The Nights of the Long Service Agreements and Plastic Knives

I am generally uncomfortable with calling for insurrection laws being applied by persecutors. While the de-platforming of the President raises many, many concerns—including how arbitrary most social media providers are with enforcing their terms of service and how appealing them is a long nightmare–I am far, far more concerned with Joe “Crime and Counterterrorism Bills of the 1990s” Biden, our Healer-in-Chief, and how he has moved from his rhetoric of healing to invocations of “domestic terrorism” despite the DOJ and FBI being much more hesitant with the term.

You see, you can already throw the book at Freedumb Freikorp leadership as it is. You don’t need the invocation of domestic terrorism to do it either, particularly due to the laws around seditious conspiracy. Don’t believe me? Read Lawfare:

So the most relevant prohibition is Section 2384, which outlaws “seditious conspiracy,” defined as when “two or more persons … conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States … or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.” Sedition is a serious charge, but a number of analysts (including Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes) have raised the possibility that certain conduct related to yesterday’s debacle might meet the terms of the statute.

However, even Lawfare notes that in the past, BLM protests have had this charge possibly hanging over their heads:

Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (then in his capacity as deputy attorney general) voiced support for seditious conspiracy charges against Black Lives Matter protesters. In a statement yesterday, he condemned the violence as an “intolerable attack on a fundamental institution of our democracy.”

And it’s not just Rosen. Federal prosecutors have brought seditious conspiracy charges several times within the past 40 years.

Even barring that, you have bomb charges, the destruction of property, and specific laws to protect government officials. The leaders of Wednesday’s insurrection are going to hurt and, probably, hurt bad.

A friend of a few friends of mine, Edith Ancheta, explains why this talk domestic terrorism is so dangerous, particularly if expanded from the prior DOJ understandings:

More thoughts on the terror framing, just because I want to drive this point home. The actions taken on the 6th were already illegal, even without domestic terrorism legislation. Many of those arrested so far are facing 4+ federal charges, and in truth many could be charged with more under existing laws. The simple fact is that if you do believe that its important for the federal government to be able to prosecute in the wake of events like the 6th, then I have good news: They already can. ;

What would domestic terrorism legislation actually achieve that current law does not? A few things, but most importantly, a massive expansion of the scope of “material support for terrorism” charges.

Courts have upheld that material support charges are valid when citizens have shared propaganda from international organizations designated as terrorists, offered advice to international organizations designated as terrorists on how to seek a peace plan with the states they are combatting, or even accidently providing financial support to front organizations for groups designated as terrorist groups.

So if you suddenly have a domestic terror law that can create a list of domestic terror organizations, the scope of the material support charge increases. Donated money to a bail fund that assisted a communist organization now deemed a domestic terror organization? You’re looking at 10+ years in federal prison. Shared a blog post from a black liberation organization now designated under this bill? Yeah same risk.

The only purpose of a domestic terror bill is to expand the scope of the material support charge. This is to isolate dissidents and make it illegal to publicly support their causes. Police departments around the US are finding that there officers were at the riot in DC. The fascists are part of the policing apparatus. The solution to this kind of right wing violence is not to expand the police state but to oppose it entirely.”

Currently, as Vox pointed out and I did in a post earlier today, the definition of domestic terrorism from a dictionary perspective may apply, but not a legal one.

Lastly, the impeachment push on Trump is something that I can theoretically support on matters of justice. If for no other reason than the public will, and while I had thought that there was no way Joe Biden would pursue criminal charges on Trump at the federal level, I no longer think this is necessarily true. However, it is also abundantly clear that the Senate will stall impeachment until after Trump’s term is concluded anyway. I agree with Mike Davis that this is a convenient way to kill Trumpism, but the paranoiac unconscious that has been brewing since Nixon that was unleashed with racialist overtones is not going back in the bottle:

The goal is a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and, via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the battle to replace McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene. (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize his hardcore followers to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red-state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.

If you are still thinking that taking out the rapid ends of the GOP base will all for Democratic hegemony. Democrats, even with the win in Georgia, lost out on state level redistricting in this election just like they did a decade ago.

Be prepared for massive instability and low-level but possibly deadly political violence, but don’t for a minute think that these calls for a domestic war on terror.

The 18th Brumaire of Joe Biden and Other Vanta-Black Pills

In people continuing to lose their shit mode: Watching WSJ, CNN, MSBNC, and people like Oliver Darcy, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Rep. Ellissa Slotkin calling for a war on domestic terror to end polarization. When people point out how the last war on terror went, I am seeing Democrats say, “But Bush’s terror targets were fake, this is real.” Missing, or perhaps even wanting, for the fact that the war on domestic terror is being framed as a war on extremists in general and on hyper-polarization.

Vox explains that the FBI is explicit, Wednesday may count as insurrection but does not rise to the legal definition of a coup, treason, or domestic terror act, but likely makes a defense of the history of its legal use:

On December 4, 2015, the FBI announced that it was officially investigating the San Bernardino shooting as “an act of terrorism.” However, that came only one day after the same FBI official, when asked whether the attack was terrorism, said, “It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism. The FBI defines terrorism very specifically, and that is the big question for us, what is the motivation for this.”

So what gives? What’s the big deal with not wanting to call it “terrorism” when the FBI clearly was already thinking it was?

The answer has a lot to do with the fact that the FBI is a law enforcement organization and is part of the US Department of Justice. The FBI’s primary job is to investigate crimes with the goal of bringing the perpetrators to justice— in other words, to prosecute criminals in a court of law.

This means the FBI’s understanding of what constitutes “terrorism” has much less to do with how it views the circumstances of an attack and much more to do with whether the facts of the case meet the very specific legal criteria used to prosecute someone on terrorism charges.

Under federal law, “international terrorism” means activities that:

Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law

Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the US, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum

Whether you and I (or even individual law enforcement officers) personally think an attack is terrorism doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether the authorities in question think they can make a case for prosecuting the perpetrator for terrorism in a court of law.

Literally a month ago, lawyers related to the President were calling “Antifa” and BLM domestic terror organizations and activating DHS to act against them in Portland, even though they knew that those events didn’t rise to the standard of ANY terror. Although given government buildings were attacked, insurrection laws could have been invoked, and thank god they were not.

Even normally neutral outlets like ProPublica are pointing out that War on Terror laws are weaker in the US for US citizens. Yet even the LA Times calls this domestic terrorism and that the police shouldn’t have responded to it as a crime per usual. Mother Jones advocates for the following: “DOJ prioritize the aggressive prosecution of hate crimes and direct the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to focus on the extremist right-wing movements that have come out of the woodwork and into the mainstream these past four years.”

Now, the first part of this sentence is long overdue, but surveillance of these movements was not the problem. Most of it was stated in public or in platforms easily monitored. Most of it was. The Department of Defense had already been activated and DOJ stopped it. You need a change in the law for most of this to be actionable as terrorism. And no, there is no way they are stopping with right-wing domestic terror.

This is not to say there was not domestic terror attempted, but that it wasn’t the storming of the Capitol. It was the bombs found in the Capitol, as well as RNC and DNC headquarters. They were safely donated.

Remember Obama’s DOJ did not stop the Bush era’s persecution of Green anarchist groups either. Same rhetoric as the last war on terror. Same kind of threat. The same ignoring that things like planning bombs, vandalizing, and insurrection are ALREADY crimes, but you can’t preemptively punish them.

In addition, Oliver Darcy was calling for holding cable networks legally accountable for misinformation and removing OAN, NewsMax, and Fox News from the air by corporate fiat.

Yes, the algorithm empowered a lot of radicalization to the right and, yes, it spread conspiracy theories. Tech platforms will do what they need to do, which is c.y.a.

I realize that bourgeois freedom of speech was always lax, but you are about to lose it because the public sphere is effectively privatized…and it will coincide with political repressions.

