it, by scaring middle-class people into supporting economic and political structures that are actually at the root of so many of our problems.

So whether you supported Brexit or not, whether you plan to vote for Clinton or not, whether you regard yourself as a ‘liberal’ or as a ‘conservative’, I implore you to think through the assumptions of the arguments that are made over the coming months. Instead of rushing to announce on social media that you support the ‘correct’ side, ask questions about the framing of the discussion itself. I think you will find that often, the most important questions are the ones media commentators are desperately trying to get you to never ask.

Division Among the Democrats: Tactics Vs. Strategy

demDonkeyAt this point there is surely no shortage of articles and blog posts written by Clinton- and Sanders-supporters this primary season. Most of you have probably seen your Facebook feeds and RSS feeds (are those still a thing?) fill up with such pieces. I myself have posted many to Facebook. The problem that a lot of people have identified in this debate is that, as is always almost the case in political debates, the two sides are largely talking past, or at, each other, rather than engaging in a real discourse with each other. I won’t pretend to have avoided this pitfall myself, but this problem has gotten me thinking, and I’d like to take a crack at explicating what I think are some of the deeper divisions at play here.

First off: I am a Sanders supporter. I have given him money multiple times and voted for him in the Virginia primary. Second, I am not a registered Democrat (Virginia has open primaries). Third, and no doubt most controversially, if Clinton wins the nomination, I am not sure whether I will support her. I say this simply to offer full disclosure; I am not purporting to represent the party, or its base, or anyone else. I would like to present my reasons not only for supporting Sanders but also for considering not supporting the Democrats if he does not get the nomination.

If you are a Clinton-supporter and you are gasping for breath out of consternation, I ask that you take a second, catch your breath, and just hear me out. I’m not demanding that you agree with me! But I’d like you to understand my position. And if you are a fellow Sanders-nista and you are grinning smugly, I ask you to put a serious face on and consider whether the reasons I offer are the ones you would too–because Clinton-supporters feel strongly about their support for her and we should take them and their reasoning seriously. I’d like to try to step away from the emotions of candidate loyalty, and the way in which we like to perform our identities in public by showcasing that loyalty, for a second and think more structurally. Without further ado:

First off, it should be admitted that supporters of each candidate are ideologically and culturally diverse. Clinton supporters no doubt cover a wide range of people with a wide range of motivations: there are no doubt moderates who are supporting her because she seems the most practical candidate of either party, women (and men) who support her simply because she is the first woman to have a real chance at becoming president (not an insignificant or silly reason to support her, I should add); there are those committed cultural liberals anxious to have any Democrat in office to shore up the gains of the past 8 years, as well as progressives (this term annoys me in its vagueness, but I don’t have another good word to use here) who trust that she will really push a left-leaning set of policies forward.

For now, though, I’d like to address only those Clinton-supporters who consider themselves “leftist” or “progressive”, of some stripe or another. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to define this group as having specific hopes on the following three policy areas. I want to stress that I am defining this group as people who want these things, whether or not they think they can realistically be achieved in the near-term:

  1. Guaranteed access to necessary healthcare for all people living in the US.
  2. Real reversal of income and wealth inequality, especially noting the need to address inequality of wealth between whites and people of color.
  3. Decreased rates of incarceration, especially of people of color.

If you do not hold these as political goals, you will probably find the rest of this post unhelpful in articulating your own political calculus. I am very much intending to speak to people with whom I share basic political, social, and moral positions. My argument is really intra-progressive or intra-leftist–I want to make a case for supporting Sanders and perhaps even withholding support from Clinton only to those who share these (and other) left-leaning goals. It seems clear to me that if these issues do not motivate you, you were never going to support Sanders in the first place and will not find my reasoning convincing. But I know that there are many Clinton supporters who do care about these issues, and I intend to address them here. I would also like to point out that I have kept foreign affairs and military issues off the table for now (even though I think that such issues provide perhaps some of the strongest arguments against Clinton, from the standpoint of my own values) because I want to present a simple and straightforward argument about electoral tactics and strategy, not debates over specific policy–again, just to be painfully clear, I am assuming we agree on our broad policy goals here. (If you don’t share these goals, we obviously could and perhaps should have that conversation, but I won’t pretend to address it here.)

