La philosophie dans l’isoloir

Some scattered thoughts on lesser-evil voting. Let’s say we have a choice between Grendel and his slightly more ferocious mother, Mrs. Grendel. In the US, this is a fairly realistic simulation. The lesser-evillists insist that we must vote for Grendel. Their sincerity is not to be doubted, but their logic has some gaps. There are several fundamental propositions, each, I think, quite fallacious.

1. A non-vote for Grendel equals a vote for Mrs Grendel

Naively, the voter on election day has four broad categories of choice:

a. Stay home
b. Vote for Grendel
c. Vote for Mrs Grendel
d. (Possibly available to some and not others) Vote for a third party which actually stands for something you believe in, with the full awareness that your candidate is unlikely to prevail.

The lesser-evil argument is that options a) and d), being non-votes for Grendel, in fact undergo a kind of quantum collapse and somehow are transmuted into votes for Mrs Grendel.

It is not quite clear how a non-vote is supposed to become a vote. Moreover, it is not quite clear for whom the non-vote is actually a vote, particularly in the stay-at-home case, option a).

Naively it would appear that the stay-at-home non-voter’s non-vote, were it to be multiplied by -1 and become a vote, might equally well be a vote for Grendel or Mrs Grendel or a third party. That is, the non-voter non-voted equally for all of the above; who then gets his virtual vote? Perhaps each gets a third, and his distributed virtual vote cancels out and turns back into a non-vote again?

Clearly, that is an unacceptable outcome, and the lesser-evil evangelist will tell you that Mrs Grendel certainly gets the whole enchilada. But on what basis this assertion is made does not clearly appear.

It gets worse. Perhaps the abstainer did in fact quite intentionally cast a vote for a candidate who is implicitly on the ballot in every election: namely, the Hon. Mr. None Of The Above. That is, the abstention is not just a mere nullity, a non-action, a thing that didn’t happen, but an actual statement of preference on the voter’s part, just as a physical ballot cast would have been; and perhaps the preference could be expressed as “Away with all these pests; come up with something better, or don’t bother me.” In this case the lesser-evil alchemist, with his alembics and retorts, boils away the voter’s actual intent and transmutes his actual vote for None Of The Above, not just into a non-vote, but into a specific vote for Mrs Grendel.

Option d), the third-party vote, complicates the picture further, because it’s not in any sense a non-vote at all; it’s a downright vote, a ballot marked, a lever pulled, a box checked; there’s nothing virtual or implicit about it; one needn’t surmise or infer the voter’s intent; he has made it plain. Here the lesser-evil alchemist accomplishes two successive transmutations: the first, a liquidation of the actual vote into an essential non-vote; the second, of the newly-minted non-vote, into a vote for Mrs Grendel. Neither of these procedures is entirely straightforward; the second, for the reason mentioned above, namely that it is not obvious for whom (if not None Of The Above) a non-vote should be accounted a vote; the first, because the voter has in fact cast a vote and therefore recorded a concrete, explicit, non-conjectural preference, which is, one might have thought, what elections are meant to be about.

The Philosopher’s Stone in the lesser-evil alchemist’s lab, curiously, is none other than Mrs Grendel. More precisely, it’s the operator’s conviction that the only thing that matters in the world is stopping Mrs Grendel, even if it means that her anthropophagous offspring will spend the next four years sojourning in the mead-hall by night, tearing our arms and heads off and eating them raw. Since Mrs Grendel is the only thing that matters, then it follows that everything else – all other considerations, all the preferences and priorities and principles of actual individual human beings, for instance – are flattened out, boiled down, into The Mrs Grendel Question. Because of course, she would have devoured a few more heads and arms than Junior, as everybody knows. This assumption about Mrs Grendel and her appetite brings us to Fallacy Number 2.

