From the monthly archives:

July 2018

Clouds

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 28, 2018


I hope those of you based in the right places enjoyed the red moon last night. The day before yesterday, we enjoyed a fabulous bright and almost full moon, while sipping some French wine on top of a hill in the Midi-Pyr̩n̩es. But alas, yesterday we had only clouds around the time we had hoped to enjoy the red moon. Still, they were pretty spectacular too Рat least, a bit earlier in the evening.

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left.

Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive.

What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major—the major—part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.

First, you have the full-on assault on voting rights from the Republican Party. Then there’s the fact that both the current and the last Republican president were only able to win their elections with the help of the two most anti-democratic institutions of the American state: the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. In both cases, these men won their elections over candidates who received more popular votes than they did. There’s a lot of words one might use to describe a system in which the person who gets fewer votes wins, but democracy isn’t one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Any notion that anyone from that side of the aisle is in any position to even speak on the question of democratic values—again, not robust democratic values but minimal democratic values—is a joke.

Second, you have the Democratic Party. Massively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates. Massively dependent in its district-level wins on low voter turnout, in districts where the party structure resembles the Jim Crow South, as described by V.O. Key. You have incumbents like Joe Crowley who’ve not had to face a primary challenge in so long that, as we saw in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they don’t even know how to wage much less win electoral campaigns. You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate (whose campaign I really encourage you to donate to), an incumbent, Martin Dilan, who’s trying to forgo an election challenge from her simply by forcing Salazar off the ballot, with the help of, you guessed it, the least democratic branch of the government: the courts. I can imagine the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) folks saying to these Dems: you really want to have a debate with us about democracy? Bring it on.

And last you have this very sophisticated take by Seth Ackerman, who has become in a way the intellectual guru behind the whole DSA strategy, on how the party system in America works. Right around the 2016 election, Seth wrote a widely read (and cited) piece, which has become something of a Bible among the DSA set, on how to think about a left party that can avoid some of the pitfalls of third-party strategies in the US.

Here, in this interview with Daniel Denvir, the Terry Gross of the socialist left, Seth explains how much our two-party system looks like those one-party states that socialists of the 20th century spent their lives either defending or being forced to criticize in order to demonstrate their bona fides.

Again, what I think this shows is that, maybe for the first time in a very long time, socialists have the democracy side of the argument on their side.

Here’s Seth:

In most places in the world, a political party is a private, voluntary organization that has a membership, and, in theory at least, the members are the sovereign body of the party who can decide what the party’s program is, what its ideology is, what its platform is, and who its leaders and candidates are. They can do all of that on the grounds of basic freedom of association, in the same way that the members of the NAACP or the American Legion have the right to do what they want with their organization.

In the United States, that’s not the case at all with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We’ve had an unusual development of our political system where, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bosses of the two major parties undertook a wave of reforms to the electoral system that essentially turned the political parties into arms of the government, in a way that would be quite shocking — you could even say “norm-eroding” — in other countries.

If you took a comparative politics class in college during the Cold War, it would have discussed the nature of the Communist system, which was distinguished from a democratic system by the merger of the Party and the state, becoming a party-state. Well, the United States is also a party-state, except instead of being a single-party state, it’s a two-party state. That is just as much of a departure from the norm in the world as a one-party state.

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules. And of course when we say state governments, who we’re talking about the Democrats and the Republicans.

So it’s a kind of a cartel arrangement in which the two parties have set up a situation that is intended to prevent the emergence of the kind of institution that in the rest of the world is considered a political party: a membership-run organization that has a presence outside of the political system, outside of the government, and can force its way into the government on the basis of some program that those citizens and members assemble around.

I Knew Henry Would Post That And Was Prepared

by John Holbo on July 27, 2018

Tales of Sporting Incongruity

by Harry on July 26, 2018

Tailenders is the best of the BBC’s proliferating podcasts about cricket. The star is a regular guest, Machin, who is in some obscure way related to Sachin Tendulkar (maybe) and professes (completely plausibly) to have no interest in cricket at all (you can listen to the best of Machin here). Among Machin’s roles is to invent features. These are usually games and quizzes, but the current, ongoing, feature is ‘tales of cricketing sadness’ in which listeners send in tales of their own failures, to amuse and to get catharsis. I don’t have any interesting tales of cricketing failure [1] and anyway I thought that for our audience cricket might be too restrictive. So, instead, it being silly season, can we have tales of oddness — incongruity — well, anything that might entertain us here at CT? Here’s mine, to set the tone.

[click to continue…]

The Man with the Two-Storey Brain

by Henry on July 25, 2018

By Source, Fair use, Link

Since Holbo is encroaching on my territory by writing about Dark Web Intellectualism, turnabout is fair play. Paul Krugman’s knowledge of science fiction is vast and impressive. Still, I can’t imagine that when he tweeted this:

he knew that he was invoking one of the great (if sadly little known in this Age of Bronze) recurring characters from 2000AD’s Tharg’s Future Shocks. Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz was the Man with the Two-Story Brain, or, as we’d say today, a Very Stable Genius, who specialized in handling “complex problems with even more complicated solutions.” For example – Snazz’s More Robots Less Crime approach, as described by Wikipedia:

