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

March 20th [1978]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, Week 3, Day 2: The Anti-Fascism of Fools, Or Listen Leftist!


Presumably by giving them free press.

As much as I love Umberto Eco, if I see his 13 Ways of Looking at a Black-Shirt essay on twitter again, I am going to get a baseball bat and figure out how to use it through social media.

It’s time for a talk. I am too old to on the dirt-bag Brooklyn left, too Southern for that too. I am too young to be some Boomer nostalgia head who beats off to the pictures of naked women protesting the Nixon election or Black Panthers lining the streets with AK-47s and copies of Chairman Mao’s book.  Or to be remotely convinced by Badiou’s recounts of Mai’ 68.

I said Occupy was going to be a failure a month in, and how it failed would be important. It failed in the worse way: Like 68’ers pretending that François Mitterrand would stop liberalization of the economy or stand-up to DeGaulist tendencies within the state.  Kind of way, progressives speak about their involvement with the Bernie Sander’s campaign as Tulsi Gabbard talks about possible positions in Trump’s cabinet. 

First, let’s deal with Eco.  I am an Eco partisan and I don’t think his thoughts on Ur-fascism are without points, but he is myth-making.  Interesting the semiotician most responsible for calling out our secular myths in the last thirty years ends up doing it himself. What right-wing movement doesn’t meet Eco’s criterion?  Nebulous notions of the past?  Selective populism? Selective modernism?

I saw the same essay applied to Neoconservatives in the Bush 43 years. When I was twenty, I even though there may be some truth to it when I was involving in the anti-war movement in Georgia. At the time, I was also reading the American Conservative and following the beginnings of a young Ew England rightist, Richard Spencer.

Lately, I see even NPR giving Richard Spencer press.  I am going to admit to something: I have had a correspondence with him. I have known what Alterative Right, National Policy Institute, and Radix was doing, and even pointed people to their use of Marcuse and Adorno in their theoretical work. I pointed out that Spencer was part of getting both Alexander Dugan, the Russian Fourth Positionist, and Alain DeBenoist, the French New Rightist, into marginal counters of American political thought. He has even hoped that the Alt-Light of Steve Bannon and the anti-SJW rhetoric would propel his message to larger and larger audiences.

Liberals, in your myths, you have been more than happy to be do so.  You have been kicking a gas can fire into a dry field in an attempt to scare people into voting for voting for DNC and a liberal status quo? Has it not occurred to you that your exposes may be spreading the very thing you think you are fighting?

Sure, Fascists reject modernism and have Heideggerian critiques of technology, but they also use that media better than most of their opponents. Sure, Trump and Bannon flirt with fascist like ideas, but they aren’t clearly fascists.  Fascists tend to be scorned ex-leftists who cynically use Populists.  Don’t believe me?  Really study Italy. Study the SPD involvement with the Freikorp.  Study how Chancellor Ebert, a centrist Social Democrat, aided and abetted the very militias that would form the core of both the SS and the SA. Learn how Oswald Mosley was a staunch advocate of Keynesianism.  Just because Jonah Goldberg wrote a stupid book about it called Liberal Fascism equating liberalism, the left, and fascism together (and ignoring the conservative parts of the fascist coalition), does mean it was all false as scholars of Fascism like Ze’ev Sternhell have pointed out.

So your reaction is to say that Trump, since he is supported by NPI and even gives token cabinet heads to people they like–such as Jeff Sessions–must be the same as NPI will have about as much effect as when The Federalists pointed out that the CPUSA endorsed Barack Obama. If you don’t drink the kool-aid, it doesn’t work.

So if not Hitler is it better to attack Trump for being Berlesconi?

Writing for Jacobin, a magazine I have mocked in the past,  makes some key points tangentially related to the above. Trump’s clear analogy to Berlesconi is actually weaker than it seems:

Trump and Berlusconi are both men who came to power from business rather than politics, and both have presented their inexperience with the political establishment as a mark of purity. They have both insisted on their entrepreneurial success as the most evident proof of their qualification to rule the country. Like Plato’s tyrant, they both exhibit an ethos based on a dream of continuous and unlimited jouissance and an aggressive and hubristic eros (though Berlusconi prefers to think of himself as an irresistible seducer rather than a rapist).

