Thursday, May 12, 2016

You're the problem with the left

Ever wanted to tell someone that the left (however defined) would be better off without them? That they aren't simply wrong, but actually make the left worse than it would otherwise be? Here's a handy guide.

(This was originally written in blog comments somewhere. George Scialabba wrote that I should turn it into an essay, but I don't really do essays, so it's here as is. Someone else thought it was a list of "wrongthinks", and it wasn't intended to be: each of the kinds of reasons below can sometimes be true, but more often they're just rhetorical ways of amping up one's disapproval of someone.)

I’ve arranged the various types of reasons in something like what I consider to be increasing order of attempted rhetorical force, though this ordering probably tells more about me than anything else.

1. Unintended consequences. “X is a sincere revolutionary, but X can’t see that trying for a revolution is what the state wants and they’d just use it as an excuse to crush us.”

2. Structural / continuing consequences. “X believes that the left-liberal order is a good thing and I agree that left-liberals have made some progress, but X doesn’t see that preserving the liberal order is what keeps us from having real socialism.”

3. Ignorance / non-reflection. “Poor X still can’t see he writes using white male privilege. I wish that he’d take the time to educate himself before he keeps going.”

4. Personal motivation. “Yeah, X has done a lot for social democracy, but who benefits from that? Mostly social democratic bosses like X.” “If only those purists weren’t so eager to get radical cred that makes them feel good about themselves, they’d see that we have to accept the lesser evil because it does real good for people.” (the LGM special)

5. Collective motivation. “X knows what’s going on when they talk about how good the New Deal was. They’re trying to preserve a system that’s sort of on the left but really it’s mostly good for people like X.”

6. Neener neener. “X is too chickenshit to be a real radical.” “Sure, X says they’re a radical, but they’re just looking for an excuse to hurt people.”

7. Bad seed. “I’ve seen ambitious attention seekers like X, and they really want to be one of the enforcers for the ruling class.”

8. Factual. “X is a police provocateur.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

some notes towards: four most overwritten subjects / inside and outside

Cats outside run through grass
Leaping, amazed at new freedom
Meow at humans, noses scratched
Appear again days later, thinner
Cats outside get admired by Charles Bukowski

Cats inside look outside
Casting glares at the rustle in the bushes
Growl as they strike down mice
Sit in laps, unlike anything else
Cats inside get ruffled up by Stevie Smith

If you take your cat on a leash
It will be both inside and outside at once
It will run up trees as you walk
Yowl when it can go no higher, leap down
Stuck in an uncomfortable third dimension

Cats are human, pretty much
House cats, we made them
Even outside wandering through our tunnels

Clouds outside make days different
From other days, in the quality of light
Or they make Rorschach shapes
Clouds outside love the pathetic fallacy
And wander around lonely

Clouds inside seep in as fog
And can't be seen, only felt on skin
You can only see them with distance
Invisible they mean sad or confused
Clouds come inside on little cat feet

Clouds high up can be inside and outside
Like a foggy hut on a mountaintop
Or when you fly in a plane through one
Though maybe only if it crashes
If the plane breaks in half, the cloud comes inside

Clouds might as well be human
We think they are so persistently
Only rarely does their real scale hit the sublime

Poetry outside happens in ovals and circles
Wind rustling pages, eyes glancing up
To check clouds for rain
There is always something blustery about it
Poetry outside is Robert Frost and freestyle

Poetry inside is where it's supposed to live
In books, or in hearts if you want to be poetic
In minds, clouded by words
In the thoughts of someone in a crashing plane
Of a childhood book with practical cats

The easiest way to resolve is go backwards
Before there were words or understanding
Before cats evolved, before there were clouds
Before the Earth formed an atmosphere
Before an inside or an outside, there was poetry

Poetry is inhuman
Everywhere the Earth from the beginning
No voices are needed

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

You have more than one vote

It's a year divisible by four, so discussions of voting in American politics are inescapable. Four years ago I wrote about how not voting can be an important social signal and about who voters are actually negotiating with. This time I'll point out that people actually have more than one vote, at least in the U.S., and fully legally -- because they can turn out other votes. So the question of what they should do with "their vote" is silly.

First, some basics. An activist is someone who takes action in order to try to cause some political effect. Activists are generally not hired to do this, which is what differentiates them from professional political operatives, but that's not important at the moment. In the U.S., there are two main paths for activism: non-electoral activism and electoral activism.

Activists generally want to have the largest effect that they can, so they usually end up looking for multipliers to their individual effort. The classic multiplier is to become an organizer of other people. So a non-electoral activist goes from participating in protests to organizing protests. An electoral activist goes from attending rallies to activities like volunteering for a candidate or party's ground turnout operation.

