The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 4, Part 2: On Parrhesia

For the first time in my adult life, I cut someone out of my life over politics.  He was one of several talking about how Trump voters deserved no compassion and neither the demographics that didn’t vote.  I pointed out privately that a lot of the demographics that didn’t vote were the people who he is fearing reprisals against.  The headlines say it all:  AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTER TURNOUT ‘LOW’ IN KEY STATES.  It’s not just that working class whites sat on their hands, but even large numbers of black women did, a demographic that the Democrats have assumed were loyal as butter.

He called called me privileged. I am privileged now, but he lives in a suburb of a rich city, his kids go to rich school district that is majority white and Asian, and he grew up in one as well.  He told me that I couldn’t understand what it meant to black, and I kindly informed him that as non-African American biracial male from upper middle class background neither could he. We both only knew things by analogy and vicariously.  That there was no magical awareness going to come out of threatening people who could barely get PALE Grants to go Community colleges and still couldn’t afford it about the privileges but that they probably could see what some of the African American were going through. Not that this would magically make racism go away, but people will work together if they believe it will help them eat.

Eventually, after he said I was probably a racist anyway, and I asked why he didn’t send his kids to the an inner-city school so he could live closer to his job. We denounced each other. I cut him out.  I don’t believe in cutting people out because bubbling yourself because you don’t want to hear things and you don’t want to see things that are uncomfortable is a large part of how these things happen.  Yet when you can’t talk to someone because both sides assume bad faith instantly, even among people who in general trust each other otherwise, you have a problem.

I cut a few more people out who said the same thing, but mostly I tried to imagine why people feel so threatened. What they think they could accomplish. So I started talking to liberals about articles about declining outcomes for rural America.

Then I hear a liberal shaming rural people for shopping at Wal-Mart and ruining their own economy, and thus they are partially to blame for the decimation of rural America.  Not that the Farm Bill created perverse incentives for mono-cropping and mega-farm agriculture, and that this largely concreted non-soy, non-corn crops into a few valleys in California that are basically desert where they have to import water from Colorado and Nevada.  Not that for off-shoring and then automation moved those factory jobs away and all that was left was call centers, Wal-Marts and the military.  Not that the small town stores weren’t even that good at providing jobs anyway which is what led to Wal-Mart being able to force city councils into really disadvantaged tax incentives where often sells tax paid into Wal-Mart is not given to the local tax base but effectively kept by Wal-Mart. If is there was a choice for a few communities in the 1980s, there was NO CHOICE for de-industrialized Rust Belt and de-agriculturalized Southern cities in the 1990s. The localities that did where in rich states, with niche production like Tech, where there are monopoly productions on products like software and the arts, and thus they faired well and could offer to pass laws to protect against Wal-Mart.

This actually did make headway, and the person actually got my point, but only after we went through the rounds of mockery, moral outrage, calling each other stupid, etc.  It’s hard work. No one wants to do it.  I don’t blame activists of any variety of getting tired of it.  I often feel like an old man yelling at clouds and alienating friends.

Another example. Same issues with rural poverty but I was saw somewhat say, “Why don’t they just join a Union” and recounted their parents in rural Pennsylvania being in a Union and remembering the struggles they face.  Perhaps I should just offer screenings of Matewon, but there are reasons  because the South and parts of the lower west have effectively always been “right to work” states, and many employers ban unions outright. Furthermore, public sector unions are often illegal, and trade unions function more like licensing guilts with insurance benefits. Meaning there aren’t many unions to join, and the ability to collective bargain, etc, is weaken due to the structure of the industry.

This is not something people want to hear because it makes an easy answer much harder.  Chambers of Commerce colluded with Wal-Mart?  No Unions to join, and the unions that do exist don’t bargain anyway?   No everyone who sat on their hands is an enemy even if there is real danger out there.

Yet this comes to one of the few interest concepts Foucault wrote about: Parrhesia. In classical texts, particularly Plato, rhetoric and parrhesia opposed.  This is why the normal translation in English, “free speech” is misleading.  The opposition between rhetoric and parrhesia is not its civic limitation, but that rhetoric is stylized speech whereas open speech. It’s value is in its danger and even though it was key to civic life in ancient Athens, it was also a good way to get exiled if one were not careful. Still deliberation was key to bot the ekklesia and the agora, but not to the courts of law. 

There have been tons of rants about “PC” culture.  Ironically, this too is the realm of rhetoric, not parrhesia, as PC culture rants have a style and a certain blockage to truth. In Platonic dialectics, which have a very different meaning that the German Idealist or Marxist one, is based on two tellings of the truth. Freely.  Now, Plato does not really allow for Socrates debaters to have truly free speech that would undo Socrates except for one: Parmenides and . The one time one feels like Plato is willing to let Socrates truly lose.

Regardless, there is a regulation, perhaps coming from the contemporary ideas in identity political discourse that because derailing someone’s subjectivity is a way to silence them, then actually disagreeing on facts is derailing subjectivity. IN such a political climate, Parrhesia is impossible because the speech can never be unguarded. It doesn’t take a psychologist or a Plato to see how this would lead to confirmation bias and empty rhetoric rather quickly .

The moralizing impulse comes from places of concern, but the ignorance does not want to be discovered. No one wants to have someone else explain things to them because often it is done to silence, but take this just one step out:  how much are limiting by assuming that one’s subjectivity actually entails you to knowledge because of your individual qualia. Can you learn?  Can you be challenged? When political wins shift because you can’t see it, do see it?   Do you go through several stages of grief: pleading, threatening, then accepting.  Will you let acceptance be capitulation?  Will it matter?

