If you are going to call Trump Out… be right. (Or what Han, Yuan, Goguryeo, Joseon history may mean for silly headlines)

So The Hill misleadingly titled, South Korea to Trump: We’ve never been part of China. There is so much wrong with this headline and the things in it, I basically, to speak like someone ten years younger than me is supposedly going to speak like, “can’t even.”

The issue that both The Liberal Party, which it’s kind of amazing how factious Korean conservative parties are as they have split more than Trotskyists in recent years, and the Democratic Party both are worried more about Xi’s statement that would lead Trump to take about a prior claim of sovereignty over Korea. This is trickier than most people know and understand.

You see seriousness of claim of sovereignty can see this from the Chinese commenters flooding the article with half-truths such as

In 108 BCE Korea was conquered by the Han dynasty of China (206 BCE – 220 CE). The Han were interested in natural resources such as salt and iron and they divided northern Korea into four commanderies directly administered by their central government. Koreans spoke chinese up until the 14th century when their leader at the time “invented” the current S.Korean language.

Where to start with this claim: There was no unified Korea during that period for to a singular vassal state, and parts of Joseon that now in Andong or Yaniban Provinces were part of the China, and various different kingdoms emerging during decay of Gojoseon (ancient Joseon) Korea as we know it was Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla developed in the period claimed. Part of what would be Joseon, but not part of modern Liaodong Peninsula were the four Han commanderies which were claimed by Gojoseon but were Manchurian.

There was no singular “ancient Chinese” to be spoken. It’s hundreds of languages that shared common idiogrammatic writing system. Mandarin was literally the courtly dialect that later unified the Han. Many of the languages called “Chinese” barely share verb-order, and despite claims that they were somehow “similar in pronunciation to ancient Chinese.” There is no evidence for this and there is no standard ancient Chinese for it to be based on.

In fact, it’s hard for me to believe someone who spoke both Mandarin and Korean would say this: There are tons of lone words from Chinese, and an entire number system of which Korean has two, but Mandarin (what dialect are you referring to as “ancient Chinese”) and Korean (both Chosunguko [North Korean/Yanbian dialect] and Hanguko) have TOTALLY different language structures down to unrelated verb order, completely different tense structure (Chinese basically doesn’t have a tense structure), and completely different ways of denoting parts of speech. However, the Korean nobles and scholar classes did write in Chinese characters and the Han used the ideogrammatic characters to unite languages that had no linguistic relation. Korean may be strongly related to Manchu and Mongolian, but it is definitely NOT remotely in the Sino-Tibetan language family despite the use of Chinese characters, which were used until much later.

So we immediately realize that both countries are contesting history in ways that find modern nationalist narratives and Trump walked into it. Tensions between Korea and China have been downplayed by tensions between Koreans most recent occupiers, Japan. However, this seems to be changing and the implication is that China may try to claim a long standing imperial role there as a way to end the current conflict to their liking. Goguryeo, the largest of the early kingdoms after Gojoseon, does actually cover parts of what would not be considered outer Manchuria, Andong, and Jilin provinces. It was definitely a vassal state at various points both often played between China, Japan, and the Mongolian powers.

This gets more complicated by the fact the last clearly unified Korean state, Joseon, has a contested legacy in the reforms of the language and it the nature of relationship to China.  Koreans are taught that the Neo-Confucian sage-King, Sejong, unified Korea and enabled mass literacy by abandoning Hanja (the use of Chinese ideograms modified for Korea) with the highly simplified syllabary of Hangul.  I was taught this when I lived in Korea.  I have recently seen non-Korean scholarly indicating that Hangul was not actually so cleanly invented from scratch, this scholarship claims the Koreans didn’t invent Hangul , but derived the syllabary fro the alphabet of phagas Pa, first devised by the Khitans and later promulgated by the Yuan Dynasty for all subjects and clients, including the Koreans. However, this is obvious contested by most Koreans and does not seem to be standard narrative yet. I just bring it up because it related to the claims made by both China and Korea about the histories of the two nations.

The issue is a lot of this history is contested and murky, but Yanbian Prefecture, which is an ethnic Korean autonomous zone, parts  Jilin and Andong provinces as a whole were parts of both Gojoseon, Goguryeo, and Joseon. Meaning China rules over parts of what would have been considered Korea now and has for hundreds of years, and that parts of the ancestor states of Korea had been vassals or partly ruled by the Han, Mongolians, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. The relationship however to EITHER the modern state of China or the modern state of South Korea is very unclear.

In short, the history here is complicated and contested, and Trump stepped into a row about national sovereignty very few people understand with contested nationalist versions of history on both the Chinese and Korean side and little continuity between these ancient states and the modern ones that house these cultures.

If you are going to attack Trump on this, you need to understand that he was a) just reporting what Xi said, b) what Xi said is controversial but c) the histories here are so complicated that the contention really does revolve about the way history is USED for the political precent.

The Hill would be advised not to make cheap political points in this because of both its complication and the implications for contemporary politics in East Asia.

