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A Liberal Who Just Got Mugged

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My friends, this podcast is a sh1t kicker, but needed – I apologize and you’re welcome in advance. 

I can’t tell you how weird it is for a guy like me to be put in the position of talking about the value of rules. My essential politics is intellectual anarchist – I think we should all be so reasonable responsible cooperative and community-minded that we don’t need a giant government threatening us all with rules, and doing creepy stuff with our collected money, to keep us from descent into chaos. I get that we aren’t there yet – but that’s the goal-state I think we should be gradually growing toward.

My spiritual makeup is even more iconoclastic. To the religious, I am an atheist, to atheists I am a mystic, to mystics I am a scientist, and to scientists I am a delight – for the very same reason that the more dogmatic types in the first three groups find me suspect – I am all about balance and flexibility in viewpoint. I truly love learning about all kinds of new conceptual models from the pure theoretical to the hard-knocks practical trades, and then trying them on for size, to see what sort of results they reveal when we bring them to familiar problems.

As an idealistic young leftist partisan I even spent some years feeling that there could be no government system worse than this – and my catalog of reasons was entirely real, well researched and compassionately adopted. The sum costs of our society ecologically and in terms of exploitation injustice and suffering were and are very great indeed. Our lies about our harm are a great shame.

Even as a far more mature man of thirty five, I was furious about the leftist independents who ran against Gore by suggesting he and W were not very different – and thus might have cost Gore the margin in a tight election that turned out to be extremely momentous for world history. I am certain Gore would have made many mistakes, but I don’t believe the war in Iraq would have been one of them. The middle east continues to pay a devastating price for that particular election.

I have not ever shut up about that war, and I won’t ever. I’m not angry at the soldiers, they were trying their very best under lousy circumstances, as soldiers usually do. But the politicians should never have put them there in the first place. Norman Schwarzkopf who lead the first gulf war put it perfectly. “Why not press on all the way to Bagdad? Because if we did, we’d be stuck there forever like a Dinosaur in a tar pit.” Really not a leftist or a cynic. He just knew what he was talking about.

So why am I looking back on that incredibly emotional moment in two thousand – when roughly half of the country felt the vote had been stolen – and reconsidering my feelings about the rebel outsiders?

Because even then I was very aware of another important factor which was not being considered – vast, and increasingly hard to suppress anger. Why was the vote so damn close in the first place?

I remember a headline in the Onion that went something like. Bush’s message to America: “Fear not, your long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over”

This perfectly reflects the attitude of the moment – yes, dented by the dot-com burst, but still innocent confident and determined to be constitutional, when compared to the sort of policies issued after the big terror-trauma and then the legislative trauma of the Orwellian labelled Patriot Act which followed.

I was already assembling a huge collection of stories from people in my generationX about slammed doors, educational debt, wasted talents and growing resentment – as well as exploring the even greater economic challenges facing still younger generations – which are worse and worse. For a half a century now, we have been rewarding a steadily smaller proportion of society – this is not just screwing women, the indigenous, minorities, immigrants – this harm is actually universal – which means the damage is felt everywhere, and exists as a natural rally point for many factions who might otherwise struggle to agree. Naturally, when the pie is shrinking, everyone’s feeling is panic. But rather than fighting ever harder between ever more embittered factions over table-scraps, I say we all think – get together in a huge way – and start growing the damn pie for everyone again!

You know – a little less like a pay-per-view end-of-the-world burn-the-furniture death-match/orgy – and a little more like the kind of a society that was seriously planning to stick around for awhile.

Time to apply a little old-time wobbly spirit, to a nervous and off-balance moment.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I always start an episode with a big idea that I want to get across – but then I research, to see where my memory was flat-out wrong and my old conjectures have drifted further from sense or evidence.

Here are a few especially lovely gems I turned up during the making of this show.

This article completely blew my mind (must get the book). Not only because the basic thesis is brilliant and sympathetic, but because as a CIA media analyst, its creator Martin Gurri had access to more data than most academics or any freelancers like myself ever have a budget to assemble. The nuance in his insight is especially on point. In the end I was reminded of another old joke – the only true hardcore Marxists left in the world are at CIA, because no one else can see all of the proof! ;o)

I stumbled onto Peter Turchin’s blog and was immediately impressed – in part by how effectively his new approach is irritating old guardians and gatekeepers. A hard science take on history – so cool!

This Glenn Greenwald video is great fun – rarely do serious journalists enjoy a story quite this much. This story also adds another dimension to my point about the big cheat built into the modern market.