So what is the relationship of Parrhesia to truth, Foucault puts it thusly:

There are two types of parrhesia which we must distinguish. First,there is a pejorative sense of the word not very far from “chattering” and which consists in saying any or everything one has in mind without qualification. This pejorative sense occurs in Plato, for example, as a characterization of the bad democratic constitution where everyone has the right to address himself to his fellow citizens and to tell them anything — even the most stupid or dangerous things for the city. This pejorative meaning is also found more frequently in Christian literature where such “bad” parrhesia is opposed to silence as a discipline or as the requisite condition for the contemplation of God. As a verbal activity which reflects every movement of the heart and mind, parrhesia in this negative sense is obviously an obstacle to the contemplation of God.

Most of the time, however, parrhesia does not have this pejorative meaning in the classical texts, but rather a positive one. “parrhesiazesthai” means “to tell the truth.” But does the parrhesiastes say what he thinks is true, or does he say what is really true? To my mind, the parrhesiastes says what is true because he knows that it is true; and he knows that it is true because it is really true. The parrhesiastes is not only sincere and says what is his opinion, but his opinion is also the truth. He says what he knows to be true. The second characteristic of parrhesia, then, is that there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth.

It would be interesting to compare Greek parrhesia with the modern (Cartesian) conception of evidence. For since Descartes, the coincidence between belief and truth is obtained in a certain (mental) evidential experience. For the Greeks, however, the coincidence between belief and truth does not take place in a (mental) experience, but in a verbal activity, namely, parrhesia. It appears that parrhesia, in his Greek sense, can no longer occur in our modern epistemological framework.

I should note that I never found any texts in ancient Greek culture where the parrhesiastes seems to have any doubts about his own possession of the truth. And indeed, that is the difference between the Cartesian problem and the Parrhesiastic attitude. For before Descartes obtains indubitable clear and distinct evidence, he is not certain that what he believes is, in fact, true. In the Greek conception of parrhesia, however, there does not seem to be a problem about the acquisition of the truth since such truth-having is guaranteed by the possession of certain moral qualities:when someone has certain moral qualities, then that is the proof that he has access to truth—and vice-versa. The “parrhesiastic game” presupposes that the parrhesiastes is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and secondly, to convey such truth to others.

If there is a kind of “proof” of the sincerity of the parrhesiastes, it is his courage. The fact that a speaker says something dangerous — different from what the majority believes— is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes. If we raise the question of how we can know whether someone is a truth-teller, we raise two questions. First, how is it that we can know whether some particular individual is a truth-teller; and secondly, how is it that the alleged parrhesiastes can be certain that what he believes is, in fact, truth. The first question — recognizing someone as a parrhesiastes — was a very important one in Greco-Roman society, and, as we shall see, was explicitly raised and discussed by Plutarch, Galen, and others. The second skeptical question, however, is a particularly modern one which, I believe, is foreign to the Greeks.

The truth is in the danger in telling.  Even honest dialogue can be dangerous.  Maybe most especially dangerous, exactly when it is when you need it because that is the time you will least want it.

This kind of free speech is deeper than just the legal right to say whatever: it is the courage to say the truth at a cost. It is not just to offend to do so. It is not be shocking for its own sake. It is for words to matter because the history and the weight, and the possible cost, of doing so.

Sancho Panza must ride with us.

The Dogmatic Slumber of Neil Degrasse Tyson


(Trigger warning:  Hyperbole was used in the making of this polemic, check references for the substance behind that hyperbole. Thank you.)

Around ten years ago, when Neil Degrasse Tyson was primarily writing on Pluto and people didn’t realize while he railed against God, Richard Dawkins was still more or less an middle class Anglican prig, my best friend got me a signed copy of Tyson’s book on Pluto.  I still cherish that book, partly because she gave it to me and partly because I enjoyed the lucidity of  Tyson’s writing on astrophysics and classification.  However, over the past five years, Tyson’s attacks on philosophy, mistakes about history, and generally obscurantism in the some undefined ur-form of “reason”(TM) has increasingly led even a lot of the science promotion community to look at him with scant-eyed trepidation.

One of my favorite non-continental philosophy and psychology podcasts, Very Bad Wizards, finally took the piss out of Tyson’s Reflections on Rationalia.   Taller Sommers and  David Pizarro tear Tyson’s assertions apart.  His chief sins being conflation of normative morality with descriptive anthropology, leaving the good undefined so one can skip the meta-ethics and other hard questions, some of the assertions about experimentation being both impossible and circular, and generally being wrong about the universality of morality as it actually exists.

Physicists often are like this in assertions about philosophy as both Steven Hawking and Laurence Krauss have also done, but then again  engineers are the most likely to become religious extremists too, and belief in rational policy without defining the variables strongly enough has plagued radicals from Utopians like Technocracy, Inc to left Leninists, like one sees in some of the earlier optimistic writings of Amadeo Bordiga. Part of the problem, which  Sommers and Pizarro hint at, is that notions of rationality around people like Michael Shermer, Sam Harris (whom Sommers and Pizarro have more patience for), Richard Dawkins, and Neil Degrasse Tyson are–perhaps deliberately–extremely thin.  Is a reason: a justification or a piece of data? Tyson switches between both, which is fine in common speech, but could be deleterious in an ethical debate.