(Note: I am amateur historian and lived in Korea, I have some grasp of Korean and some knowledge of Chinese, but the historiography is both contested and complicated, so if you feel like I misrepresented something, say so. I also know my tendency to refer to China(s) and Korea(s) because of the discontinuity of the states and the shifts in culture may bother some people. I really don’t know how to talk cultures that have nation-states now but nations and dynasties, etc., that represented those peoples has changed so completely so many times.)

The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia: “Reality Driven Community” and the “Post-Fact World”

So far in this series of commentary I have been very harsh on wonks and those who love them, but recently there has been a rash of talk about the “post-fact” world.  Let me tell you something: we have always been in a post-fact world.  The consensus media that everyone seems to bemoaning does have more things to responsible to, but that was not a good check for “factuality.”

I remember in the Bush 43 days when liberals, under the humor aegis of John Steward, started calling themselves the “reality driven community” in response to a certain strain of Neo-conservative cynical belief that people needed to be controlled for liberalism to maintain itself.  This is often missed about neoconservatives: Yes, many of the first generation were former Trotskyists around either Max Shachtman or Commentary Magazine, but the Straussian elements aimed to save liberalism from itself.  The paternal esotericism in Strauss was aimed at saving liberalism from its own populist tendencies. That cynicism about truth was easily used for other purposes.

Yet, many well-meaning tendencies in left-liberalism have themselves been enemies of truth.  For example, mansplaning (or insert demographic or ideological typology-splaining) is that it comes from a real place of people’s qualitative experience being ignored, but it also is easily used to shut down conversation where information plays against ones identity.  Furthermore, liberals themselves have plenty of fake news sources or hyperbolic news sources. These play into their confirmation biases as well.

So is fake news really the problem with confirmation bias?  One, biased, outside of the ideological consensus post-cold war was an American and European tradition.  Freedom of press in from 1800s to around 1920 was freedom of bipartisan press and the high point of “yellow journalism.”  Two, the consensus media was highly selective in its reporting and still is.  What was reported from the Wikileaks scandals all revolved around Clinton, but there were tons of facts about Obama that leaked that were largely ignored, including that Citigroup shortlisted a lot of his Cabinet. Three, fake news is not new and its popularity is not new?
So, tell me, are you really going to trust Silicon valley, not even the government, to filter what is fake and not to you to rebuild a consensus that only existed in the US for one generation?  And you really think mainstream news is a whole better when they don’t have the money or business model for investigative reporting anymore?  Do you really think conservatives are the only people who are building confirmation bias filters into their interpretative heuristics?

 

Dubai Reflections: Particles (Or Four Italians and One Iranian American)

-for Susan, Khristian, Darcy, and the world that almost was.

“Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

On holidays I swear I hear an echo
You hold tight to it then you simply let go
Sure as you let those feelings show
They let you know that you are not alone

Speak now love to me of your return
It’s not how much you make but what you earn
Put your petals in a pile and watch them burn – Lampchop, “Kind Of”

A Prelude

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Taking a break, briefly, from my “Strange Death of Liberal Wonktoplia” pieces, because I am becoming more and more irate at the state of politics in the US.  If the increased instance of racialist violence and legitimate fear over rights seemed completely to be just rhetoric, I would just laugh it off but it doesn’t seem to be.  Furthermore, the liberal histrionics  around this have done more than not helped.  It has included doubling down same kinds of rhetoric, limitations of speaking, and pipe dreams that led liberalism into the current crisis.  Talk of succeeding from the Union is bubbling up from the same Californians who called Brexit racist.

Such middle class demons:  To quote the recently late Leonard Cohen, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and maim, you want it darker?”

We kill the flame.

In part, I want to write about that flame we are killing and how it is smoldering my own vision of life.

A Context 

I am nursing a lung infection caught on a job-related trip to Dubai.  The city in the shadow of Burj Khalifa and the Burj al El Arab is like a colony on the moon.  You meet Emirati men at passport control in the ultra-modern airport in clean, freshly pressed looking keffiyeh and taub.  They are polite, but curt, and shuffle you into Dubai.  The entire city seems to have a new car smell, and overly polished look of a mall.  Chain eateries from all over Europe and the States are around, and so is high in shopping. There are currency exchanges everywhere. However, you quickly notice that most of the shoppers are not Emiratis and most of the workers aren’t either.  English and Arabic are both spoken, but more the former, and most of the workers are each convenient store seem Indian or South Asian.  Businesses with a more white collar tendency tend to have European, North American, and other non-Emirati Arab faces around.

There is something at once beautiful and dystopia about Dubai.  The Sultanate and the Emirates of the Gulf definitely have a history, but you would hardly know it.  Yet, like Yew’s Singapore, the trains run on time and are incredibly clean. There is little obvious crime. And aside from the encroaching desert, mocked my foundations and water features that abound, and the Gulf, there is something completely inorganic about Dubai.  Both wonderful and terrible, and utterly commercial.

That is not to say I did not like Dubai. I did. I could see why young people want to work and live there, but it definitely feels to have a darker side than its marbled floors indicate and a more generous side than its oversized malls would make apparent. In some ways, Dubai is product of the globalization and the reaction against it, and as such is remarkable in how impressive yet unremarkable it is.   If I go back to the Emirates, I would like to go less commercial areas to get a taste of what the country’s face to itself is.

