Review of Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoaders (Continuum, 2021)

This is a strongly persuasive polemic that makes a cultural case against a class that it doesn’t coherently define and also reads that class back in history and into thinkers who don’t share the framework Liu has borrowed from the Ehrenreichs in the 1980s. The resurrection of Ehrenreich’s PMC thesis gives a Marxist gloss to complaining about generic elites and Liu hardly invented it. More strongly linked to the so-called current “post-left” (a movement towards more socially conservative social democracy with strong populist flavor, which is probably the third movement to use the moniker), this critique became popular after the failure of Bernie Sanders in 2020. While it is a sound critique of a kind of moral kitsch that developed among academics between the 1960s and 1990s that has spread out into the larger culture, this moral kitsch is not limited to nor even solely emergent from the professionals and managers that get linked together here. Instead of admitting, as E. O. Wright did in his late work on a class that the importance of strata within the Marxist conception of class needed to be taken seriously, the existence of a vaguely defined educational “Professional Managerial” emerged. Unlike the managerial class of James Burnham or Peter Turchin’s theory of elite (and elite overproduction), the “PMC” seems to be anyone who has the moral and ideological kitsch that emerged in left and liberal groups. The critique of that kitsch is fair enough, but do all managers or professionals share it? And what does it have to do with Marxism?

Effectively as described by Liu, the PMC are virtue hoarders, which is fair enough, but are they classified in the Marxist or even liberal sense? Neither a clear relation to commodity production on income predominates? Liu compares Nagle’s “Kill All Normies” to the Sokal hoax, which as a person who works for the publisher that published Nagle and voted to publish it with criticism about its somewhat superficial engagement with the history of the more radical right, I find to be a hilariously bad analogy. Furthermore, the nationalist and nostalgic assumptions implicit in Nagle’s work were to be made explicit later in her post-left turn. Now, Nagle didn’t talk about the PMC but the ideological content of the left dominated by academia–academia which produced both Nagle and Liu themselves.

The interesting problem here is probably best dealt with by Mike McNair, one of Liu’s more charitable critics, in his review of Liu in the Weekly Worker,

“The first is that what Liu offers as an implicit alternative to ‘PMC values’ is a politics of nostalgia – back to the social-democratic (or in US terms ‘new deal’) consensus of the 1950s-60s. The second is that the class explanation of what Liu characterises as “PMC values” is an overtheorisation of what is, in reality, current ideological fashion – which, though widespread among the intelligentsia (as all current ideological fashions tend to be), is also found among sections of the working class; and conversely can easily be displaced by a fashion for nationalist-traditionalism.

She tells us (p19) that the post-war “liberal consensus was based on state and corporate support for lifetime employment, labour power2 and strong social services and redistributive economic policies”. And at the end of the book: “While a mixed economy may be the short-term reality that we dare hope for, let’s strengthen the hand of the socialist aspects of that hybrid system” (p77).

Catherine Liu was born in 1964, and was an undergraduate student at Yale in 1981-85; which means that her personal experience of the “post-war liberal consensus” was that of a small child in its dying days – right at the end of the US civil rights movement and the high period of the anti-Vietnam war mobilisation. She could have researched the background to the ‘consensus’ and to the 1970s turn away from it, but has chosen instead to treat it as an image of the ‘possible’.

It is entirely reasonable from the standpoint of today’s world of endemic unemployment and precarity to have some degree of nostalgia for the years of the long post-war boom and ‘consensus’; just as it is now reasonable for people to have some degree of ‘Ostalgie’ in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik – or nostalgia for the Brezhnev era in Russia after “shock therapy” wrecked the economy.

But it is essential to understand what the ‘libertarian left’ of the 1960s-70s – who came up with the ideas which have more recently been appropriated by ‘neoliberal intersectionalism’ – were fighting against. And this was not the managers, social workers and so on as an ally of the working class, but the managers, social workers and so on as the disciplinary authority standing immediately over the working class. “

In short, the PMC that Liu posits was not an extension of the prior PMC but a battle against it. The nostalgia there ignores that the workers’ left was undermined by the very consensus for Liu seems to be nostalgic, something under which she did not live but she does want to defend. For people burnt by the culture war that many social democrats posit as a reason for the failure of Bernie Sanders against the neoliberal elite, this may seem convincing, but despite Liu’s (and Nagle’s) invocation of Christopher Lasch, Lasch had spent his first four books prior the oft-cited “Culture of Narcissism” exposing that this was not the case. The new left was not the cause of the failure of the populist and socialist left in America, but as Lasch clearly delineated in most of his career in the late 60s and early 70s, the result of it.