9 Comments

  1. Hey Paul! Great stuff as usual. Here are a few stray thoughts.

    One: on the first Trump impeachment. Of course the Democrats are, as you say, every bit as corrupt as the Republicans—the vast majority of the people involved belong to the same political class. But I’m not sure the tangled story of the first impeachment shows it. One less important reason I don’t think this shows a lot: there were plenty of people on the left of (and to the left of) the Democratic party calling for impeachment on just the sort of emoluments grounds you were suggesting; at the time I recall hearing that while Trump seemed to common sense to be obviously in violation, there was very little case law on interpreting the emoluments clause, so it wasn’t so clear whether he’d be found guilty by a purely legal, judicial process. (I see now that there was an attempt to take him to court; the Supreme Court declined to hear the case because individual members of congress don’t have standing to bring this kind of suit.) But that leads to the more important reason: impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. It was always obvious the Senate wouldn’t convict. That’s why the DNC leadership was reluctant to impeach on any grounds for so long—they only gave in once the political calculation made sense, when they’d piss off more people by not going through the motions than by doing it. So how to pick the charges? Pick the ones it would be most embarrassing for Republican senators to ignore. And I can see thinking they’d love to say “Look, these socialists hate business! But a smart business guy is just what this country needs!” Too easy. (Dammit, now I’ve found myself defending Hillary and Robin DiAngelo and the DNC on this blog. I must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.)

    Two: on managing to support Hillary(‘s candidacy) and BLM. I’m reminded of the SNL skit in the wake of Trump’s election—shocked & distraught white characters saying “how is this possible??” and a completely unsurprised Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. This is the explanation I keep hearing for why Hillary and Biden had such rock solid support among (older) Black voters in the primaries: not because they’re ideal candidates, but because of a hard earned understanding of what kind of bullshit the rest of America will vote for in the general election. I can’t tell you that explanation is definitely right, or for how many people that’s the right explanation, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense to me. “We support Hillary/Biden not because their record is better than the other Democrats’ record, but because they’re going to be less threatening to the rest of white America than someone who’ll promise more.” (The other part of this story as I’ve heard it: young Black voters are further to the left and expect more of their candidates. But, as we keep finding out, old people vote way more than young people do, in the US and the UK and Canada.)

    Three: on US & Soviet overseas “interventions”, if that’s the right word. I heard a fascinating interview a little while back about a book arguing that the Sino-Soviet split was not accidental but inevitable because of differences over just this sort of thing. So the standard story, as I’ve always understood it, is that the USSR and CCP were initially close (although they never much trusted each other, and it took the Soviets a long time to see the CCP were going to win their civil war), but when Stalin died and Khrushchev attacked Stalinism, they rather bitterly went their separate ways. (“What’s wrong with a cult of personality?” Mao asked.) But the book/interview pointed out two sorts of things that have stuck with me, although I’m sure there was more. Point 1: The particular flashpoint for the split was their different stances on the Algerian revolution. Initially, both the USSR and the PRC supported the (socialist/communist elements among) the revolutionaries. But the Soviets thought there was a real chance for the Communist Party in France to win an election in one of those years in the late ’50s; support for the Algerians would be unpopular in France, so they backed off. China went in the opposite direction, and the CCP were bitter about being betrayed by the Soviets. Point 2: this is the big theoretical picture. The Soviet doctrine on Algeria, and the rest of the colonized world, was squarely Leninist: imperialism is the highest form of capitalism, so the way to fight imperialism is to fight capitalism, and so the question whether France would get a communist government is more important than the question whether Algeria kicks the French out, even if you think the French have no business in Algeria. On the other hand, the CCP’s mythology about itself, to this day, is grounded in anti-imperialism. The party itself wasn’t formed until the 1920s (or so), but their story of their struggle begins with the Opium Wars and the “century of humiliations”. So the CCP see themselves in the Algerians and have no trust in elected Western officials to keep their promises. (Remember when we got into WWI—on the winning side!—so we could get our territory back? Remember how that worked out?) And that also explains why the Chinese have been investing in Africa ever since. There’s a lot to complain about in the way the Chinese intervene in developing countries—a WHOLE lot—but it tends to be in the form of investment & development rather than regime change. So this is another story where the Soviets are less interventionist than (some other country), for principled reasons.

    (By the way, on the whole Opium Wars thing: I’m always surprised when I hear reporting on the fentanyl crisis that this isn’t mentioned. That is, a lot of the fentanyl causing devastation in the US & Canada is produced in China; so we try to put diplomatic pressure on them to crack down on its production, which is illegal in China. China says they’re doing their best, but hey, words are easy, as you pointed out. But this is just the Opium Wars in reverse! China asked Britain to stop exporting opium to them, Britain said lol no how bout war instead? And now we’re asking them to stop exporting fentanyl to us. I wouldn’t assume the Chinese are thinking “an eye for an eye”, but this is such an obvious parallel I’m baffled it isn’t brought up every time.)

    Oh, one last thing, just for the record: Mussolini’s couldn’t even make the trains run on time after all. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-15/stop-saying-mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time

    • Hi Roger – really appreciate this sort of thoughtful feedback!

      (I always reassure those nervous about exposing themselves to critique that if someone is paying enough attention to your idea to respond to it’s flaws and ambiguities intelligently – that is itself an empirical flattery!)