Before you say I am soft on the right, instead of seeing this for what it is, they are complaining about how it isn’t being used on Antifa and BLM. So, no, most of them are no help either. You have a gaggle of a few leftists–Marxists and otherwise–and a few libertarians–a smaller and smaller coterie these days—who see the instrumentalization of this as dangerous. But with CNN calling the Freedumb Freikorp “anarchists” and Rep. Ellissa Slotkin talking about hyper-polarization, you should be able to see how this is going.

Also, unless you think the Democrats can rule a one-party state in a country where they do not control most governorships or state houses, imagine how this is going to be used by the opposing party in the future.

When I have said this in other platforms, Democratic friends of mine, including ones that protested the Patriot Act with me when I was not on the left, have said I am stopping accountability. There are federal charges, including of insurrection. There will be an increased domestic terrorist threat as well. We had the laws to handle this though and we’re trusting one Joe Biden, one of the authors of 1995 precursor to the Patriot Act, the Counterterrorism Bill, a continued supporter of the Patriot Act, and of the 1990s crimes bills, to expand our currently existing laws to do that. That is not great.

My Democratic friends have also said I have pretended that the Freedumb Freikorps are the same as BLM. BLM was a protest for minority rights. Wednesday, January 6, was an insurrectionary carnival for minority rule. A mixture of para-military seriousness with comic frenzy.

However, what we are seeing is this: talk of truth, justice, and reconciliation have little to do with this. It is about power. The Democrats already need GOP turncoats to stop their right flank from kyboshing additional non-means tested stimulus payments to people who have fallen into massive debt. If you can’t deliver on Medicare for All, or significant A.C.A. reform, and you have a real threat to exaggerate, then great. Cover for not delivering the domestic agenda that we know Biden had no intention of delivering anyway; he has said as much. People addicted to guillotine memes think that the state won’t also see them as threat; they must believe that Democratic Party as currently constituted actually represents them.

May most of us never be so foolish.

No One is Really In Control: A Guide to Judging Conspiracy Theories

This is dedicated to: Jeremy Salmon, who asked me to do this for a podcast a few years ago; Dan Helton, who has edited the aphasia out of this blog; Kristin Knippenberg, my partner and literary editor; and one of my best friends and future co-author (and editor), Shalon Van Tine, who told me to write instead of post on social media.

“The fact that a year ago, anyone thought it made sense to tell the millions of people forced daily to navigate all this stupidity that they needed to focus on a labyrinthine political controversy in Ukraine — and to blast them for deficits of “sobriety and clarity” when they didn’t — told you everything you needed to know about the cluelessness of the people who run this country.

Then the pandemic happened.

No conspiracy theories are necessary to point out that all of the institutions Americans were in the process of rejecting just a year ago have since increased their power and influence. Be it opportunism or coincidence, the international emergency has written a dramatic heel turn into our history.

A sweeping Fed-based rescue program resulted in enormous booms in asset values, allowing America’s wealthiest to increase their net worth by nearly a trillion dollars since the start of the pandemic (in mid-summer, American billionaires were collectively earning $42 billion per week). The disease pummeled people who actually had to travel to work, while empowering conglomerates like Amazon, which tripled its profits in the third quarter alone. Most of our lives are online now, an ironic reward to intelligence services that went unpunished after illegal surveillance programs were disclosed in the Obama years.”

Matt Taibbi, TK Newsletter: 2021 Has to Be Better Edition

Whether or not you endorse Taibbi’s politics, he has a point here. Conspiracies are necessary to see how a good crisis was not allowed to go to waste despite Donald Trump’s tantrums, despite COVID-19 eating away at poor and marginalized people, despite the wave of “left-wing and right-wing populism.” Furthermore, from conspiracies that had roots in partial truths–such as the various Russiagate narratives to Hunter Biden’s computer–to outright Satanic Panic nonsense, the fact that structural incentives make conspiratorial thinking more viable should be noticed. There are two reasons for this: the first is that structural feedback loops and bound choices can look like agency, the second is that agency is more satisfying than stochastic chaos and the stasis of various social forces nullifying each other.

In lieu of that, at the request of Dan Helton and Jeremy Salmon, here are the rules I have devised as a heuristic for dealing with conspiracy. I taught a class on conspiracy theories to high school students in spring. It looked at actual conspiracies, such as those stated in things like the Pentagon Papers and in business collusion, as well as obviously false conspiracies like Reptilians.

Heuristic 1: If it involves more than a few hundred people in the know, outside of one agency within one country or business, it probably isn’t an active conspiracy.

The more people you have involved, the more elaborate the means of cover-up may be. Not only does this increase the energy it would take to suppress the knowledge, it also induces a broader and broader array of interests and counter-interests as well as possibilities for discipline breakdown. Even fear of immediate death would have a hard time controlling 100,000 people to merely keep information secret.

Heuristic 2: Incompetence, more than malice, is the historical basis for a lot of cover-ups. This is particularly true for democratically-elected governments.

If your conspiracy involves a lot of ideological building, then it is harder to maintain belief in that conspiracy. Hence conspiracies about globalism or international elites who share a political vision tend to be hogwash. Take the JFK conspiracies–the most viable one I have heard is that inconsistencies in the medical record are explained by the fact the Secret Service may have actually discharged into the President while trying to aim at Oswald. This is not a sexy conspiracy theory, so it is not widely believed. However, it requires fewer numbers of people and has a more viable reasoning. It’s probably still not true, but given the first two heuristics, it is viable.

Heuristic 3: Immediate self-interest of small parties do make for viable conspiracy groups if they have real access to either cultural or real capital OR weaponry.

I think this is self-evident. However, in the grand scheme of things, these kinds of conspiracies are so regular and so not explanatory that most people barely ever refer to them. So this leads us to heuristic four where things get more complicated.

Heuristic 4: Feedback loops can appear to have agency because of the undermining nature of correlations and the overdetermination of causal factors.

This is one is more difficult and frankly also cuts against a lot of our moral impulses in regards to politics, even when we aren’t engaging in conspiratorial thinking. But what does it mean? Systems do have logics in their design. Now, some of those designs are kluges in a way that preclude a reductive, designed purpose (or to be technical, a teleology), but generally this offloads organizational and cognitive work for both individuals and groups. The down side of this, however, is that these feedback loops can act like fractals and look to have more intentionality than they do. For example, even if systemic bias and income disparities are removed, it can look like bankers or capitalists are actively designing the system to produce such wealth gaps that it keeps X group down beyond anything explicit, because wealth compounds generationally in ways that income and skills access do not. Now this may be what investments were designed to do, but combined with prior periods of racialized access, colonial dispossession and accumulation, etc., this would go into the future even without individual or even systemically-designed ill will. It is not irrational for this to be assumed to be deliberate, but it is almost impossible to prove and kind of irrelevant.

Heuristic 5: In-groups must be coherent organizationally to have the ability to pull off a conspiracy.

This is a fancy way of saying that aggregates of identities rarely act as coherent collective in-groups. This is even true for economic classes, but even more true for more abstract sociological identities such as racial or ethnic groups. Smaller groups are not only easier to control and keep information limited, but they are also more able to collectively act than larger ones. While larger groups may have more “people power,” they also have more issues that district them from operating.

Heuristics 6: Money talks, but there are limited amounts for non-state actors.

Meaning the profit motive is probably the number one likelihood of active conspiracies, which are generally attempts to suppress information, but people underestimate the cost in terms of profits of keeping information and logistics secret. This, probably more than anything else, is the limit to non-governmental conspiracies.

Now, this list of heuristics doesn’t just cut against conspiracy thinking. It also cuts against a lot of political logic in the popular sphere, but it is the beginnings of how one could judge what is likely to have any actual conspiratorial element.

That said, I think conspiracy thinking will continue in political circles: left, center, and, most especially, right. Why? When our ruling classes and their funders seem as clueless to long-term realities as they are now and as their privilege walls them off from consequences, being defeated by them feels impossible and information gaps make the terror of chaos more and more unpalatable. This guide may help you as individuals, but you and I should be under no delusion that this will reverse conspiracy theories as politics: it is, itself, a kind of feedback loop

Contagion and Rot: Or, why might this new round of “post-left” politics be increasingly popular.