This is not to say that the moral kitsch that Liu describes and academic self-righteousness around it does not exist and is not self-undermining, but the PMC is not a class in the Marxist sense. Even in the circuit of production, it does not have one singular role. This becomes apparent in Liu’s understanding of education, equating the neo-liberalization of education with charter schools as a workers’ battle as if teachers are part of the working class, but under Ehrenreich’s definition of the PMC and in the curriculum choices (such as Liu’s rather odd focus on Harper Lee as somehow endemic of this problem).

As I have hinted before, the PMC concept itself is not particularly coherent. But its current use is particularly pernicious, whatever Liu’s politics or intentions. For all its implied critique of the moral kitsch and student-focus of the new left, it actually accepts a new left problematic. Again, quoting from Mike McNair, “The paradox is that ‘PMC theory’ remains within the framework of the most disabling aspect of the ‘new left’, and in particular the Maoists: that is, the tendency to reduce all political differences to class conflicts.” But I would go beyond McNair, who chastises Liu’s use of Lasch because of the use of Lasch in the culture war by people who McNair hints he knows are misreading him, because the other issue is that class analysis here owes more to people like David Brooks, James Burnham, Peter Turchin, and Michael Lind–the latter two I even respect even though I fundamentally disagree with their rejection of Marx–but have essentially non-Marxist or anti-Marxist views of class. In short, selling conflating anti-socialist views of class with socialist ones while not addressing that the PMC is not what killed the industrial working class as a movement: declining profitability during the end of Keynesianism did.  Furthermore, for people complaining of privilege, the argument for the PMC often just amounts to an argument from privilege itself: educational privilege and the helicopter parenting of children. In an area of increased centralization of wealth in the hands of a few and of declining profits in real commodities, this is predictable. To truly understand what is causing these problems, de-industrialization, the failure of Fordism, and the increasing importance of rentier economic models need to be understood far more than pretending a cultural battle that DOES even extend into urban vs rural working class is due to the emergence of a nebulous new class or that the nostalgia for the post-war consensus serve as an answer to neoliberalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May most of us never be so foolish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furthermore, this functional reading makes a pretty big misstep:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see the original 2016 post here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinions about Education that I have developed since 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In times of plague and riots, a personal update.

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

A few observations on US politics

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

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

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

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

Hindsight is 2020: Reflections from an Unfolding Difficult Time

Prose by C. Derick Varn 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Transmission from this outpost

In the coarse of my life, I have been sporadically blogging for over a decade-and-a-half: first personal blogs–where I focused on art and religious history as topics as well as just a personal daybook–on the infant social media like Live Journal, then around 2007 I began writing about critical theories and empirical variation of pedagogical theories on a forerunner to this blog, and after I left the country, I began writing about my ad hoc understanding of politics and anthropology, which increasingly became concerned with critical theory.

It is clear to me, however, that my loves have always been history of religion, the history and philosophy of science, and the overlap with politics.  I have decided that my dyslexia and aphasia means that I need to focus on my poetry, my podcasts, and possible articles/book length material with a co-author on those topics instead of an vaguely unfocused political blog.   As such, this blog really doesn’t have the same purpose it once did–I need to work with editors and do slower writing that blogging generally requires.

This will remain here for archives, and I may pick this up again. For now, however, it’s time to end transmission.

Attempt: Some observations about Marxism as it currently seems to exist

Part of the removal of doubt in my life involves clarifying why those doubts emerge in theories in which I am seen as a subscriber.  In the last year, I have been amazed at the word games many socialists have used to avoid the hard work of actually clarifying their research project. The problem, it seems to me, mostly consists of terminology that has degenerated as the history that the jargon assumed has not played out the way that it was predicted.  This gap means that the even harder task of working to build the movements and organizational party to dealt with these political realities–realities that were not completely imagined 100 years ago.