2. Alternate universes are knowable

Turning from the Grendel family to some actual families: the lesser-evil activist will tell you, with sublime confidence, that Hillary Clinton or Al Gore would certainly have done, or not done, this or that. But this is basically sci-fi; it’s a claim to know “what would have happened if”, which can’t in fact be known. Particularly in the muddled arena of politics. There are some things that might be said about the parallel world with a modest degree of confidence – Clinton would probably have had nicer things to say about gay people, and given her background, would probably have paid at least lip-service to the experts during the COVID pestilence.

But then, of course, there are other areas where the what-if is a good deal less clear. What if Clinton had had a more aggressive policy toward Russia? What if she had insisted on intervening in Syria? Neither of these what-ifs seems intrinsically less likely than the kind words for gay people and experts.

It is of course possible and even plausible that Hillary Clinton might have been better in some ways than Donald Trump. But it is also possible and plausible that in other ways she might have been worse – if only because more effective. I for one do not understand how the alternate-universe theorist, summing over this nearly infinite range of variables, can have such a clear birds-eye view of a universe which did not in fact come into being.
What voter who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 did so because he was expecting what we got? Moreover, can we state with any real confidence that electing him was in any way better than re-electing Bush Pere? After all, we know what each of these guys actually did while in office; the infinite airy ambit of conjecture is thus restricted to the mundane finitude of fact.

At this point I imagine that my imaginary lesser-evil interlocutor will object, but the Democrats are always a little bit better, on average, than the Republicans! A careful look at the history might throw some shade on this confident belief. For one thing, nearly all the dire things that have happened on the political plane in my lifetime have taken place with solid bipartisan support. And Joe Biden, in particular, has been up to his neck in every one of them. Similarly, looking at the actual track record of Hillary Clinton offers little basis for the conjecturalist’s sunnier fancies.

3. The fifth decimal place is all that matters

I associate this argument with the esteemed Noam Chomsky, a man with whom one is rightly and prudently reluctant to disagree. But as the proverb says, fools rush in.

The Fifth Decimal Place argument is that yeah, the Grendelites and the Mrs Grendelites are almost identically bad. But “almost” is the operative word. Out at the fifth decimal place, there’s a residual difference; and since voting costs very little, one is morally obliged to vote for this residual, however exiguous.

There are three things wrong with this argument.

First, it depends on the parallel-world theory discussed above; it relies on a confident belief that one can calculate the results out to the fifth decimal place. This, I argue, is impossible.

Second, it assumes that the badness of the various candidates can be reduced to a scalar quantity – call it the Nosferatu Scale, analogous to the Richter Scale. But of course different people have different priorities; Palestine matters a great deal to some, and marriage equality a great deal to others. That is to say, an individual’s political priorities are a multi-dimensional vector, not a scalar; and how these vector quantities are to be reduced to a common scalar value, agreed upon by all, is a real puzzle. For some people the difference between Ma Grendel and Boy Grendel shows up at the first decimal place; for others, out at the seventeenth, if at all, and the signal is completely lost in the noise.

Third, and perhaps most important, it excludes the time dimension; it ignores the fact that a vote (or even a non-vote) is a kind of intervention in, or contribution to, a developing institutional process.

Surely we have all noticed that over the last half-century or so the greater evil has become steadily more evil, and the lesser evil has also become steadily more evil right alongside it? Might one not argue that a vote for the lesser evil has more than one implication? Is it not also a vote for this process itself? Is it not to say, I don’t care how evil you get: as long as you can persuade me that the other guy is more evil, I’m ya boi, and I mean to follow you right down to the eighth circle of Hell?

Confessions of an Anglo-Catholic mediaevalist Commie

If you believe in the negation of the negation then surely the way forward is simultaneously, in a sense, the way back, and vice-versa. To move forward is to discover something entirely new, and also to recover old things that you had thought were lost.

I recently heard a youngish fellow-pewsitter at my parish church complaining that all the language we use about God was too “bombastic” – she meant words like glory and splendor and triumph and might. I was rather startled. Well, I thought, if God isn’t “bombastic” in that sense, who needs Him?

