Communism at the Door

In the fall, I’m teaching a course on Communism & Socialism, so if you’re a regular reader of this blog, be prepared to read some posts on those subjects in the coming months. Plus, you know, the Patriots, God, video games, Heidegger, music, politics, the writing process, and other stuff like that. Anyway…

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels present, in effect, ten measures that the masses will take when effecting the Communist revolution. This post explores those ten measures.

1. Abolition of property and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

Marx & Engels are not being coy. The first measure taken by the Communist state will be to abolish private property. It’s important to understand why.

The Communist Manifesto is not a political platform. Reading it is not like reading Hilary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for the United States. It’s more like reading an essay on climate change. It aims not for prescription, but description: this is what is happening; this is why it is happening; and this is what will happen if things keep going the way they are.

The first measure abolishes private property not because someone from the government will knock on your door with a piece of paper and take your house from you, but because an angry horde of unwashed men and women who you’ve long forgotten existed will soon be smashing down your picket fence and taking your house and all of your belongings (which is exactly what happened to the last Czar).

The horde that takes it from you will not have their best interests at heart. They will not send you packing and then settle into a calm and peaceful repose in your living room, where they soon discuss the division of labor when it comes to accomplishing the chores of the house. Instead, they will come and go as they please, taking or pissing on whatever they like, and the property will be owned by no one. In this way, it becomes the property of everyone, piss and all.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

With the abolition of property, the horde of unwashed men and women, and now you too, are going to need someplace to live. The world already has enough structures, so you’re free to make yourself welcome in one of them. But if you want something that feels secure, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.

There is only one way to pay in a Communist state: with your labor. In Das Kapital, Marx makes clear that whenever we discuss an exchange value, all we can ever be talking about is the value of human labor (see Das Kapital for more). If you want your home to be secure, you have to either make it secure yourself or pay someone else to do it, but if you pay someone else to do it, you are now in debt to them the amount of labor that they have provided to you (see Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a great analysis of how most exchanges between humans in society eventually reduce to debt).

You could enter into an equal exchange where you do something for your security staff that they can’t do for themselves or you can pay them back by contributing your labor to the State. With an equal exchange of labor throughout the economy, your security force will know for sure that their labor will eventually return to them in some recognizable form.

The State, however, only exists to regulate this exchange. If people contribute more labor than they have coming to them, the State controls that excess of labor at a graduated rate to the laborer. The unwashed men and women don’t want anyone working too hard just to earn a wellspring of their labor.

This is not to say that people can’t work hard. But it is to say that people who are able to work hard need less support from their fellow men and women, and as they contribute in greater proportions to the development of society, so should they contribute in greater proportions to the security of that society; after all, who among us would not want to protect the society in which we’ve invested so much of our hard work?

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

The unwashed horde will not give a shit who your father is. Your inheritance is not property owned by your father; it is the carried debt of our extraneous labor. You don’t earn the right to lord over our debt just because you spewed from his seed; our debt to your father dies with him.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

You think you can run? You think you can hide? That’s no problem at all. Take your body wherever it wants. But your property — the embodied form of our extraneous labor — that stays with us.

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

Again, for Marx, capital reduces to human labor. Credit, then, is a surplus in human labor. If you have ideas for how to use some of that surplus human labor, we the people who contributed it (i.e., the State) want some say in what gets done with it.

Want to use our surplus labor to dump nuclear waste into one of our rivers? Not going to happen.

Want to use it create your own private exchange where others would be able to get capital (i.e., surplus labor) without having to deal with those of us who actually contributed it? Yeah, no.

Want to use it to reduce the costs and improve the exposure and distribution of regional artisanal beers? Well, hey now, that’s something we’d be happy to put our backs into.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

The great unwashed come, take your house, and tell you how much you’re worth. They don’t want to kill you (per se) and they don’t want to sell you to some slave trader. You are free to live in the world on your own, completely isolated from everyone else, but the moment you want to enter into any kind of economic relationship with anybody, the moment you want to exchange goods and services with your neighbors, then extraneous labor is worth what extraneous labor is worth, and after the great unwashed got done with you, you now possess no one’s extraneous labor but your own.

That’s the scene. So why the centralization of communication and transport?

