Everybody knows it’s coming apart, 15

8 12 2014

Ironically, in seeking to curb the individual will to power in favor of equality, leftists invest their own subterranean desires for freedom-as-power in the activist state. In my view, the revival of the left depends on relinquishing this investment. We need to recognize that despite appearances the state is not our friend, that in the long run its erosion is an opportunity and a challenge, not a disaster. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not suggesting that we stop supporting social security or national health insurance or public schools or antidiscrimination laws. If my immediate choices are the barbarism of unleashed capital or a state-funded public sector, the tyranny of uninhibited private bigotry or state-enforced civil rights, I choose the state. Or rather, I choose the social goods and civil liberties that are available under state auspices.The distinction is important, because the idea that the state gives us these benefits is a mystification. Basically [Charles] Murray is right: government does not cause social improvement. In actual historical fact, every economic and social right that we’ve achieved since the nineteenth century has been hard-won by organized, militant, and often radical social movements: the labor movement; the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements; the new left student movement; the black and feminist and gay liberation movements; the ecology movement. . . . The role of the state from the New Deal and the postwar compact till the start of its present no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy phase was to manage potentially destabilizing social conflict by offering carefully limited concessions to the troublemakers.

. . . The government’s current rush to abandon any pretense of social responsibility ought to make this painfully clear: what the state supposedly giveth it promptly taketh away as soon as the balance of power shifts. In this case, of course, social power is shifting away from the national state itself; liberals and social democrats are still trying to board a train that’s already left the station.

In parallel fashion, the statism of the cultural left does not further equality so much as it reinforces law and order. . . . Insofar as the demand is to outlaw overt, provable discriminatory acts by employers, landlords, store, owners, and so on, it simply aims for public recognition that (pace [David] Boaz and Murray) discrimination is a coercive act as unacceptable as violence or theft. But the problem, from the social movements’ point of view, is that overt, deliberate discrimination is only the crudest expression of a deeply rooted culture of inequality. For many opponents of that culture, it has seemed a logical next step to invoke state power against patterns of behavior that reinforce white male dominance and exclude, marginalize, or intimidate vulnerable groups.

Actually, it’s a plunge into a dangerous illusion. The ingrained behavior and attitudes that support the dominant culture are by definition widespread, reflexive, and experienced as normal and reasonable by the people who uphold them. They are also often unconscious or ambiguous. A serious effort to crush racism and sexism with the blunt instrument of the law would be a project of totalitarian dimensions—and still it would fail. Transforming a culture and its consciousness requires a different kind of politics, a movement of people who consistently and publicly confront oppressive social patterns, explain what’s wrong with them, and refuse to live by them. . . .

It’s time for the left to become a movement again. That means, first of all, depending on no one’s power but our own. . . .

Ellen Willis, Their Libertarianism—and Ours, 1997

There is much which is provocative—in the best sense of the word—in Willis’s work, and much of her left-libertarianism with which I agree.

But she doesn’t confront the contradiction in her own essay: the gains of past movements, gains which she wouldn’t give up, were accomplished through the actions of that compromised, unfriendly, authoritarian state. She criticizes the right-libertarians for not recognizing the coercive power of the marketplace and warns leftists of the coercive power of the state, but merely criticizing parallel coercions does not in an of itself offer an escape from them.

Yes, by all means, we need a new, new-left movement (NL x.0?), a new vision of freedom and equality in which we live in “voluntary cooperation” with one another. But we can’t get their simply by dismissing either the state or the market as coercive—and not only because coercion (or, if you prefer, power) itself may be inescapable.

It’s nice to say we ought to rely on no one’s power but our own, but is that enough? And what if it isn’t? That is the dilemma, and the work.





Free free, set them free

12 08 2014

People break.

We break because of who we are and what we are and the things we do and the things done to us, intentionally, unintentionally, and no matter how hard we do and don’t try to break.

I’ve gone over this before, so I won’t belabor the point: any politics worth its salt has to take account of how humans are, and how humans are is fragile.

We’re not just that, of course—we’re also jerks! and brave and beautiful and inconstant and mean and weird weird weird—but our fragility is a basic part of our condition as humans, and no amount of bluffing or, so far, technology, can undo the fact that we are and will be undone.

