Friday, October 20, 2017

A bit more on left theses

Back in July, Bruce Wilder wrote a comment in reply to the post below. I wrote an answer which promptly and discouragingly got lost, but I'll write a bit more now, as well as some replies to other comments.

First, on fatuousness. Ideology is supposed to be more or less fatuous. What we need now is a system of belief that is actually widely believed: I wrote it as an outline because I think that those are the major elements that are required. Going into too much justification doesn't help. The "predictably produces" bit wasn't meant to be a claim of historical inevitability, only an observation that whatever supposedly differing choices are being made in different places now are leading to the same outcome everywhere.

The main point I'd make in reply is that ecological value can't really be our gold, because it's not tradable or exchangeable. Human work can not replace or make up for ecological work. If the reports of 75% of insect biomass going away are accurate and represent a widespread rather than local effect, there's no way we can work to make up for that, no way we can say that we'll exchange lower insect biomass for greater something else. We can try to stop doing whatever we're doing that's causing that effect, but that isn't an exchange: it's us trying to get out of the way of a disaster. Even in less fraught circumstances, you can't do things like say that we'll make up for taking more from an ecosystem over here by taking less over there: ecosystems don't generally work that way.

Money does loosely coordinate over scale, but that mechanism is exactly one of the things we should give up. The coordination is not very loose, as evidenced by the observation that we're in a world-system that is producing the same results everywhere despite local differences.

What would coordinate? Culture, essentially. The post below has a heading for "Societal values" where I was going to write something about how you can't very well have an anarchistic system (which this would be) unless people widely believe in it. The chicken-and-egg problem of how this would come about is best handled elsewhere, but cultural values are coordination over large distances.

Lastly there was another comment about how the left is based on universalist grounds... I don't see what can be more universal than the fact that we all live on and depend on a single planet whose systems are increasingly stressed by all of us. That is why US style "libertarianism" -- not liberators socialism, but the right-wing version -- is so attracted to science fictional dreams. Elon Musk describes his position as "I'm somewhere in the middle, socially liberal and fiscally conservative" and so can be taken as a representative of a type, and he would like Mars colonies. Why? Because that really is the only way to separate oneself from the universal community at this point.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Theses towards a left ideology

It's common, on the left, to talk about historical materialism without acknowledging that the primary theories that the left uses have no connection to our contemporary era or its material conditions. Here are my best ideas to correct that.

1. Ecological value

a) The primary constraint on human economics is the production of ecological value: powered primarily through solar energy and processed through biomass.

b) Ecological processes are what create and maintain our air, water, and food. They can not be replaced by human labor. They are not "natural resources" but products of cycles with limited replacement times and limited surpluses.

c) All human value depends, in the end, on ecological value. We can't live without it, and no human labor can take place without it.

d) The primary surplus that capitalism, as well as state capitalism, feeds on and appropriates and changes into human value is ecological surplus.

e) No future left ideology can succeed unless it internalizes the maintenance of ecological value as an ideal and constraint

2. Democracy and scale

a) Representative democracy is the primary reproductive and maintenance mode of late capitalism. It predictably produces the exact results that we see around us now.

b) Large state structures run non-democratically also predictably produce those same results, but with extra misery. Even idealized, democratic left states would make popular decisions that, when averaged over millions of people, are predictably bad. See "ecological value" above, but also racism, xenophobia etc.

c) The best way of making decisions is to limit the decisions to the people closely or strongly affected by them. Large-scale decisions have to be minimized.

d) What scale counts as small? From the beginning of the Western political tradition, we know that even city-states are too large. Probably best is groups of less than 100 people.

e) The anarchist idea of confederalism is an attempt at small-scale democracy with some degree of large-scale coordination. The main element of what needs to be coordinated is built infrastructure, which is the main limit on what people can do.

3. Work and money

a) Human labor is no longer a limiting factor of production. We have more than we need, and there is no particular power in withholding it.

b) All attempts to call on person power as worker power are going to fail, and fail counterproductively, in part because being a prole is now a social identity that puts someone a step up from the class of lumpenproles, and more and more of us are lumpenproles. These two classes have different interests and can no more naturally cooperate than elites and proles do.

c) For this reason a social revolution requires devaluing work. We don't need everyone to do it: most of it is useless or ecologically harmful. Wage labor should be phased out through shortened workweeks until it disappears: people who believe in the value of work can do it, with most necessities provided through automation.

d) In a world where necessities can be provided to everyone, there is no reason to use money. Money only results in ridiculous situations like less than 20 people having half of the world's amount of it. Let's abolish it and educate people not to replace it with a new money system.

e) Without money, there is no real reason to forbid people from doing whatever kind of economic activity they want to do. If they pile up a big pile of some kind of valuable material, someone will eventually take it, and non-violently taking something that someone can't possibly use should not be a crime.