They both indulge in gross misogynistic and racist jokes and have reshaped public language by legitimizing insult and political incorrectness as acceptable forms of political communication and by embodying an exhilarating return of the repressed. They both revel in kitschy aesthetics and don the orange hue of artificial tanning. And they both allied with the far right in order to advance a political project of authoritarian neoliberalism and unbridled capitalism.

Yet as Arruza notes, these similarities are superficial:

Moreover, Berlusconi did not agitate for isolationism and protectionism, did not challenge international market agreements, and did not question Italy’s participation in the creation of the European Union and the eurozone — at least not until 2011. Finally, Italy does not play any hegemonic geopolitical role comparable to that of the United States.

These differences are significant enough to caution against facile predictions about the course of Trump’s presidency based on Italian vicissitudes. They do not, however, mean that nothing can be learned from the Italian experience.

The idea that you fight all rightwing populists the same way is belied by not knowing the conditions are different for different kinds of populism. Saying one is fighting fascism by pointing out how scary Trump fans are spreads a fascist message to those who don’t yet believe it, but are primed to by alienation. Saying that you are fighting a media mogul with no real substantive politics who rules with a coalition isn’t going to work with Trump either.

Arruza does point out the problems of anti-Trumpism that anti-Berlesconism could teach us:

Mainstream Italian anti-Berlusconism has always suffered from a grave form of selective amnesia. The effects of six years of harsh austerity policies and virtually no significant social opposition have never been taken into consideration as a decisive causal factor in the consolidation of Berlusconi’s power. Nor has mainstream anti-Berlusconism ever shown any willingness to admit the substantial continuity between Berlusconi’s second government’s austerity policies and those of the center-left.

Berlusconi’s attack on labor rights was, for example, just an effort to expand the casualization of work introduced by the center-left (a goal realized years later by the center-left Renzi government through the Jobs Act). His privatizations of public services were primed by the center-left’s embrace of the notion that “private” is better.

The center-right’s immigration law, which criminalizes illegal immigration, is nothing but an amendment of the previous center-left law. Italian participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was made politically possible by the first violation of Article 11 of the Italian constitution — which prevents Italy from participating in wars of aggression — carried out by D’Alema to allow Italian forces to contribute to the bombing of Serbia.

Most of the things Trump will use as executive power were began under Reagan, expanded exponentially under Clinton, expanded under Bush, and even MORE expanded under Obama. So the Democratic left is going to have a hard time doing anything against it because it can’t own up to its own role in this. Instead, it spreads the ideas of the far right supporters of its enemy and hides the fact that it doesn’t have any ideas of its own to counter with. Keynesian stimulus and infrastructure? Well, Trump is going to try to do that, and when it fails, he will have a GOP congress to blame. Clinton didn’t even make that promise and Sanders would have been in the same situation but with a coalition of DNC Democrats opposing him as well.

Arruza also said something that I have been pointing out in this series on her personal facebook feed:

An element of useful knowledge is coming from Trump’s election: the neo-Nazi and white supremacist right has kept grass-root organizing and coordinating over the course of the years, while the ‘left’… well was busy discussing whether yoga classes and pumpkin spice latte are instances of cultural appropriation or safety pins are instances of white paternalism and guilt, and bashing any attempt at class analysis as economic reductionism and any attempt at having strategic discussions, and developing a politics of solidarity and universalistic demands as Western imperialism. It’s time to wake up from this sleep of reason, before their clubs meet our heads.

Trump may not be fascism, but keep it up, and see what comes next. You may even be in a country where you have no say in government and win the popular election year after year The funny thing is most of it will be from free press from anti-Trumpists and people who see opportunistically see the Trump admin as way to further some stimulus and alliances to demographics like the Friends of BJP.

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


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 


“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 


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 


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


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.

The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 6: Intersectionality is always a key term until someone asks you to actually do it.