Simple, a lone human individual wandering atop the surface of the Earth possesses no extraneous value beyond its body; it can only walk as much as it can walk, and it can only yell as loud as it can yell. The moment the human body attempts to move more efficiently than its physics allow or tries to reach an audience beyond those who can physically see and/or hear it communicate, it enters into a material relationship with its environment, depending on resources provided either by nature or the efforts of another human body (or of a thousand human bodies).

When you ride in a car, you ride on the backs of those individuals who contributed their labor to its existence — the drillers who retrieved the fossil fuels, the shippers who transported it, the miners who dug in the caves, the secretaries who coordinated schedules for such massive projects, the programmers who designed the GPS system, the engineers who rocketed the GPS satellites into space, the scientists who developed the polyester that forms your seatbelt, the factory workers who connected the bolts to the nuts, etc. .

The State (re: the rest of society that you depend on for your existence) wants to make sure that everyone in that process receives a square deal. In addition, it wants to make sure that those with capitalist intentions (i.e., with the intention of hoarding the extraneous value of everyone else’s labor) do not have two powerful weapons with which to dominate the economy: the roads and the communication network.

It is true that the centralization of communication and transportation opens the State to the horrors of propaganda and martial law, just as it would if they were centralized under the Capitalists. No one doubts this. The difference is that the State is not trying to steal society’s extraneous labor and use it for the benefit of individuals in a small and privileged class; the Capitalists, however, aim to do just that. Instead, the State wants to harness the power of that extraneous labor for the benefit of all those who contributed it.

7. Extensions of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands,and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

Without private property or a private exchange of human labor, the State comes into abundance and all may apply to receive their due. However, as a State that doesn’t reach utopia as much as conclude the economic slog of human history, the State (in the form of the people whose labor makes a real contribution) must prepare to survive beyond the current moment. It must invest some of its stored labor into improvements in the instruments of production: the factory that needs to stop polluting, the road that needs to be repaired, the river that needs to be dammed, the machine that needs to be invented, the medicine that needs to be researched, the field that needs to be tilled, and yes, the art that needs to be encouraged.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

I have a student who is a dishwasher, and his interest in Communism is the main driver behind why I’m even offering this class in the Fall. I have another student who is a hostess, and she’s the only other student who signed up for it. Both of them are in their late teens, and both of them, in different ways, are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

But they are a dishwasher and a hostess.

Do you think you’re better than them? Then why is the time you contribute to society worth more what they contribute? After all, we need dishwashers and hostesses more than we need, for example, financial sales agents. According to the latest data available, the U.S economy employed 506,450 dishwashers and 404,360 hostesses to 353,780 financial sales agents. We have more dishwashers and hostesses in our economy because there is more of that kind of labor to be done on behalf of society.

Unfortunately, very few people like to wash dishes. Plenty of people will give you a load of hooey about the meditative nature of the exercise, but most of us would prefer to spend our meditation time resting in a peaceful garden under a fruit-filled tree than we would standing in front of a steam-filled sink with slop on our aprons and gray water in our shoes.

With so few people wanting to wash dishes and so many dishes to be washed, we either need to draft an army (an industrial army) or invest some of our surplus labor into the development of a more efficient way to clean the dishes our society generates each day…and until our investment pays off, we may need to do both.

Luckily, with everyone receiving an equal value for their labor, those who come to the rest of us (i.e., the State) for employment will have plenty of tasks to choose from, with everything ranging from CEO of a mining operation to the lightbulb purchaser for mining helmets to the dishwasher who soaps the pots and pans in the cafeteria where the mining executives eat their lunch.

But just like how the Army doesn’t give you a final say as to where you go and what you do, so it will be when you apply to do a task for the State. As with the Army, individuals are responsible for recognizing the relative worth of each other, and we truly hope that you end up exactly where your talents ought to take you, but we also realize that sometimes a task that needs to be done and all that’s needed to do it is a body (in some forms of agriculture, for instance), and for those menial tasks, your body is no better and no worse than anybody else’s, so when you apply to do a task for the State, you have to realize that you may, in fact, end up with one of those unforgiving tasks, at which point, we trust you’ll soon prove your worth.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

In Marx’s time, there was a vast distinction between town and country. The town had the factories; the country had the food. They entered into a tense economic relationship with one another, with the country producing and selling its raw materials in exchange for commodified goods produced in the factories. The town made the toaster, while the country mined the metal, dammed the river, harvested the wheat, milled the flour, and transported it to the baker.