The U.S. has something like 40% of its eligible voters not vote, so there's a huge pool of voters to turn out. Each voter who would not have otherwise voted but whom you got to the polls produces an extra vote that would not have existed if not for your efforts. So each person potentially "has" a large number of votes. How many votes can a volunteer expect to turn out? I'm not familiar with the technical aspects of this, since I'm a non-electoral activist, but here's a sample article. I imagine that a volunteer might be able to turn out 100 votes or more.

So all of the endless agonizing about who to vote for, whether it's moral to vote or not vote, whether you have responsibility for the action of voting or the inaction of not voting, is all kind of beside the point. People who are seriously committed to having a measurable impact on this process have long since decided what to do and are doing it. If electoral activists were boasting among themselves about how many people each of them turned out, that would be fine: activists get little enough reward so that a little boasting is a good thing, and it would probably quickly turn into an exchange of technical details among the group that would help each other. But the discussions of how to use an individual vote are pointless and usually deployed simply for moral leverage. They reduce an issue to individual virtue: is someone a good person or not for doing an almost entirely symbolic act.

Friday, January 1, 2016

No Stopping Any Time: pictures of downtown Cleveland 2001

Today I read the news story saying that the policeman who shot Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy holding a pellet gun, would not be charged with a crime. Tamir Rice was black: the police officer was white.

Racism is completely visible in America: you're just not supposed to talk about it. In 2001 I spent a couple of days in downtown Cleveland. Fascinated by its unfamiliar-to-me architecture, I took a point-and-shoot camera and starting taking pictures. And what was one of the first things I noticed? Quoting myself:

"[...] racial segregation is omnipresent in this area. Without exception, every person who I saw working as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, working at the desk of a hotel, or walking in a suit to the courthouse was white. With only two exceptions, every person working in maintenance or cleaning rooms at a hotel, working a minimum-wage job at a fast food or drugstore counter, or homeless or begging on a streetcorner was black."

I've lived in D.C., L.A., and a few other places and I've never seen that level of occupational racial segregation anywhere else. And it seems pretty clear that that's going to produce shootings like this.

I've gotten nasty Email from all sorts over the years, but one classic insulting rant was from someone who felt that I was dissing Cleveland when I made that observation on a Web site. I shrugged and deleted his Email: too bad, because it would be fitting to quote it now.

At any rate, I think those pictures have held up fairly well, given the limitations of the technology I was working with. Here's a photo exhibition called No Stopping Any Time: downtown Cleveland as I saw it, complete with mock medieval fortifications, Buck Rogers defense zones, and a statue in front of a bank holding up a severed hand:

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Day of Spirit Guides

On a grey day, everything was bleak
Three spirit guides came down to me
Bearing good news of kindness and love
Forgiveness, compassion, and gifts from above

The first was an Angel gliding from on high
Who said “I'm your guardian: I see when you cry
Not that I can fly and catch bullets for you
But I can give you strength to see you through
The harms of this world are just passing things
You'll be laughing again where Glory rings”

I didn't know at first what to say
A spirit guide? Sent on this day?
But my trust in Heaven boiled up
And I managed to say what was coiled up
“When you can do nothing you just laugh or cry
The powerful don't need to and maybe that's why
God has no sense of humor at all
No that's not true he likes pratfalls
For every person it'll come to pass
God will knock you right on your ass
And as your spirit goes up like smoke
He'll say 'what's the matter, can't take a a joke?
Come on now, you know that I love you
And if you don't smile there's a place I will shove you'
My people have been joking for 2000 years
And still it's not enough to take on our fears”

The angel smiled sorrowfully and said
As a halo of glory gathered round its head
“It's not for you to question what we disburse
Remember that things could always be worse!”
But before any more I saw in the angel's place
A Buddha with a compassionate face

Who said “You are right to reject future things
Cultivate non-attachment to what the world brings
Everything is change: everything will fall
But everything really is nothing at all
Right thought, right action, right concentration
Those will bring Nirvana's liberation”

The enlightened words filled me with rage
I said “All I love is made from a cage
of skandhas, the five trash heaps,
Things block the paths, things I have to keep
Since clearing those 5 paths I missed
I'll curl those paths into a fist
Punch you in the face that's no face
Curse the name you had before you had a place
The slap of one hand's gonna scatter the sand
The sand of our deeds goes up in the breeze
When it's gone you know what's left?
The stain of personality is what's kept
Like a poem with the words rubbed out
Style is the crud that can't be scrubbed out
I can't be mindful that nothing's left
And still have a voice to take another breath”

The Buddha smiled, full of inner peace
And said “Your suffering some day will cease
Although my teachings you cannot now credit
Incarnations may pass but eventually you'll get it”
Before I could reply he faded for good
And a Muse appeared where the Buddha stood