Part 1: Heat, the desert, and my fear of driving 

Carlo ROVELLI

“IF you keep your heart soft, you will will find an entire of life of poetry”– Susan Atefat- Peckham inscribed to me the year we met in a copy of That Kind of Sleep 

Susan Atefat-Peckham and her young son Cyrus died in a bus wreck around Ghor Safi, Jordan in 2004 while on a Fulbright, the year after I got married the first time, too young, and went to work for an insurance company.  In 2005, my checkbook, a few of my notes, and a copy of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew were found in a overstuffed arm-chair in her former office where I would talk to her about poetry.  I worked with her and her husband Joel my senior year, and both said goodbye to me before they left from the middle east the day after I was married.  Susan and Joel was there first professors that became personal friends.

Susan’s advice to me has been seldom followed, and in a Holiday Inn Express, while the team I was coaching was asleep, missing partner, my second wife, who is in the states visiting family and fighting cancer, I couldn’t stop crying.  I have been adjusting well, building up small habits, focusing on my job, but as I began to cough from a lung infection I caught from a sick student on the airplane. I missed her.  I missed a lot of other people too. I feel like a particle let loose on the world, out of its quantum orbit, and flying wildly into some nebulous space.

The hardness of my heart was something that always bothered Susan.  She thought I was essentially a kind person, hurt by situations, and I didn’t think that. Rage was my prime whisky, to quote another dead poet, Alan Dugan.  In retrospective, Susan was responding to someone only ten years younger than her. Indeed, it is shocking to realize, that I have outlived her two years writing this. I have flown over the desert she died in.  Perhaps why her crept into my mind in the darkness of my hotel room, and I picked up Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a brief and poetic, but somewhat superficial introduction to modern physics.

Yet I hit on this passage, from the Sixth Lesson:

“…The difference between past and future only exist when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that colder.

So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round?

The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprising simple: it is sheer chance. 

Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability.  Heat does not move form hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions, but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions.” (pages 51-52, translation by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

This was strangely conforming in that moment, thinking about Susan’s advice for me keep my heart soft, my partner’s struggles, and where I am going.  It’s like when I feel small and think of the curvature of the space itself.

How did I end up in the Dubai?   Or in Cairo? Or Seoul? Or San Francisco?  Or New York?  I was small town Southern boy who came from a strange background whose origins were obscure even to him, whose anger at the drug problems that taken a girlfriend and several friends by 21 was mounting, and whose intelligence was compromised by that emotional brokenness.

I felt like a particle because I was one, but while am not soft-hearted, I left it soften enough.  Indeed, when I speak of politics, I manifest an anger that strike even close friends as borderline abusive. There was beauty and openness to the world that I didn’t have before.  Yet that beauty can be snatched away at any moment.

Resentment can’t linger because your heat spills out in each collision. Save the heat for the collisions where it is needed.  Then I read more of Rovelli’s poetical reflections and used the bits of knowledge of mathematics I had to refocus, I had students to coach for Quiz competition in the morning, and I had done a good job of hiding my worries from them.

Part 2: Hyperreal 

eco

I woke up that morning, when to the hotel buffet breakfast, and got my morning ful madames –fava beans with tomatoes, onions and spices–and a chopped salad. My students chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English–more English than anything else–and after running my students through some drills, I started reading Umberto Eco’s Tavels in Hyperreality.

In early 2000, my conservative Hegelian philosophy professor assigned me that book when I was a sophomore. It exploded my mind, and I found myself coming back to Eco in general, and this book, in particular when I am feeling estranged and alienated, I go back to Eco’s reflection on the superficially of America.

In many ways, Eco’s writing here reflect Baudrillards, but Eco seems less bombastic, more calm. In a sense, more true. So on the bus to the competition, I hit this passage:

“In other words, to see if through these cultural phenomena a new Middle Ages is to take shape, a time of secular mystics, more inclined to monastic withdrawal than to civic participation. We should see how much, as antidote or as antistrophe, the old techniques of reason may apply, the arts of the Trivium, logic, dialectic, rhetoric. As we suspect that anyone who goes on stubbornly practicing them will be accused of impiety.”- Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality ( William Weaver translation)

The secular mystics meets the secularized piety. Prayer rooms in giant malls, Islamic banking and halal industries, and teaming poverty in most of the “Islamic” world. Looking out at Dubai, one gets the feeling that we have seen the transition into the end of an antiquity. The world changing faster and this seems the product of hubris, and while I tend to discount the most apocalyptic. Eco was writing about America, but now even the Emirates resembles the kind of malls that US itself largely doesn’t have.

The relationship to the Rovelli is clear: The simplicity of the universe is daunting, and the reality of reality seems more slippery. In such time, we tend to value our commentary and chatter.

Indeed, in absence of meaningful community, one sees retreats into nebulous ideas of tribes.  Hyperreality is not just the authentic fake, but the fake authenticity in response to it. Constant discourses on whiteness or construction of identities, and the response to that is to insist on the material of reality of the community between people who do not know each other, and do not enact except on wires.