With all of that investment of human labor in a single piece of toast, it’s a wonder anyone can afford a slice. But if someone was able to, they’d be delivering the entire cost of that slice to the last person in that chain, who, after paying off the guy in line behind him, is left with any extraneous value created by that labor. As the first person in line at the payout and the person most responsible for overseeing the equity of that payout to the rest of the laborers who contributed to the ultimate form of that toast, the retailer is able to pocket most, if not all, of the extraneous value of that labor, keeping the others’ work for himself.

With more and more of the retail markets moving from the country to the town (don’t believe me? try getting good ethnic food out in the country), more and more of the extraneous value of labor makes its way there as well, allowing the people in the town to increase the value of their local community through investments in education, entertainment, transportation, or what have you, the effect of which is to draw more members of the country into the town in the hopes of living an improved lifestyle.

This ultimately drains the country of its labor, which then starves the town of its raw materials, which forces the people of the town to enscript an army to march into the country to till the fields, cut the forests, dam the rivers, and mine the mines, all of which will still go towards the benfit of the town (think District 1 vs. District 12 in The Hunger Games; also think of the army of scared slaves [aka, “undocumented workers”] we now depend on to harvest our fields).

Marx & Engels think the only way to stop the cycle is to distribute the factories out among the agriculture, to reduce the differences between the town and country. The only way to ultimately reduce the differences, however, are to eliminate them entirely. Since the differences between them are ultimately measured in population, Marx & Engels realize that an equable distribution of the population is necessary. No red states and blue states; just a uniformed and united State.

What Marx & Engels perhaps didn’t realize is that are other ways to unify the town and country. If the unfairness begins with the final exchange between the laborers and the purchaser of their extranerous labor, then perhaps all that needs to happen is to move that retail market out into the country: make the sons and daughters of farmers into retailers, give them a market to exchange the extraneous value of their labor with their neighbors, and create outlets and transportation routes to distribute the extraneous value of other people’s labor from one community to another.

This reveals the isidious nature of Amazon’s and Wal-Mart’s relationship to society. They’ve both contributed, by design, to the death of local retail markets. Both Amazon and Wal-Mart aim to become the sole retail market of the world. But Amazon and Wal-Mart exist nowhere; they are local to no market. That means a significant portion of the extraneous value of all of the world’s labor ultimately flows from a local material reality out into trans-local space: for Amazon, cyberspace; for Wal-Mart, multi-national space. They both bully the local retail markets out of existence, robbing the country of the opportunity to keep the extraneous value of its labor local, where it can be put to good use by those who contributed that extraneous labor in the first place.

10. Free education for all in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form (1848). Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

If everyone’s body is worth exactly the same until it proves otherwise, then everybody’s mind should be as well. The only way to tell if one person’s mind is worth more than another’s is to put them both through the same forms of training, allowing each of them to discover their unique talents through the way they apply them to the problems of society.

Education should not just be a catching up on what society has discovered and created. Our youngest and most energetic ought to put their energy towards solving the greatest problems facing our society. We should not use them to accomplish menial tasks that only require a body (with its army of workers, the State has plenty of bodies to dedicate to any task worth its labor).

At the same time, education must also prepare members of society for life within that society, and so students should dedicate some of their time to the means of production, in both body and mind. They should understand how production works, test their aptitude for different modes of it, and apply their passion to reforming it for the good of all.

Remember, too, that education is not just for the young. It includes professional education and training for adults who seek to improve their worth to society. Communists call for free education for all in public schools; not just free education for kids who can’t work yet.

~~

So…those are the top measures to be effected by the Communist revolution. Some sound pretty good, and most sound, I think, eminently defensible; but they all rest on the very first one: the abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to the public purpose.

Without that, the Communists have nothing.

But as I said above, when you read Marx & Engels, it’s less like reading an op-ed and more like reading a report on climate change. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.

Knock knock.

President Trump Did What Now?

I haven’t written about politics in a bunch of weeks. The reason is simple: it’s only a matter of time before Donald Trump gets impeached. There seems to be enough smoke now for any fair-minded person to agree that there must be some kind of fire. I don’t claim to know exactly what it is or who was involved, but I don’t doubt that the act of collusion includes the man at the highest level.

The NY Times is now reporting that Presidents Trump and Putin had an undisclosed, private conversation that lasted as long as an hour during the G20 Summit. It’s true that the conversation occurred in front of many of the world’s leaders, but except for Presidents Trump and Putin, only a Kremlin-employed interpreter knows exactly what was said.