She said “You're right to reject non-attachment
You grow as you are: it's too late for detachment
The way I can help is to make you inspired
To serve as a witness to what has transpired
There may be no address to send up the prayer
But the land still needs its land surveyors”

Before this spirit guide I hung my head
Three guides! There'd be no other one instead
“This might be so”, I said, tired
“If the way that I was inspired
Was to understanding, and perhaps a path

That I could look on and not laugh
When I see poets I see a hive
Of insects, gnawing and alive
Who no one is attending to
And so we can only chew
Turning a pile of meaningless paper
Into a place we can live in till later
A glorious poet may well be inspired
But for a termite that's not what's desired
Rechewing trash is not witnessing
But hurried building with no one listening

The last of the spirit guides smiled
And said maybe she'd stay for a while
The angel and buddha were there too
Where would they go? They were stuck all life through
And so we started to joke and laugh
I'll have to tell my children about these paths

A spirit guide's an idea in your head
But now that these words you have read
If you remember, then along for the ride
A version of me can be your spirit guide
Telling you you're completely fucked!
Kicking your other spirit guides in the nuts
If it would help or even if it wouldn't
Bringing up the things you shouldn't
Showing you just what is in your command
If you can't smash the state, you can still smash your hand!
Laughing along till existence is through
With however existence has to deal with you

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Climate endgame

The Paris Agreement is going to have all sorts of pessimistic things said about it, many of them justified. We're probably going to spend the rest of our lives making the goals of it become realized as actual facts. But I don't see any likely way in which this isn't the climate endgame. The world system has substantially agreed that we're going to transition away from carbon. We also have the technology to do it. My best guess is that by 2050 it will be mostly done. This is very good news.

In various arguments among people on the left, many people were of the opinion that the neoliberal world system couldn't do this (and many will presumably continue to hold this opinion, the example of the Montreal Protocol implementation notwithstanding). I think that this was always a misdiagnosis of which class holds power and how that power is used. The managerial-bureaucratic neoliberals who are essentially in power everywhere are not James Bond villains who want to destroy the world so that they can rule a small fragment of it, or simple lackeys who are unable to go against any component of existing brick-and-mortar wealthy interests when the rest of their class has a rational interest in self-preservation. They already rule the system, and their continued rule is perfectly compatible with conversion over to clean energy, which they will continue to control the major infrastructure for. The apparent helplessness that they evince when confronting problems whose resolution would not be to the benefit of the 1% does not have to operate here, because nothing about fixing the climate problem -- which is the most important of our time and really does have to be fixed -- changes the mechanics of their control.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


With the benefit of hindsight I can say a few things about the rise and fall of Keystone XL.

First, about one of the ideas I've written about here that I think has held up best, Infrastructuralism. No lasting gains are going to come about through a carbon tax, trading system, or permit-selling regime. All of these will be subverted as soon as they take effect, if ever. The lasting changes come out when infrastructure is built or not built, because those choices lock in decisions for 30 years.

As Keystone XL illustrates, the major infrastructure-building decisions are never simply made by the magic of the marketplace. They only happen with the active cooperation of government. Even if government somehow absented itself from the decision, there would be no way to build a project like this without governmental use of eminent domain. So the public is already involved in approving or disapproving of all of these projects, no matter how much someone may tell you that they are the result of economic factors beyond our control.

The same goes for the simplistic statements about how commodities have a "global price", as if this just magically happens without extensive publicly supported building projects to make it happen. Without Keystone XL, that oil will have to be shipped by rail and truck, which are more expensive. There is nothing natural about a global price for something that doesn't vary as you cross geographic barriers: it only happens with massive public barrier-removing projects such as the various conflicts fought to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to tankers.

Politically, the story of Keystone XL is a story of -- what is the opposite of leadership? Followership, perhaps. It was always a decision that Obama could make on his own, which was exactly why it was a good issue for to take up. It dragged on for seven years, and only happened with the combination of a lame-duck President, a change of parties in power in Canada so that we wouldn't deeply offend anyone there, a back-off from the company sponsoring it in the form of their request to suspend, and an upcoming international conference before which Obama wanted some form of face-saving gesture for how little he's done.

What else could have been done with those 7 years? Clearly, the Keystone XL decision has a large symbolic component, and is supposed to lead to increasingly easier decisions to stop infrastructure of this kind. But we can't wait another few years before the next major project is dropped. Making people spend nearly all of the available activist pool in the U.S. on this one project for 7 years was a major cost, one which Obama made us pay with the assistance of supposedly left groups like the AFL-CIO, which supported Keystone XL because of a few jobs. What's going to happen when we have to close down every coal mine? Because that's going to have to happen, sooner than you probably think.