Let’s getting something out of the way that is spreading like a virus: You can’t understand what it means to be “white working class,” or any working class, from polling results.    This isn’t going to become a John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen video with a folksy version of the Internationale in the melody.  Finally, no, you don’t have to empathize with the “white working class.”  You don’t have to empathize with anyone for a lot of what I am going to say to make sense.  That, however, isn’t the same thing as not shaming them, ignoring them, pretending what is happening to them isn’t happening.

The first part of the narrative:  The interests of the working class are divided by both race–and something even Marxists don’t talk much about anymore–region.  The reason for this difference is historical, but not just because of the long history of racial violence in the United States.  That most definitely plays a part, and the real gap in wealth between the black community and the white community largely comes from that very history: slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping, chain gangs, and the second wave of Klan. The gap in wealth between the white community and the black community has to the ownership of real property and investment, and not just current income.  It also has to do with inheritance and access to fair investment markets.  That, however, most left-liberals and Marxists vaguely understand.

What historical factors are ignored?  The shape of economic development in the country. While it is tempting to think the interests of the working class are unified, even within the “white” working class, this is somewhat laughable if you look at the shape of the country.  The Union movement in the USA has largely failed. As I wrote about in another place, the South and West’s “Right to Work” laws and history of race baiting actually killed the Unions there.  But there was another problem–the South were NEVER industrialized on the same model as the upper mid-West of the United States and share-cropping and prison labor was used to keep agricultural wages down as well. Similar to the way exploiting undocumented immigrants who do not have wage protections are done now . This means the industrial union model never took off, and the few unions that did exist were largely for contractors, functioning more like professional guilds.  After all, who can a Union of independent contractors strike against as they are technically their own employer.

The West Coast’s working class and now most of the South have a working class in the service sector or in the military or education.  That said, the service sector in the West Coast, largely because of a historical accident, is in higher skilled work like computing in urban areas or in crops that are resistant to mechanization like vegetables, nuts, and fruits in rural and suburban ones.  In the mountain West, outside of the cities, the main employer is mineral extraction but of more profitable and rarer minerals than in the mountains around the rust belt. The South is even more complicated,  being largely urbanized and de-urbanized very quickly, centers of population are even more concreted than North East.  This changes the nature of land ownership, and the kinds of employment there.   While in area manufacturing and contracting specifically for turning former farm land into rich subdivisions provided a lot of jobs, that manufacturing work was limited. Furthermore, many employers from Japan and even the US moved factories to the South but they were newer, much more highly automated, and cost of living and wages low enough that even a non-unionized job was more attractive than what else was on offer.

This is a very rough sketch of the last two decades of development, and I am sure there is much to contend with in the fine print.  It definitely related to the voting patterns. Here’s what we know about Trump’s voting electorate.  It was overwhelming white, but upper middle class. The “white working class” only seemed to turn the election to his favor actively in the devastated areas of the rust belt.

To delve into some further vulgar Marxism, the bourgeoisie in the US are mixed too and not just by size of their businesses. Small business owners have been in decline as have small farmers. This is nothing new.  However, the GOP has largely based itself out of Sun Belt where these declines were more pronounced.  Furthermore, ironically, the GOP and black Democrats colluded to make sure that representation was more concentrated, allowing for a bigger electoral hold on Sun Belt states than would otherwise happen in exchange for some clearly black representation of mostly black districts.  The Democrats, whose origins back to Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson, depending on our interpretation, are a populist party without an ideological or even consistent class base core. The GOP has always, even in Lincoln’s day when it was radically progressive, been a party of business.  The nature of business to society itself has changed. As the Brahmin Republicans declined in the North East and West because of urbanization, the Nixon strategy and the Goldwater vote on the civil rights act, and the taint of the Dixiecrats drifting away the Democrats, Democrats were able to take over the political machines and the interests of the Wall Street in the North East fairly easily.  Meaning that there are some substantive differences between the GOP and Democrats even though they both favor managerial and bourgeois interests–those interests are different. For example, Trump and Koch make things or build things, but Goldman Sachs finances things and Silicon valley disrupts things–ironically, though, because even the sharing economies business model of ending monopolies is based on intellectual property monopoly.