Trump is attacking the Times for the story — “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” — but it’s not about whether the press knew about it (nor is it about the President’s use of quotation marks around “sick” — does he think he’s quoting somebody or is he misunderstanding  the use of scare quotes?). It’s about whether the press reported the conversation, and until now, they had not.

Journalists know a lot of things. They don’t report on everything they know. The best of them only report on the things they know for sure, which means they have evidence to support it.

And what did the NY Times journalist, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, report?

She reported that “hours into” a G20 dinner, President Trump rose from his seat and joined President Putin for “a one-on-one discussion…that lasted as long as an hour and relied solely on a Kremlin interpreter.”

She wrote some more words to allow the White House to register its reaction,  and she wrote some others words to provide context for more casual readers, but at bottom, those are the only facts that she reported.

And President Trump calls it “Fake News!,” not because he denied it happened, but because he’s upset someone thinks such a conversation should be news.

This is the reason those of us on the left think he is an idiot. He can’t stop getting in his own way. How hard is it to not have a private conversation with the person you’re being accused of colluding with? And if you must have a conversation, how hard is it, really, to arrange a truly private one?

You know how hard it is for this president? Incredibly hard. Everyone in the bureaucracy is out to get him. He can’t make a phone call to anyone on the planet without someone else knowing about it, and with the leak culture being encouraged by the press and, let’s face it, the American people, that someone else is more than likely to let the information slip. How much worse would it look if President Trump tried to arrange an actual secret meeting with President Putin?

He had no choice. He can’t just not talk about the situation with President Putin, collusion or no collusion, so his only choice is to do it in the most public place possible.  If he actually wants to talk about the collusion issue, he can’t trust the State-department interpreter to not share the details of their conversation, even if only under oath to a prosecutor.

So what the President did, collusion or no collusion, makes complete sense. But to think, even if only for a minute, that such a conversation doesn’t deserve to be news is to think something bat-shit stupid. If the President of the United States had a private, one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the existence of that conversation would make the news — and I don’t even know if they have Prime Ministers there. To imagine it wouldn’t be news when you do it with your alleged colluder in treason…that’s just dumb.

That’s why I haven’t been writing about politics lately. I’m so done with trying to understand this President. I don’t have to anymore. I get it, and I honestly don’t think he’s a match for the one-two punches that keep coming at him from the bureaucracy and the press. If Mueller is as ethical as the press suggests, then it’s only a matter of time before they take him down.

At this point, writing about Trump feels more like trying to catalog and predict the ending of a one-sided fight — will he go down because of some kind of final, powerful blow or will he just succumb to a continuous onslaught of jabs? Making those kinds of prediction can be fun some of the time, like trying to predict which character on your favorite HBO show is going to die next, but more often it feels like trying to get excited about the arc on a crappy reality show.

There’s a danger in feeling that way, of course. If we allow ourselves to get bored by the lack of progress or overwhelmed by the case’s ever-growing details (how many fucking people were in that room with Don Jr. and how the fuck are they all connected again?), then we risk losing the urgency of the resistance. I get it.

But seriously, let’s look at this shit. Yes, the Republicans are trying to fuck up all kinds of shit in Congress, and yes, the President is doing a ton of real damage via Executive Order, but it seems the most they can do right now is all short-term stuff. They’re not organized enough to ram something through Congress — Trump is too unhinged and vague, and the Republican Congress has to reconcile the desires of too many “moderates” (as if…) with too many Tea Party crazies. If the Democrats can stay united in their resistance, the Republicans can’t deliver on the biggest promises they’ve made to the electorate, and they’ll continue to look and act completely dysfunctional.

Yes, there are things to do. Yes, there are real dangers to fight. But in all honesty, it seems like those who are doing the fighting for my side of things are doing a damn fine job, and I’m trusting them to continue to do so.

Me? I’ll keep going to work each day to teach the next generation of leaders how to think for themselves. It’s the least I can do.

Donald Trump is a Thug

I picture Donald Trump in a hotel room somewhere in Eastern Europe. The lighting is dim, and smoke burns from the tip of a lit cigarette, filling the room. One man sits at a skinny, wooden desk, the cigarette resting on the lip of the thin, glass ashtray sitting in front of him. Two other men, and Donald, stand near the center of the room. Donald has just arrived, and he flashes a smile that is both confident and cordial, but behind his eyes, the men see a scared tiger. There’s a lot of money in a bag on the bed.