For one, the above apostles of ur-Reason conflate the scientific method–which itself is a simplification that does not exist in actual practice as one “method”–with reasoning. This conflates empirical thinking with a synthesis of empirical and logical formal thinking.  I have said in the past that the scientific methods (note the plural) work because they pit formalization from the pre-modern idealist philosophers (including some of precursors to modern science like Descartes) with empirical modes of observation in an almost dialectical fashion. However, we know how Tyson feels about the philosophy and sociology of science, so, of course, this ignores that.  (Although the fact even someone like Alan Sokal readily admits that the experimental methods and even falsification don’t work to describe all of science because both historical sciences like evolutionary biology and statistical inferences are key to scientific thinking, which are necessarily un-falsifiable without nearly infinite replication, should clue those above cheerleaders for Ur-Science in). Often, like Sam Harris, there is a pragmatism that refuses to define the “good” it is seeking:  Harris tries harder than Tyson, but even Harris just assumes that flourishing is the answer and presumes to operate on the loosest of an anthology to medicine, whose applied “evidence-based” paradigm is often largely based on confusing causation with correlation because at least then one can try an intervention. Then one brings in Max Weber: instrumental reason, value-based/belief-based reason, affective reason, and  ingrained habituation.  Tyson switches often between instrumental and affective reason as if they are the same thing.  Psychologically, Weber’s distinction may not hold, but again, one needs more clarity when justifying the epistemology around policy. While these modes of “reason” all work on a variety of logics and are mixed in most actual use, their goals are different and so, then, must their variables and kinds of “experimentation.”

Most pragmatism, like what Tyson is describing, then is basically begging the question and conflating different types of reason.  To make it worse, there isn’t even one clear unified system of logical formalization to base all this one (syllogistic, prepositional, first and second order, modal, predicate logic, set theory, dialectical reasoning).  If Tyson would quit posturing to be above the humanities, he would know that.  Ultimately, this refusal to deal with the fact all these ideational complications are unsexy, Tyson becomes an example of thing he hates, dogmatic slumber.

Thus the decline in his writing and public thinking in the past decade as he moves furtherer and furtherer away from limiting himself to topics of physics and astrophysics.


Oh look, Tyson doing the meta-ethics he claims is unnecessary. Sure, it’s a simple version based on sentimental assertion and not pure reason, but don’t point that out.

Adventures in (not really) travel blogging.. or why I don’t try to write a popular blog

Over the past six years I have lived in different countries and kept private journals, wrote poetry about moving, learned tons of trivia about communists uprisings, Korean peasant revolts, and the long relationship between NAFTA, the PRI, and the cartel wars in Mexico.  I have learned about the absolute perils of Japanese cyber-bidets, the myriad ways a bathroom may not work, and how to avoid falling until the wet floor in a Turkish squad toilet. One learns to walk in ways that one doesn’t accidentally telegraph either pick pocket me, I am totally too daft to know” or “I am a creepy American or European sex tourist, and I am totally not fighting my obvious balding and weird post-Christian guilt in the areas of some ‘exotic’ sex worker I am boring into an early grave.”   (Side note: Both are generally achieved by traveling with a partner).

Everyone writes about traveling, some people blog about traveling, and before my partner was diagnosed with cancer, we used to watch hours of these things to get tips and make fun of bad advice.  Or to mock make-shift half-assed anthropologists who mistake a few tourist insights into “deep knowledge’ of the culture.  Of course, I always sound like I too have “deep knowledge” of the culture, but this is mainly from pretending to know some of the language and drinking (coffee or alcohol depending on where) with locals. In fact, if one wants to learn a language, meet cool people, and have allies so you don’t deny–learning backgammon or Goh or chess and drink with locals.  Eat the local food, and deal with the cholera later.  (Honestly, you probably won’t have to deal with cholera, but then again, I did nearly die of typhoid once, and have taken month long courses of antibiotics from over-zealous love of street food).

It’s the call to prayer here, which you learn to enjoy in the middle east.  It’s more melodious than sand, and has more rhythm than the local hustling and bustling in the streets, gesturing, and engaging in the street theatre of negotiation. You’ll probably learn how to be earnestly OVER dismissive or defensive of your home culture–particularly if that culture speaks English as the first language.  You will bore your friends with you endless prattling about “real <insert place here>” and fail to realize that traditions you learned are probably only two generations old anyway, and the local folk wisdom is probably, as Hobshawm used to tell us, invented tradition anyway.

Although you really can see where that guy got Trotsky in the head with a pickaxe in Mexico City.  It’s generally less busy than Frida Kahlo’s house after that Julie Taymore movie anyway.

This is why I don’t travel write very often: people got pulled into the exoticism and think you are showing them the truth: the Ur-form of local authenticity, which you better not get too close to for fear of cultural appropriation call-outs when you return to states.  People will think you are being helpful by telling people where a kahab house is just off the beaten path of the Egyptian market in Istanbul saved you a few lira, and you got bahlava way cheaper.  Of course, by the time the viewers get there, your video has gone viral and the prices are jacked up.

Or that time you helped destroy the local economy of a small village in Guatemala by overtipping taxi drivers and making service industry pay more than being a local doctor, leading to the precipitous in locals receiving medical training.

So travel, write about it, and love it.  But don’t pretend to be offering anyone some insider knowledge, because if it works, you may be undoing the very thing you love and if it doesn’t, you may just be a jackass, overcoming a cocaine problem, and writing about food in future countries snidely.


Concerns about “Toward a communist electoral strategy.”

Donald Parkinson’s recent polemic and call for an electoral strategy for communist politics, Toward a communist electoral strategy.  strikes a delicate balance in the abstentionism and electoralism debates since the Second International, but still leaves many questions for those of us agnostic on the historical value of electoralism in its congressional or parliamentary modes somewhat unsatisfied.  In my response to Parkinson’s call, I wish to highlight some points of concern, skepticism, and differing historical interpretation that should be addressed by anyone seeking a mass party and a minimum program for such a party.

While Parkinson is entirely correct his highlighting that Marx did fully support the tactical participation in elections in 1850 and his provisional support of for elements of the Erfurt program of 1891 (a program that was not fully articulated until after his death) indicates that Marx never supported abstentions from elections.  However, it should be noted that the tone of Marx’s writings on parliamentary participation seems to have moderate between 1850’s address to the communist league and his (originally unpublished) writings in The Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875.  This seems particularly evident in Section IV of the Critique:

It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”.

The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of tthe “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.