      I strongly suspected your point about Mussolini to be true (just as I have gathered an encyclopaedia of refutation to the myth of Hitler’s military brilliance) – and included it all the same for two reasons – one, simple brevity (qualifying everything with the range of my arguments, would multiply the size and put everyone to sleep), but secondly, I thought it was cute that the ‘sense’ was valid, even if not the demonstrable truth. That is – Mussolini being worth it because, fit in with ‘Broken Windows’ Patriot Act and a whole pile of other collectivized expressions of unconscious fear. Absolutely not true except in terms of fraudulently instilled/adopted perception – which in functional terms, usually carries the day against all reason and logic! (Don’t Frege-out on me if I’m getting ‘sense’ very wrong – still tumbling that juicy distinction in my head). ;o)

      WRT impeachment, I know you are correct on the technical difficulty of those charges in particular – but insist all the same that this trouble is at least in part because the baseline has been set below sea level!
      I actually wrote a well reasoned piece defending Hillary despite everything when she ran – her behaviour since then (still poison, ego and power tripping) has made me regret it, but I absolutely don’t fault anyone who chose her – not at all. It’s just that one being bad doesn’t make the other good, only (theoretically) better.

      There is indeed a perception on the left, that no genuinely progressive candidate would ever be electable by the right and centre. It is worth noting that the right show no such shame, and have done well running coke-head dropouts and incoherent megalomaniacs. Personally, I’m convinced the left is as wrong about the right as the right is about the left – and that many in the centre would be persuaded by someone with genuine conviction, instead of slick reassurances and a Wall Street heart.

      The old blackmail contract – you must give power to the ‘good white elites’ because the nasty ones are horrible, always sidesteps the option – how about NEITHER! (Because that would mean lifting the yoke ourselves?)

      Is there a way for people on the bottom of the economic heap to move past the emotional component of their ‘outs’ understanding and organize based upon appealing to the humane in a class they increasingly perceive as their victimizers? Hard to say. In the old days, religious leadership and organization was very important, humility and compassion were a central part of all action – but since the 68 schism, the left can’t unite around labour or religion anymore (too much contempt for both). Sadly, it seems possible that modern attitudes, biases, emotions and false reasoning have boxed the masses out of political relevance for now – as long as they fearfully demand a Republican (like Hillary) in their corner, serious progress is somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

      Fascinating stuff about the split between the Soviets and China, in terms of foreign intervention – thank you, all new to me, but it fits history perfectly. If I may add a few (underplayed) psychological factors – Russia so wants to be taken as a great European, rather than Asiatic power – and has for yonks! China on the other hand, understands the ‘white boy go home’ game perfectly – and even when their motives are suspect (always) this link is genuine.

      So glad I’m not the only one who noticed the Opium wars Fentanyl link. “You expect us to care about this how much?” I’m only guessing, but I feel we in the smug west project more than most – and so tend to assume other cultures are also forgetful and ego driven. But I’ve never met anyone from Africa, East Asia or even Eastern Europe whose historical awareness was not many times greater than our standard (deplorable) level.

      My point about variation between individuals over types aside, there are broad differences between the approaches particular cultures encourage. The cynical humorist in me is tempted to say

      The Russians learned blunt power reading Tolstoy and playing Chess.
      The British learned subtle deception reading the classical Greeks and playing Bridge
      The Americans learned gung-ho enthusiasm, risk taking and innovation reading Superman comics and playing poker.
      But the Chinese read the I Ching and the Tao and they play Go.
      Which means there is simply no contest at all on the long game.
      (Since it alone IS the long game) ;o)

      Cheers man! Knowing I have thoughtful minds like yours out there makes me work ever harder on these (and learn more, and get further). Nothing else can complete the circuit, but a high-wattage bulb. Grazie!

      • Lovely response, Paul, thank you! I think I agree with all of it. (I almost didn’t mention Mussolini precisely because the detail doesn’t need to be right for your point to hold–sorry for “well-actually”ing!)

        Do you play Go? I picked it up in grad school. I’m no great shakes, but it’s absolutely delightful. I never much enjoyed chess; the story I tell myself, which could even be true (who knows?), goes like this: I got interested in chess in grade school, played a bit with my dad in the evenings, followed the Kasparov-Karpov championships through the newspaper, so I signed up for a summer school chess camp thing. My goodness it was terrible! The other kids had no patience for someone not very good at the game; I was obviously wasting their time. Few things made me feel so stupid. That’s the thing about picking up Go: it’s big enough in North America (and slightly bigger in Europe, I think) that you can reliably find a handful of players in any decent-sized city… but it’s unpopular enough that those players are DELIGHTED to have you with them even if you’re brand new or learn slowly or whatever. Some really good places to play online these days; my favourite, especially for correspondence games, is online-go.com

        Maybe the right way to think about the group vs individual difference is: we should be suspicious of any attempt to draw conclusions about individuals from facts about the groups they belong to; but there are facts about groups, and some of those facts involve treating groups (nations/cultures, in this case) as individuals. What you say about the difference between Russians, Americans, etc makes total sense at a group/cultural level–the danger is concluding that all Chinese people play Go.

        Oh, and on the sense/reference stuff: I can’t say I’m a great Youtuber, but I’m putting all my lectures on Youtube. I have a series of them on that paper from last Spring; happy to send the links if you like. I might be re-doing them in a few weeks when I start teaching it again, depending on how bad those videos look in retrospect. My recording hardware is much better now, at least.