4. Societal values (in progress)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eyeroller: a short comedy in three acts

I haven't been blogging much lately: I've been Tweeting. But given the recent back-and-forth over the NY Magazine climate change article and the instant suggestions about individual volunteerism e.g. that people should have fewer kids if they want to do something, I think it's time to repost this short play. (Originally from Crooked Timber comments.)

EYEROLLER: A short comedy in three acts

Act I:

FIRST PERSON: “I put solar panels on my roof. That cost a lot! Why are people always scolding people for not doing more? They should encourage them instead.”

EYEROLLER: “Micro-decisions about personal consumption or production will have no real effect, even en masse. The only purpose in talking about them is to give people something useless to do so that they can feel like they’re doing something.”

SECOND PERSON: “Of course you should tell people to put solar panels on roofs. That pressures the “market signals” to expand production and to further innovation, encourages politicians to get on board, etc., among other complex responses.”

EYEROLLER: “OK.. If we’re going to talk about complex responses and signals, let’s talk about what other signals the act of putting solar panels on your roof sends. It says that you’re interested in volunteerism, not collective action: it tells the market that you want middle-class equipment, not large-scale equipment.”

THIRD PERSON: “What? That’s unworthy. How could you say that putting up solar panels makes things worse?”

EYEROLLER: “Well, it might, and anyways if people invest in personal middle class solutions, they’re not going to want to also invest in community solutions.”

FORUTH PERSON: “Wait. Did you just say that I should have spent my money on the poor rather than putting solar panels up?”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)

Act II

EYEROLLER: “We’re stuck inside a neoliberal system within which all messages get turned into messages about personal consumption and personal virtue based on consumption, even if they weren’t intended that way. It becomes impossible to say anything about incentive structures without this being interpreted as whether personal decisions are good or bad, or anything about whether putting solar panels up or not is really a good idea overall without this being interpreted as a personal attack on people who put up solar panels.”

FIFTH PERSON: “You described reducing overall energy use as a kind of Puritanism, but we need to reduce overall energy use so what’s wrong with using Puritanism to do that? It mobilizes certain limbic system anchors for collective social behaviors you need, like the appeal of common sacrifice as a form of civic action and the kind of righteousness you need for altruistic punishment of deviants.”

(EYEROLLER looks disconcerted.)

EYEROLLER: “Puritanism and its focus on individual virtue is part of this, yes. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Once you start mobilizing limbic system anchors for righteousness to punish deviants, it’s pretty difficult to control –“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you saying I’m a goody-goody? I want you to apologize.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes.)


EYEROLLER: “One more time. You can reach a kind of limiting case in which certain messages become literally unintelligible. Even if someone starts out thinking that they are doing public health work, how is the public going to interpret that? The public is going to see it as another opportunity for personal status competition–“

THIRD PERSON: “Are you trying to trash my reputation?”

EYEROLLER: “– everything comes back to a discussion of personal virtue and who has it, personal decisions and whether those are moral decisions –“

SECOND PERSON: “So you’re saying that people who put up solar panels are just motivated by feelings of moral superiority?”

EYEROLLER: “– and any kind of system critique can only be heard as personal critique — “

THIRD PERSON: “I have an orientation to public health in my work, and certainly that would never turn into just sanctioning people who didn’t agree with the program! Now talk about this how I want you to or I’ll tell the moderators on you.”

(EYEROLLER rolls eyes, but has a muscle spasm part way through, eyes pointing in different directions.)

EYEROLLER (in Captain Kirk tones): “FACE… FROZEN! Can’t stop … rolling eyes! CAN’T! STOP! ROLLING! EYES!”

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Scott Eric Kaufman (poem)

Youth needs its cyborg identity
tap the fingers, keys,
the mouse runs
each click a heaping of coal
burned, somewhere the ice cap shudders
the CRT glow
imposing on the body
every reality in monochrome

The rockets go up, you see
Are they acts? What if
they never came down?
Hung, sparklelike, webs in air
Is that system?
Does it demand
A fall?

Looking back
(the cyborg runs, headless)
the debris lies there,
smells of gunpowder
in the green-glow
Looking back, tapping,
For one last unfired

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Geographical base of US protest

The fixation on social media obscures this, but protest in the US is strongly geographically linked. Other than the rare international meetings or major political conventions that activist networks make an effort to bring people to from a wide area, the kind of horizontalist movements that are the main mode of contemporary protest rely on people who don't have to travel a long distance. Even something like the NoDAPL Sacred Stone Camp, which attracts people from far away, is organized around a base of indigenous people who live there.