You will note that NONE of that requires empathy. It does require understanding. It requires also a buzzword that everyone throws around in Social justice circles but few people actually try to do: Intersectional understanding.  Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined that term from his work in law at the turn of the 1980s to 1990s. It did really take off with meme and think-piece culture in the late aughts. Like lectures about privilege, it hide in legal and pedagogical studies in the academy before being integrated by undergraduates into to think pieces 20 years later. I have written in other places extensively on the strange relationship of intersectionality to ideas like standpoint epistemology, and it has theoretically absorbed some of those assumptions in its common use. But at least, Crenshaw wanted disability, race, class, gender, sex, caste, and class into our understanding of human interactions.   Crenshaw did not think they could weighted or put down in simple categories and thus all analysis had to be multi-casual. This is easily done in cases like understanding American labor, but it removes the easy of sloganeering and simple reductive rhetoric.

Yet think pieces and blogs have increased simple reductive rhetoric to the point that “intersectionality” is generally used a way to shut people up,  or as a substitute for the idea of Solidarity, or as way of erasing the very things it was suppose to overlay. When combined with the psychologization of a lot of left-liberal politics–with analogies to trauma, unintended aggression, and constant pleas to empathy–you can see where this valuable way of analyzing the world drops out and becomes useless because the substantive methodological content goes into the air.

This brings me to a series of counter articles written in the last few days to all these naive pleas about the empathizing with the white working class. Some of this is a weirdly liberal appropriation of Maoist-Third Worldist ideas, but only applied to race within the US. I will ignore that because J. Sakai being used to support Hillary Clinton is absurd on its face. Other responses are been more nuanced in part, addressing “white allies.” I will talk about Kali Holloway’s piece for Alternet,  “Stop Asking Me to Empathize With the White Working Class: And a few other tips for white people in this moment,” as I think it is representative of what is likely to become a genre in the few weeks of doubling down on ideas and paradigms that largely only speak to themselves.

Holloway begins with,

The only people who were surprised by white people voting for white supremacy is other white people. Muslims, black folks and other people of color have been petrified of this outcome for a long time now, because we know how white power will do anything to preserve itself. We have seen it, worked beside it, watched it on the news, lived next door to it, witnessed it call itself our friend and then question our experiences with racism when we recount them.

Right out of the park, we begin with a bunch of assumptions that have to be unpacked. One of my problems with standpoint epistemology is the way it conflates derailing someone’s experience with questioning the scope of someone’s experience. Is a vote for Clinton NOT a vote for white supremacy?  After all, she was an active supporter of her husband’s tough on crime act.  Furthermore, in most of the country, “lived next door to it” is a false claim.  This implies an integrated America that only exists in the upper middle class suburbs of large cities. It also implies equal class footing. That’s not even false.

However, the conflation of both interests of whites being unified and the interests of people of color being unified but opposed is common.  It’s a white hat/black hat myth, with the moral significance of the colors inverted, but it’s common.  Yes, all white identified people benefit from the social structures around race, but they do not all equally nor is white power necessarily in everyone’s interests equally. Furthermore, as we pointed out, the diversification of the elite actually hasn’t been that much of a threat to white power. That is not what is going on.

Holloway says,

The only surprise to come out of this election is how many, and how quickly, white people want us to empathize with the people who voted against our humanity, our right to exist in this place. Even before the election, the Washington Post actually had the audacity to berate us for not crying for the white working class. In the days since Trump won, the number of articlesurging everybody to be cool to Trump’s America, to understand what they are facing, to hear their grievances, has added insult to injury. Bernie Sanders issued a statement saying Trump “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.” I read it at least three times and couldn’t find the words “white supremacy” anywhere in it.