If an election between a celebrity wonk-political agent and a celebrity real estate mogul, both largely famous from legacies that they didn’t actually create, and watching different disadvantaged groups rush to either as if they represented “them” proves how little reality there is this.  Indeed, Trump and Farage claiming to represent a rebellion against elites while in a gold elector is about as rich as pretending that a career politician who cut her teeth supporting Nixon somehow cares and knows the plight of working black families is beyond laughable.

Yet the worse of it isn’t political.   On the internet, there are more space for counter-cultures than ever before, yet they seem to constantly collapse in relationship to the larger culture.  Jacobin lamenting the lack of socialism in comic hero movies instead of really looking at movies of deeper substance.  There is an opportunity cost here, and that opportunity cost is withering of the political imagination to reified categories like “whiteness”–again, if the almost all white middle class Huffington Post editorial board writes another editorial beginning “Dear White People,” my jaw might clinch enough to drip blood.

The entire spectrum of criticism of the mediocre by the mediocre.  Authenticity itself inauthentic.  Forced.

Looking around Dubai?  Who is a local? What is real Dubai culture?  Capitalist water features?  Sharia courts while trophy wives of business men sun themselves in bikinis between brick walls while women in niqab walk just beyond.

It is so unreal, it is more real than real. Eco was a prophet, and it seems almost too apt that he died this year.

Part 3:  Passions 

220px-Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_Leopardi.jpg

After shaving a beard down a bit, sending my team to bed, and making myself an evening cup of tea, I took at a book I purchased at giant mall underneath the Burj Khalifa. The largest English language bookstore I have seen in the middle east is in that mall, and has all the charm of a mall bookstore, but with books from the US, UK, and the Arab world, it was worth pursuing.

I have a book addiction and thus don’t allow myself in book stores that much. Indeed, this one was massive, although I have been to bigger used book stores in Utah and New York, but since two students asked me to purchase a book for them since they left their dirhams at hotel and had used their pocket money on dinner.  I agreed since I knew that could pay me back and who was I not to support at ninth grader request to read.

Going through the stacks, I found Giacomo Leopardi’s Conti, Zibaldone, and Passions. I have been pursuing both Conti and Zibaldone, but Passions was new to me.  More pithy aphorism and reflections collected at the end of Leopardi’s life, they were like a condensed form Zibaldone.

Reading an article on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, impressed with his attempt to funnel the oil and natural gas reserves into Emirati infrastructure and education, but bemused that most of the wealth still seemed primarily from resource extraction,  I came started reading Tim Parks’ introduction to Passions and came across this quote from Zibaldone,

The most unexpected thing for someone entering into the social life, and very often for someone who has grown old there, to find the world as it has been described to him, and as he already knows it and believes it to be in theory. Man is astonished to see that the general rule holds for him too. (quoted in Passions, Parks translation and introduction, page viii-ix)

Even a great man like Sheikh Zayed has trouble overcoming long term probabilistic trends. Like Rovelli’s description of particles, greatness is against all odds and often forced upon the normal individual, but the probability is still weighted towards the mediocre and forces outside of even a great person’s control.

Even when we are the exception that proves the rule, we still find the weight of probability upon us. Contingency after contingency and all teleology factors are developments from otherwise stochastic developments.

Leopardi feels haunting to me.  Born in the conservative papal states and pessimistic like a conservative, he still understood the Enlightenment and science more than most.  His writings seem like Montaigne having a conversation with Nietzsche. Even in some ways, a precursor to Stanislaw Lem as much any other, but the framework, the dizzying erudition, the classical mind.

It felt surreal to read in the shopping mall in desert on the coast with the Persian gulf. Yet Leopardi himself lived in a time of upheaval.  Perhaps he lived to see beginnings of the modern world and formation of Italy, and yet his writings already see the problems that would arise from it:

Just about the strongest inducement to suicide is self-loathing. Example: a friend of mine deliberately went to Rome intending to throw himself into the Tiber because someone somewhere had called him a nobody. My own first experience with self-hatred provoked me to expose myself to all kinds of danger—to kill myself, in fact. How amour propreworks: it prefers death to admitting one’s worthlessness. And so: the more egotistical you are, the more strongly and continually you will feel driven to kill yourself. Meaning: love of life equals love of one’s well-being, so if life no longer seems of value, etc. – Zibaldone

Conversely, yet confirming of this: one of my beloved friends lost her brother this year. 36. My age, two years older than Susan when she died, but far too young. She was depressed, and even engaged in lots of self-damaging, but suicide seemed too narcissistic for her.  Instead, she stabilized herself in the life of others.  Leopardi could see the development of modern narcissism.  Indeed, in countries with high suicide rates, it is social shame as much as depression that prompts it.

Rarely do you see suicide among the urban unemployed in Cairo or Lagos, or the poor women in a village in Oaxaca.

It is the absurd amount of self-regard our own modern alienation gives us that makes suicide an absurdly common way for modern people to die.

Leopardi was a ruthless particle, and realizing he was set loose, wrote about it unforgivingly.