So even if a libertarian moment has arrived (I have my doubts), I gotta wonder where it’s gonna go from here—“acerbic sideline critics”, after all, don’t usually perform center stage.

More to the point, libertarianism seeks a clean line through politics, government and society; however admirable such cleanness may be, that line can only, like us, break down when dealing with the inevitable messes of human life.





We might as well try: We do what we’re told, told to do

5 08 2012

Libertarianism and anarchism are necessary adjuncts to any theory, but as theories themselves, they are shit.

Now, if I were as clever as Nietzsche, I could leave it at that: the man knew that aphorisms are so much more delightful—for the writer of them, at least—than their elaborations.

But I am duller than the mad German, more (if only fitfully) dutiful in extending my pronunciamentos into argument.

Still, I am in an aphoristic mood, so allow me to miss the dot-and-cross of explanation in favor of elision and leap and speculation: after all, even political theorists have to play.

And so, declaration upon declaration, a piling up standing in for the more consequential lock of link by link:

I had stated previously that no theory of politics which cannot take account of how we humans are deserve the name of theory; I may even have used the term political science fiction.

And, alas, as much affection as I hold for anarchism, it is as fantastical as libertarianism in its approach to human being. If libertarianism can’t think of value beyond liberty, anarchism cannot imagine the irreconcilability of interests. Libertarianism conceives of humans as adults emerging fully formed from the mud, anarchism sees us instinctively in communion. They see the state, the corporation, as the obstacles to our true selves, the heavy gate locking us away from utopia.

In short, libertarianism is too small in its understanding of humans, while anarchism would have us floating above the ground. One thinks too little of humans, the other, too much; neither knows what to do with coercion.

And there’s the rub: there is no human polity without coercion, no human congress at all, so any political theory which is to direct us has to take coercion’s measure, calculate how to deploy and constrain coercion in a manner most congenial to that theory’s purpose.

Neither libertarianism nor anarchism is fitted to such calculations. Libertarianism falls into hysterics at the merest whisper of coercion, imagining itself Mel Gibson’s William Wallace rasping out “Freedom!” as it is gutted by the king’s men, while anarchism, too, imagines that if it gets rid of kings and bosses it gets rid of coercion. They share the delusion that if only individuals or the people were left alone, that if the state and the corporation were to disappear,  power and interest would disappear with them.

Forced to toil in service to real theory, however, these adjuncts serve a real purpose. Libertarianism reminds one of the massive accumulation of coercive power in the state, and how easily that state may justify to itself any use of that power; if one cares at all the liberty and integrity of the individual, it is good to have a counter-valence to the state. Anarchism remembers that these same individuals and the communities in which they live are capable, often more capable, than is the central state in providing, or at least arranging the provisions, for themselves.

To put this more simply, when serving as a minor chord in a major theory, they are forced to reckon with elements they would otherwise dismiss, and by this reckoning they provide a leavening necessary to the continued functioning of that theory. Their resistance creates breathing room that theory in its denseness would not otherwise provide.

Libertarianism and anarchism, then, are honorable resistance fighters, but it is best if they rarely, if ever, defeat what they resist.





We might as well try: the prelude

11 07 2012

I should just walk away.

The problem with being a theorist—with being a lazy theorist—is that one is supposed to chase down every last bit of an argument, and that if one doesn’t wish to do so, one if left wondering if this is because the argument doesn’t deserve the effort or because one is lazy?

I’ll take “Both” for two hundred, Alex.

There is a part of me that does think it worthwhile to scatter the arid bits of libertarianism to the wind, and another part that says, Why bother, it’s a shit theory promulgated largely by twitchy obsessives and freshwater economists, so why not leave the whole mess to the key-pounders* on the left and Paul Krugman?

(*This is not a criticism: Go go go!)

I’m certainly heading toward that conclusion, but there’s still a part of me that berates myself for not doing the work of shredding such terrible theory: Yeah, it is a shit theory—not even properly a theory— but I am also lazy and there is something to be gained in the meticulous dismantling of pernicious ideas.