Let me point out a few things:

  • The number of word games that Marxists I know use to hide that most fundamental prediction of theory–the politicization of proletariat as the revolutionary subject of history–has not yet happened is pretty good ammo for enemies of socialism. The left-communist critique is often infantile, but they are not wrong that “actually existing socialism” came about mostly through class collaborations in areas where the proletariat was not the majority of the population nor the majority of cadres in the communist movement.
  • Every single Trotskyist stage theory of revolution has an idealist typology behind it, and every single explanation the different groups had for the “revolutionary spirit” returning to the Soviet Union, regardless of their theories about how the Soviet Union did not live up to being a truely revolutionary proletariat state–be it Cliff’s state capitalism, Grant’s version of the “deformed worker’s state,” or the theories of Bonapartism–were, frankly, disproven by the way 1991 went down. No trotskyist group predicted the kind of disillusion the Soviet Union actually had–although the Orthodox Trotskyists did seem come closest. The fact that these groups still exist despite this failure is an indication of a morbidity of thought and inertia in micro-institutions.
  • Theories of labor aristocracy as an explanation for this generally ignore that peek of Maoist victories were also in places where the proletariat was not the dominant class, and, while labor aristocracies clearly exist, the idea that somehow the national bourgeoisie has conspired to over-pay a nation’s worth of workers is a conspiracy theory that has less of a chance of being true, or even consciously considered, than some of the more grandiose conspiracy theories of the past. So they aren’t answers to the “why hasn’t proletariat actually done why it was classically predicted to do” either.

Furthermore, we have to deal with the class nature of the people making these claims:

  • While there is actual “working class” membership in Marxist organizations, most of them are not in the main full of people out of their 20s and in the “working class” full time.  The largest groups consist mainly of students or in organizations like the DSA which do not have significant costs to entry and frankly do not require large commitments of time.   This increase is explicitly not true for most Marxists “parties” which require more commitment but do not have the numbers to make such commitment effective beyond a small business model.
  • The organizations I have known that are not highly historically like the IWW, which have large working-class membership are not Marxist. The most successful organizations either provide lots of mutual aid services and are slow but steady growth (but still require LARGE commitments of time), or have low cost and low commitment like the D.S.A., but are basically little more than local orgs with a national lobbying branch.  Most of the other orgs with high proletariat membership don’t last, the membership does not have the skills or the time to maintain such an organization.
  • The other successful organizations that are large consist mostly of students, often have funds from University student organizations, or run or collaborate with academic presses.  The produce scholarly or semi-scholarly work.  They also help to provide a niche section of semi-academic political writers exposure in party organs or editorial panels for socialist magazines. The student mass of the organization has lots more leisure time than the average worker to invest in the organization.
  • That so many of who talk this about the proletariat are graduate students even when they are attacking academics has NEVER been lost on me.


This does not say the hypothesis of the politicization of the proletariat is wrong.  Indeed, when Marx and Engels were writing, the proletariat, even though it was a smaller proportion of the population than now, was more politicized.  It led to Engels and Kautsky both predicting significant socialist wins in the democratic polities because the size and politicization of the working class were growing, and they felt certain the socialists would have the vote.  Answering what happened in an honest manner that deals with the Soviet Union, with some of the Maoist legitimate points about labor aristocracy, with the real conflicts of interest within the working class itself, becomes necessary.

I also don’t have good answers for these questions nor do I think even if we did, we would have all answers to all political questions.  The questions of national tensions are not solved solely by economic questions nor is the tension between a universal political project and particularist identities which class solitary ameliorates but does not completely end.

We cannot construct new nebulous categories to get out this, such notions that are hidden in neologism like ‘precariat,’ ‘salaried bourgeoisie,’ and ‘the multitude’ or even classics like ‘the popular front’ and the “mass line’ do not get really get around the failure.  Nor do ideas that somehow “class consciousness” or “false consciousness” explains conflicts in short interests between working-class groups pass muster.

We have to be honest with ourselves most of all.