OK, with all of that said, why do I think support for Sanders is important and support for Clinton, if she wins the nomination, may not be advisable? It seems to me that when it comes down to progressives (and again this word strikes me as problematic, but it covers a range of people that I think no other word currently does), the Clinton/Sanders divide cashes out in this way: Clinton supporters argue that we must support whichever Democrat is nominated or risk seeing recent victories (e.g. gay marriage) challenged and perhaps rolled-back by a Republican president. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters tend to stress that whatever her merits, Clinton’s policies and her legislative and executive history suggests that she is only marginally better than most Republicans on most issues, and therefore supporting her is not defensible or wise.

It’s important to point out here that both groups could be right: it both a) seems that Clinton really would hold the line on recent liberal victories and b) that ultimately her track record suggests that she is at best a very moderate liberal. (And again, for many of her supporters, this may be a virtue and not a deficiency, but I am assuming, as stated above, that my interlocutors here seek substantial policy change–debates over the need or lack of need for such change being bracketed for now). Assuming such agreement, the argument that most Clinton-supporting progressives seem to make is that we need to back incremental change, that backing a more radical candidate is a recipe for losing the election and giving power to those who want to roll back the meager progress we have managed to achieve.

And it has to be admitted that this makes perfect sense, at least at first blush. So why am I questioning this logic? I think we need to pay attention to the assumptions that go into this reasoning. Most of all, the emphasis is on the short-term: the goal for electoral action here is to cement gains made in the last 2-4 years, and all decisions about whom to support are, it seems to me, made from within this framework. So far as that premise is accepted, then support for Clinton seems obvious.

But if we question this premise, and suggest that we take a longer-term frame of reference, a troubling trend appears. If we ask not just about the last 2-4 years, but the last 20-40, the strategy of always supporting incremental change starts to look rather less than robust. Though victories, especially on so-called “culture war” issues (like gay marriage) have occurred, on most other fronts, progressive and leftist goals have been disappointed either partially or fully. Income inequality is rising, there has been little real action on global warming, incarceration rates have not fallen, undocumented immigrants are being detained and deported without any meaningful reform, etc. etc. Even some of the victories seem hollow: both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act fall far short of what progressives believe was necessary (single-payer and reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, respectively). Meanwhile, policies, legislation, and treaties such as NAFTA have not been challenged, and indeed no mainstream Democrat seems to even admit in public that such a thing needs to be challenged.

Comparing this to the more-or-less broad consensus among Democrats from the 30s through the late 60s on a range of issues, especially regarding labor, economic, and fiscal policy, one wonders what happened. Why is that we went from having strong unions, high tax rates, and major landmark achievements (Social Security, Medicare/aid, the Civil Rights Act, etc.) to seeing much of that progress slowly erode for 40 years? (I want to be clear here about not romanticizing this period: especially on sex- and racial-equality, even the “best” Democrats of this era fell far short of what was needed. But the shift in the trajectory of the party’s priorities seems clear nonetheless.)

Obviously, any discussion of the causality of such a complex set of of events would itself be (endlessly) complex. But if we limit ourselves to the discussion of electoral behavior, one thing becomes clear. Since the late 70s, the Democratic Party seems to have shifted slightly rightward in just about every electoral cycle. Tax rates have fallen, incarceration rates have risen, income inequality has worsened, consistently and continually, even with Democrats in the White House and with Democratic majorities in Congress. Let’s not forget that it was under Bill Clinton that NAFTA, welfare reform, and harsher federal sentencing guidelines were passed.

In other words, support for Democrats has not resulted in slow progress, but seems rather to be aimed only at slowly the regress, rather than building power to achieve real gains for equality and justice–even at at time when majorities, even super-majorities, of Americans support the basic planks of progressive/leftist politics, according to a range of polls.