Something about that brings a wry, tired smile to face. Indeed, Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living.  Leopardi answers:

Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it’s everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or at least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.-Zibaldone

Part 4:  Fundamental Elements

“This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

leviportrait.jpg

Reading so many Italians in the desert, but Primo Levi comes back into my mind. Of the most likely suicides I know, Levi’s is the most baffling in that it doesn’t fit Leopardi description of narcissism nor did it seem to come out of reprieve from physical pain.

My students won their match, I packed the trophy in my carry-on, and took it back to Cairo. I delivered it this morning, hacking out a lung, and coughing yellow phlegm into a napkin.  I was sent home.

The night before I had come home, and a taste of Levi’s life hit me.  Slightly delirious from exhausting and the bronchitis developing in my chest, I saw my two siamese cats welcome me home.  My friend’s son had fed them while was I gone, but they missed me as they always seem to when I travel and leave them to others care. My apartment is “our” apartment–mine and my partner–even though I moved out of the one we lived in together over the summer because it was too large for just me and saddened me with its emptiness. Yet in this second,  I thought Khristian would welcome me home.  I awaited for a second before realizing she was literally an ocean and two continents away.  For second, nothing in the house seemed like mine, seemed to belong to me, seemed to be anything other than random.

It is the awareness of that chance moves us, and that we don’t know where we are going. We are not without will or anchor, nor are we JUST particles in a void, moving from heat to cold in time.  Yet we are not NOT such particles either. We self-overcome but in doing so are still subject to forces beyond any of us.

Levi leaves me with a thought that got me through that night:

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one’s desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

A life of poetry isn’t the only life we lead, and it is hard and sometimes requires hard people–hard men and women–to go beyond the vague poetry of our dreams because life is so contingent. Yet that is the reason to soften your heart sometimes because even hard people eventually lose all their heat, all their energy, and no longer exist in time.

The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, day 6, part 2: I Drink Your Kool-Aid, I Drank It Up

I remember in 2005, when the GOP was publishing whole books on how it was going to dominate politics for the two generations, and then, lost congress and many governors in an upset in 2006.  Then in 2009, there are books calling for the neoconservative light, closer to the triangulation of the Clinton Era Democrats forsaking most of the Moral Majority rhetoric. Then a few months after that the more or less libertarian Tea Party was emerged unto the scene nationally and was quickly astroturfed by a variety movements resembling the old Theo-conservatism, but even more monetarily radical.  Far away from any of this, for more than a decade, paleo-conservatives and paleo-libertarians were radicalizing themselves: some becoming “radical traditionalists” and others outright racialists around a movement started by a few ex-paleoconservatives and white nationalists calling themselves the Alternative Right.  Around the same time, Nick Land and Menius Moldbug started popular neo-reactionary blogs, repackaging a skeptical attitude towards Democracy itself with strains of ethno-nationalism and spiritual fascism. This was seen as too insane to even deal with, and even the other Paleo-conservatives ignored them.

Then the Alt-Light happened, repackaging some of the ideas of the Alt-Right, some ideas of traditional Republicanism, a less interventionist foreign policy, and bits and pieces of libertarians in cool memes that mocked the frustration at campus Social Justice excesses. The racialism was toned way done to a more inclusive nationalism. Even the paleo-conservatives over at American Conservative missed this, even though Richard Spencer, at founder, had at one time been an editor at the magazine but his views became too radical for even them. Very few people saw it coming because they didn’t know about the institutions that had been building from the decades prior, and since those movements were largely seen as too radical for even cooption, they were left alone and un-astroturfed. They had little money, but they used meme warfare, podcasts, reddit, and obscure publishing houses to much effect.

Currently, but also stealthily, the liberal center consensus wing of the Democrats was telling itself that raw statistics where in their favor.  Minorities were loyal patrons of the Democratic machines, and they would turn out and keep them in power.  Sure, they had some problems at the state level in the “red States” but those populations were declining anyway. This, by the way, was hubris. The same kind of hubris I saw from GOP in 2005. How bad was this hubris?  

Since 2010, the Democrats have been losing house level seats, state legislatures, and governors seats. Bump puts it very clearly:

When I use the term “decimate” in reference to what’s happened to the Democratic Party in the era of Barack Obama, I admit that I am using the word in a way that would annoy those same pedants. After all, the number of Democrats in Congress and in state leadership positions has dropped far more than 10 percent since 2008.

So not only has the Obama coalition lost between 6-9 million voters to thin air and abstaining, but they lost tons of the state level apparatus. But they forgot they were in a Federated Republic as well with the increasing concentration of their population in very tiny, population dense, geographic regions.  What was the cost?

Two patterns to note. The first is that the Democrats surged into power in 2006 and 2008, winning seats in elections that would normally have leaned to the Republicans. So some of the losses since 2008 are a function of reversion to norm, light-red areas going red once again. The second is that federal and state races largely correlate. A good year for the GOP nationally tends to make a good year at all levels.

First the lost the purple states at a state level, and then… they called it wrong.  They mispredicted wins in 2014 and in this election, as many Democrats I knew were using internal polling data to say they would take back the Senate.  I had heard this before in 2014 as well. Yes, gerrymandering played a part as do felon voting laws, but have no state game at all since the sending Howard Dean packing as DNC chair. Well, that has a cost.