Attempt at a Confession

“The body plays a major role in the life of a philosopher. Everything that can be said on the subject can be found in the preface to The Gay Science. Nietzsche knew from where he spoke–he knew nothing but migraines, opthalmy, nausea, vomiting, and a collection of other maladies. He proclaimed that all philosophy is reducible to the embrace of the body, to autobiography of a Being that suffers. Thought emerges out of a subjective flesh that says ‘I’ and ‘the world contains me.’ Thought does not come down from above like the Holy Spirit that causes the elect to speak in tongues. Rather, it rises through the body, welling up from the flesh and entrails.  What philosophizes within a body is nothing other than strength and weakness, ability and disability.” – Michel Onfray,  A Hedonist Manifesto, translated by Joseph McCellan

Today I came to a realization that I have had many times, but its flavor changed on my tongue from sweet to slightly bitter: Doubt has characterized most of my life. I no longer see this as a positive trait.  It is not that being critical has not served me well, but critical towards what exactly?  What has motivated my reasoning?  A friend pointed out to me in response, “I never see skepticism that isn’t subtly directed by sentiment…” echoing Hume. Reasoning is motivated, and mine is no exception.  A Christian friend said, “Doubt is an invitation to an answer. It’s not an answer.”

In many secular theologies, I have invested a lot of my time. The irony of starting with myself, with my body, my thought leads me to something that is unsettling: I can doubt anything, even the consistency of my own being and mind, but I cannot doubt the experience of my body as an experience. Logic may be a check against incoherence coming from the piecemeal development of experience. It, however, as many psychologists repeatedly tell us is not an answer against our own biases–indeed, if we are honest, we can hide our biases in our axioms and the logic still flows.  So starting with myself I must admit that how much secular world rhymes when with I encountered in church, but how traveling the world taught me that this isn’t nearly as universal as someone like Michael Shermer would assert.

Starting with that fundamental point, my own body and experience, I have left with one conclusion. I cannot ignore my own context and my own motivated reasoning.  I returned to Hegel and Marx when I felt like I saw capitalism failing the people I loved, and my first marriage cracked under the economic strain and the stress of my self-misconceptions.  Now, after seven and a half years abroad and listening–not watching–to my current wife fight late-stage melanoma through immune therapy from skype calls in Cairo, it makes sense that my patience with systemization that seems to confirm what I would like to be true would start to run out.

This is not to say I have totally given up on these “grand narratives” of history.  Even starting with my self and my own body, I see that history is hard to predict and yet rhymes with itself immensely.  As I said in another context, the minutiae of history are largely stochastic, it is only more predictable in aggregate.  Yet it is the individual minutiae that build the aggregate like every lived minute makes up a life.  This disconnect is in the tension between self and other, and how that relationship defines both.

Ironically, removing a lot of doubt in my life also means removing a lot of false certainties.   I cannot make an assertion truth just by uttering it.  People perhaps have noticed this in my podcasts, in my increased hedging of grand theories, and the inclusion of “maybes” or a thousand little caveats.

I am veering towards the abstract again. This seems natural.  To formalize is to make the comparison more plausible. It is why quantitative analysis seems more sturdy than qualitative, and mathematics a better way to build an aggregate model than phenomenology.  Yet, if I am honest, I no longer think you can build things just with critique, and no longer see some form of Ur-rationality as enough to base any observation on.

The last three years, I have nearly died myself of complications of typhoid, moved back to my home country, lost nearly 100 pounds, and lived in fear of losing my spouse from something that was no one’s fault and to which there was no real answer.  To reduce my doubts, I have to admit that there is a difference between what I will and what I know.  To make what I will into being required work–both my own and others who will to want the same.

I suppose this is why I never had the hostility to Nietzsche as many others.  Yes, Nietzsche is unsystematic and resists hard consistency, but why should we expect a suffering philologist to be so?  Many of the systems we build are descriptive, limitedly, and we wish to make them prescriptive as if thinking would make categories ontological real just because they appear coherent.

Walking in the cold winter afternoon today with my wife to the car, seeing her smile but walk slowly from the effects of the last two years, I am struck by how much I don’t know.  At how much the rearview picture seems consistent and obvious, but the constant doubting is, in a way, a way to avoid looking at the limitations of my knowledge.