“…we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives.”

― Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition

Let’s ask ourselves, for once, why the post-left is becoming popular. I made a dig at it earlier around Mark Crispin Miller, but really, if we are honest, that is a minor offense. Yes, most of the people criticizing the Professional-Managerial character of the left see themselves as within the left or as post-left, despite some having immigrant or working class origins, are of the strata of society they complain about. If we are honest, though, this is a bit of a distraction. Not only does it not matter who they are for their observations to be true, it also doesn’t even matter if the observations are made in bad faith if we are looking into their truth value.

Let’s look at Carl Beijer’s engagement with this iteration of the concept. Some of the reasons the post-left have become popular are more obvious from attempts to criticism them than from themselves. He makes three critiques and all are somewhat superficially true but none of them land.

They rhetorically align themselves with Marx. This doesn’t mean that they are actually operating within the framework of Marxism as understood by Marxists for nearly two centuries: on the contrary, their analysis departs from orthodox Marxism on a regular basis. And sometimes they’ll acknowledge this. But in sharp contrast to various “right populist” and “independent” pundits who position themselves against Marx, Post Leftists typically position themselves as sympathetic — or even as the only true Marxists.

Out of the gate, we see an immediate problem. The implication is that post-leftists are operating in bad faith, which would be clearer if “orthodox” Marxism had any definition here. But it doesn’t, and it’s hard to know who this particular criticism doesn’t apply to. Xi defenders make arguments outside of “traditional” Marxism in defense of the continued use of private markets merely tamed by the party. Union skeptics have Lenin’s denouncements of trade-union consciousness to appeal to. Anti-statists have Marx’s and Engel’s critiques of Lasalle. Trotskyists will argue forever over what kind of degeneration the Soviet Union is given towards. All make claims to be “true” Marxists, and many, the only true Marxists. This a sign of an inert political program and a degenerated research program. It is easy for anyone to make this rhetorical move because nearly everyone does.

So this critique of the current round of the post-left doesn’t hit. What is the orthodoxy they’re degenerating from? This isn’t a new problem either, nor are the post-leftists the only people within Marxism making similar points. Barbara Ehrenreich, not Michael Lind, developed the PMC thesis and Michael Lind has never pretended to be a Marxist. Erik Olin Wright before Ehrenreich was trying to do objective sociological work on “working class” stratification and division and the kinds of cartelization, skill rents, and opportunity capture as well as regional and sectional divisions that stratified the working class. Michael Tracey and Jimmy Dore are Generation X contrarians, and they also don’t make appeals to be dyed-in-the-wool Marxists but would be implicated here. The New Left as well as communization theorists have pointed out going back to the middle of the 20th century that the working class had different social agendas than often ascribed to it by progressives and populists and had since the 1920s. What Marxist orthodoxy is going to get you out of this problem? It is nowhere to found, and not all the people here are even claiming allegiance to Marxism.

Beijer’s next critique does actually land, but is self-defeating for a socialist:

Their politics are overtly anti-left, and often overtly (or de facto) Republican. The Post Left is openly hostile to various factions that they lump together as “the left” — not just Democrats and liberals, but radical groups like anarchists and socialists as well. Rhetorically they adopt the bog-standard positioning of the self-identified independent: they are uniquely free-thinking equal-opportunity offenders who operate outside of ideological / partisan boundaries. But like most self-identified independents, their actual ideological, political, and even cultural commitments map quite clearly onto the usual camps and divisions.

This is true. Listening to Angela Nagle talk about the left’s war on beauty and seeing her decontextualize and mangle Marx quotes to get closer to Tucker Carlson indicates this. These are standard talking points, but why can someone like Nagle still have some legitimacy in doing this? Why do Bari Weiss and Red Scare miss that Christopher Lasch spent most of his early career criticizing populism, but they love “The Revolt of the Elites”, even though they read it without the context of Lasch’s prior criticism and ignore his lifelong ambivalence about populist forces? It is because it aligns to centrist and center-right critiques. However, this cuts back on left critics of this current post-left: if you scratch them, are they not just progressive Democrats? Aren’t their neo-Keynesian readings of the New Deal only considered socialism because of years and years of right-wing attacks hollowing out the meaning of socialism? Increasingly, it looks like progressivism for a lot of the media left got rebranded as Democratic Socialism and so the Overton window moved not on policy but only pink-branding. If most independents are really centrists who are in denial for reasons of self-identity, then likely most socialists are also merely progressive Democrats who are in denial for social branding reasons. You can’t cite research from 1992 before the socialist resurgence on independent voters and not realize it hits socialists without losing some creditability. In fact, Beijer slyly acknowledges this in his conclusion.

Beijer’s last criticism isn’t one and he acknowledges this: they are a media clique like any other media clique. They may be in denial about this (and many leftists who do “media” organizing are also in denial about this), but it shows something. Beijer’s conclusion is fairly right on, but doesn’t really follow from his first two criticisms:

To place this in a broader context: the red scare taboos that effectively exiled the Marxist tradition from American discourse have significantly eroded in recent years. Consequentially, while the two parties of capital remain overwhelmingly hostile towards Marxist thought, they have nevertheless gained a marginal stake in pandering — at least superficially — to voters who are sympathetic to it. This is why we have what socialists often call “sheepdog” media: a small boutique market of figures and publications who, speaking the language of Marxism, often play the role of herding people back into the Democratic Party.

For obvious historical and cultural reasons, we still do not have a similar industry of Republican sheepdogs. The base of voters and customers it would pander to is just too microscopic. There is, however, a significant market for “right populists” who are willing to say nice things about blue collar workers, complain about elites, and inevitably sigh that it turns out Republicans are the lesser-evil once again. And there is also, of course, a handful of activist oligarchs who are happy to pour insane amounts of dark money into media operations that microtarget niches like this. We saw this with astroturf groups like The Tea Party, and we see it today in media projects like The Federalist and American Affairs.


Now, I have also been confused why even Marxists acknowledge that the Tea Party was astroturfed as even it’s 2007 founders felt that they were marginalized by the more populist and, frankly, incoherent parts of the GOP, but ignore that this also applies to leftist groups who are funded by NGO money, rich patrons, or media access. That said, most left organizing groups don’t get that far and more socially broad ones have a harder time with money corruption because they are more horizontally-based. These organizations, however, are rarely explicitly socialist or Marxist though, and tend to be local advocacy groups.

Furthermore, this functional reading makes a pretty big misstep:

These oligarchs and their “right populist” operations have been exerting their gravity on the Post Left. Their apparatchiks have already begun using their dark-money funded platforms to host and promote them. And the Post Left — particularly those with media ventures — have eagerly returned the favor, showering figures from Tucker Carlson to Chris Buskirk with constant promotion and praise. Too reactionary for left media and too mediocre for the right, the Post Left is camped out in the uncompetitive niche market of Republican Marxism, pandering to the right populists for scraps of clout and patiently hoping for a sponsor to call their own.

This doesn’t entirely seem to be true. Looking at Patreon stats, many of these post-left podcasts do as well as middle-tier leftist ones, sheepdog or not. Now, if you think I’m panning Beijer, you are wrong. His analysis of class voting patterns in 2020 election is actually really good. Furthermore, he wrote a good understanding of the liberal use of identitarian reductionism to dismiss even intersectional uses of class. However, that is the kind of piece that the wrong internet mood can get you cast into the “post-left” for really easily.