I am not fond of the Democratic establishment–or their apologists, pundits, and true believers–anyway, and there continued partisan success is, frankly, not my concern, but you have to wonder how they misplayed the game so badly and at such at cost the structure of democracy in the US itself.  This does complicate the thesis that Bernie Sanders would have won handily.  He may have won, but it could have been just as close, and he probably would have had a Republican House and Senate to deal wit.  It would have only taken one state in the purple spectrum of the rust belt to go the other way.  However, that wouldn’t have fixed your problem.  A stalled Sanders would have had a hard time keeping the reigns of power, and forces of the Alt-Right that Trump, and yes, Clinton, played with in this election are out now.  That pandora’s box is blown open.

The Alt-Right is tiny, and punches, for the first time ever, above its weight. The main reason it had is that both the Alternative Right and the Neo-reactionaries were not known outside of obscure and dark corners of the internet.  However, a series of campus regulations oversteps and the perhaps overly ambitious use of no platforming became a means for less radical rightists and libertarians to use some of their tropes. The biggest coup though is all the attention Clinton and left-liberal magazines have given the movement to try to use Trump’s rhetoric against him.  They successful broadcast this small sub-set of meme warriors into the popular dialogue and exposing them to far, far more people than they were exposed to at any time prior.

Wonktopians were drinking their own koolaid by the gallon, and yet also trying to give it out for free.  That really rarely ends well.

Liberalism Delenda Est: On the 2016 Election and the farce called “democracy,” or why the Podesta e-mails indicate something darker than you think

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The above image is shocking to many people. How could there be so clear race and sex divides in the body politic? It must be the moral degeneration of white men, right? Why do they revel in fear and hatred so much? Is it merely the decline of their overall cultural power?  Is there a moral degeneration going on with power who do not recognize their privilege?

These are the questions I see asked when people just aren’t mocking the subject. Why are white men so reactionary? Is it their success in the past slipping away ? Is it fear of a brown America? Why are why men such a plague to the body politic?

There are a number of bad faith assumptions in those questions, and also a few assertions hidden in plain view in those questions which are not wrong. There are numerous editorials about this, some shaming the white working class for their bad faith, but also pointing out that the white working class have experienced real declines in outcomes in the past ten years–its not just their relative social power slipping, their lives are shortening and they are increasingly out of work.   Yet also the polling shows that white (mostly male) voters are in favor Trump but they are middle and upper middle class, politically engaged, and college educated, although slightly less highly than the Democratic counterparts.   A conclusion one can make from this desperate facts  is that similar to working class black men, although for different reasons, the white working class is not politically engaged and does not generally vote.

So how does one explain this? What do we make the above post by Nate Silver’s pollster-number crunchers on this one.  I find this fascinating, and I find it more fascinating that the general liberal reaction to this is that white men are a plague in most the country without trying to seriously figure out why it had gone this way. After all, white men were the primary theoreticians of liberalism as it currently exists too given the structure politics prior to the 1970s–its racial exclusivity still effective and the dominant halls of power being predominately WASP then Jewish, Catholic, and WASP but still white.  Although the definition of white expanded significantly by the 1970s too, and this also changed the nature of the complaint at hand.  The effect of these changes and the beginnings of the Nixon strategy in the South need to be addressed more completely for what it has done to the liberal political strategy as much as the nearly obsessive pointing out the obvious in regards to the Republican strategy. This needs serious thought for liberal thinkers, not merely shaming and virtue signaling, which of the people who have posted this, only one friend did not do.

Furthermore, the Podesta emails are damning for both sides and directly related to this. Trump can’t say “look Clinton so corrupt she empowered me?”  They also illustrate the problems of Bernie Sanders copitulation is factored in indicate that part of this has been strategically encouraged by the elite end of Democrats.   Some key things that the Podesta e-mails showed us:  casting Bernie as old white man and the “Progressive” left as low-key white racists asking for a handout was preplanned strategy.   Furthermore, so Podesta indicates that the Trump and Carson were favored by Democrats, and it was part of their strategy to get those candidates more attention.   Why? Why are so many of you complaining about my cynicism when the response to Podesta emails is generally “that’s just politics.” So you don’t see so sinister here beyond a personalities.

Again, this is not “a Clinton is corrupt and evil” line of thinking. Increasing amounts of the public are depoliticized, they have little incentive to vote and little practical incentive to care enough to keep up with key issues.   The Nixon strategy seems to be functionally embraced by Democrats themselves as way of tying identity to a specific electorate and keeping virtue-signaling in their favor.  The Republicans rely on this too because it means, while they are disfavored in national elections, the structure of the state electoral maps rural/urban divide and the sortition allows them to maintain power in a majority of states and run the politics out most non-urban areas, even in blue states.