        Hey, let me give you one more link. The other day, I mentioned Thi Nguyen and some of his stuff on moral outrage porn, but I think it was paywalled. He’s just done a really fascinating interview on the “Gurus Decoded” podcast (disclaimer: I haven’t listened to any of their other episodes) that I think you’d enjoy. I’m hearing echos of a lot of Themes From Paul: in particular, (a) them on the right are not wicked villains; we should seek explanations of our failures to communicate in terms of systems rather than individual failings; and (b) words and feelings aren’t action, and we should be suspicious of ways of engaging with political theatre that keep it theatrical, that don’t carry the costs (or yield the benefits) of actual organizing.

        • Hey Roger

          Thank you very much for the offer of links and the idea of some logic study. For all my hard-thinking over the years, logic is an area where I have long felt I needed some work (plus, I always love finding useful tools to play with). Looking forward to taking in your lectures on the subject (I’m the kind of a lecture loving geek who regularly rotates presentations from Feynman, Alan Watts and others on my ‘pod). Thanks for your kind feedback on my tone (indeed entirely conscious). I’m still learning too, so far I have discovered that a straight spine (no leaning back in your chair) and moving your arms a lot, helps it feel as if you’re talking to someone and actively engaged, instead of just reading. Caffeine levels are also important (and an area of ongoing research) especially to keep the shows under an hour!

          For all his faults in other departments, my father was a wonderfully voracious culture maniac (books, music and art were everywhere in my childhood home). So my brother and I heard Mulla Nasrudin tales when we were little, just like many kids right across the Islamic world – a great substrate for my later Sufi reading. Likewise, we played Go-moku when kids (much reduced, though still teasingly incomprehensible for a kid). Later, my socialist mentor got me back into Go itself (and while inexpert, always gave me a good game).

          Funny thing about chess. I played for years with an Estonian guy who learned from his father, who had learned to play from a grandmaster, in a Siberian prison camp. When I was a kid I had a Bobby Fischer phase, and always watched the weekly master games televised on TVO. But playing this guy I was forced to realize that chess is both lore and logic. Like with video-games, if you have course-knowledge (command of openings, mid-game and end strategies), you can beat a smarter player who has none (not saying I was, just noting the curious situational futility of improvisation against special-case certitude). In all the years I played against this man, the only times I ever outright beat him were when we were playing a chess problem, rather than a formal game. Pure logic? I never lost. Acquired lore? he trounced me in style, with time on the clock to spare (though our conversations were so interesting, and his winning manner so mild, this never bothered me at all).

          I think the sort of lovely (and perhaps poetically pathetic) thing about white people playing Go in the west is that NONE of us have the lore, so we play games of almost pure discovery and amazement together. No doubt looking like absolute imbeciles, to those who understand the full (near infinite) aesthetic qualities of the game – but having a grand old time doing it, all the same! ;o)

          And here’s a funny thought. In a way that is a lobe of western appropriation and privilege – and then in another way that is a big part of what people from more locked-down societies still come here to enjoy. The culture of all humanity as one great big jam-packed colourful toy-box, with no hawk eyed librarians telling you which books you aren’t allowed to open, or where you aren’t allowed to draw in the margins! (The humanist pen really is a fountain).
          ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          • Hey thanks! Forgive the self-deprecation, but I DO NOT claim these are any good, just the best I could do at the time. All my lecture videos are on my Youtube channel; start here for playlists organizing them by class: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1ZKGoC4qGJogNibA8hfspg/playlists

            Frege stuff in the “PHL2026 Philosophy of Language” playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCTUAlzLA3Au8rKIiCU1Y1r81_mdMqRI8

            There is some straightforward formal logic stuff, too, in the “PHL1003” playlists (incomplete–the end is there from last year, the beginning is recorded, the middle will appear as I get to it). Probably slower than you’d need; at this university, my main challenge is preventing students from failing the class. (Not that they’re any dumber than elsewhere, but there seems to be a culture of study habits that might work for essay classes, but lead to disaster in a problem-solving class with wrong answers and skills requiring practice.) We’re using an open-source textbook, in case you do follow along, available here: http://forallx.openlogicproject.org/

            There’s an “all topics” playlist and sub-lists on specific topics. Putting the sub-lists in order, I’d go like this:

            Key notions
            TFL symbolisation
            Truth tables (to appear)
            FOL – intro and symbolisation
            FOL – interpretations
            Natural deduction

            And hey, if you ever want a game of Go, look me up! I’m rhubarb on https://online-go.com/

            (On lore: totally right. But I do think a lot more of the lore is accessible Over Here now than 40, 30, even 20 years ago. And right now a ton of the lore is being overturned thanks to actually competitive AI. The professionals are learning new things from AlphaGo and its cousins–this is a very exciting time!)