Yet even as I carry that guilt-bag with me toward the off-ramp, I’m wondering if the best way to lighten my load is simply to swap it for a kit-bag full of stuff I can actually use.

Okay, now I’m going to lay that whimpering metaphor aside and get to the point: Why not talk about what does matter, and what ought to be taken into account in any discussion of politics, economics, and society?

I joked the other day that the problem with letting others go first is that they get to set the terms; why not set my own terms?

I’m disgusted with libertarianism because it bears almost no relation to humans or human being; isn’t this the place to begin? And so I will—but not until tomorrow.

Lazy, remember?





Nothing left to lose

7 07 2012

I’m a lazy, lazy woman.

Sometimes this can lead to problems (especially when laziness is combined with or otherwise abets procrastination), sometimes it makes my life easier (as when a desire not to do things in a particular way leads to a better way to do those same things), and sometimes means someone else gets there (wherever “there” is) first.

Not getting there first is usually considered a bad thing, but in the case of laying out my objections to libertarianism, my laziness has meant that others have done the work—to which I will now simply link.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

That is what we are about to argue, but it is based on months of discussion with the Bleeding Hearts. The conversation was kicked off by the critique one of us—Corey Robin—offered of libertarian Julian Sanchez’s presignation letter to Cato, in which Sanchez inadvertently revealed the reality of workplace coercion.  [more]

That intro was written by some of the good folks at Crooked Timber, Corey Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch, in a kickoff post on workplace coercion, Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace. This was followed by Coercion vs. Freedom (taking on Tyler Cowen & Alex Tabarrok’s critical responses to the post) by John Holbo; Infringements on Worker’s Rights (where are the women in all of this?) by Belle Waring; Let Me Be the First To Second. . . (again on Cowen, and different schemas of coercion), by Henry Farrell; and, Henry again, Markets and Freedom (commenting on Matt Yglesias’s misunderstandings). I assume there will be more posts on CT about this, but this gets one satsifyingly into the weeds on workplace conditions.

To be honest, I would not have started my critique of libertarianism on these grounds—would have started with something even more basic, such as the misconception of the human condition on which libertarianism unavoidably rests—but another drawback to laziness+procrastination is those who get there first start where they want, not where I want.

More substantively, I think the CT critique, insofar as it is a liberal critique of libertarianism, fails fully to grasp the structure of workplace (or shall I say, labor? ) inequality and owner-domination—which is simply another way of stating that it is not a Marxist critique of labor relations.

Chris Hayes’s book, Twilight of the Elites, offers yet another perspective on this issue by taking on the notion of meritocracy. He notes

We hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hardworking are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.” (via David Atkins)

Atkins notes that insofar as liberals and leftists focus on a merit-based politico-economic system, they miss the role of luck:

But to call Lloyd Blankfein “lucky”, or to say that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were simply “fortunate”–that’s something altogether different. That’s revolutionary. It cuts against the dominant discourse of the institutional left and right to reorient the entire social contract. It challenges not only the ethic of equality of opportunity, but also the legitimacy of much of the inequality of outcomes.

No, not revolutionary, not even close, but a charge which may destabilize pat theories of merit-based systems. And, anyway, I think John Rawls addressed this forty years in his Theory of Justice: you need to set up a system wherein the luckless may still lead decent lives.

More to the point, for the theory of “luck” to be revolutionary, it would have to go beyond (as Atkins does not) the usual genuflection to “hard work” (Hard work is still a key to success, of course.—DA) to inquire into both the nature of said “work” and what counts as “hard”, as well as what role luck plays in determining the definitions themselves.

Consider lazy-based example: If I set up a scheme which allows me to do more with less effort or work, would that work still be hard? Add luck: What position would I have to be in to allow me to set up said scheme? How would I have gotten into that position? And what are the chances that the politico-economic system in which I lived would not only have and allow me access to the resources necessary for set-up, but would also recognize the scheme and its outcomes as desirable?

Shorter version: what counts as merit and merit-worthy varies, such that luck is itself at least partially a function of that variation.

I’m interested to read Hayes’s book because I wonder how far he goes in his critique of merit, and whether he thinks the concept should be altered or expanded or should instead be tossed. I don’t know where I stand on this beyond the sense that the morality of merit should be downgraded, but even that sense is merely a suspicion, not a full-fledged argument.