Indeed, in terms of the actual function of a lot of the sheepdog “left”, Beijer and I could easily be seen as agreeing with the post-left on the problems of managerial uses of critical race theory to silence critics of the Democratic Party, or the fact that a lot of the media left ecosphere has largely kept people in the Democratic Party. I suspect Beijer would disagree with my opinions on the limitations of Bernie Sanders, but still, we all knew what the problem is: politicians both Democratic and Republican have discovered niches for radical chic, again. For someone like Beijer and myself, the move is distancing ourselves from the post-left because our own criticisms of most of the liberal left actually rhyme with post-left. So drawing distinctions seems important; after all, we don’t think we marginalize “marginal voices” or support nationalism as a means of reshoring jobs because we don’t even think this is possible.

Yet, this hasn’t answered why the popularity of the post-left seems to be gaining some steam, and it can’t all be explained by astroturfing either. Chapo Trap House and the Red Scare podcasts were products of the same initial milieu. The Bellows were once endorsed by the likes of Bhaskar Sunkara and my pal, the late Michael Brooks, even if neither would do so now. The fact that despite branding and moral arguments to the contrary, most of the left can’t transcend national organization as its dominant mode makes the post-left seem more honest even when specific members are not being so. The fact that the strategy of patience has moved from patience on revolution to patience on reform to patience of there being any viable strategy left of Nancy Pelosi. This makes the left seems like grifters and makes the post-left look good, but it also makes it seem like any criticism of the status quo that denies immediate hope is actually a move right. This is sad because my experience with left-wing critics of the left generally are: if they don’t have a lot of integrity, more than what we normally require of people with a political agenda, they will move right from sheer desperation in the same way many mutual aid groups become NGOs and many leftist papers become progressive magazines shilling for the Democrats. It isn’t just bad faith–it is a structural lack of options. To get beyond that, and I do think that we can, one has to look at how the post-left developed any popularity. This isn’t the first time a post-left has happened: in the 1990s, post-left anarchism; in the 1970s, communitarianism and third-way politics; in the 1950s, left communism as going beyond the “left of capital.” These different movements have had various different effect sizes; the 1990s and 1950s variants mostly not mattering much at all ultimately, but the 1970s versions had large effects.

In each of these cases, what remains is a view of the left as failing to really offer an alternative to the mainstream of society or, at least, one that many people would find attractive. Post-leftism emerges when the left seems stultified. The problem isn’t just that it may tend towards right-wing grifting over the time, the problem is almost always that the reason why it developed in the first place is real and unanswered. If there are mass politics in the US right now, they aren’t in Brooklyn, Berkeley, or Portland–and they aren’t on Twitter. It is in the industrial urban Midwest and South, and those people are running out of time and largely not talked about on the left. How is it air went to Portland and not rent-strikes in the Midwest? Perhaps it is easy to understand why, increasingly, people are turning their backs on the left in favor of “real Marxism”. If anything, the main sin of the post-left is romanticizing the collective image of the working class industrial worker and the high point of the labor movement as the manifestation of the “real working class left.” That wasn’t all that real even in Europe. Labor politics were not dominated by the membership of unions for more than two generations pretty much anywhere in the developed world. In some ways, the post-left’s popularity and its error lies in the fact that, instead of looking at the material reality of working class lives, we have heroically romanticized it. It easy for a bad actor to spin that left or right. The more interesting thing is why it has appeal. For good or ill, studying the left-wing critics of the left in the West explains more about the limits of the left’s own narrative of material appeal than studying the left itself will ever do.


An updated addendum to the list of my unpopular opinions four years out.

You can see the original 2016 post here.

Opinions about Marxism that are probably unpopular that I have developed since 2016:

Marx and Engels are closer to each other than many who want to excuse some of the later developments of Marxism want them to appear to be, but they are NOT the same. There are differences in focus, in terminology, in scope, and in answers between Engels and Marx.

While Marx talked about history as the movement of aggregates, the focus on collectives have confused matters. Collectives are imaginary subjects that manifest as an abstraction of aggregates. There are things that are good for a collective that are bad for each of the individual members and thus ultimately doom the collective effort. Separating out aggregate and collective descriptions is thus important.

Political determinism is generally the refuge of those who want to refute economism, rightly, but really have nothing on offer but their own ideological critique, which is generally ad hoc, and based on success in a short run without looking at long run failure.

Most of the Marxists who move to base-building or localism–from DSAers to communizers to social unionists–are right about the problems of national organizing limits in both its inherent nationalism and the problems of corruption due to money at scale, but thinking that making one down stream from national finance and real estate influence removes the problem doesn’t hold. In fact, it causes your ability to offer any counter power to it to be bogged down by the fact that donors are now even more hidden and can pull funding easily.

Romanticization of unions and anti-union leftism are both generally from people who have never belonged to a union that wasn’t basically a freelancer guild.

The northeastern industrial unions were legitimately mobbed up as the industrial sector declined. This is logical. They would never have the lobbying power of the professional unions or the capital interests and with little access to the state, force and capital flows, it makes perfect sense. Quasi-lumpenization makes sense then.

Marxism has a shit theory of money as an expression of a commodity and, in lieu of that historical fact changing, often spins its wheels.

If the economy can run on fumes for decades with the appearance of profits and the final terminal crisis happened at the end of Fordism in 1960s/70s, whereas in the prior long cycle, the terminal crisis was offset by Fordism and Keynesianism into the 1930s, perhaps you don’t actually have final terminal crises.

A lot of Marxists confuse historiography with history so they can sound smart while saying very little. This includes many famous academics.

A lot of Marxist activity prolongs the very things it is trying to critique. Neoliberal cynical politicking? Let’s get the DSA on that.

Opinions about Education that I have developed since 2016:

Most progressive education reforms that make it easier to get a credential devalue the credential and move the skills needed up the ladder, so that people need more private education or more out-of-their-own-pocket education for more basic things.

Knowledge is only power when others don’t have it.

Literacy has been declining since 2015. Some of that is schools finally meeting hard limits of years of bad reforms, some of it is technological effects of executive function.

We have less bullying in school now, probably as an effect of low-level constant cyberbullying subjecting more people to bullying and thus making it a less attractive means of showing power.

Public school has a marginal effect on general literacy once basic reading and writing is established.

PISA scores are not optimal, but they aren’t meaningless.

The teaching staff was more diversified 50 years ago than now. Two reasons are simple: relative pay compared to other fields has gone down and social clout related to teaching declined. If one is a person of color or an immigrant, appealing to their need for diversity to teach is gaslighting. One does not struggle to be first person in their family to be educated to go get a job that just does a little better than average for the debt load one must take on for it.

There has been as massive resource drain because of the expansion of administration in primary and secondary schools–particularly at the school board level. There is a reason why education costs per taxpayer have gone up over 100% over two decades; 91% of all school spending is on staffing, and yet teacher pay has stagnated or declined. Someone is soaking up the resources and it is not students or even instructors.

Most parents do not understand the structure of education enough to attack the right people when calling for reforms because it is hidden from them.

The Real Black Pill, or, Drinking Bitter Water to Go Beyond It.

March 20th [1978]

The Left indeed lost. But the Communists have won seats. They have openly played on the victory of the Right in order seats this time, to make progress in a space that had been vacated, and where they themselves had created a void

Basically, it’s not very different from Italy. There, too, every twist and turn of events allows the Communist Party to move up a bit farther . . . but toward what? Not power: it is happy with a technocratic or managerial tip-up seat that the Christian Democracy concedes to it, without demanding anything in exchange. The Communist Party does not reach irresistibly toward power, it irresistibly occupies the space left empty in the reflux and disenchantment of the political sphere. The slow progression signals the trivialization and desertification of the political sphere. Although it’s no longer clear where the salt of the earth is, we do know that the Communist Party is the greatest desalinization enterprise. Shame on it for having helped foster, with such energy, the functional stupidity required for its extension; shame on it for having eradicated the last remains of any political standard, simply to guarantee the cancerous homeostasis of the social. Marhais’s mug is a meta-figure of stupidity and the death drive, hilarious. A histrionic mug, exacerbated by burlesque demagoguery and the blackmail of vulgarity, which everyone accepts and submits to, apparently, as initiation of the sorts into future society.