Again, remaining focused on electoral behavior, one conclusion seems to recommend itself: the Democratic Party is not worried about courting the progressive/leftist vote, as demonstrated clearly by the fact that they have continually supported the very opposite of the policies that this bloc has called for, at least on certain issues. If this is the case, the question that arises for those of us in that bloc is: what should be done about this lack of representation?

And here’s the essential point, as I see it: so long as the Democratic Party knows that progressives will support them, regardless of whether the Party actually delivers on any progressive goals, they have no incentive to so deliver. Meanwhile, a large number of moderate votes are up for grabs each cycle; by moving slightly right-ward in each election, the Party can capture some of these voters, helping to secure victory–and so long as they believe they gain more votes in the center by doing this than they will lose on the Left, this makes mathematical sense.

The only way to conceivably change this outcome is to discipline ourselves to think in the long-term; so long as our fear of the current Republican candidate pushes us to support the candidate with a [D] next to their name, regardless of their actual positions on any issues outside of those over which Republicans and Democrats like to disagree with each other over, we should expect the Party to move to the right, slowly but surely, over the course of election cycles. In short: this situation is explained by evolutionary logic, not by individual wills and deeply-held beliefs. So long as this institution recognizes that it has more to gain in terms of power in the executive, legislative, and judiciary by moving to the right, it will. Arguments about what is just and equal, morally right and wise, will fall on deaf ears because this institution, like every institution, is structured to maximize its security, power, and prestige. I want to be clear here that I am not accusing the Democratic Party of being some kind of nefarious conspiracy; I am saying that it is precisely as mundanely, boringly, and infuriatingly self-interested as every other human institution.

Those of us, then, who want to see progressive/leftist policies actually enacted need to figure out how to reverse this movement of the Party. Now, to the extent that we thought there was only a tiny percentage of Americans who supported our positions, the course of action would be obvious: we would need to do the work of spreading our ideas, convincing people of the need to enact the policies we see as necessary. An while this kind of organizing is, of course, still laudable, the thing is, this really isn’t the problem. Huge percentages of people already agree with us–in many cases, as mentioned above, absolute majorities!

If this is so, then we need to recognize that a different course of action is required. The problem isn’t that most voters don’t agree with us (obviously the specific degree of agreement on each issue varies, but broadly speaking, on the three issues I stipulated above, there is broad consensus) but that, despite most Americans wanting substantial change, that change isn’t happening–whether a Republican or  a Democrat is in office.

Recognizing this is, I think, the crucial move. If the electoral system is itself completely faulty–if its obvious that, in fact, the wishes of the majority on a range of issues are not being represented by elected officials–then hope in incremental change starts to look Quixotic. Such incremental change follows the structure of the system, so if we recognize that what is faulty is that very structure, then why would we think we can achieve our goals by yoking them to the thing that has been designed to frustrate them?

This is not to deny, of course, that, all other things being considered equal, small and incremental progress is still a good thing. It obviously is. But the reality is that all other things are not equal! If we are going to address the most pressing issues of our time–massive poverty, horrendous labor conditions, global warming, collapsing ecosystems–we are going to have to achieve orders of magnitude greater change than we have seen in the last few decades. And once we see that the progressive/leftist behavior of supporting the Democrats no matter what, in fear of the looming Republican menace, has itself helped to generate a more right-wing Democratic Party, then we have to have the courage to try and behave in new ways, to force that party to change its behavior.

In short: refusing to support the Democratic Party in elections until they agree to support some basic list of fundamental and essential policy changes, if only everyone who agreed with those changes (again, this is a huge percentage of the population!) acted in concert, could effect change in the Party in just one or two election cycles. It would, it is true, mean allowing, in the short-term, even worse candidates to get into office. But, if the basic narrative I’ve outlined above is more or less accurate–if the Democratic Party is shifting more and more to the right on the majority of issues–then voting for Democrats to keep Republicans out of office is the very behavior slowly transforming those Democrats into Republicans.