  2. Much enjoyed this episode – as I always do – and you set the old hamster wheel a-spinning again. Right out of the gate, I noticed an interesting ambiguity. You’re right that political / cultural / ethical debates aren’t only about the relative merits of different ideas, and that we shouldn’t expect to disengage principles and concepts and vocabularies from the lived experience of those using them – but we also have to ensure that debate is over the merits of the ideas as opposed to the character of the individuals doing it. That way lies ad hominems, scapegoating, vilification – a breakdown of the conditions of peaceable coexistence. The relevant distinction here is between communication as a means of understanding one another (establishing a “we”), and ethical debates over what “we” should do next – what sacrifices and commitments are acceptable and warranted, given what we’ve established as our shared reality. But what about when the debates are about how to establish that “we” at a really big scale?

    As your point about Gladwell’s Tipping Point and the broken windows theory illustrates, sometimes we just can’t resist a convenient – and popular – interpretation of events. Particularly when it comes to multi-factor causes of complex phenomena. (Again reminded of Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalisation, where he talks about management strategies of extraordinarily complex systems. The goal is not direct control, but more about understanding the principles of signaling normality, to encourage more predictable / manageable outcomes, delivered by dutifully consenting participants.) The narrative has a kind of pragmatic value that produces tangible benefit for us. It seems to work. But is it true?

    (As an aside, philosophy of truth is a delightful can of worms that I’ve been eating from for years. I recommend Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide for an accessible-yet-challenging introductory survey. Pragmatism is often accused of conflating the truth of a belief with its utility. That’s not entirely accurate – it’s more about recognizing the ways that utility conflates itself with anything we take to be true. We take it to be true because of the work it does for us, conceptually and epistemologically. Recognizing this can aid us in avoiding the trap of reifying truth, or justifying something purely on the basis of its supposed correspondence to fixed reality. This in no way precludes engagement with other perspectives by dismissing common ground; it can help discover how and why perspectives are materially different. What rubs people the wrong way about some versions of pragmatism is the “postmodern” angle, which seems to bestow too much relevance on individual perspectives – rendering objective truth merely intersubjective agreement, devoid of the reality that gives gravity to our commitments and warrants our expectations.)

    You also expressed a sentiment early on that I’ve seen in a few places recently – maybe it’s in the air, with the election of Biden-Harris. To paraphrase one source: the fundamental political distinction of our time is not between liberal and conservative, but between liberal and illiberal. It’s not clear whether they were referring to the Trumpies or the Wokies. I know even that is simplistic, but I can’t help thinking that Biden’s election has brought a more hopeful breath of fresh air (or as you call it, breathing room), that has encouraged many to think outside of their customary binaries – if only for a moment. A moment may be all that it takes.

    Many believe that a movement is all it takes. And their rationalizations can be quite compelling. Not compelling in the sense of finding the sweet spot between the ears of a critical and thoughtful listener and planting the seed of an idea, but instead overwhelming the critical faculties of their audience by triggering the most talkative, emotional, extraverted, and sometimes unhinged or unstable among them. (And creating an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement of those dynamics.) The fine line between these two meanings is the part of us that is keenly aware of the perilous complexity of our challenges, and yet also risk-averse enough to avoid taking responsibility for them. When it comes to aligning and organizing with thousands of high-volume knuckleheads, the necessity of society becomes an increasingly daunting and dubious calculation. This atomization can be disastrous, and in most respects has nothing to do with real individualism. It’s just the making of the mark.

    I was an active participant in the “anti-globalization” movement of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It consisted mainly of protests and a ton of naively idealistic rhetoric. Occasionally, serious and enlightening analysis and discussion (which, after girls, was the reason I was there). It also saw a widely encompassing – GLOBAL – outreach to different historically marginalized communities and their supporters, using the new technology of the Internet. Not only the very broad scope of said movement, but also the rhetorical urgency and posturing deemed necessary to appeal to that broad audience – which could easily be sorted into colonialism’s “victims” and its “benefactors” – gave rise to a new, distinctly populist sense of the word “justice”.

    The movement continued and spread, percolating beneficially across much of the world. However, I think the movement dissipated, for a few reasons. The scale of the outreach, unfocussed and moralistic language, and the diversity of the audiences necessary to organize it coherently. “Diversity” is a value-free property of any assemblage of people or things – it’s neither good nor bad – and it introduces new complexities for communication and organizing that go unrecognized when we insist on giving it a particular value. (And who gives it what value, exactly? The corporate world has increased in diversity immensely; does anyone ask about the implications of that for addressing present-day colonialism?) That doesn’t mean progress hasn’t taken place in other forms over that time – it has. But look at Twitter now, or Facebook. Arguably, these platforms are providing much impoverished forums for discourse – and giving a very effective megaphone to those who don’t care much for dialogue at all. Pure cynical PR power games. But also – an outlet for reactionaries and romantics to engage in some of their most desperate dreaming. A reasonable surmise is that various flash-in-the-pan “movements” disturbing shit from time to time, “occupying” places and storming buildings and so on, are paid or otherwise encouraged to run interference to ensure the graceless neoliberal machine continues to grind its gears – and those of others.