The airport protests around the Muslim Ban are a case in point. They sprung up quickly, without much leadership. This type of protest is made to order for the left, because large international airports tend to be located near large cities. Just as Occupy started with Occupy Wall St., the airport protests seem to have started at JFK. And the largest ones are near instantly recognizable left strongholds.

I looked at a list of large international airports in the US, and there are about 30 of them. I tried to match them to a reported list of airport protests. There are three large cities -- NYC, DC, and Chicago -- that seem to have an under-protested airport because they have two large airports each and protests focussed on one of them. But otherwise, my impression is that the area with a number of large airports that isn't reliably blue enough to have large protests is Florida.

The geographic base of protests has good elements and bad. It makes it easy for horizontally organized protest to start in NYC. It makes it difficult for protest to spread to the areas of the country that most need it. It means that left-leaning areas can get a lot of media, but makes them less aware of the attitudes of people elsewhere.

But the major problem is that it represents a vulnerability. As with OWS, when a protest in NYC gets repressed, the penumbra goes away -- people outside don't have the ability to sustain a national or international movement. That's something that people have to think about.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

After Langston Hughes

Some swear “America will be!”
What has America been to me?
Parents' parents came here bereft
Found a better place than they left
And here almost a century
We’ve lingered – yet eventually
We will move on. Is this a dream
Better, greater than those we’ve seen?

Should we have stayed in Babylon?
Settled in the empire of Rome?
Converted to the faith of Spain?
Upheld the Tsar, not left again?

Langston says we must redeem
The rotting flower of the dream
The beauty that hides in its bloom
Our Leader and our own rape rooms
Can America be made real?
Hasn’t by now, it never will
Always ahead, that’s what I’ve heard:
What happens to a dream deferred?

This place is mighty crush the weak
A dream is not the world we seek
What our history has made clear
You die for dreams: you aren't here

Thursday, January 19, 2017

About #theresistance

There's a Twitter hashtag / meme / whatever: "#theresistance". At first glance it appears, mostly, to be a vehicle for ex-GOP current Dem people like Frum and Brock to continue to try to keep influential positions by making the alternative to Trump be a neocon one, using the techniques of manufactured outrage that doesn't go anywhere that they learned in the GOP.

But there are some people with similar ideas who are well-meaning and sincere. For instance, here is an article by B Sales-Lee: Keep Calm and Protect Democracy. It has the characteristic combination of two assumptions (or, in this case, what are presented as the professional judgements of a historian): 1) we're close to fascism, or at least close to authoritarian martial law; 2) we best prevent this in the short term by being calm and not breaking the rules. Further characteristics not present in the Sales-Lee article are that the goal of this resistance to fascism is implicitly or explicitly to put things back to how they were, back to "functioning democracy" and "functioning government" and generally back to the neoliberal order as it was under Obama, either because this is good in itself or because it is a lesser evil way station on the way to better things.

I have my doubts about whether Trump is really going to lead us to authoritarian martial law or fascism or however you'd like to describe it. He's a very unpopular and in many ways standard GOP politician, promising to do many of the things that Reagan promised and could not do. As Corey Robin has been writing, it's quite conceivable that plain political opposition will stop him. #theopposition doesn't have the glamour of #theresistance, of course.

But let's say he is. People are then taking the position that fascism is fast approaching and that we'd better be polite about it. This I just don't understand. It only works if you can get everyone to be polite, but of course you can't, so it predictably ends up with liberals as the "peace police": enforcing their standard of behavior on others and finally turning them in to the police or not supporting them when arrested in order to save us from fascism. (B. Sales-Lee, I should note, isn't a liberal, but rather a pacifist socialist.)

I really don't have a problem with the center-left saying that Trump is a very bad GOP pol and that we have to oppose him through normal political methods. There are always some people playing the "inside game" in politics, and that's their role. But if that's really what they are going to do, they should stop presenting themselves as resisting imminent fascism, because they aren't. Or if they do really think there's imminent fascism, then they have to recognize that this will in most people's minds demand actions that they aren't comfortable with. I think that a lot of the lower-level #theresistance talk is from people who are realizing that the Democratic party will not do even ordinary political opposition, so they are trying to ramp up expectations rhetorically.

There is one thing, though -- actual resistance is dangerous. I don't see why anyone should do it if the goal is to, explicitly or implicitly, return to the neoliberal order. That same order created the conditions that made Trump possible as a political leader in the first place, and if we return to it, those conditions will return and we'll get a worse Trump. An actual resistance has to be based around shared values that would not lead to a return to that order. Until people in the center-left are ready to treat the left as serious interlocutors rather than as encumbrances on the way towards putting everything back as it was, those shared values are impossible to work out.

ETA --

Tally of the day

3/4 of National Mall empty, in part due to checkpoint blockades

1 limo burned

1 Nazi leader punched (didn't want to embed the GIF, you can find it easily enough)

0 declarations of martial law