I’ve never been in that room, and I’m guessing neither have you. It takes balls to be in that room. The kind of balls it takes to do business with thugs.

I picture Donald Trump under a bridge in New Jersey. Two men, both of whom he pays in return for their loyalty, stand strong and nearby. Three other men, only one of whom talks, stand opposite Donald. Together, they discuss building contracts and union dues, and at all times they both underline their words with a variety of subtle (and not so subtle) threats. Four of the men present carry a gun. There’s another man concealed but not doubted, seated in the passenger seat of Donald’s car.

This is the man we’ve watched for the past 100+ days. A man who engages in handshake competitions with rival strangers who aspire to be his equal or his better. A man who shoves aside anyone he deems lower than himself in importance. A man who can drive once mortal enemies into each others’ arms (note the handshake, by the way) and force a century’s worth of alliances into disarray.

I’m reading Paris 1919, a book about the personalities and politics of the Treaty of Versailles. For those who don’t know, the Treaty of Versailles is the peace treaty from World War I, where Great Britain, France, the United States, and (to a more limited extent) Italy and Japan created the conditions whereby many of the horrors of the 20th and 21st century found purchase. The book lays out in incredible detail the singular reality that governs our entire world, namely, that our biggest issues rarely exceed the infantile drives of adult male primates meeting in small spaces. Many of these primates desire, more than anything else, more power than their competitors — sometimes for defensive reasons, sometimes for offensive ones, but always and only for more power.

Us liberals like to think the civilized world has moved beyond power politics, but it drives everything that distracts us from our self-fulfillment as a species. It belittles our drive for equality; it impugns our desire for a healthy habitat; and it reacts violently to our calls for mercy.

Donald Trump is the man in our White House. He is not an idiot. He is not a dupe. He is a thug. He rose to power not because he inherited millions of dollars (millions of people inherit millions of dollars), but because he knows how to stand in a dimly lit room or under a rainy night bridge and wield actual and real power.

He stands as a challenge to all civilized people. How will we respond? As Democrats with a capital D? Or as small-d democrats, the inheritors of an idea that too was formed in a small and dimly lit smoke-filled room, an idea of rebellion and resistance, not in the dark shadows of assassins or the cowering masks of terrorists, but en masse and in the streets, on the pulpit and in the press, in our businesses and in our homes, resistance, rebellion, resistance. Resistance, rebellion, resistance. Resistance, rebellion, resist…

I picture Donald Trump sitting in a tall chair in the Oval Office. A young black woman arrives dressed in a blue pantsuit and wearing dark glasses. Her pants are almost too short for her chubby legs, revealing — more than they’re supposed to — her feet in blue flats. There is nothing pretty about her, nothing powerful. She walks from the door to the desk, where Donald Trump sits alone. He makes eye contact with her as she crosses the room, but she knows he doesn’t see her, his mind still trying to ferret out some small hole he can slip through. She reaches the desk, and instantly, she knows it: he sees her now, sees the light and the person in her eyes. With everything she can muster, she projects with her mind’s eye a vision of millions of Americans standing strong in a nighttime rainstorm, quiet and dignified, solemn and righteous. She wants him to see it in her eyes, to see them, the people whose power she now represents, a power whose like he has never faced, the power of the demos.

She reaches across the desk. He reaches up, and she places the paper in his visibly shaken hand. She stands and waits. It is he, not she, who has been dismissed.

Trump In The Führerbunker

Donald Trump is a dumb guy. He’s not the dumbest guy — you’ve got to have some kind of intelligence (a ruthless one?) if you’re going to make as many millions of dollars as he has — but to fire James Comey like that, right now, with the Russian heat as hot as it’s been, is there any other word for it except dumb?

I guess we could call it bad strategy. I’ve been reading a lot about war and politics lately, as well as playing a lot of Madden football, so strategy is something that’s been on my mind, and thinking about Donald Trump, I have to ask: What kind of game is he playing?

He’s not playing politics. If you’re playing the game of politics, you do not fire the official who is in charge of investigating your administration the day after the other justice official you fired testifies in front of Congress about that investigation, a testimony that includes the coincidence that just as she increased the heat on the investigation of your administration, you found another cause to fire her. That would just be dumb. It arouses more suspicion, which craters your approval ratings, which decreases your influence among those whose votes you’ll need to get your policies passed. It’s just bad politics.