Which is true, but also it wasn’t just white supremacy being maintained. 47% of the population didn’t vote. 70% of the voting electorate was white, about 9% more than representation of the country, and while the majority of those votes did go to the Republicans, the white working class that needs someone to listen to them didn’t vote for anyone. Neither did larger portions of working class blacks and hispanics. These are facts. I have documented them elsewhere.  The reasons why people are calling for this to be looked at is based on a simple question:  how are you going to win state level races to get back those purple states if you can’t address white people?  2060 is the year projected that the white population becomes majority minority–if and only if other current groups don’t start identifying as white.  But even then, you have to assume simplified interests among groups.  This doesn’t start up to much pressure.

Without that reforms of electoral college and other things that liberals are putting their hopes on are not just unlikely but impossible. Furthermore, as has been a theme, shaming people on this front doesn’t work.  Holloway makes it worse though in key ways:

Let me pass along some advice black folks have been given for a long time: stop being so angry and seeing yourself as a victim, and try pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s really all I have for you right now, this re-gifting of wisdom.

This is not just spite, it’s stupid spite. Everyone knows in her circles that this is not possible. Indeed, the very image is a logical impossibility but dismissing that is the normalization of a downward trend that also continues to affect large portions of the black and hispanic community. Hard work doesn’t change aggregate outcomes for anyone.

Holloway makes another lazy argument:

Here’s another reason I’m not interested: This whole idea that I have to understand the people America seems to believe are its “real” citizens is less and less relevant. Yes, they won an election. This country is getting browner and gayer by the day, and for all they are fighting to get back to the 1950s, lazing in toxic nostalgia isn’t going to change that. The demographics of this country are not on their side. They might want to try understanding the future—in which they are outnumbered and outvoted—because it comes for us all.

Yes, but Republicans are getting more and more of the brown vote, the idea that identity has set ideological content because of abstractions is, frankly. absurd. White power is a material thing, as it wanes, the interests of those who replace it in the same economic system will resemble that of who they replaced. Don’t believe me? Study the history of the coloreds in Haiti versus the black former slaves and who made up the elite classes there after the whites were gone.  The demographics of the U.S. are centralized in urban areas in a way that make it less and less democratic, and fixing that without also erasing many state borders and localities, would quickly cause several constitutional issues to become manifest like they did in large nation-states with diverse population that didn’t have a system to balance those interests:  see the history of Mexico and Brazil and the increased history of party centralization, corruption, and military coups for the long gains from that.  You don’t only change one part of a broken system, and yet that is all that is being talked about and predicting that raw number demographics will change things for the Democrats and People of Color. In Brazil, the “whites” (although Americans who think of them as Latinos) dominated and still dominate politics despite demographic trends being against for almost two decades. Why?  Accumulation, centralization of power, and conflicting interests among other groups.

Holloway doubles down again before she’s finished,”To paraphrase Samantha Bee, if Muslims and black folks have to take responsibility for every member of our communities, so do you.”  This again is confusing identity revenge with some vague notion of justice. The reason why everyone from bell hooks to Samantha Bee says making people representative of their race is it bad thinking. Inverting it is still bad thinking and is basically just sticking ones finger in the air and screaming: you did it too.

Holloway does make some sound points: poverty is always portrayed more romantically for whites and is perceived differently by the public, the diversification of elites isn’t what is causing white working class problems, and that it is basically each community’s responsibility to speak to itself.  However, if one was intersectional AT ALL in the analysis, it would be clear that communities overlap.  Indeed, Holloway’s whole premise in the beginning based on exposure to white communities is predicated on it overlapping.

I will quote a friend’s conversation with me about this as it makes the point clear:

Here’s what I mean (I feel like I’m talking to 5th graders, so I’m even worse than mansplaining): SOME white people are racist ignoramuses, and SOME white people are economically oppressed, and the intersection of these groups is not
the NULL SET. See? That’s not hard, is it?

The main point being not that “I am right” in the particulars, but that a certain amount of complexity is irreducible. As an analogy: if you want to cure a disease, you have to get the etiology right. Bleeding someone with malaria might make you feel better about yourself, as a caretaker, but it will do fuck all, therapeutically, for the patient.