Our ancestors, though they believed in God or Gods and worshiped Him or Them, had, precisely for that reason, a more exalted conception of mankind and the stage on which its destiny is played out than we have, and a vision of its powers and possibilities more expansive than our own. Men and women may not be gods or goddesses, but we meet them — perhaps, do battle with them — on the ringing plains of windy Troy, or wrestle with an angel — perhaps more than an angel — at Penuel; and like the chap at Penuel, we will not let him go until he bless us.

Modernity, notoriously, has consummated the Entzauberung der Welt, and replaced it with a mean, mingy, narrow, utilitarian, drudging drabness.

I don’t know what concepts my young fellow-parishioner would have wanted to associate with God – not middle-class modern niceness, I hope, but something in some way sublime. What she has lost, because she is a hostage of liberal modernity, is the imagination of the sublime, and she’s embarrassed by all the words she might use to express such a thing.

I always encourage my Lefty friends to go back and read Johnnie Milton, an actual regicide for all practical purposes, which is about as Left as you can get, even though he seems to have believed in God, after his own idiosyncratic and perhaps Arian fashion. There aren’t many thinkers more bold and original than Milton, and yet withal more subtle and deliberate. But I’m afraid my young church friend would just find him a ponderous windbag. She has been defrauded of her patrimony; I would love to see her reclaim it and rejoice in it. So let’s hear it, once again, for the negation of the negation.

Being myself that somewhat unusual, though not unprecedented thing, a mediaevalist Anglo-Catholic Commie, my idea is to use the visionary future, which we don’t have yet, and the lost past, which has been stolen from us, with all its shining treasure, as the jaws of a vise to squeeze the unspeakable present.

Uh-oh. Gender comin’ up

Men and women are a thing, but simply to be human is also a thing, with material reality – a body, not so large as a whale nor so small as a mouse; an eye that registers some frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and not others; an ear that registers some frequencies of sound and not others; a gut that can’t digest cellulose; a lung that can’t extract oxygen from water; perhaps a brain that can understand certain things and not others. That is, humans, whether they’re men or women, whether they’re modern or mediaeval, whether they speak German or Khmer, share something that isn’t fish or bird.

Yet this abstract humanity never can appear in itself; human persons are male or female, they’re born and grow up in a particular time and a particular place, speaking a particular language, with other particular oddballs from whom alone they can form their own ideas of what it is to be human. It is modern liberalism that seeks to do away with all these specificities. (Whereas modern fascism, of course, seeks to reify and petrify them and encode them in law.)

Liberalism lays great stress on our “common humanity”, while acknowledging “diversity” as a kind of entertaining but essentially superficial décor. In this regard, as usual, liberalism operates as the handmaiden of Capital, which considers us all as undifferentiated or minimally differentiated “human resources”. But liberalism’s “common humanity” has no concrete content. The materialist, natural-history concept of what it is to be human stresses bipedality, sexual reproduction, the opposable thumb and so on; but the liberal’s universal human can be anything; trans-humanism is an unacknowledged assumption of liberal modernist ideology.

Which of course brings us to the gender perplex. In its theoretical dimension, the replacement of sex with ‘gender’, and the purely subjective understanding of the latter, is really a quintessentially liberal (and modern) project. (So, of course, bashing it is a quintessentially fascist – and modern – project.) The abstract undifferentiated liberal-modern human subject regards his material reality, his actual, irreplaceable, unique human body – a thing which has never been seen before in the history of the universe, and will never be seen again – as something incidental, imposed upon him, subject to modification by technology and hormone shots and surgery. His body may look male, but he’s in some inward way really a woman. Or maybe he’s neither a man nor a woman. Or he’s a man today and a woman tomorrow. One is tempted to suggest that liberal modernism is not just stoic, but also, weirdly, rather Gnostic.

But perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised at this development. In our day, the whole field of sex has become something of a minefield. Nobody knows what to expect or how to behave; the culture abounds in double binds and contradictory messages, invigilation and attitudinizing, shaming and calling-out. It’s hardly surprising that people might want to keep their options open, and it’s hardly surprising that some might just want to call the whole thing off, as Noel Coward put it. And who could blame them? Getting oneself to a nunnery is no longer a respectable way out.