But what if he’s playing war? If this is a war between Donald Trump and the rest of the world (as a narcissist like Donald Trump could only imagine it to be), would firing Comey still be such a dumb idea? I’m not so sure.

Comey was obviously a liability to the White House. The man was actively investigating the administration’s ties to a foreign power where the suspicion was not simply money laundering, but also straight-up treason. If your only public goal is to survive until the next election, then it might make a lot of sense to cut your losses and simply get rid of the guy. As the head of the executive branch, you’re responsible for appointing the man’s successor, so why not get rid of him now and install someone you know you can trust? Yes, you’ll take shit for it in the short term, but in the long term, you might be able to sleep better at night.

Trump has to be wondering what his opposition’s counter move is going to be. Yes, the Congressional investigations will get more intense, and yes the heat from the media will increase, but ultimately, what does that matter? If the Republicans keep control of the Congress, there’s no way he gets impeached, and if you’d just won a Presidential election against all the odds that the bookmakers could quote you, you’d probably believe it doesn’t matter what the odds are going to be in 2018, because you’ll still end up on the lucky side of the coin.

In that case, firing Comey right now, regardless of what it looks like, makes perfect sense. You know the battle’s lost on the investigation front, so cut your losses, appoint someone loyal to defend the front, and move on to the next problem. The Congress and the media can do whatever they want, as long as you’re ultimately protected by those whom you know are loyal.

It’s a bunker mentality, and the Trump White House is currently under siege.

And in that kind of reality, it’s actually a reasonable move.

So now you have to ask, as the opposition, what should we do to counter it?

We could intensify the investigation, of course; that’s where the White House is feeling the most pressure, so we should just keep pushing until it breaks. Already, the quantity and quality of the leaks have expanded, so appointing someone loyal might be the equivalent of Trump trying to stick his thumb in the dyke.

But to use a war analogy, that would be like we were sticking with the infantry instead of overwhelming our opponent through a combination of Air Force, Army, and Navy.

We ought to, of course, intensify the investigations (which the Senate Intelligence Committee seems highly committed to doing, thank goodness), but we’ve got to account for the possibility that the person Trump appoints might actually be up to the job of derailing the investigation long enough for the Republican House to get re-elected (which, again, would eliminate the risk of impeachment), which means that the investigation can’t be the only front in our war.

The other front is obvious: taking control of the House in 2018. I live in Vermont, where the House & the Senate are a lock, so there’s only so much good I can do (and all of it will have to be at a distance). Thankfully, Bernie’s movement is actively channeling itself into local and state elections, which means there’s already an army on the ground. Now we just need to give them some air support.

Change the Channel

This is all just a TV show. That’s what I learned from this great article in Current Affairs magazine. Moderate conservatives and liberals prefer President Jed Bartlett of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, while the right prefers Donald Trump of The Apprentice and FOX News. Hilary Clinton, supported by the media, ran on Jed Bartlett’s platform of intelligence, competence, and moral smugness, while Donald Trump ran on FOX News‘ platform of cynicism, xenophobia, and aggression (read as “security”).

The election wasn’t an election as much as it was a study in what kind of TV shows we like to watch. Those who prefer scripted dramas voted differently from those who prefer “reality” TV.

Except, and this is what’s important from the Current Affairs article, that analysis isn’t true at all. Because reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show. It sounds trite, and no one would ever argue that it was, but it’s also important to remember: reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show.

It’s reality, with real live consequences. The people in Syria are not characters in some postmodern multimedia text; transgender people are not characters who’ll soon disappear from some screen; and ex-miners are not going hungry just for the chance to star in some capitalist’s propaganda poster. This shit is real, and it really matters to persons. Decisions made in New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, etc. affects real change in the daily experiences of individuals all over the planet and not just in the power dynamics of a popular TV show called Watch the Throne.

In Our Climate Future is Actually Our Climate Present, Jon Mooallem explains that we will not experience climate change as some great calamity, but as a kind of gentrification, with human beings doing what human beings are already doing: putting our heads down and continuing to trudge on, day by day, until we die.

But it’s the job of politics to make trudging through this life just a little bit easier, not just for me and you, but for everyone.

And why wouldn’t it be? If the political truly is personal, then politics is the act of living among your fellow human beings. It’s not a game to be played at the highest professional level; the Democrats and the Republicans are not the Red Sox and the Yankees. They’re two groups of people who claim to stand for specific ways of treating other people.