    When “neoliberalism” is seen as a generally anti-democratic type of modern fascism, the “democratic” and even “humanistic” view (and its populist form, woke or “SJW” ideology) is going to take the form of opposition to neoliberalism. The nuance of that opposition seems less important than the urgency of it. The sophistication of any critique of the system depends on knowledge of history. The story of the last 20 years has been an overthrowing, as it were, of history.

    Regarding “neoliberalism”, there’s plenty of terminological confusion that I wish to add to here. The word has two different basic meanings. The current, popular one is: unfettered access of global corporations / financial interests to local markets. Competition itself winning the day, every day. Market Darwinism. The other definition refers to a model of liberalism that emerged after its “classical” period, which was an idealistic rectification of its defects (and this meaning can’t. Today, many conservatives describe themselves as “classical liberals”, which basically means capitalism with a basic recognition of rights / freedoms for the individual. These are negative freedoms, however. Neoliberalism originally entailed an enhancement of freedom, including both negative and positive, enabling freedoms. In principle, neoliberalism was more compassionate than its classical predecessor, because it now understood inequality as a substantial injustice rather than an inevitable property of human existence. For some reason, “liberal” came to be conflated with “neoliberal”, while “conservative” meant something more down-home, social conservative than having a special focus on economics – an alignment which as I indicated was broadly (classical) liberal. Perhaps the staunchness of the viewpoint rooted it in that earlier definition, while the novelty of neoliberalism engendered a neologistic appropriation / conflation of the word. For an brilliant explication of this, have a look at this talk by John McWhorter. The Genesis of “Isms”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmcqcyyR1Y0 If you’re not already aware of him, there’s a lot of his stuff on Youtube, and is very worthwhile.

    This all reflects a fundamental binary in North American culture and politics. It is a binary both rich in implications and tragically, stubbornly limiting in its myopia. On this perspective, “society” means a collection of individuals, but also something that is always potentially at odds with the individual. It is made more strange by the fact that “successful” individuals are successful in spite of, as well as over, society. Society is our collective fate, and therefore a kind of death (of the individual). To transcend it is to achieve greatness – maybe even immortality. But this is quite distinct from a view that casts society as the sum-total of the – always interdependent – efforts of individuals. One in which maturation, and citizenship, entails individuals learning of limits and contingency. The latter perspective does not grant immortality to the individual; rather, society is our collective immortality, i.e. the transcendence of individual mortality. It is given meaning, and reality, by history.

    Today, things are even weirder. Those who used to identify as “progressive” seem to have engendered woke ideology – a more advanced, neo-socialist view that encompasses the old elements of “progressivism” but also more extreme, performative, and moralistic aspects. It could be called “interventionist”, as it attempts to overcome the market of ideas by rapid infusions of social capital. “Progressive” has become largely neglected in our cynical landscape, while conservatives have re-aligned themselves with classical liberalism – a move which not only portrays them as resisting the dicey implausibility of progressivism, but also the imposing totalitarian menace of wokeism.

    One of the funny things about Trumpism is how it actually contains an implicit strong identification with the state, or with a society determined by the state (societalization). (Its sensibilities walk a line between classical liberalism and libertarianism – which is also enjoying a kind of abstract resurgence, partly due to the Republican party’s ongoing implosion.) The state under this form of fascism embodies, and thereby guarantees, the rights and freedoms of the people. Its values become those of the people. How ELSE could its continued exploitation of them be justified? The neoliberalism page on Wikipedia explains, along with a quote from Milton Friedman: “Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth-century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order”, which requires limited state intervention to “police the system, establish conditions favorable to competition and prevent monopoly, provide a stable monetary framework, and relieve acute misery and distress”.

    If we simply assume that neoliberalism has no interest in upholding democratic norms (as the last couple decades have shown), the current appeal of socialism makes sense. People see that rights and freedoms are ill-defended in a modern capitalist democracy; stronger defenses are required. Now, the ironic twist is that neoliberal operatives can and do play the game of pretending to provide those guarantees. Particularly in the form of shallow populism like Trumpism. This also kind of explains why Trump and Bernie shared a not-insignificant number of supporters. Naturally, Bernie lost and Trump – eventually Biden – won. None of that was coincidental, nor was it because Bernie is Jewish or anything like that. It isn’t even because “socialism” is a pejorative term for many. Sanders would be middle of the road in Europe, period. He calls himself a “democratic socialist”, but it’s actually the (small-d) “democratic” part that constitutes the bigger threat to the status quo. The fix was in.

    Of course, whether the identification of neoliberalism as complicit in, and culpable for, modern injustices by its authorization of neglect is exactly the rub. Holding it accountable for inequality requires first establishing the rights of citizens to a larger share of the wealth – and this is just what it denies is owed, or at least that such a transfer of wealth is practicable. The term for the view that such a debt is payable is “socialism”. The term for the notion that the system is working ideally well is “neoliberalism” – and this encompasses nearly all the major parties’ viewpoints, in the end. So yes, as much as Biden’s election provides some breathing room in terms of dialogue, there’s still a lot of liberals (classical and neo) who are fast asleep, and need a big bucket of cold water poured over them. There’s work to be done.

    • Thank you Ian – for kind words and also stimulating ideas.