While by no means advocating the abstentionism one often sees in both “anti-Revisionist” and Left-communist polemics, particularly after the World Wars, there is a skepticism about the scope and limitations of participation in myriad bourgeois democracies would actually encourage.    In many ways, it seems clear that Marx sees the democratic republic as a pre-condition but not an answer to the issue of dictatorship of the proletariat:

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.

But one thing has been forgotten. Since the German Workers’ party expressly declares that it acts within “the present-day national state”, hence within its own state, the Prusso-German Empire — its demands would indeed be otherwise largely meaningless, since one only demands what one has not got — it should not have forgotten the chief thing, namely, that all those pretty little gewgaws rest on the recognition of the so-called sovereignty of the people and hence are appropriate only in a democratic republic.

Since one has not the courage — and wisely so, for the circumstances demand caution — to demand the democratic republic, as the French workers’ programs under Louis Philippe and under Louis Napoleon did, one should not have resorted, either, to the subterfuge, neither “honest” [1] nor decent, of demanding things which have meaning only in a democratic republic from a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture, already influenced by the bourgeoisie, and bureaucratically carpentered, and then to assure this state into the bargain that one imagines one will be able to force such things upon it “by legal means”.

Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic, and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion — even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism, which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.

Marx’s suspicion of vulgar Democracy remains clear even if the exact nature of his tone and critique appear slightly ambivalent to the modern reader.   it is clear that democracy is not the goal of the Marxist struggle, but would such participation in elections would be the basis for it.

However, it is also clear, while Marx pragmatically understands the dangers of calling for a properly Democratic republic would be, and that this cannot be the limit of a communist vision.

This is to say that Marx seems to be moderating his tone towards electoralism from 1850.  Furthermore, even before the an address, Marx seemed to express similar skepticism about the nature of participation in bourgeois state. In 1843, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he asserts:

As we have seen, the state exists merely as political state. The totality of the political state is the legislature. To participate in the legislature is thus to participate in the political state and to prove and actualise one’s existence as member of the political state, as member of the state. That all as individuals want to participate integrally in the legislature is nothing but the will of all to be actual (active) members of the state, or to give themselves a political existence, or to prove their existence as political and to effect it as such. We have further seen that the Estates are civil society as legislature, that they are its political existence. The fact, therefore, that civil society invades the sphere of legislative power en masse, and where possible totally, that actual civil society wishes to substitute itself for the fictional civil society of the legislature, is nothing but the drive of civil society to give itself political existence, or to make political existence its actual existence. The drive of civil society to transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society, shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.

Indeed Marx’s later writings on the topic mirror the skepticism of his earlier writings.  Electoralism then is a a tactic, not an end.  Parkinson not only admits a similar ambivalence but spells out a similar argument about the illegitimacy of contemporary politics. However, Parkinson’s answers still do not engage entirely on what this would mean:

The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.

In short, Parkinson advocates for participation in liberal, i.e bourgeois, democracy tactically, but always in opposition and as a pre-cursor for preparing the conditions for revolution.  Yet, it remains unclear what any of this entails beyond rhetoric echoing Marx’s assertions and skepticism but not entirely updating them historically.  This greatly complicates many of Parkinson’s key points:

“A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra-parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action.”

Yet many of these activities require changes in law not to be the kind of adventurism that Parkinson is warning us against.  This also, honestly, does not deal with the limitations on class unions, mutual aid societies and the credential and regulatory limitations on creating them within a legal space nor how such illegalism could be reconciled with the necessary requirements to build a mass party through electoral means.  None of these preconditions and social institutions of dual power currently exist, and so seeming working towards a electoral strategy to create them seems, at minimum, highly premature but also leads a myriad of contradictions that did not exist for either pre-1914 social Democrats or Bolsheviks. They actually did operate in an illegaism framework but also when the notion of a political party was massively different than has ever existed in the United States or in Anglosphere in general.  There is little history for such political parties, and thus new meanings for what would do would require massive education and institutional pull on the electorate.

This catch-22 means that the mass party in a  electoral system would need mass support before it could tactically use elections to get mass support.  Is abstentionism really such a tactical mistake in such a stage? The discussion of Marx above hardly makes that clear.  If one does accept this: means of preventing careerism, executive focus, and shallow political engagement as encouraged by Anglosphere’s notion of the party system where parties are primarily voter sorting mechanism without much other function than raising money for that purpose, such mechanisms much be more clearly laid out before a communist election strategy could begin in ernest.

When Parkinson asserts

While it is true aspects of 2nd international Marxism incorrectly comprehended the capitalist state and perhaps overemphasized the importance of electoral action, one could say the opposite plagues the current left which mostly fetishizes direct action. It is only “action in the streets” that vitalizes and gives consciousness to the working class; when it participates in electoral campaigns it is inert and doesn’t recognize the sham nature of the elections.

I remain skeptical here. While I will admit most forms of direct action over-fetishized and even habitual. Protesting were shows of mass force to build a fighting force more than asking politicians to be moral.  Small scale vandalism was much more disruptive to capital in the past when it sabotaged production, but most massive production is out of the reach of average anarchist to reach and subdue.  These are all true, it remains to be seen if these options are the primary ones.  The binary Parkinson posits is seemingly contradicted by the emphasis on building para-state class institutions priorly to engaging in democracy and organizational building.  In short, I certainly agree with Parkinson that: “Elections as a tactic have benefits, as does direct action. Today the left acts as if one must pick and choose between the two, yet this was not the case for Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin. All saw the need for both the ballot and the bullet to win power.” However, this seems to be focusing on two ends of a binary, neither of which  has the mass support or the institutional work has been currently done.  The catch-22 for such work seems to be almost intractable starting from either/or or both to the question of “direct action vs. electoralism” whereas the question of how to build institutions to make such a choice even viable remains unaddressed directly.