The Democrats claim to stand for treating each human being with dignity and respect, and they extend that claim to embrace the moral obligation it recommends, that is, to protect and advocate for those who cannot protect or advocate for themselves. This stance does not allow for bullying, but it does allow for righteous indignation, civil (not to be read as peaceful) protest, and a willingness to engage in defensive combat.

It recommends this not just as a form of politics, but as a form of living a life. It accepts the complexity that comes from living in a democratic society where your neighbors, not to mention the millions upon millions of other people whom you don’t know and will never meet, all get a say (at some level) as to how you live your life (if you want to live your life among them, anyway).

In a democratic society as large as ours, where we can’t come to a consensus on a statement as objectively true as “The Earth is not flat,” Democrats claim the only way to interact with each other, in our homes or outside of them, is with dignity and respect and the moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

This is not how actual Democrats behave. This is their claim as to the right way to live among your fellow human beings.

The Republicans claim the proper way to act among others is to say Fuck them. This is not the same thing as Fuck youRepublicans are Christians, after all, and good Christians don’t say “Fuck you” to one another. They will say “Fuck you” to them though, just as God said “Fuck you” to all the other thems in the Old Testament: The first-born sons of Egypt? Fuck them. The Sodom and Gomorrah? Fuck them. The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites? Fuck them. King Ahazia? You’re fired!

But as for the rest of us — those of us who are not them — the Republicans claim we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Want to shoot someone? Make sure they’re not one of us or that you can claim you were protecting yourself; and if you can’t find someone to shoot, join the army and we’ll point your gun in the right direction.

Want to get rich? Go for it, and the best of luck to you. If someone gets in your way, fuck them.

Want to screw a girl? Don’t worry, because they secretly really want it; and if they don’t, well…fuck them.

Heard that there’s someone with an unwanted pregnancy? Fuck them for not being more responsible.

Do what you want. Do what you’re good at. And fuck them if they can’t take it.

Based on everything I’ve seen or read or experienced, that’s what the Republican Party claims is the way we should act among our fellow human beings (again, not fuck you but fuck them).

It sounds like I’m saying the Democrats are angels and the Republicans are devils. I’m not. There are plenty of Democrats who stomp on the backs of the underprivileged and plenty of Republicans who spend their days providing crucial services to those who are suffering, regardless of what the victims look like or believe.

What I am saying is that there is both a Democratic and a Republican claim about how we should act, and they differ from one another. Both are attractive, but for different reasons.

It’s a lot easier to live in a Fuck them world, and it promises to be more interesting: there’s obvious conflict in a Fuck them worldview, and as the ratings for Honey Boo Boo demonstrate, conflict itself is exciting, regardless of its content.

Living in a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and where the only sanctioned conflict is against an act of injustice? That sounds predictable and boring.

Except reality is never predictable and boring. It’s difficult to treat people with dignity and respect, and the world is filled with acts of injustice. Ultimately, as the Buddhists have long argued, all life, regardless of race, class, or even species, is struggle, and it provides a near-constant engagement with both internal and external conflicts. If conflict is exciting, then nothing could be more exciting than deeply living one’s life, and at the end of the day, isn’t every life lived deeply by the one who is living it?

This conception of reality, where everyone is fighting both internal and external conflicts almost all the time, founds the Democratic claim that everyone deserves dignity and respect. If everyone is in the middle of some conflict, the last thing we should do is add to their troubles by making them the them of our Fuck them.

The Republicans, on the other hand, tell us not to worry about what they’re going through. Worry about us becoming more safe or economically better off, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Again, I’m not talking about actual Democrats and Republicans here. I’m talking about their advertisements for the way we should live our lives.

Unfortunately, too many people would rather watch Donald Trump say Fuck them than engage with the complexity of trying to actually understand them. And right now, those people are holding the remote control.

Jed Bartlett thinks we should persuade them to give it to us instead. But you can’t persuade someone out of a remote control. There’s only one thing we can do: take it by force, and fuck them if they get in the way.

One Meaning of Liberalism

I have a reputation among my friends and family as a rather aggressive liberal. I don’t deny that reputation, but I also don’t wholly accept it. As I recently explained to a family member, I try not to bring up politics in a conversation, but if someone else brings it up, I’m am more than willing to join in.