So some better questions are:  Until the 1970s, white men even the South and mid-west supported populist progressives. Why did that stop?  Even some dyed-in-wool racists I knew in Georgia growing up over the age of 1950 had pictures of Roosevelt in their house.  Indeed, my grandmother became a conservative Republican on racially progressive grounds in the 1950s, and while she complained about Goldwater’s misstep on the civil rights act and about Nixon’s treachery, she never abandoned the GOP as a good Catholic matriarch with a mixed race family of that has Koreans, Jews, Protestants, and black members by marriages against the norms of Southern society.  So this has been in the back of my mind:  I have almost vestigial memory the pre-Nixon, pre-“neo-liberal” sorting of America because the politics of the South did not fit the politics on television.  This is also true for the mid-west, which now hosts more Klan than the South but also gave us sewer socialism.

All that seems unexplainable now.   The Nixon strategy itself is managerial tactic used across the board by both of the major US parties. The key players of power do not deny the contents of these e-mails, but try to “wag the dog” on the relationship to Russia in exposing these.  Look up Podesta and Trump, and you will not get the Wikileaks e-mail, but Podesta accusing Trump of colluding with foreign governments to undermine democracy.   Which may or may not be true, but Podesta colluded in the DNC to make Trump a viable candidate, and conditions on the ground where supportive because deleterious effects on several demographic groups in the so-called “recovery.”   This is kind of transparent cynical use of geo-politics that liberals saw against the Bush administration, but “progressives” are feeling powerless and afraid of the true crassness of Trump, his supposed extremity (Democrats have embraced most of his policies at earlier times, including stop and frisk, the wall, etc), and his legit support from an enlarged group with deep ties to racial nationalists.

The morbid joke arises that in four years it may look like this: “Sure, Clinton started a nuclear war with Russia and we lost New York, but do you want David Duke to win and open up the camps.”  And what would the outcome of that devil’s bargain eventually be?

Why do so many people continue to play the role assigned to them? I don’t have answers for this but I can tell you that it implies that the farce you mistake as a democracy gets less democratic anyway by the cycle, and that in this, partly because the tribal alliances in face of stress, people are becoming easier and easier to manage through the fragmentation of social media and regional sorting.

 

There are a few darker implications that run into the structure of a Republic based on representative democracy whether parliamentary or congressional.  The predominance of management to handle an increasingly fragmented and complex society will increase in democracy and while their policies will effect more or more of daily life as they control the executive and judicial branches beyond the presidency, they will be effectively a class that is anti-political.  Anti-political in the sense that is anti-deliberative and anti-representative.  Moneyed powers will have increased say. One of the darker elements of the Podesta e-mails was not about the Clintons, but about Obama’s cabinet.  I will just quote the New Republic:

This is a fight over who dominates the Democratic Party’s policy thinking in the short and long term. In 2008 the fight was invisible and one-sided, and the fix was in. In 2016 both sides are angling to get Clinton to adopt their framework. Those predisposed to consider Clinton some neoliberal sap might not agree, but this is actually a live ball. Presidents lead coalitions, and they have to understand where their coalition is and how things change over time. Peter Orszag this week suggested a trade-off: Give the Warren wing its choices on personnel, in exchange for more leeway to negotiate an infrastructure package with Republicans that gives big tax breaks to corporations with money stashed overseas. While that deal needs more detail, it reveals the power the Warren wing has, relative to the Obama era, to make significant strides on appointments.

To say that movement of liberal polity is itself illiberal and that democracies are increasingly anti-Democratic to the point of being farcical sounds both contradictory and maddening. To say that DNC really is deliberately playing with racial fire as a managerial strategy sounds conspiratorial. In some sense, it is, although I think all this was hiding in plain sight and is a logical extension of regional trends.   After all, we have known members of the Black Congressional Caucus to play with conservative politicians in the South to keep “progressive” influence smaller but their majority black contingency intact. In fact, this isn’t even necessarily malicious if one believes that one is serving a particular community that would be under-represented in “progressive” polity otherwise. It is a logical and not entirely intended consequence of the structure of the system.  It self-reinforces and becomes dark.   Given the demographic trends of the country, the decline of the US Protestant identity, the fiscal liberalization of politics, and the increased role of capitalist elites in both parties financing, this is almost inevitable and requires no deliberate conspiracy.

How can we explain the media’s bias?  Their increased pushing wikileaks as a Russian conspiracy–again, does anyone remember the Bush years?–and the predominant role in supporting Clinton as well as giving Trump much of his campaign advertising for free? Access is the media’s bread and butter, and they can’t get it without willing partners on the political side.  So what they have access too are increasingly prepared statements, especially considering that lower profit margins in news media means that no one can afford to fund investigative journalism anyway.  So re-running talking points of dominant politicians at least gives one something increasing to print that will get spread on social media because it plays to people’s confirmation biases anyway.

Is Trump a Clinton creation?  No. But again, people increasingly play their role.  A role that even the alt-right and far leftists seem to be factored into.  Occupy becomes a staging hashtag for Democratic pro-party activism.  BLM increasingly is moved from the streets into college campuses.   Alt-right becomes increasingly Milo and crew, and not related to the explicitly racial nationalists who created the moniker ten years ago. Paleo-conservatism is made relevant to millennials by anti-SJW rants on youtube, but also loses its content, and its history.  Sargon of Akkad has not read James Burnham or probably even Pat Buchanan.  In fact, the darkest implication in all this is this one seeming fact: Most of your rebellions are not only factored in to political and social management, their strategies are founded on the predictability of the patterns of it.