Furthermore when Parkinson asserts:

“Bourgeois elections are of course not a reliable means of determining legitimacy, but they can give the party an idea of where and how much it garners popular support. So elections can not only serve as way to win support, but also to measure it. “

This seems dubious in that large swathes of the electorate are fundamentally depoliticized and abstentionist now without any prompting on the part of any party. There are many ways to determine legitimacy which could be counted by participation in the very para-state institutions that Parkinson’s rightly sees as been essential prior to the creation of the electoral party. There are other means to take note of legitimacy and many which show much more investment in an actual socialist politics.

This is not say that cadre creation or Facebook “Likes” replaces or substitutes for eletoralism in taking account of the public and working class view, but that none of them alone answer the problem and the focus, again, seems odd given the current state of the Marxian left as both Parkinson and myself largely agree.  Hence the focus on electoralism seems premature and binary against “new Left” direct action seems also to exclude a middle that Parkinson has already admitted was necessary in the course of his call for such a strategy.

Furthermore, some of the specifics Parkinson does lay out still seem to require much, much more institutional development to achieve: “For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by a popular vote. Electoral reps can also be given party-imposed term limits more strident that those enforced by the bourgeois state.” This can only be effective if both class interests are unified and clear and the party itself has internal institutional mechanism to hold itself accountable in imposing said will. Also direct democracy has historically been subject to the whims of media reaction even within the working class since its experiments in the 1950s with ballot propositions and canton regulation. There is no reason to believe that without significant institutional and educational work, such appeals to direct democracy being a limit on a political class developing would themselves be representative of class will.

The ambivalence towards electoralism seems to have emerged particularly in the second international but was clear even prior.  While I agree with Parkinson (as well as Engels and Lenin before him) that abstentionism and outright illegalism would probably be counter-productive, I do not see that any marxist group has begun to address the key para-institutional concerns that would enable us to clarify our understandings of both political processes and the nature of the working class as it currently exists. In such a position, any talk of electoralism risks merely tailing opposition parties willing to form a government in a parliamentary context.



The Lame Necromancy of Political Sigils

If I were a magician or a Inquisitor and could magically remove the tongues and fingers of those who think they can key-broad warrior to revolution (ignoring that outside of cyber-security threats, pens may be mightier than the sword, but they are tend to be a be weaker than tank division) or take their long march through academia into the streets instead of out of it, I would ban people trying to invoke 19th and early 20th century discussions about Unions and Labor Parties as answers to contemporary political problems from the face of the North America.

This lame necromancy of trying to talk with words about Unions from pre-Taft Hartley or like the legal structures of either the US or Canada even remotely reflected that of North Europe needs to be dropped. This isn’t just a case of rebranding, although I will make an argument for that in a minute. This cuts deeper than this.  I used to call it LARPing, but this metaphor has blossomed on the inter like red algae in the Mexican gulf killing the fish of thought in droves. It is, frankly, trying to be pretend a lot of the 20th century just didn’t happen in the US.

Not that I don’t want people to read labor history, know the writings of Eugene Debs and history of the IWW, or even know debates about Unionism in the Soviet Union.  People can be benefited by this history, but what you aren’t going to do is raise the dead.   No amount of blood rites to Trotskyist newspapers or kickstarters or canvasing factory is going to be enough to have labor unions have significant power in the even OECD as a whole, much less the United States.

To quote the source of all easy knowledge:

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed the histories of union membership rates in industrialized countries from 1970 to 2003, and found that of 20 advanced economies which had union density statistics going back to 1970, 16 of them had experienced drops in union density from 1970 to 2003. Over the same period during which union density in the US declined from 23.5 percent to 12.4 percent, some counties saw even steeper drops. Australian unionization fell from 50.2 percent in 1970 to 22.9 percent in 2003, in New Zealand it dropped from 55.2 percent to 22.1 percent, and in Austria union participation fell from 62.8 percent down to 35.4 percent. All the English-speaking countries studied saw union membership decline to some degree. In the United Kingdom, union participation fell from 44.8 percent in 1970 to 29.3 percent in 2003. In Ireland the decline was from 53.7 percent down to 35.3 percent. Canada had one of the smallest declines over the period, going from 31.6 percent in 1970 to 28.4 percent in 2003. Most of the countries studied started in 1970 with higher participation rates than the US, but France, which in 1970 had a union participation rate of 21.7 percent, by 2003 had fallen to 8.3 percent. The remaining four countries which had gained in union density were Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium.

IF there is a magic rule of political revolutions, they require the participation of the 1/3 of the population. Even in the vaulted mystical realm of Western Europe, where left-liberals often seem to the think promised land is prototyped, you don’t reach those numbers. Furthermore, large scale industrial and social change actually is harder than a political revolution and generally requires closer to 50% of social mobilization. Agrarian capitalism and the transition to industrial capital in England took place over a 200 year period and involved most of the mobilization of society, fundamentally changing the nature of English class structure. It wasn’t planned–it was a confluence of Protestant reformations, limits of nobility to use extra-economic force inside of England, seizure of church poverty by the state, enclosures of the commons, and end of both the peasant and the yeoman class throughout. It also was aided by a revolution of religious zealous land holders, and then some Kings coming back and making concessions to them.  Much harder than taking control of a state house or enforcing a constitution.