The right isn’t totally wrong about how therapy has taken over a model for politics, they are just wrong about how and why. There are confluence of interests and actors in all of this, but the liberal and conservative–indeed most of the American– imagination has become so withered by simplistic typologies and the focus on emotional states that simple descriptive facts seem beyond most people’s capacity.  The personal being political, and the politics being symbolic has massively eroded liberals’ ability to parse complicated reality.  It has make intersectionalism the buzzword for most activism while also making it nearly impossible to say anything that actually has a multi-factor analysis as its core,  which is what intersectionality itself demands.

Thank the Gods The Universe Was Not Written By Aaron Sorkin

Today I was sitting in my apartment in Cairo, and avoiding large chunks of boomer media, not waxing nostalgic about aught television problems waxing nostalgic about the 90s which themselves were waxing nostalgic about the 80s, when I heard a skid making fun of Aaron Sorkin’s masterclass on scriptwriting.  First I thought “Don’t you have some ELL lessons to be writing” and then I thought “couldn’t you be writing agitprop against some small newspaper put out by a communist group” and then I thought “why does anyone care about some boomer who doesn’t seem to understand technology, the more world, or the way people talk”?

The levels of meta were building up faster than a meme about David Foster Wallace writing about an Adult Swim adaption of a John Barth novel.  What are you saying, you know, the life, the universe, and everything would have been better if we didn’t vote Reagan in and thus start the apocalypse of petite bourgousie smugness and whining about the failure of the sixties that inevitably resulted.

Or make up some bullshit about alienation and a girlfriend about some social media figure?

Also, what do you mean stilted and overly to the point dialogue?

Surely, this demiurgic impulse could help us make the world more like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Newsroom because we are all boomer polymaths whose social liberal inclinations could have saved the world from neoliberalism, social media, and millennials as the universal solvent.

Surely, most of the DNC agrees with the Sorkin-demiurge, and Trump is a celebrity, whose fashion taste is appalling. I mean seriously, fascists used to be well-dressed, have better uniforms, and could make shit-kickers look good.  Let’s blame that on Reaganites too–and spray tans, and probably social media.

Because the one thing we learned from 70s–possibly from reading Baudrillard while smoking pot in film school in 1987–is that politics is discourse man, and smugness creates the universe.

If we only give liberal idealism the good ol’ college try. Or something…

Review: Theory as History by Jarius Banaji (Brill, 2011)

While I do not always agree with Banaji, particularly of his dismissal of the English agrarian capital thesis and the Brenner/Woods reading as an “orthodoxy,” his discussions of Egypt, the late medieval Islamic trade development, the problems with the “Asiatic modes of production” and “tributary mode of production” as well as historical blind spots in general Marxist, and, ironically given their third world focus, specifically Maoist misreadings of past. Banaji’s strength is his knowledge of periods before capitalism and the complications of “transitions,” and he is particularly convincing in contrasting Mexico with Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries. I do think, however, that Banaji focuses intensely on moods of production but is deliberately somewhat loose with what counts as capitalism outright, and his criterion seemed a little vaguer than that of Woods/Brenner.

Parts of this book seem clearly targeted at the Maoist argument that “survivals of pre-capitalist relations of production” mean that the prime revolutionary class is the peasantry against the assertions of earlier Stalinists and other forms of communism about the working class. Banaji, as Mike MacNair already has said in his review of the book, “argues that the whole ‘traditional Marxist’ scheme of differences between modes of production which are defined by the mode of exploitation – slavery in classical antiquity, serfdom under feudalism, wage labour under capitalism – is to be rejected.” Banaji does this because there are proto-capitalist elements and profound misunderstanding of Asian and late antique economies in most Marxist schemas, and that the schema is both too theoretically simple. This argument is the thread that keeps these otherwise unrelated scholarly essays together. I also think that Banaji’s looser definition of capitalism frustrates all kinds of other Marxists particularly when looking at over-generalizations in other modes of production.