The Communist Part works towards the beatitude of historic compromise. So that all of history can end on a compromise, the whole system has to limit to zero with no violent incidents, slowly, progressively, with calculated doggedness.

The End of history and of politics could have been something else than compromise; it could hvae constituted a violent and transformative hyper-event . .

. . . But the Communist Party is there to prevent the system from dying a violent death.” — Jean Baudrillard, The Divine Left, p. 55

While in some sense, this sentiment is alien to the US, as “the Communists” or even “the Socialists” were but whimpers adjacent to the Democratic Party’s racial and labor coalition from the 1940s to 1970s. From the SPUSA’s failure to achieve relevance after the Russian and Mexican revolutions of 1917 and the election of 1918 and Deb’s imprisonment, from the CPUSA’s failure to do anything but make communists a special radical interest group in the civil rights movement, since they were effectively purged from labor by the AFL-CIO merger and by Taft-Hartley thereafter, to the emergence of the sectarian left who functioned as a radical steam valve for progressive disconnect while having party presses sell books to the very progressive fads that they mocked within the party, the US left never got a chance to fail this big. Indeed, it had done so way before the disillusionments with the results of Mai 1968 or even, in the US, the hollowing out of both the civil rights and the black power movements as US labor began funneling more and more of its functional dues to just maintaining leadership and its donations into lobbying. We never got Baudrillard’s disillusionment, or at least, we like to pretend we didn’t.

If something in the above paragraph offends you and your sensibilities, good. You may be able to object to my historiography, but one would be hard pressed to disagree with the history or results. The economic left, as much as the political left, functions as part of the buoying of the existence of the status quo in the US. The historical reasons for this are complicated and can’t be pinned down to just betrayal or to just structural impediment. Nor can the victim-blaming of “the workers’ movement was reactionary” or “the workers’ movement failed to be radical enough”: Why did it fail to be radical? What levers were really there?

After the degeneration of the 1920s in Europe and America, people saw Fordism as what was hollowing out the left, ie managerial elites and monopoly capital. Then they were blindsided by the oil shock breaking the Keynesian consensus and by declining profitability rates making prior assumptions unviable. Then neoliberalism was blamed, seemingly, reintroducing old laissez-faire economics and cutting the welfare state that, in the prior era, even most of the far left thought both disempowered the working poor through removing their agency and empowered the administrative state, buying capital time. Except, as economic historians have known for a while, neoliberalism was not really laissez-faire–as many such as Philip Mirowski have shown–it was a bipartisan consensus to restore profitability through rentier relations, fiscalization, public-private partnerships, and compelled markets. Given the mask of the old heroic bourgeoisie and a myth about even its reliance on the state, politicians and capitalists alike got the states MORE involved in markets and less involved in the deracinated social welfare programs. Between the 2008 housing crash and the COVID-19 response, the quantitive easing has made it clear: markets without risk for investors and with moral hazard for things like healthcare. Rentier relations play increasing roles in our lives. The left seems to blindsided by this too.

So we are seemingly always invested in saving the last systemic shift in capitalism. The communists trying and failing to save post-Fordism from the French right seems to be just another example. Irony upon irony, even most progressives think that post-Dengist China may save capital from itself through its state investment programs. Socialism again, the 18th and 19th century imagery of the ruthless critique of the capitalist order that emerged in Europe and its (soon to be former) colonies, is seen as the means to save it and humanize it.

So when millennial progressives hear the word “socialism” and think of Norway, Sweden, and even Canada, and the boomer anti-communists, including the leftists ones, think of China during the Great Leap Forward or USSR during either the purges or the slow decline of the late 70s and early 80s, both are deluded. Nor can we do, as the left opposition, anarchists, and left-communists have often done, of pretending that, since none of these mean a platonic form of the original 19th century goal, that this doesn’t count. “It’s just the left of capital”? Well, there is no other left and apophatic theology which substitutes something beyond the value form for the nameless attributes of the ultimate unity of God as the minimum definition of socialism makes socialism esoteric but secular mystogoguery.

Yet most of what ink is spilled in so-called socialist press and “alternative” media space–a branding I used from habit as it no longer clear what it is alternative to–wants to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad. Most of the post-left wants to talk about Mark Crispin Miller and academic freedom. Most of the (formerly neoconservative) now faux-populist right complains about freedom of speech and the socialism of Kamala Harris. The actual populist and evangelical right–having moved public sentiment into the realm of paranoia and religiosity into heresy from their own religious standards–fall into QAnon and Alex Jones denials of reality. There are differences in kinds of delusion and, no, they aren’t the same, but there is delusion across the board.

In light of this, all of the commentary I do on Pop the Left, Theorizing with a Hammer, and Mortal Science, the various podcasts I work with and on, feel well, less important. However, the less important and more trend-driven it is, the more engagement there is. This doubly extends to social media–particular Twitter where meta-irony and antisocial takes are often rewarded with tons of high schoolers who are highly online sharing them without even totally realizing how much nonsense it is. Indeed, the ability to know what is sincere or meta-ironic seems often beyond them. Hate-sharing the “bad takes” spreads them further and further, incentivizing being wrong. This, by the way, is not unique to social media and never has been. But like how conspiracy theory shows about Big Foot in the 70s and 80s turned into a new and politicized form of the Satanic panic in QAnon now, concept drift and democratic media feed each other. Further, much of the liberal center’s attempt to use expertise to stomp this out overreaches and seems to vindicate the degenerative impulse. The left counter-signals to both, but ultimately sides with one impulse or the other. Furthermore, good information being paywalled while misinformation is generally plentiful and free doesn’t help. This, again, was always the case: good documentaries were arthouse productions in the 90s where one often needed not just the social but literal capital to live in an expensive city to see them, whereas Unsolved Mysteries was on basic cable.

At first this seems removed from my initial jeremiad on the left in the West above. However, when looking at some notes on kinds of engagement I get, it will become relevant. If I get mad and yell at people over getting stuck on a trend, I’ll get tons of superficial engagement. It isn’t lost on me though that getting mad at the trend gives the trend air. Criticizing pseudoscience without offering a NEW and NOBLE counter-explanation often spreads pseudoscience, and this is doubly bad with toxic counterfactuals and incoherent frameworks.

If you want to remove something from the public discourse, you don’t cancel it or even criticize it without offering an alternative. Canceling things gives it moral weight and you actually spread its voice; when the left wanted to make Richard Spencer go away, it wasn’t just punching him that did it. After all, that is STILL just symbolic if it leaves a physical bruise. It got bored. The left had bigger fish to fry, and Spencer largely took care of himself only sometimes gaining relevance in critiquing Donald Trump. The left learned a lesson there but also refused to learn it. Canceling can hurt you if you have an academic or media job where public access matters, but it doesn’t make you irrelevant. In fact, canceling and getting criticized is often an effective media strategy to gain access. In the 1960s, it was people using evangelical backlash for that, now it is deplorables fighting blue hairs. The results are similar.

You give it the silent treatment and you convince others, quietly, it isn’t worth your time. Contempt is more powerful than hate and unstated and unacknowledged contempt more powerful than mockery.

I need often to remember this myself. But there are structural reasons we have to be dishonest about this, and mine are little different. For all the complaining about the “spectacle”–the most untheorized idea ever to come out of communist critiques of modernity–complaining about the spectacle is itself number one in this grift. It calls out the illusion of spectacular and symbolic politics by also participating in it, keeping it alive.