What does that have to do with Unions?  Well, even in France and Germany, Union membership is approaching less than 35%.  In the US and UK, where many of these Unions were born, it is down below 20%. Furthermore, it gets worse when you look at the composition of Unions: 

  ▪ Management, professional: 11.9%
▪ Service: 9.2%
▪ Sales and office: 6.5%
▪ Natural resources, construction, and
maintenance: 15.3%
▪ Production, transportation, and
material moving: 14.8%

Services and trucking are two largest sectors of the US economy. The largest private employer is Walmart and out of the top 10 private employers–eight of them are retail services.  These workers do not make commodities and do have the same pull overproduction, so striking is not as effective.  Furthermore, they make up on 9.2% of all Union membership in the US.    Trucking is the largest employing field, and while it does have 15% union membership, a large portion of the trucking work force is

Parsing the numbers though, the bad news doesn’t end there. The military and police are huge sectors of the US employment, and police unions have been a bane of Liberals for a long time.  Military is not unionized as they do not have civilian rights, and a military welfare state reduces the need for anyway.  Left Liberals like teacher unions, although they are illegal or highly limited in many US states–in Georgia, they are technically illegal and have no right to strike–but most of their money goes to lobbying anyway.

Most of the operational budget of AFL-CIO goes to lobbying, mostly to Democrats, who generally betray them anyway because they are seen as a locked in patronage. Although the rise of Trump may have complicated that, it seems to continue.  Meanwhile, stocks make up an increasing amount of Unions  income, and Union leadership tend to make up words of 200,000 a year. 

Lastly, trade unions are one of few types of unions allowed largely in the Southern US: contractors Unions, writers unions, electrician unions.  These, however, do not function like industrial unions as they largely work to provide insurance for the members and to help with state licensing regimes. This means they operate more like medieval and early modern guilds than our picture of industrial unions.

This doesn’t even include Taft-Hartley, which gutted a lot of what we think of Unions being able to do in a labor movement: it outlawed closed shops, helped AFL-CIO kill dual unionism limiting the ability to work across various industries, killed the Wagner Acts provision on employer neutrality,  had explicit anti-communist and anti-socialist clauses, made cross coordinated strikes illegal.

All this does not include the historical ambivalence of Unions on race and immigration in the work force, which has also damaged reputations of unions in some of the most marginalized communities.

Why do you think appealing to strikes in the 1930s and ignoring things like the lost of the battle of Matewon and the end of the Wagner act can just make this history magically go away?

When we talk about US labor, we aren’t talking about a unionized work force.  In fact, only in four Nordic countries have unions made some gains and even here there have been relative declines partly over immigration.

Words don’t fix that.  They aren’t spells to resurrect a corpse.

This also means that a labor party that could access “dual power”–see my discussion with Doug Lain on this concept--and not just work for vote funneling like most modern political parties can’t depend on that model either.  No matter how much Bernie Sanders or even someone I deeply respect like Adolph Reed wants it too. In fact, as I discussed in with Tom O’Brian a few years back, this notions of a Leninist or even Kautskyist vanguard party are dependent on fundamentally different notions about what a party is than what contemporary people believe they are.  The political organizations that have been successful at dual power strategies in the modern period:  religious groups and religious-ethnic political parties.  Hamas builds schools as does the Southern Baptist convention. These groups function like older political groups that Marxists seem to think are looming somewhere in reading groups, college dorm roads, and meet-ups with the 10 local 20-somethings who are in labor unions.

The first step to admitting fixing a problem is admitting the scale of the problem. The second step is to stop magic thinking.  Let the dead bury themselves and quit trying to keep those zombies going.  It’s time to think differently about political organization. We are in the midst of watching a political realignment happen over two decades and finally begin to manifest in the US. The Overton window has moved in both directions in such a way that makes even contemporary taxonomies feel vaguely like necrophilia of old ideas.  Forms of organization from before world war 2?

Those skeletons are seeping calcium at this point.



Hell is Other People In Committees and Councils

Reading Bob Black’s reply to Bookchin’s municipalism, Anarchy After Leftism, I hit a part in Black’s “On Organization” that struck a nerve:

The first is that the vast majority of the Athenian citizen minority abtained from participation in direct democracy, just as the majority of American citizens abstain from our representative democracy. Up to 40,000 Athenian men enjoyed the privilege of citizenship, less than half of whom resided in the city itself (Walzer 1970: 17). “All the policy decisions of the polis, ” according to Bookchin, “are formu­ lated directly by a popular assembly, or Ecc/esia, which every male citizen from the city and its environs (Attica) is expected to attend” (1974: 24). In reality, the facility provid­ ed for the assembly accommodated only a fraction of them (Dahl 1990: 53-54), so most must have been expected not to attend, and didn’t. Attendance probably never exceeded 6,000, and was usually below 3,000. The only known tally of the total vote on the measure is 3,461 (Zimmern 1931: 169). And this despite the fact that many citizens were slaveowners who were thereby relieved, in whole or in part, of the need to work (Bookchin 1990: 8). And despite the fact that the prevalent ideology, which even Socrates subscribed to, “emphatically prioritized the social over the individual,” as the Dean approvingly asserts that Bakunin did (5): “as a matter of course,” the Athenians “put the city first and the individual nowhere” (Zimmern 1931: 169-170 n. 1). Even most Athenians with the time to spare for public affairs avoided political involvement.

In this respect they resembled the remnants of direct democracy in America, the New England town meetings. These originated in the Massachusetts Bay colony when the dispersal of settlements made a unitary central government impractical. At first informally, but soon formally, towns exercised substantial powers of self-government. The original form of self-government was the town meeting of all freemen, which took place anywhere from weekly to month­ly. This system still prevails, formally, in some New England towns, including those in Bookchin’s adopted state Vermont-but as a form without content. In Vermont the town meeting takes place only one day a year (special meetings are possible, but rare). Attendance is low, and declining: “In recent years there has been a steady decline in participation until in some towns there are scarcely more persons present than the officials who are required to be there” (Nuquist 1964: 4-5). The Dean has thrown a lot of fairy-dust on present-day Vermont town meetings (1987: 268- 270; 1989: 181) without ever claiming that they play any real role in governance. Indeed, Bookchin hails the town meeting’s “control” (so-called) precisely because “it does not carry the ponderous weight of law” (1987: 269): in other words, it’s just a populist ritual. By failing to either “carry the ponderous weight of law” or jettison it-tasks equally beyond its illusory authority-the town meeting legitimates those who do carry, willingly, the ponderous weight of law, the practitioners of what the Dean calls statecraft.