So the real tension here is between a tactical and a strategic decision-making process. Those who feel called to support Democrats no matter what are responding to the more immediate, on-the-ground tactical realities. And this makes sense, from within the framework of the assumptions it employs. Meanwhile, those who are increasingly convinced that the Democrats cannot be supported unless they commit to–and really act to achieve–important policy goals are, implicitly or explicitly, responding to a broader or strategic set of ideas, interests, and anxieties. The point here is not that one is better than the other, as if political decisions could be made purely at the particular or the general level. In fact, of course, competent decision-making requires both. But what the latter , strategic-focused group has begun to realize is that, in the particular circumstances that we face today, the tactical decision-making process is winning battles even as the war is being decisively lost.

What we need is a party that will actually represent the interests of working people, fight for environmental stability, call for racial justice, etc. The Democratic Party has never been truly committed to these goals (it has been especially inconsistent, to put it very mildly, on race) but, for about 40 years in the middle of this century, it seemed to be moving in the right (er–“correct”) direction. But in the past 40 years, we’ve seen it shift in the opposite one. What I, as a Sanders-supporter, am saying is that we need to be thinking about how to shape the Democratic Party to actually represent our interests, rather than allowing our fear of the Republicans to motivate us to loyally support the Democrats even as they transform themselves into precisely what we fear.

Unless, I think, we can talk about the tensions between these two levels of political decision-making–the tactical and the strategic–then I don’t think Clinton- and Sanders-supporters are likely to be really able to talk to and with each other. Some times and problems will call for a more tactical engagement, while others will call for a strategic vision. I think we are currently facing the latter, and unless we can act to change the Democratic Party’s behavior and the trajectory of its development, we will keep winning small (though undoubtedly important!) battles right up until the war is lost.

Withholding support from the Democrats is a risk, undoubtedly. And supporting them regardless of their actual commitments and actions has, in contrast, a guaranteed outcome–I just don’t think that outcome, at least in the long-term, is the one we actually want.

This is an absolutely wonderful article. After recently reading about the Sandberg/Slaughter debacle, I found myself intensely frustrated that this sort of capitalist-apologism was being passed as feminism in the 21st century. I was working myself up to post about it myself, but I think you really hit the nail on the head–by focusing on what racism, sexism, classism, etc. etc. are all methods for achieving: power. The problem with opposition movements–reformist or revolutionary–is that once individuals or institutions actually acquire power, they are unlikely to want to give it up, whatever their ideologies. This is perhaps even truer for the sorts of people who get involved in politics and even organizing in the first place. But instead of focusing on a critique of the fundamental issue at hand–how we humans manage the possession and application of power in societies, mainstream feminist discourse is instead begging the question, assuming that of course power will be vested in the hands of a very few–so lets at least make sure a few of them are women.

So the fundamental question is whether we actually trust powerful women like Sandberg to fight the good fight and advance the cause of real racial, class, and sex equality. Who with a straight face can actually answer in the affirmative? Women are just as capable of cynical, self-serving power-wrangling as anyone else. Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Indira Ghandi–did any of these women usher in some era of grand liberation? I don’t raise this example to suggest that any of these women was particularly evil or a failure, but rather to suggest that women in power are not intrinsically different than men in power. And I do think that here we run into a rough spot with feminist analysis; the reality of patriarchy is de facto: it doesn’t mean that men in power sit in their oak-lined offices all day thinking, “how can I help my fellow men get *even more* power over women?” Power is, I think, assigned to men because that structure is the most efficient way for men at the top to maximize their own power and for a host of economic and social reasons.

Likewise, I don’t think that most women in power sit in *their* oak-lined offices wondering how they can advance the cause of women. I’m sure some genuinely do, but I think the vast majority sit in their leather-upholstered chair wondering how they can maximize their *own* power, wealth, influence, and prestige. If helping some women, or all women, will serve those ends, then, sure they will. If, on the other hand, blocking paid-sick leave for female workers will help their chances in the next election, then…guess what? That’s what 99% of women will do, because they are just as human as male leaders.