To me, however, politics does not mean partisanship. I am not a registered member of either of the major parties: I am not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican. I’m a registered member of the Vermont Progressive Party, the most successful third party in the United States. “Founded by the activists who helped to elect Bernie Sanders as the Mayor of Burlington” in the early 1980s, the Vermont Progressive Party now boasts 10 local officials throughout the towns and cities of Vermont, three state senators, eight state representatives, and two statewide officeholders (Vermont’s Auditor of Accounts and Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor).

So when it comes to talking about national politics (which is usually what I’m talking about with people), I don’t have a dog in the partisan fight.

While I’m not a Democrat or Republican, I am, in fact, a liberal. But when you take away the context of the national parties, the question becomes: what does it mean to be liberal?

The concepts that ring out the most are social justice, economic justice, a rigorous commitment to the facts, and a willingness to engage with the complexity of historic and systemic context.

Justice is at the heart of being a liberal. The pre-emininent philosopher on the topic, John Rawls, lays out two principles of justice: first, that there must be “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties,” and second, that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and attached to positions and offices open to all.”

The first principle means that everyone in the society has the same rights and obligations, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The second means that any difference in those rights or obligations must be acceptable and open to all; for example, if the President of the United States gets to have the pomp of the Marine Corps Band playing a song every time he walks into a room, it’s because we want to have the best of the best take that position and offering such pomp is one of the ways we try to entice them, and that’s okay, provided that the office is open to everyone.

In the context of social justice, it comes down to what Rawls famously calls the “veil of ignorance,” where you are asked to construct a just society of which you will be a permanent member without knowing anything about yourself — your race, gender, sexuality, ethnic background, intelligence level, physical ability, vigor, wealth, etc. In such a situation, you would probably design a society that is as fair as possible, since there is a reasonable chance that you would be among the least advantaged members of that society.

In practical terms, that means looking at today’s social and economic issues as if you were a member of the disadvantaged class. If you are a White person, you must imagine our criminal justice system as if you were a Black or Latino person. If you have a place to securely lay your head at night, you must imagine the nighttime worries of a homeless person. If you are a member of the financial services or advanced technology industries, you must imagine the depression of someone whose entire economic life has revolved around a coal mine. If you can comfortably sustain a medical emergency in your family, you must imagine the strain of a hospital visit for someone who doesn’t have health insurance. If you are free from the crippling hunger of addiction, you must imagine what it feels like to be so driven to score your next fix that you’re willing to demolish your closest personal relationships, including those with your children. If you can walk into a public restroom without any thought about which door is right for you, you must imagine the difficulty of someone who sees the male or female symbol as not representing their lived reality.

In such situations, where you are among the underprivileged, how would you design your society? Would you design a dog-eat-dog system, or would you design a society that was as fair as possible for everyone involved? Any reasonable person would attempt the latter.

When a situation arises — the protests at Standing Rock, for example, or Justice Gorsuch’s case of the frozen trucker, for another —  liberals attempt to imagine the viewpoint of the underprivileged member(s) of the conflict and develop their stances accordingly.

However, liberalism is not as simple as rooting for the underdog because along with social and economic justice, there is also a rigorous commitment to the facts and a willingness to engage with the historic and systemic context. Without these two elements, you’d have a knee-jerk liberalism that refuses to acknowledge any reality outside of its own.

I strive to not be a knee-jerk liberal, and whatever success I have is a function of my dedication to education, edification, and engagement. I seek out alternative viewpoints, try to read as widely and as deeply as possible, and focus as much as I’m able on questions surrounding the right and the good, knowing that there are no easy solutions to any of the conflicts facing  societies today.

There is no easy solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. No easy solution to the war-mongering North Korean dictatorship. No easy solution to the Syrian civil war. No easy solution to the ramifications of a globalized economy. No easy solution to the economy’s dependency on oil. No easy solution to America’s withdrawal from imperial obligations. No easy solution to the clash of liberal Western democracies with fundamentalist ideologies. No easy solution to technology’s conquering force. No easy solution to the problems facing public education. No easy solution to gun control. Etc. Etc.

But the liberalism I aspire to accepts this complexity and says that the only way forward to a better society lies in grappling with issues in a reasonable and enlightened manner, acknowledging grievances, accepting historic realities, and finding, through democratic conversations and a willingness to compromise (not on principle, perhaps, but in fact), solutions that are acceptable to all.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world be as one.”

ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.