      Your observation about the way Neoliberalism is popularly misunderstood (like almost all of the subtle ideas we adopt as popular referents?) is useful and an interesting place to explore. I have a great frustration myself about the extent to which Libertarianism has been reduced and vilified. The seventies version which I first encountered was the leftest of the left (that was still about freedom and self-definition) and helped inform a lot of commune thinking and early convention-defiant lifestyle experimentation (especially WRT consumerism and conformist-roles).

      Of course just as the huge contribution of early anarchists has been erased by BOTH socialists and capitalist since (so they can limit the conflict to their own rah-rah teams and boost recruiting?) these numerous “I will be my true self” pioneers never did fit into anyone’s master plan. Yes there always was a screw-you to the establishment built into it – but nothing that Proudhon wouldn’t recognize.

      Having been raised in a commune myself, I have a few kinds of awareness which are very hard to convey. Things I’ve seen tried and proven or failed, which most still consider to be theoretical. Hurts me to see idealists still clinging to stuff that they should have rejected as unsafe by now – and also to see them ignore the parts which are solid as can be (simplest by far – cooperative sharing really is a great way to help struggling individuals in a community get a proper suite of resources and establish a basis upon which to build their way to better).

      On the dark side of the whole thing – this is also where my aversion to any form of group sanctimony or self-congratulation comes from. Most folks in my commune (one of the largest urban communes that ever happened in North America) radiated a great confidence in their general superiority to those with more conventional mores and ideas. One participant even summed up her more recent writing about it saying “It has to be said that most participants had a good experience.” The fact that child abuse – psychological and physical – was so widespread as to be very nearly universal, completely escaped her moral awareness. Or perhaps it’s just that that particular group of ultra-boomers were so busy with self expression (and obsession) they never even noticed that their own children were also real live actual people. Hard to say – but grinning denial of abuse on that scale is definitely proof of an incredibly dangerous and evil enabling form of self-congratulatory insanity – still fully intact a half century later.

      To me, most movements on left and right show worrisome signs of this kind of abuse-enabling certitude, and the fact that the stated ideals are excellent, does not change this constant and very real danger to the weak and voiceless. Quality of program does not erase reprehensible behaviour! Words weigh (and cost) nothing.

      Also WRT movements, ebbs and flows of passion and my opening point about ideas and feelings always mixing (and behaviour always hiding). The urgency of the anti-globalization movement was rationally founded in many ways – the ecological situation is beyond dire, and still we’re moving in the wrong direction, at the wrong speed and with the wrong sense of priority (don’t even get me started about the ‘frog in a pot’ Paris accords). But I had that exact same sense of emergency about my eighties rebel politics also – colonial violence, poverty and exploitation, massive expansion of the war state and even back then, ecological peril – every one an urgent moral cause. Stop the harm.

      The two questions which used to be more easily discussed (because we used to share more language of defiance, and happily identify as being ‘outs’ and ‘freaks’ all together across many groups, instead of insisting on ever more minute distinction being overridingly important, compared to general compassion (a philosophically suicidal innovation, surely).

      A) How much of the protest is “I AM UPSET” and how much is “Here is what we can, could, and should be doing about this. Let me demonstrate.”
      The proportion of personal upset expressed in all arguments – left and right, is much greater now than it used to be (though it was always a lot). But even when perfectly founded, zero percent of the emotion makes a compelling argument for others – especially those being broadly blamed for harms in advance, who never had such intent.
      As I said before, anger about injustice can get you motivated to learn and resist, but staying with anger over the long haul is like still playing in a band in your forties, because you’re hoping for blowjobs. We’re supposed to find better reasons as we grow, and quite simply ‘get over ourselves’ if we want to convince anyone else that our cause really is about reason and morals (art), rather than more in the already infinite range of self-expression noise, pretending it is crucially important (ego). Our narcissism and sanctimony make causes look false, like nothing else possibly could.

      B) How actively are we learning – not just about the state of the world and the individual lives people are living in it, but also about how people are approaching old problems, to replace harmful patterns with better ones. Study makes us humble – as soon as we dig anyplace, we are reminded how much we don’t know (about humans, as much as about things). Keeping a constant flow of new humbling information coming in is difficult – especially with our modern treatment of ideas as territory (mentioned in the show). The early world of home computing looked like it had incredible promise for free-thinking and democracy mostly because you had to be smart and obsessive to be effective, the tech sorted for type – and none of us realized that even in the corporate world, they knew they had plenty of open anarchists working in the accounting department. (Computing was in fact the first industry segment that developed tolerance for dope on the job, because they couldn’t retain top people if they made a stink about the stink).

      The far more complex (and in many ways corporatized and disheartening) evolved modern internet seems to present a different suite of possibility – though in some ways we could say it is infinitely more democratic, because finally everyone from geniuses to idiots are not just included, but more or less compelled to participate. ;o)
      I still think there is huge potential for the spread of best practises, ways of understanding and ideas of doing better – and there are an incredible number of people working on proving good deeds viable, and hopefully scaleable.