Perhaps that’s one place I could add something to the critique of libertarianism (and, for that matter, capitalism): the justness—to the extent they care about justice—rests on a naive definition of merit, such that those who have more deserve to have more and those who have less deserve to have less.

Or maybe I’ll have lucked (!) out again with my laziness, and Hayes will have gotten there first.





Mayan Campaign Mashup 2012: Mancrushing Ron Paul

11 01 2012

Katha Pollitt on lefties-for-Paul:

What is it with progressive mancrushes on right-wing Republicans? For years, until he actually got nominated, John McCain was the recipient of lefty smooches equaled only by those bestowed upon Barack Obama before he had to start governing. You might disagree with what McCain stood for, went the argument, but he had integrity, and charisma, and some shiny mavericky positions—on campaign finance reform and gun control and… well, those two anyway.

Now Ron Paul is getting the love. At Truthdig, Robert Scheer calls him “a profound and principled contributor to a much-needed national debate on the limits of federal power.” In The Nation, John Nichols praises his “pure conservatism,” “values” and “principle.” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald is so outraged that progressives haven’t abandoned the warmongering, drone-sending, indefinite-detention-supporting Obama for Paul that he accuses them of supporting the murder of Muslim children. There’s a Paul fan base in the Occupy movement and at Counterpunch, where Alexander Cockburn is a longtime admirer. Paul is a regular guest of Jon Stewart, who has yet to ask him a tough question. And yes, these are all white men; if there are leftish white women and people of color who admire Paul, they’re keeping pretty quiet.

Ron Paul has an advantage over most of his fellow Republicans in having an actual worldview, instead of merely a set of interests—he opposes almost every power the federal government has and almost everything it does. Given Washington’s enormous reach, it stands to reason that progressives would find targets to like in Paul’s wholesale assault. I, too, would love to see the end of the “war on drugs” and our other wars. I, too, am shocked by the curtailment of civil liberties in pursuit of the “war on terror,” most recently the provision in the NDAA permitting the indefinite detention, without charge, of US citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism. But these are a handful of cherries on a blighted tree. In a Ron Paul America, there would be no environmental protection, no Social Security, no Medicaid or Medicare, no help for the poor, no public education, no civil rights laws, no anti-discrimination law, no Americans With Disabilities Act, no laws ensuring the safety of food or drugs or consumer products, no workers’ rights.

And as she noted about his alleged anti-police-state stance: “Not to harp on abortion, but an effective ban would require a level of policing that would make the war on drugs look feeble.”

I, of course, have no problem harping on abortion. That’s one of the things a harpy does.

Anyway, it is telling that libertarians tend to attract the strong or those who consider themselves strong or those to whom it is really really really important to be stronger than someone else.

Have I kicked around Ayn Rand enough? No, I have not, mainly because I try not to think of Ayn Rand (and I have a story about reading her for the first time that’s just, pfffffffff, does not reflect well on me but I should tell you anyhow—but not right now). Still, this bit from Paul Bibeau* is a propos:

[L Ron Hubbard] “Fine,” he said huffily. “Who would you go after?”
[Ayn Rand] “Rich white college kids.”
“Jesus,” he said. “That’s… that’s perfect.”
“I know, right?”
“They’re the worst.”
“God, they’re horrible.”
“But what are you going to do to them?”
“I’m going to convince them… that they’re just too nice.”

Makes her almost likable—so clearly a parody.

I know, Ron Paul is not Ayn Rand (and no, his son Rand is not named after her), and she would probably disdain him because she disdained everyone who was not her (and who knows, possibly also herself as well, but, again, really prefer not to spend too much time thinking of her), but even if he’s not as interested in ripping off-while-misunderstanding Nietzsche as that third-rate author was, they’re both chewing on the same overcooked piece of fuck-the-weak spaghetti.

*h/t Fred Clark at slactivist





In fact it’s a gas

4 12 2011

Libertarian performance art: Acts I, II, III, and IV (with, apparently, two more to come—ye gads).

It has to be, right? Or maybe this guy has just been smoking too much weed. Or not enough.

Something.