In modern Vermont as in ancient Athens, most people think they have better things to do than attend political meetings, because most people are not political militants like the Dean. Several sorts of, so to speak, special people flock to these get-toget:hers. These occasions tend to attract a person (typically a man) who is an ideological fanatic, a control freak, an acting-out victim of mental illness, or somebody who just doesn’t have a life, and often someone favored by some combination of the foregoing civic virtues.

Face-to-face democracy is in-your-face democracy. To the extent that the tireless typicals turn up, they discourage those not so afflicted from participating actively or returning the next time. The Dean, for instance, speaks glowingly of “having attended many town meetings over the last fifteen years” (1987: 269)-they aren’t even held where he lives, Burlington-who but a political pervo-voyeur could possibly get off on these solemn ceremonies? Some people like to watch autopsies too. The same types who’d get themselves elected in a representative democracy tend to dominate, by their bigmouthed bullying, a direct democracy too (Dahl 1990: 54). Normal non-obsessive people will often rather appease the obsessives or even kick them upstairs than prolong an unpleasant interaction with them. If face-to-face democracy means having to face democrats like Bookchin, most people would rather execute an about-face. And so the minority of political obsessives, given an institutional oppor­ tunity, tend to have their way. That was how it was in Athens, where direction came from what we might call militants, what they called demagogues: “demagogues-I use the word in a neutral sense-were a structural element in the Athenian political system [which] could not function without them” (Finley 1985: 69).

Indeed councils of an entire politiy or even an entire class generally have low turnout and are dominated by the more intangible elements such as charisma or back room dealing. Incentivizing council participation is hard and defending them harder:  the amount of defense of the workers and soldier’s councils has never been enough to fight a state apparatus, such as the crushing of the schools in Germany in 1918, or not be subsumed by a state apparatus, the incorporation and effective dismantling of the councils in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.  Attempts to use councils solely at the work place level, such as advocated by syndicalists, are now only to re-direct the focus of value, but still must expliot labor and accumulate the raw rources for capital like any capitalist enterprise.  There could easily be a decrease in labor alienation, but essentially collectivizing the management of such alienation would not effectively in it.

Michael Albert and Robin Handel’s Parecon model is not significantly different than Bookchin’s municipalism on these matters except that incentivizes participation by making ones yearly allotment for ones labor a political affair.  This, however, has obvious problems as both capitalists and people like Black would point out:  it would constantly need to be reconsidered for external contingencies and would have no easy way to correct for such without constant ad hoc reconvening. The “mission drift” of such an enterprise would essentially incentivize the kind of demagoguery and clientalism that direct democracy is suppose to fight.

Often it is proposed that automation can replace slavery or imperialism as the modus operandi of the state, but if this were the happen before a proletariat was collectively running a state, such automation would both accelerate the decline in rates of profit (although the increased flow could make incomes seem very large indeed) as well as remove workers from the focus of production:  their ability to stop work being their primary source of power, this would actually decrease the part of organized labor as a possible political force.   It seems to be me, while there is no one-to-one relationship between automation and rendering elements of the workforce into surplus population, there is an element there that cannot be denied.  While theoreticaly this actually increases the power of an individual proletariat to slow production and thus increases their bargaining power, the complication comes from the expanding surplus population being competition for any meaningful work serves as a counter-incentive to ever attempting to use such power or even bargain for a better place within such a system.

We can, however, ignore that critique on automation as a productive force that would enable councilism in current and assume that is only developed after worker control or at least a leftist form of political dominace. Sure, we can assume that.   Both anarchists, technocrats, and council communists have made such arguments. Black actually points out, in his normally sardonic way, that this would not decrease the amount of political investment necessary;

For even if technology reduced the hours of work, it would not reduce the hours in a day. There would still be 24 of them. Let’s make-believe we could automate all production­ work away. Even if we did, technics couldn’t possibly do more than shave a few minutes off the long hours which deliberative, direct democracy would necessitate, the “often prosaic, even tedious but most important forms of self- management that required patience, commitment to demo­ cratic procedures, lengthy debates, and a decent respect for the opinions of others within one’s community” (Bookchin 1996: 20; cf. Dahl 1990: 32-36, 52). (I pass over as beneath comment Bookchin’s avowal of “a decent respect for the opinions of others.”) Having to race from meeting to meeting to try to keep the militants from taking over would be even worse than working, but without the pay.

If we do not have such a time consumption deliberation, merely voting through a logistic mechanism such as something akin to a massive Project Cybersyn would naturally limit us to objects set up those who set up the parameters of system. How is that different between the artificial choice of two parties which limit outside involvement?  With such deliberation, no logistics or automation technology could possibility remove the antagonistics of vision.

As almost EVERYONE I know who took part in the consensus councils and committees of Occupy admitted how structures involved enabled certain catories to dominate and others to endlessly derail.   Perhaps Robert’s Rule of Orders and other formal structures could take eliminate some of this kind of mucking of the rails, but I doubt it.