For some self-criticism on how this works: I keep calling myself an educational entertainer. I don’t view myself as a pundit, but I admit I’m also tired of people who constantly talk about politics insisting that doing so isn’t an intervention into politics. It was false when Jon Stewart did it, and it is false when Chapo Trap House does it. It’s also false when I do it. The old claim from the 1960s that the personal was political rendered politics undifferentiated from all other forms of life. Yes, feminists did this for good reason; progressive men promoting equal rights in theory but beating their wives at home was a long and unfortunately honored tradition which more radical forms of feminism were trying to expose. But every well-meaning intervention has a shadow side, and here that shadow side was making lifestyles seem political. In a deep sense, politics, culture and economics AREN’T actually separable–they are different lens to view and manage our collective and aggregate lives, but by rendering them inseparable in focus, many things seemed more radically different than they were. By making the personal political in a time of hollowed-out individual selves, nothing became properly political. It shows in our rhetoric now where we are constantly claiming that even engaging in policy debates or aiding political candidates are not, really, political.

Often I have screamed into the void that merely inverting a bad troupe doesn’t free you from it, but often leads to a worse one.

So here’s why I am getting to the end of my rope as a pundit who doesn’t really want to be one: I keep saying we need to offer a viable alternative to the talking points of the left and quit trying to defend a debate that is set up for multiple sides to draw bad conclusions. But we can’t easily do this because it doesn’t get engagement. People LIKE the horserace, and they like the idea that engagement with fictions they make of real people (celebrity and micro-celebrity media personalities) is both read as a way to gain access to power and a way to “be honest” about one’s (lack of) role in it. Trust me–working for Zero, I see this. Mortal Science is a better podcast of what I aim to do. It necessarily has a more limited audience. Like right now, it has a few orders of magnitude smaller audience than Pop the Left or Theorizing with a Hammer. Pop the Left is good but we still do left ambulance-chasing despite our commitment not to. Why? We need views and clicks or it doesn’t matter. Mortal Science’s agenda is not set by clicks at all, but it is necessarily a disillusioning and largely under-engaged with affair.

Furthermore, let’s be honest for a second. The “alternative” media’s populist narrative about Patreon and what not leading to a more “authentic” left is a myth. There is a reason why the Brooklyn and Berkley left defined podcasting once Patreon weakened NPR’s hold on pushing its radio shows into podcast form. It’s a money-making media sphere and that is where the money is. No, not the kind of money you need for an old capital-intensive media set, but that has since changed with technology. Power law still applies. You need capital, either cultural or, well, real to expand capital. True word of mouth takes forever. You need to invest in advertising and relaunch campaigns. A part of the Dirtbag Left had money prior to raking in thousands a month on Patreon, and many had media access way, way before they broke out in podcast land. Their obsession with political media spheres and mocking it made it abundantly clear. I didn’t know or care about Ben Shapiro until new media started mocking him on the left. This becomes a mutually constitutive identity, and one that is still dominated by Ivy Leaguers, even if they aren’t WASPs anymore (on either political side, actually).

I still have rely on rich and connected friends to land interviews outside of the normal left book-tour circuit or left professional activist circuit, and if you haven’t noticed that some of your favorite “marginal voice” podcasters and activists have Ivy League degrees, you’re a fool. It need it too; for all our criticisms of the “elites” and their myth of meritocracy, we are always excepting what we like.

I was friends with a working-class dude who was brilliant and is now a journalist, who was let into Harvard Divinity School to work on Buddhism. He does the work, so this wasn’t a silver spoon placed into his mouth, but he knows that his access was not from primary merit. It was being given access to Harvard and thus gained in an entirely unrelated field from what he worked in, and then he would freelance for things like Teen Vogue. Did he earn his way in? Or was he there to assuage some elite conscience? Well, if you believe that meritocracy is a sham, then you can but draw conclusions closer to the second. Even with an editor, I don’t have that access. I have helped people get that access and, yes, I am an aphasiac and, yes, I am aggressive, but that isn’t the primary reason why. I am not bitter about this either. If I got in that deep, like a few of my friends from similar backgrounds have and are, I would be even more limited in what I say. Instead being frustrated about having to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad two minutes hate (on both sides), I would have to pick how I defended our continued relationship with a party that doesn’t deliver shit and hasn’t since the 1930s.

As it is, I get to get play a role and an important one which is good for a guy from a central GA working class background with a communication disability (which I don’t generally play up). In fact, even the regional access to capital is often not dealt with: being poor but promising in a major city affords more access to ways out of poverty than being so in central GA. In central GA, there isn’t the wealth or the guilt for such noblesse oblige from our haute bourgeois oligarchs or their well-invested middle managers.

This brings me to another point, which you would know if you listen to my podcasts, but not if you just read this: my criticism of things like the PMC thesis isn’t to dismiss it. It’ss actually SUPER important, but because of that, I want to be coherent and watertight. The above is WHY it is super-important. Incoherent frameworks are easily attacked and legitimately so, but there is sociological reality to the fact that a precarious strata of professionals and their children are interested in representing leftist interests instead of liberal ones. Furthermore, many do misrepresent their origins. “Common podcasters” and “politicians with working class backgrounds” (because they had to do the common middle-class thing and take a gig during college) with Ivy League credentials and rich, connected patrons will fool you. If you are mad at Jack Vance for hiding how he broke out of the working class (good luck in a military gig, access to a state senator who helped him get into good schools in addition to having the grades) then you have to be mad at people like AOC who had the help of Ted Kennedy for pretending to be Jenny from the Block. It is not to say that AOC didn’t earn her position; it isn’t all that relevant. Even with hard work, you need access and ways to get it. I am not mad about it; I realize this is how this works, but I am not going to lie to you about it.

I also know that most people who “earn” their way up to have to pick up these narratives to maintain themselves. They really believe them because that is a circle of exposure, but they also NEED to believe them to continue to climb up. You don’t need to believe them though if you don’t have that access. You don’t need to think you have an actual relationship with these people or that they represent you. “It’s good to have people to project possibility unto.” True, but it also a way to hide that YOU still don’t really have that possibility.

Two generations ago–in the time of better politicians and better elites—we had congresspeople without degrees or without being billionaires. Good luck with that now. Good luck even getting a job at a think-tank from a state school, even if you have perfect scores and can prove yourself smarter than well-connected Ivy Leaguers. Cultural capital works this way. Look at “pragmatism”. Even the far left screams “pragmatism” when it fails to deliver, whether it was with the Five-Year Plan or with the Democrats. Fine, but don’t pretend to be investing in ruthless criticism if that all exists. You are very much thinking you can tame the dragon without any evidence that it’s likely. Thus, ultimately, to try to save this possibility, the most radical-seeming critics of society actually are protecting elements of the status quo.

This is the necessary black pill to swallow in order not to give up on change. It is the bitter water you must drink not to die of thirst, hoping for there to be sweet water at the mirage in the distance. It means you have to give away something to which you have invested a considerable amount of your time and identity into. Just admit it to yourself, and then you may be able to make a change, or, at least, if not, not be invested in people–despite even their real intentions–not doing so.

In times of plague and riots, a personal update.

Today is peaceful here in SLC, and I have work today to finish off my courses for my students. I have been reflecting though that even here things broke out. We have had police violence, mostly against the homeless and protestors, but mostly what we have here is police apathy. People have disappeared here in SLC–people my friends know–the police did almost nothing. Every Dine nation person I have met here has lost someone in the COVID crash, and many have lost several elders. It also really hit me how bad a lot of the reservations are in terms of services. We are talking infrastructure-for-indigenous-people-of-rural-southern-Mexico kind of bad. Settler colonialism, under-autonomy, and needing the approval of US Congress means it’s hard to get appropriations and jurisdiction to do much on those lands. Most of the US apparatus has been governed by the states quietly and increasingly since the 1970s; in a way this is the way it was designed to run, but almost no business exists within one state’s line.
 