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.

 

 

Review: The Origins of Capital: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso, Reprint 2002)

Wood recent death and my own interests in longer view of capitalism strangely overlapped and I revisited this gem of historiography. Wood and Brenner have been key in getting me to re-think some over-generalizations about capitalist teleology assumed in both liberal and Marxist circles. Many Marxists after Marx have made the same assumptions as liberals about the natural development of capitalism out of feudalism as if it were an innate process of development to economics. Wood not only contested this view, but her synthesis of Brenner with E.P. Thompson explains many otherwise hard to explain traits of capitalism: Why was capitalism so much more tied to England and England’s settler colonies than to Spain or to the various early modern European merchant states like the Italian city states or the Dutch Republic, why did France require a bourgeois revolution whereas England had a religious revolution, why do Locke’s myths about property origins seem so crucial to capitalist thinkers?

This book is divided into three sections. The first is an excellent overview of the various models for the origins of capitalism including most of the figures around the various liberal models, the world-systems quasi-Marxist answers, and the key figures on the transition debate (Paul Sweezy, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Georges Lefebvre, and Kohachiro Takahashi) as well as the Brenner Debates on Agrarian capitalism. While knowledge of these debates that happened between late 1950s and late 1990s does help, Wood presents them clearly and without assuming much prior knowledge. Through these debates, one can see that part of the issue is that the definition of capitalist pre-conditions isn’t settled. Is capitalism the existence of a market or the social compulsion for the market to dominate? If it is the former, then capitalism does seem natural as markets between societies for certain goods have existed in almost all societies. If it is the latter, then such systems as early modern French absolutism or the merchant systems that liberals often call mercantilism are not actually capitalism.

The second section book more clearly lays out this option while Wood acknowledges her intellectual dependence on E.P. Thompson and Robert Brenner more clearly. This section discusses how specific political arrangements after the Tudor period led to English aristocracy being dependent on value from land-holdings on the market instead of pure taxation from extra-economic forces to increase their wealth. This agrarian model creates the pre-conditions for the industrial model but did not exist elsewhere in Europe nor really even outside of England until colonialism pushed it out in search of my growth. Woods focuses on the fact that most of Europe, even colonial states like Spain, put its surplus into the military or into the use value of aristocrats, whereas the legal structures of England required re-investment and improvement to be profitable. This was power was more centralized in the hands of land-owners in the English civil war (revolution), and even after the monarchy was restored, this power was not lost. Woods also goes into why the Dutch and Italian merchant states did not give up extra-economics means of enrichment and thus didn’t develop the same culture or reinvestment. Then Woods convincing shows John Locke laying out a argument and a myth that naturalized these English developments after the English Civil War.

Admittedly, one can become slightly frustrated with Wood here. Here argument is sound, but she does not show specific instances. While she does do this in other books, one gets the feeling that this is only to lay out the logic and the minimal of empirical evidence for her position on the debates but not necessarily go deeply into the empirical historical case. Some people may be frustrated by this tendency, but she does go into these details in other works.

In the third section, Wood talks about the relationship to Enlightenment and Modernity. Wood uses Weber’s arguments about the collapsing of various kinds rationality into instrumental rationality, but unlike someone like Horkheimer or Adorno, does not assume this was the only direct of Enlightenment thinking. If French absolutism were more sustainable, a different model may have been developed. In this sense, Wood seems to argue against critics like Adorno or Frederic Jameson that only one modernity was possible. This also opens her to be combined with theorists who don’t necessarily agree with her on the origins of capitalism when talking about capitalist development outside of Europe. For example, Jairus Banaji’s critique of overly simplistic schemas being read unto the development of capitalism in Asia can work with Wood even though the two thinkers disagree on the origins of capitalism. This third section, however, does seem to be less historiographical and more into taxonomic debates in popular left philosophy and thus seems slightly out if place in the book.

While I regard this book as excellent, it does leave a few areas unexplored. What exactly was primitive accumulation needed for it? Were the enclosures a form of primitive accumulation or something else? How crucial was the Protestant reformation for the differences in aristocratic privilege to have developed in England but not France? The timing seems to indicate that it was crucial but the direct relationship is never discussed even though it seems the breaking of church property tithe systems were just as vital as enclosures to making property the key vision of liberty in England and English speaking colonies? Another question, how crucial was US chattel slavery and what was it relationship to agrarian capitalism? Wood does mention that there is a relationship but doesn’t go very deeply into it. She explains, for example, that US slavery and primitive accumulation accelerated capitalism because of its reliance on the English model whereas the Spanish model did not even though it accumulated and enslaved as much. However, she doesn’t go into specifics here in how the developments were related.

These caveats aside, however, this book is particularly helpful at getting a grip on global capitalism origins and why it seems so related to Anglo-culture in specific and to Western Europe in general without completely Eurocentric exceptionalism being involved. It is clear and readable and presents a complicated but convinced argument.