This is one of those posts that can go nowhere but down.

There are things you simply cannot do in this life and slaying unicorns is one of them.

What do I mean by “slaying unicorns”? It’s an old Livejournal term. It means providing evidence that one’s sacred emotional belief or object is either not a) universal b) all that great or c) grounded in reality or supported by empirical evidence.

I am really, really bad about this. I tend to slay unicorns even when I only mean to make an observation or intend to honor my own truth or even when I just mean to get through the day. I end up slaying unicorns way more than I’d like. My hands are filthy with their rainbow blood.

So, I wanted to leave alone The Atlantic article about women having it all.

An initial tentative reaction about not seeing my…

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Materialism and the Logic of Capitalism

Yesterday, Victoria over at Short White Coat, Inc. wrote a penetrating post about the intersection of poverty and health problems in the US, reflecting on her work with AIDS patients who were exiting the criminal justice system, she lamented the reality: despite her training and intentions, these people faced such a host of social, legal, and medical problems that their futures seemed bleak, their challenges intractable:

My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.

She went on to point out that this isn’t just some unfortunate set of accidents that occurred these people; rather, this nexus of misfortune, poor health, lack of education, and subjection to violence is central to how late capitalism functions. These aren’t bugs, in other words–they’re features.

She linked a post from the Social Medicine Portal that only underscores this reality. It’s a short post, well-worth reading, but perhaps the crux of its argument is here well expressed:

How can one claim to fight poverty if, at the same time, one is carrying out policies that create poverty? By privatizing public services and charging those who use them, by laying off workers and reducing unemployment compensation, by maintaining social assistance at levels below the poverty level, by privatizing pensions… one can only increase the number of poor people.

The very people who are so vocal about combating poverty and building a better future are the same people who are profiting off of labor exploitation and environmental degradation. If extremely rich philanthropists were serious about combating poverty, they’d start by changing the way their very companies work in the first place. Instead, they drive people into poverty with one hand while shaking their fist at poverty with the other. It’s a deeply hypocritical, cynical attitude–exactly what the expression and maintenance of power demands. Slavoj Zizek strikes at the heart of this reality in a talk he gave the RSA:

Unfortunately, the response from the Left has been both uninspired and ineffective, and I want to suggest here that the reasons for its failure are deeper than often perceived. It’s not just that the Left has failed to popularize its discourse or develop strong institutions. These are both valid points, but I think they are more symptoms than causes. Fundamentally, what those who resist capitalism really lack is a consistent narrative. We have not articulated a systematic ideology of resistance, because the primary ideologies of resistance are themselves predicated on the philosophy that undergirds capitalism itself. The Left still speaks of power as the primary issue on the table: we need more of it, we need to marshal it against our opponents.

But such a view takes the zero-sum antagonistic worldview of capitalism for granted. It challenges the current distribution of power and wealth, but not the naked exploitation of power and wealth themselves. Marxism is, at its heart, an attempt to transcend capitalism by being ever-yet more materialistic and ruthless than capitalism itself; Marx didn’t primarily argue that capitalism was wrong so much as he argued that it was not fully developed. Communism was to be mature capitalism, fully enlightened and playing out the logic of Marx’s understanding of the progressive development of history. Marxism is unabashedly materialistic and deterministic.

Anarchism tends towards a more romantic implementation and certainly focuses more on the individual as the center of value over Marxism’s more communitarian bent–though anarchism is so diverse that making any such generalization is difficult at best. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that anarchism developed classical Liberalism to its logical end: the individual as the ultimate arbiter of all value and meaning. Others’ rights were to be respected as they too were individual persons, their own centers of value, but this was simply taken for granted. Modern anarchism doesn’t question materialism, it simply asserts the value of subjective beings without accounting for this valuation objectively. It is, in a sense, the ersatz political extension of 19th century Romanticism into the 20th and 21st centuries, a defiant semi-solpsism built around a core of unarticulated primal ethical claims encased in modern materialism, the two mixing as well as oil and water.