On the planet Twopp, crime is so rampant that even the Prime Minister, Chancellor, and Commissioner are robbed down to their underwear on their way to visit double-brained, four-eyed “Mutant Supermind” Abelard Snazz, President of Think, Inc. The officials of Twopp ask Snazz for a solution to the planet’s crime problem. Snazz’s answer is to create a race of giant police robots, heavily armed and programmed to make unlimited arrests. Snazz is hailed as a genius by his sycophantic robot assistant, Edwin. Unfortunately, the police robots are so efficient that they arrest all of the criminals on the planet, and continue to fill out their arrest quotient by arresting citizens for minor offences, such as breaking the laws of etiquette, good taste, and grammar. With everybody getting arrested, the officials return to Snazz for help. Snazz creates a race of giant criminal robots to keep the robot police busy, thus saving innocent people from being arrested. However, the perfectly matched conflict between the robot police and robot criminals creates an all-out war which kills scores of innocent bystanders. After another visit from the officials, Snazz’s latest solution is to create a race of little robot innocent bystanders to suffer in the humans’ stead. This saves the people from harm, but it also leaves the planet Twopp overcrowded with robots. The humans abandon the planet, and when Snazz announces his idea of building a giant robot planet for them, the enraged officials have had enough and eject Snazz and Edwin into outer space.

Wikipedia fails to mention the arrests of children for removing the “do not remove” tags from mattresses, which particularly impressed me as a child. Still, the proposal for building a giant robot planet is pretty good.

An act of solidarity in the face of state barbarism

by Chris Bertram on July 25, 2018

Faced with pressure from populist parties, more and more countries in Europe are backsliding on their commitment to refugees. One aspect of that is the EU’s new enthusiasm for Australian-style offshoring and for detention camp like facilities in Europe itself, as well as increased attempts to criminalize those who act in solidarity with refugees. Another is an increase in deportations to countries, like Afghanistan, on the manifestly false pretext that they are now “safe” destinations. Well thank goodness that some among us have the courage to stand against this kind of thing and to set a moral example. There is no obligation on people to comply with unjust immigration laws and often a duty to take a stand against them. [So well done Erin Ersson, student at Gothenburg,](https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/25/swedish-student-plane-protest-stops-mans-deportation-afghanistan) for preventing, at least for now, the deportation of a man to Afghanistan.

Some big news …

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2018

… least for me. Princeton University Press has agreed to publish my book, Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work and Why they can Fail so Badly. I’ve been working on it for seven years, but it’s finally done. It should be published in the first half of 2019.

Stay tuned for news on a possible Australian edition.

I don’t see why everyone is so hard on IDW. I mean, yeah sure.

“The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created …”

Duh. Who doubts that’s going to be IDW all over in 2019?

Still, it looks great. I guess some people just hate art.

The Enrightenment

by Henry on July 23, 2018

Jacob Hamburger has an article in the LA Review of Books on the “Intellectual Dark Web” which is really very sharp, but ends up in the wrong place. [click to continue…]

Window: Marsh Street, Bristol

Would be/Wouldn’t be

by Henry on July 18, 2018

The Death of Stalin and the Trump administration have plenty in common.

Negative Dialectics

by John Holbo on July 17, 2018

“The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” “So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

That’s not even a double-negative.

In other news, scholars have decided Wittgenstein meant that whereof he could not speak, thereof he would not be silent. Hamlet meant that is not the question. Heidegger wants you to know that nothing does not nothing. (Repeat: does not nothing.) Also, it turns out there is a typo in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

341. The heaviest weight. – What if some day or night a demon weren’t to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine. ‘ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for no thing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

That clarifies Nietzsche on Eternal Return pretty good. Any questions?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week.

Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange:

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.

Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. [click to continue…]

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump” is making the rounds. In it, Kakutani quotes Arendt:

Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today…

This is an Arendt quote that gets thrown around a lot these days, for obvious reasons, but it gives a very partial view of Arendt’s position on truth and lies. Sam Moyn pointed this out on Twitter. Sam also urged folks to read Martin Jay’s book on the question of lies and politics, which includes an extensive discussion of Arendt.

I haven’t read Jay’s book, but I did read a draft of it, or part of it, for a talk he gave at Columbia years ago. It was the Lionel Trilling Seminar, and I, along with Princeton poltical theorist George Kateb, was asked to be one of the discussants. I remember being a little discomfited by Jay’s treatment of Arendt. So I dug up my comment, and thought I’d reproduce it below. I think it suggests why Kakutani’s gloss is too simple, but also why Jay’s gloss (at least the earlier version of it; again, I didn’t read the final book) may be too simple, too.

The bottom line, for me, about Arendt’s treatment of lies and liars is this: One of the reasons she was so unnerved by liars was that the way they did politics was so close to how she thought politics ought to be done. She wasn’t endorsing lying or embracing liars. She just thought the distinction between the liar and the truth-teller was too easy because opposing oneself to reality—which is what the liar is doing, after all—is part of what it means to act politically. Part of what it means; not all of what it means. For Arendt also thinks there is a necessary dimension of factuality that undergirds our political actions. It’s part of our task as political beings to preserve that web or ground of factuality. It is between these two dimensions—opposing oneself to factuality, preserving factuality—that the political actor, and the liar, ply their trades.

By the way, I should note the date of that exchange with Jay: October 2008. We were still in the Bush era. The entire discussion—of lies and facts, the disregard for facts, and such—was framed by the Iraq War and the epic untruths that were told in the run-up to the war. It should give you a sense that the world of fake news that so many pundits seem to have suddenly awakened to as a newborn threat has been with us for a long time. The Bush era may seem like ancient history to some, but in the vast, and even not so vast, scheme of things, it was just yesterday.

Here are my remarks about truth and lies, Arendt and Martin Jay. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: banana bridge

by Chris Bertram on July 15, 2018

Banana Bridge