      I suspect the single most dangerous popular trend is contempt/anger without formed program. Rejection without suggestion. First because management shapes solutions to meet the needs of management (and corrupt ruling oligarchies, etc..) – only the people who do the work (or need the service) can properly judge a new solution viable or ridiculous. So much patronizing social intervention goes wrong here (and then doesn’t want to learn, so it can do better next time – but just wants to run its pet train set program forever).
      Mind you, to be very clear, business school graduates have been offering at least as many ridiculous solutions as extremists on the left or the right – this century especially (one important reason Neoliberalism has fallen into such disrepute, after being our go-to prosperity compromise “had to be” for decades in the west).
      But also importantly because we can’t he happy and fulfilled without genuine engagement with our own lives – this isn’t just about the ‘outs’ feeling hurt, but also about those who do better by the system getting a deal with far greater humane value than the cynical alienated and desperately lonely consumerism game we’ve been running, arguably, ever since the end of the second world war.

      Corruption and cynicism go together. As I’ve said before, an equitable sharing of blood money is no advance. Better really does mean better for absolutely everyone – and this is a message-in-common which allows for no high-ground, but does form a natural majority constituency (why I keep saying program over catharsis – even when anger is valid).

      I will have to watch Hyper-normalization. I adore Adam Curtis, one of the most insightful thinkers (and effective communicators of subtle ideas) alive. What you said about it made me think (yet again) of Norbert Weiner’s cybernetic management ideas supplanting the old power politics of Machiavelli. I’ve always seen this as a shift away from Newtonian determinism toward quantum aggregate predictions – but the idea of abstracting that by another ‘demention’ – to manage signalling, rather than controlling process – is HILARIOUS! Like the old accounting practices at Ford when they used to weigh their accounts receivable paperwork, and guesstimate from that! Still more proof that business school too is subject to excesses of imagination along almost psychedelic lines! ;o)

      BTW – did you know the ‘Japanese’ open door management style came from an American? W Edwards Deming – very interesting fellow. Not so much trying to give them an advantage, as help them prove an old labour truism to be not only moral, but also practical (if you don’t listen to the guy on the line, you’ll never get your process right).

      Cheers man. I’d better sign off now (sainted Mrs says today is a writing “day off”). Thanks again for your close attention and stimulating feedback. Always greatly appreciated.
      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      • There’s a certain individualism, that some call “rugged”, which has been usurped by today’s me-first affiliative (“tribal” – except tribes aren’t actually like that) individualism. This is almost certainly a consequence of a couple generations of consumerism’s messages saturating people’s lives from a young age. (I speak from personal reflection and extrapolate accordingly.) It also entails, conveniently, that “anti-modern” tendencies find reductive, benign expression, reproducing mediocrity apace.

        Regarding your A) above, I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and ethical as life ways. The aesthete is not art-centered per se, but narcissistic and a “sensualist” – think 2nd circuit tantrum-throwing me-first individualism. Their indignation is only apparently moral indignation, only apparently on behalf of others, with whom they have been speciously aligned. On the other hand, the ethicist must put others ahead of himself, and must view that as a sacrifice. Telling himself, or others, that we can all have what we want is irresponsibility itself. The notion that anything is “owed” needs to be properly attended to at the 4th circuit level. Going from, as you brilliantly put it, “rejection to suggestion”. If we aren’t careful about our (3rd circuit) semantics, the case will be thrown out. The ethicist has a higher bar of consistency and rigor in how they label and categorize reality (“construct” it), and then try to live by that. If we’re going to reify the world, we need to accept the pragmatic risks of that. The final stage is the religious life (5th circuit), which encompasses self-knowledge, abstract rigor, justice, forgiveness, novelty (breaking of routinization), and selfless joy.

        Figures like Leary and Wilson might argue that much social upheaval was and is due to countercultural 5th-circuit tendencies and the repressive reactions thereto. But as you regularly point out – those attempting to establish functional idealistic communities run into many of the same (human) problems that drove them from the herd in the first place. That’s no biggie, but we need to reflect on the meaning of the word “struggle”. Reconciliation of acceptance and non-acceptance. The perils of certainty.

        Regarding your B), I think you’re describing the 6th circuit.

        From Cosmic Trigger ( http://corporate.skynet.be/zen/8circuits2.htm ):

        ”The characteristics of the neuroelectric circuit are high velocity, multiple choice, relativity, and the fission-fusion of all perceptions into parallel science-fiction universes of alternate possibilities.”

        ”The mammalian politics which monitor power struggles among terrestrial humanity are here transcended, i.e., seen as static, artificial, an elaborate charade. One is neither coercively manipulated into another’s territorial reality nor forced to struggle against it with reciprocal emotional game-playing (the usual soap-opera dramatics). One simply elects, consciously, whether or not to share the other’s reality-model.”

        Incidentally, wow some of my posts are long, and take years to get to the point. Here’s where I have to wonder: if I make myself groan sometimes, what of my readers? I can’t promise brevity, of course, and hugely appreciate your consideration of my input, and resulting feedback – but I’m also trying to tighten-up my writing. Thanks again, mate.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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