Interestingly, while there is no “pure” agrarian capitalism according to Banaji, he does prove that there was significant wage labor in both pre-modern and third world agriculture earlier than most Marxists conceive. This is significant as it draws out the horizon of the origins out beyond England. However, where I disagree with Banaji is that wage-relationships and focus on reinvestment did NOT characterize Mediterranean interface of Catholic Christendom, Byzantium and the Dar al-Islam. Banaji does prove that Brenner/Woods may have been under-stating the development of elements of capital, but he his only focusing on one part of Brenner/Woods two part definition. That said, this does complicate the development of capitalism quite clearly.

Furthermore, Banaji seems to reject teleologies as such. He seems to conflate the ideas that = that capital developmental would have a purposive and long-run developments that were emergent from their own logic, and would have a systemic teleological pattern to the idea of a teleology of history itself. To my mind, this is reading Hegelian and German idealist assumptions about what a teleology is back into the entirety of history. This means that Banaji seems to reject a clear emergence point for capitalism and a developmental logic, partly because of Marx’s “Here be Dragons” elements of Asiatic production.

This is not to dismiss Banaji. This is an important book, and while not necessarily easy for lay-readers in either medieval economic history or inter-Marxist debates, it is a vital read. It also calls for Marxists to look at non-European societies and do more significant comparative work before making big claims about history. The strongest chapters are the ones dealing with conceptions of “free” and “unfree” labor in the modern political economy as well as ones critiquing a lack of historiography in Marxist circles around antiquity and around non-European developmental modes.

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.

Wither primitive accumulation?

Finally, primitive accumulation is no longer the best way to frame the early history of capitalism, and this not because the epoch of commercial capitalism did not contribute decisively to the rise of modern production – it obviously did – but because that remains a purely teleological perspective and one that diverts attention from the real lacuna in materialist historiography, which is the study and, one hopes, ultimately a synthesis of the emergence of capitalism, which in the sporadic form that Marx described it as having was certainly in place by the thirteenth century. If the obscure early centuries of capitalism were defined by the ‘sporadic existence of capitalist production’, this was much less true of the fifteenth century, when a sort of merchant-controlled industrial capitalism was widespread in centres such as Genoa and led the way into the great watershed of the sixteenth century. The section on primi- tive accumulation sums up much of the history it deals with as the ‘period of manufacture’, but manufacture, as Marx knew, was a legacy of commercial capitalism, of the fusion of commercial capital with production, as indeed were the slave plantations. The ‘forms’ thrown up by the early capitalism of the Mediterranean were essentially those that continued to drive global history down to the expansion of large-scale industry and its revolutionary mode of production in the nineteenth century, so that the history of commercial capi- talism is no longer simply a prelude to industrial capital but more like an act (to retain the operatic metaphor), something that is best seen as a totality, a narrative with its own coherence, forms, internal periodisation, and concep- tions of empire. Marx was right, ‘the different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order’, only today, with so much more historiography before us, there is no compelling reason why this whole swathe of history should remain the compressed if brilliant histoire raisonnée Marx inserted into Volume I and not acquire the expansion of content it deserves.” – Jairus Banaji, Theory As History, p 44.

For those unfamiliar with this work by Banaji, I strongly endorse its general message that more work needs to be done on the specific modes of production and modes of political arrangement instead of instantly classifying huge parts of history into a simple, stagist typology. That said, this passage is a stumbling point for me. While Banaji does prove that “asiatic despotism” is a problematic historical category which has very little explanatory power, this condemnation of the idea of “primitive accumulation” seems harder to justify. Sure, hath is can degenerate into pure formalism that avoids actually having to know the actual historical developments in perspective regions related to social arrangement, but that is more of a reification error than a critique of an entire schema of historical understanding.

Is primitive accumulation purely teleological? If so, in what sense? Teleological tends to be used in a metaphysical sense meaning inevitable, but it’s original meaning, one that would not have eluded Marx, would progress towards a purpose. If the understanding behind primitive accumulation is that it was purposive for economic development and thus led to capitalism, even if it occurred in several places at different times, it may be teleological only in the second sense we are discussing, and not in the metaphysical or stagist sense but purely in an understanding that systems designed for a certain purpose while generally do certain things, particularly when Banaji is saying that it is an accurate description for the economies Marx was referencing.