But every Dine person I know has lost someone–every single one. Probably not that different for Ute and Paiute people either, but I don’t know as many of them. Since re-opening for business two weeks ago, we have had a spike and cases and in death, but compared to other cities, SLC death rates are mild compared to our infection rates. Yet more Latinos have the disease than whites now in raw numbers in a state that is about 14% Latino. Everyone is angry and grieving about something. My mother has cancer back in GA and my step-father is living in a trailer in the backyard as to not infect her. They are both over sixty. My mom is an ex-nurse, one of my brothers is an unemployed roadie living with them, and my step-dad a mechanic. Now, I am not particularly close to my family. I left GA ten years ago, but only two of my brothers turned things around from themselves after the last economic downturn. The reasons for that are complicated and frankly I am not going to blame it all on society, but I have seen the “Hillbilly Elegy” shit a lot in my real life. I know we may disagree with the reasoning of that author’s solutions, but his description of the world is apt and I am kind of tired of people from more privileged backgrounds arguing with me about it.
 
I never much believed in Bernie salvation. I thought it MIGHT be a release valve. But Bernie would not be able to get his party in line because the donors wouldn’t be in line. I was skeptical that he had support in the black official Democrat circles in the South. Most black men in my state don’t vote and something like 40-50% percent of them can’t because of felon charges. That also affects a ton of poor and working-class whites. For all the talk about how reactionary the South is, and it is, people know their interests there. My step-dad is not a racial progressive and was opposed to Democrats most of his life, but voted for Obama and opposed Trump, even though I am pretty sure the man hates Hilary Clinton. He is not a liberal, and he is mad as hell at them too. He was a mechanic with three medically compromised kids, and retirement is more difficult for him because he kept us alive. It is as simple as that. If you dig into most people, you can get to the story.
Now, I realize I am normally Mr. History and Mr. Theory. Here are some things you are going to have to look at for a moment. I am explaining why I think this happened. People are angry and the police are the arm of the state. Yes, people are particularly angry at the way black people are disproportionately killed by the police for often minor offenses. But the support POC are getting is only ideological and from activists and liberals, but poor white people are also threatened by the cops. Fuck, increasingly middle-class white people are. That is the shift and I suspect I could find stats to back it up.
 
However, let me talk about the steam-with-no-piston-box problem, and the people without the skills or ideological vision to do anything. I am not Marx-shaming the rioters and the revolt. I am glad people finally fight the boot on their neck. It also exposes that even when trying to protect the POC protestors, Liberals spin narratives that play right into 100-year-old conservative tropes and doubt the threat that cops pose to even middle-class white people. The term “shitlib” gets thrown around a lot. That said, leftists don’t have places for this to go other than back into the streets and into uncontrollable destructive spasms. That does lead to reaction and scares people. Historically, for that not to happen, natural and spontaneous militancy has to have a place to go.
 
I am also seeing the same tired tropes about diversifying the police. While data may unreliable, almost no data or even anecdotal support tells you that a police force representing you is less likely to kill you. Even in the major events that caused riots, the outlier was Ferguson, which had a mostly white police force: the other three cops involved in killing George Floyd were of color. Most of the cops in the Maryland instance that provoked riots were of color. Liberals’ misunderstandings don’t fix structures of power and overpoliced neighborhoods. For all the talk of structural racism, many of the solutions proposed, for police reform and diversification, don’t understand the problem. The same is true of cops supporting the protests–tactically that may be good for both sides, but it misses the point.
 
However, let me go back to that lack of piston box. Unleashing the people’s power without goals, aims, and discipline leads to the power often being diffused into the air. It was good for people to remember they have power, but it’s got to go somewhere. Furthermore, for all the bad actors, black looters, and outside agitator talk, and for all the talk of boogaloos and proud boys–who are real but are so tiny as to be insignificant in this–that is nonsense. But steam with no piston box attracts the energy of lumpen and despised folks without giving them anything other than their legitimate rage. So the two days of targets were strategic, but then whatever is at hand. Places that find and start having piston boxes will in better shape than those who don’t.
 
Insurrections normally and historically end in a bloodbath. Liberals mucking this up are, in their own dumbass way, kind of trying to avoid it, but politicians are trying to save their own asses. That is what I mean when I say riots are a force of nature when they get moving. There are so many different groups and actions and no direct call. Demands, if made at all, are often moral and inchoate.
 
So I have understood why people are breaking things and I think a lot of the calls for them to be “more organized” are trying to control a force that can’t be. But we should have had something for these forces to organize towards that didn’t try to subordinate them to whatever ideology or NGO agenda was at hand.
 
So in the next few days and months, we will see if the shift is towards something new or if they will go from Watts riots into Nixonland, except that we are already in farce version of Nixonland, so where are social forces to go? When all institutions seemed bankrupt, what institutions emerge?

A few observations on US politics

Back to politics as baseball: Outside from Bernie people who think their influence is larger than it was. Biden odds seem to be kind of based on your demographics as anything else: a lot of people in blue-state urban areas seem to still think he’s going to win, a lot of people in red-state urban areas (which can be just as liberal) think he is likely to lose. Objectively, it’s a wash: Biden does complicate Trump’s map uniquely, but Biden still isn’t doing as well as you think and while progressives seem to think the average person blames Trump for the pandemic–the average apolitical voter seems to see it as natural disaster and the average conservative voter as maybe China’s fault. This does mitigate against the effect of a massive recession from an external shock. Incumbency advantage in the US is also extremely high even in periods of low approval ratings. I suppose that is why Biden polls marginally better than Trump but prediction markets give Trump a slight edge.

Notice in both scenarios the popular vote or a general mandate isn’t even in the picture. Voter turn-out is likely to be low in November due to what is being predicted as a possible second wave of the pandemic. Also given who actually follows social distancing guidelines, this probably helps the GOP in general. While people voting against Trump will be high amongst Dems, people truly voting for Biden as a positive motivator will be low. We know this because if it were not the case: there would not have been so many challenges for so long. This has historically been a deal-breaker for the establishment choice of Democrat candidates regardless of mid-term. I am not calling this one, but I am urging people to really look at the game being played.

A lot of radicals really mistook their endorsement of Sanders and grow of faith for Sanders among themselves as the growth of faith for Sanders in the general. This was a mistake and Sanders had less of the vote than he did in 2016 despite more media organs and clearer early victories than before. There were also more splits amongst moderates.

Since 2000, so most of my adult life, American politics seems to be about how tribes of the commentariat can delude themselves. Maybe it has been than way since JFK, who knows.

Pandemic Reflection

Another day, another low magnitude earthquake.  They have peppered my day for over a month since we had 5.7 erupt out of  Magna from a faultline, no one suspected exists.  So this morning, I shot up from my bed wondering, yet again, if someone hit the build with a car or if the earth was burping up frakking pressure or the afterbirth of the giant volcano nearby in Wyoming.

Forcing me up for the day to drag myself to my computer to grade reflections on A Raisin in the Sun and Macbeth.  While I feel somewhat privileged to have a job right now–in fact, two of them that I can do from home, the screentime gets exhausting and one starts to take pleasure in small things.   Rye toast with good Irish butter and lavender jelly.  Finding a good transfer of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to watch for free so I return a favor to a friend on their podcast.

While grading this morning and talking to my partner I realized that podcasting culture has replaced blogging culture the way Tik-Tok has replaced actually socializing for high school students.  My partner has set up a barbell in the living room among my shelves of poetry and history books, giving my small city apartment the feel of terrible 90s boutique business: gym plus library and cafe.  Despite the watch-word of social distancing, this would be a strange vision even in normal times.

Dropping that digression for a second, however, brings me back to blog culture. One of the things had haunts teachers write now is dropping literacy scores:  students can read but without extended executive function and not particularly well.   While literacy rates have been largely stagnant for a few decades–the gains have been largely in at-risk populations such as racial minority groups and “free and reduced” lunch populations–they actually declined in the years since 2014.  People rush to blame political decisions, but the relaxing of reforms didn’t work but neither did either Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” nor Obama’s “Race to the Top.”   “Innovations” in charter schools didn’t fix it either. Technology, which even I used to think was going to be a key to increasing access and capacity, seems to have been neutral or even damaging to gains.