This debate, however, has not just be had between post-left and left anarchists on this form.  Left communists, both sides condemned by Lenin in his infantile disorder polemic, had this debate among themselves.  A good summary of the debate as it existed between Bordiga and Pannekoek can be found here:

Bordiga and Pannekoek theorised the highest points of the proletarian movements in Italy and Germany respectively. Bordiga’s tactical failings, (e.g. on the question of unions), like his strengths (such as the critique of democracy), are a product of the proletarian movement. The incompleteness of the Italian Left’s critique, and its need for modification by the theses of the Dutch German Left, are a consequence of the national basis of its experience, and of the particular form that the class struggle took in Italy. Similarly, the texts of Pannekoek who analysed the movement in Germany, and was a major theorist of the KAPD, should not be treated as the ideas of an individual but as an expression of the movement of the German and Dutch working class. For all the ICP’s internationalism, they did not go through the same class struggles as those of the German movement, and so did not generate the same theorisation, especially in respect of unions. These tactical inadequacies in fact verifies elements of Bordiga’s theory of the party. The party needs to group proletarians from all sections of the class and synthesise all radical tendencies in the class. The national basis of the ICP, and of the KAPD, is the cause of the particularity of their theory, including the limitations.

An examination of these two tendencies, amongst the most radical of the twentieth century, points beyond their respective limitations. Communism is neither “the power of the workers’ councils” nor the dictatorship of the vanguard party, nor is it reliant on any other predetermined organisational form. Communism is neither the “self-activity of the workers” nor the “programme”, but specifically a proletarian self-activity that re-appropriates or recreates the communist programme. What is important is not the form of organisation, but what exactly is being organised; the essential is communisation, humanity’s collective re-appropriation and transformation of the whole of life now alienated through capital

However, the explanation of how a party, particularly party both of and above a class, does not impose limits on the will or thought of the members of the class it synthesizes.  Form does matter as the form of a thought can limit the content of a thought even if it does not determine that content in its totality.  The critique of programmism given here itself offers a larger programme, and assumes the ability to impose that programme through self-activity. It is important to realize that these problems cannot be done away with the prestidigitation of abstract language such as making communism a verb to enact while claiming that such a pattern itself does not constitute a programme.

I suspect this is why these strains of Left-Communism actually produced the thinkers who would be among the primary 20th century inspirations for post-left anarchism.  Jacque Camatte’s rewiliding as an answer to such problems by essentially arguing it was time to give up and abandoned the capitalist civilization. The Situationists took up councilism skeptically as a necessary beginning, but not without critique. 

Bob Black, however, mirrors Bordiga’s and even Gilles Duave’s critique, but also do not have faith in a party apparatus or even a process of communization.  His recent writings on democracy mirror my own thoughts on the subject,  and while perhaps less hopeful of a way out than say Duave and while also still more hopeful about autonomy than Dauve,  he does have the distinct advantage of being readable.

On the Myth and Use of History

My world is a historical world and the limits of my world are historical.  In so much that the primary sciences I concern myself with are social sciences and biology, the primary mechanism I use to understand the economic is the anthropological and the history of political-economy, and the primary metaphors in my writing are hidden traces of historical past on my subjective consciousness.  In other words, I am the rare non-conservative who thinks the past is playing out in the present and the future is contingent upon not just our ideas of the past but the threads of historical development that we probably have not seen.

Yesterday, I had a fairly heated debate with an ernstwhile friend on a pamphlet by Tylor Cowen. Cowen’s technocratic neo-liberalism which dons the mask of moderation is about as far as from my politics as one can run, yet I find myself agreeing with a lot of Cowen’s assertions in the great stagnation.  His answers, of course, I think are hogwash.  (For example, he thinks marketization of education would increase educational proficieny and make better educational investments ignore ALL the data from Higher education that indicates that for profit schools are actually LESS efficient at this than non-profits and governmental schools.  We have hard data for this, and not just in countries where government loans distort the market. East Asia and Latin America is rife with questionable for profit schools where there is no government loan system. Non-profits may produce the most educational efficiency as they are not as tied to the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, but one must remember that large scale businesses are also bureaucratic in nature and significantly more given to rent-seeking.)

The argument had to do with declining rates of profit and overly complex systems, which both parties largely agreed on, but also on the technological plateau on all most forms of tech outside of communications software.  Cowen talks about this, and he seems to think it is tied to decreased marketization and a focus on sectors where marketization does not work (such as healthcare). Of course, I think this is wrong, but technological stagnation outside of communications and even in production (where automation is not making leaps and bounds in new tech, but mainly just getting more affordable through miniaturization and remote supervision).   The plateau of technology that produced efficiency in the main of production has gone down with profits in non-monopoly sectors.

Regardless, Cowen’s own ideological commitments seem to lead him to avoid going all the way with his description.  A friend questioned that we could learn anything from the plateau and pointed out that “experts” could not predict the effiecacies that arrouse in 1820, 1850s, 1880s, 1920s, and 1940s-1950s, and thus the only thing we could learn was that experts were unable to predict historical trends.

While I actually do agree on the whole with the assetment of both credentialed experts and pundits, both of whom have professional and ideological pressures to have a very myoptic world view, I do not think history is that random.  The pleateu described is longer than the nearly perfect generational cycles before and correspond to declining rates of profits (even if income is up, there is a lot of evidence that profit per unit made is down), overly complex distribution systems which even markets seem to have a hard time deriving clear feedback from, and end of what Cower calls “low-hanging fruit” or what I call the end of a mixture of primitive accumulation and natural wealth (through depletion by use).  The cycles tied to wars and generational turns, as unpredictable as they were in content, were regular in form, and this seems to have changed.

In fact, even the delusions about history: the invented traditions, the retrojections, the impositions on the past, the ideological misreadings are somewhat predictable in form, but not content.  A change in the forms, however, happen but they indicate broad scale social changes, and again this may only be clearly predictable in content retrospectively.  While I realize this is a problematic appropriation from  a scientific idea, I sometimes wonder if an incompleteness theory of historigraphy is justified.   One can probablistically understand the form of historical movement, or one can understand the content of a historical movement, but one cannot deal synchronically with content and diachronically with form in any meaningful way at the same time. I suppose this could be called the rhyming dictory theory of historigraphy.