What is needed to resist capitalism is a philosophy that actually resists the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is a logical extension of the Enlightenment: the world is an object without inherent value that can–and should–be manipulated by human subjects as they see fit. Ethical and spiritual values are only valid within the sphere of a given individual person and have no ontological basis; the world is material alone and deterministic as well. Morality can be legislated–by groups with sufficient power–but there is no universally recognized set of values, aside from those that guarantee the capacity to accumulate resources as capital: property. The capacity for persons to absolute right over a certain set of resources, can have no limitations–but as a totally secular space, devoid of any sense of sacredness, the world can support no other rights.

Marxism and Anarchism attempt to defy the neoliberal order, but on its terms: power is to be met with power. What makes these efforts so pathetic is not only that, at the outset, such an attitude already concedes the central debate, but that self-styled revolutionary groups have orders of magnitude less power than their adversaries; they have absolutely no chance at success. When they do develop enough power to defeat their opponents, the power itself–quite predictably–reshapes them. Those 20th century revolutions that were successful were successful precisely to the extent that they adopted capitalist and imperialist tactics. Perhaps no state witnesses to this as well as the People’s Republic of China; in its most revolutionary phase it murdered or starved millions of people to death in a few short years. And as Maoist Marxism showed its faults, the Party rapidly refashioned itself along mercantilist lines, becoming one of the most aggressively capitalist institutions in the world.

No, what is needed is a philosophy that explains the world in radically different terms. This is not to say that the realities of oppression should or could be ignored. Indeed, those who claim to speak about social justice cannot ignore the “mundane” everyday needs of the world’s oppressed. But it is precisely here, again, that contemporary radicals so often get their priorities reversed. If the concern is for food stamps (now known as TANF), Social Security, the minimum wage and the rights of unions, then what is needed is a reformist attitude, because these are all assets that have to be negotiated within the current order. What is a revolutionary attitude towards Social Security? This is a question with no answer, because Social Security was a concession given away by the capitalist system in the first place; under revolutionary conditions, would such a system be necessary or even sustainable? So long as we are talking about the everyday needs of the oppressed under the current system, let’s abandon all self-serving talk of revolution.

And if we are going to talk of revolution, then we must talk about a full and real revolution: not just the transfer of power from one group to another, promising to organize capital in a fairer way–though such a move would be quite welcome, it is ultimately a reformist move at its very best. No, real revolutionary activity has to be predicated on a radically different system, one that resists the very logic of capitalism. And this means critiquing–though not rejecting–materialist science, balancing it with what can only be called a relationary realism that affirms the ontological validity of subjects as real entities in the world who are only possible through societies. Individualism must be balanced with community, matter must be contextualized with relationship, analysis must be seen as as depending on its opposite vector: synthesis.

Resistance to capitalism must articulate a vision, not just call for the creation of opposition institutions. A world that has no sacred aspect, a world of mere heaps of matter, is a world devoid of ethics a priori. In such a world, the word oppression is meaningless, and justice is a legal term only. If we are going to challenge oppression and injustice, we have to believe that these are real categories of action, and this demands what is today a radical assertion: people are not just collections of cells, they are real relational entities, and ethics is the ontologically valid study of how such entities can exist and thrive in harmony. Hence, the materialist determinism of Marxism, though not flat-out denied, must be balanced–Hegel wasn’t standing on his head after all. And the desperate post-Romanticism of anarchism must be reconciled with itself–the dualism inherent in it must be transcended and a unity achieved.

The idealist project, essentially dead in the anglophonic world for centuries, was warped and turned in on itself in the early 20th century with existentialist nihilism, which essentially surrendered any ontological considerations to materialism anyway. But the spiritual-ethical impulse has not died, rather it has carried forward as a powerful undercurrent in modern societies. What is needed is to bring it to the surface–and this will require an ontology that can join it with all the valid positions of materialism. Such a project can not only join idealistic realism and empirical materialism, the two positions that have been battling one another for 2500 years in western thought, but can crucially also reveal the folly of late capitalism and the desperate need to move beyond it.