What does that have to do with blog culture?  The blogging culture of the aughts was interesting, seemingly developing out of a mixture of journaling and early social media, there was a kind of brief renaissance in journaling.  Facebook entered in and so did Myspace, but the writing was largely shared through notes and through sharing links.   This lead to a boom in writing but the bust came fast.   The monetization of link-sharing algorithms, the rise of Instagram and Snapchat, and micro-blogging really seemed to suck the life out of things.  Still, ideas and news were spreading faster and faster right?

Apparently not.  While millennials in America read more than their last generational processors, who watched a lot more television, that has shifted down to the next cohort.  Youtube dominates.  While youtube seems infinitely useful to education, it also contains its opposite: charismatic misinformation served up by math-gods. One wonders if the entire media landscape was not a sprint for current social distancing.

Podcasting culture seems to be a stop-gap between blogging and Youtube.  Podcasting requires more executive function and you don’t have to be physically charismatic to do it.  It’s dialogical, but also leads to the strange obsession of this age, commentary. Commentary culture was, of course, a major part of blogging culture too.  Hell, even Whit Stillman in the 1980s, mocked upper-class tendency to be obsessed with commentary and not what was being commented on: It comes up in Metropolitan as well upper-middle-class obsessions with obscure utopian socialist figures.  This gets accelerated in podcasting as well as textual commentary.  It becomes a kind of secular version of the shared bible-study group for whatever text is being commented upon.

It’s a good substitute for alienation in ways that blogging, which entails the far more lonely act of writing is not.

Waking up in an apartment, teaching to screen, and moving on, however, shows the real limits this has for relieving alienation.  Furthermore, while I think it is far to easy to blame the technology, the declines in literacy in the developed world seem paired with an overreliance on these technologies.  As the old and oft-repeated saying goes, correlation is not causation, but as the statistician retorts, “correlation does imply there may be causation there somewhere.”

 

Hindsight is 2020: Reflections from an Unfolding Difficult Time

Prose by C. Derick Varn 

In the late aughts, in the slow humidity of Macon, Georgia, I used to keep a new hardcover copy of Joan Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by bed.  I was living in up-stairs of a run-down old house parceled into cheap apartments near Mercer University aimed, I believe, to capture some of the law student loan cash in the form of rents.  It’s didn’t.  I was a teacher and my wife-at-the-time—a phrase rightly linked with dubious men adjacent to patriarchy-or-whatever-ism one would use for male narcissism—was an auto-pawn manager.  The apartment was full of books in milk cartoons and cheap laminate, press wood bookshelves.   We are in the crawling muck of class aspiration and I was a poet who had published more in my teens than I had since getting MFA.   The whole reek of was mild—although not exactly quiet—desperation.

Flash forward nine years and I am speaking to my co-editor over a shitty internet skype connection on an I-pad for a podcast/youtube video on Joan Didion.  My voice is strained and if you can find the recording on Youtube still, brassy and higher pitched than my voice is on most recording. I have defensive of Didion—against the cultural turn against her and her privilege that was inevitable after three books of essays on her grief. I was going through my own grief and at the time not talking about it. 

I lived across from an Egyptian prison in Maadi.  I was not allowed to take photographs out of my window and post them on social media.   I had lost my working visa in a dispute between my employer and government in an attempt to reconcile a political promise without losing labor was allowed to stay in the country.   My partner, whom I had secretly married priorly, was alone in Wyoming, driving through the snow into Salt Lake City, to get treatment for stage-four melanoma.  She did not know much of my plight and I was literally two continents and an ocean away from hers.  I had supplemented my time with podcasts—something that I did for free at this point in my life even if it is a side gig now—but I had no real equipment and was on the internet that was often unable to consistently play videos from youtube.  Like the old Soviet and Italian cars I saw as Taxis in the Cairo streets, it felt strange back in time.  Yet I was clearly privileged to have these problems:  the Egyptian authorities would sometimes check my passport and let me be.  Even after the church bombing in Maadi and the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, I was largely left alone.

My apartment was cheap by American standards and after the crashing of the local currency, I paid a few hundred dollars for it.  It has four beds and a master bedroom, tacky furniture and decor out of a particular faux-rich style of the 1980s and a few wall-hangings for clearly Muslim families.  The four beds were because this was a small apartment—Egyptian families were often large and middle-class families could have a two-or-even-three wives taking caring six-to-eight kids.  I felt alone because I was one man with a partner in America, teaching in my partner’s old position, in a politically tense country.  At night, sometimes, I would have someone drive me alone to edge of the desert and I would drink local beer and watch nothing the sands until the particulate dust made it too hard for me to see.

So I don’t know if my voice was brittle for worry for my then-partner or a particularly terrible internet connection and speaking at odd hours, probably after drinking too much and in pain in stomach from complications from a typhoid bout I had in Mexico.  But I defended Didion against charges of her “problematic nature” perhaps too hard. 

What I have always loved about writers like Didion—even in her old age—was an ice-cold hostility to the way we lie to ourselves.  As a person constantly ask to parse the finer points of history and ideology—a poet who studied philosophy and anthropology and, once or twice, taught critical theory—I also distrusted those eschatological narratives and models we are given to spin to make our lives make sense or to limit the damage that contingency or grief or give us. 

It’s not as ironic that these two contradictory impulses emerge in the same person.  Indeed, the Marxist jargon that would emerge imminently to the occasion, is it is dialectical: the urge to construct grand theories of history and economics, to speak generalizations that can start to clarify but if reduce to simple slide-of-hand of language and abstractions can say less than nothing.  In “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.),” Didion writes that she is comfortable “with the Michael Laski’s of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” I both recoil and identify with Laski, despite my sectarian affiliations having never been exactly in the same ideological checkbox, and with Didion’s skepticism of his faith.  I have been the weaver of opiates to the people, the voice that helps people find hope in the fetishization and abstractions of life, to clear out the painstaking ideology to replace with it a new one, but I have also been the perpetual skeptic.  The person who trusts relationships over ideas—because people betray you but ideas can have you betray ourself. 

I have spent years mimicking the turgid and tedious writing style of theorists. I remember in 2005, my MFA advisor telling me, “I don’t normally tell students this but read more fiction and poetry and less theory.” When I set to eat with him four years later, on the precipice of my first divorce and leaving, for what I thought was forever but what turned out to be a little under a decade, teaching in the United States, and heading to South Korea to teach a university there. He said, “You seem so much more together now.  Your desperation seems to have matured.”  He was right about the second part but utterly wrong about the first.

This is the beginning of reopening my writing. I mostly write poetry and talk theory and history.  Lately, more history. I teach high school literature, which is something that I won’t say much on, except that I understand why almost as many writers had contempt for their English teachers as loved them.   Reading Didion a decade-and-half-ago, I lost a lot of my will to write prose that wasn’t highly theoretical or political.   Debunking this or that trend in education, writing about religious inanity, then shifting to socialism and graduate school misuse of socialist and post-social theory, then critique “the left” from the perspective of “the left.”   What amazes me about this, despite reams of turgid and sometimes inchoate prose I produced, is that I actually don’t know that these coherence models of the universe tell as much as we think, even if they are true.   That yearning to be correct, to have an answer, to say something that makes the details and facts and interpretation, and the sad errata of human understanding seem redeemable is a good impulse, but it is often the impulse for individuals to weave stories, to lie, and for collectives of people to believe lies.

To make the stories we tell about yourselves true: to be honest about why we are pained when speaking about aging mid-20th century American writer when we are in the desert or to admit that we were very lucky to turn the frustration with public school education into a way to travel the world. To admit that our politics come from our social class backgrounds, our regional interests, and the accumulated history of family and ethnic heritage, more than anything like a rational decision.  To admit that our systems of exploring this are often fraught, not as coherent as their commentary, and obtuse. To look into the eyes of our notions of history and admit that maybe there is no brain behind the eyes.  This is hard.  Didion, whatever her faults and there are probably many, inspired me to write honestly about it.

Ultimately, we all know that the cost of drinking your own kool-aid is dying from the poison you put in it.