It’s a demoralizing picture. But for me, at least, a decent respect for the autonomy of every actual human subject demands, on the civic plane, that everybody be able to navigate it as best he can in his own way, absent some very compelling, clear, demonstrable claim that others can make. What’s now called “gender dysphoria” is certainly a thing, and, it would seem, always has been. Or at least, there have always been men who dressed and, as we now say, “presented” as women, and vice versa. Sometimes, no doubt, these choices were made for practical reasons; but given the centrality of sex and the extraordinarily varied experiences of human beings growing up with it, surely it must also have often occurred, since forever, that a he or a she felt insufferably boxed-in by the expectations implicit in he-ness or she-ness, as he or she immediately experienced these categories, and saw jumping the sex fence as the way out. And why not? Who is entitled to say No to such deeply personal and utterly inoffensive individual choices?

Nobody, I think. The absolutely autonomous private choices of an individual – an adult individual, of course; transitioning children is felonious medical malpractice and child abuse – an adult individual, I say, seeking his own happiness, or such approaches to happiness as there are to seek in this vale of tears: those choices are not, should not, should never, be the subject of politics. Contrary to the old Sixties slogan, the personal is not necessarily political. (Nor should the political necessarily be taken personally, of course.)

But the currently prevailing ideology of gender is another matter. Ideology and theory are always fair game. Perhaps the canon of specificity might help us out here. Perhaps every human story is so specific that we don’t even need, or want, a theory of gender as such – except that people deal with it in various ways. (I mean a political theory, of course; a credible psychoanalytic theory, or even a moderately serious one, would be very welcome.) We would certainly be better off without a theory than with a bad one – and a bad one is what we have, a weird muddle of shoddy metaphysics, empty phrase-mongering, and wishful, data-free speculation about DNA and neurology.

The concrete political content of the gay movement originally might be characterized concisely as “liberation”, or, in an older and possibly more accurate term, “emancipation” – specifically, the right to have the sex life you like without state interference or legal penalty or discrimination in the marketplace. It was, and is, rather difficult for reasonable and well-disposed people to argue against this demand. Can’t the same be said for the more recent swirl of activism around “gender” – that is, people have the civic right to present or enact or perform sex or gender as they please, without interference or penalty or discrimination? On that practical plane, as with gay liberation, it’s difficult to make the case against; who’s got a legitimate interest in stopping it? (I leave the topics of locker-rooms and rest-rooms and competitive sports to be thrashed out by those who have a dog in the fight.)

Asking for more than this might be a case of not taking ‘yes’ for an answer. But much gender-related activism currently does in fact seem to go well past such concrete political goals, and to come down to a demand for explicit acknowledged adherence to a specific theory of gender – a theory which I personally find dubious – and for explicit recognition of one’s cause at every turn, or better, at every turn of phrase, as with the mandated revision of the English pronominal declension. One suspects a certain understandable but misplaced impulse to be in the front row for every group picture.

Sometimes, in fact, the quest for the foreground can become so absolutist and divisive that one is almost tempted to wonder whether the Red Squad isn’t behind it. A recent example from England is a formation within the Labour Party called Labour Campaign for Trans Rights (LCTR), which has been demanding that anybody who won’t sign off on its rather expansive twelve-point program be expelled from the party. Now reasonable people can argue about the specific contents of these twelve points – personally I could sign off on most of them, though not all – but an electoral party like Labour needs to accommodate some divergence of views.

There is nothing at all wrong with single-issue politics. We all have our red lines, and we are all much more interested in some topics than others. I, for example, won’t vote for anybody who has a kind word to say for Israel; to quote a coarse old proverb, there is some shit I will not eat. But I don’t think that if I were, say, a member of DSA, I would be trying to expel anybody less maximalist on this topic than myself. In fact I would view such a stratagem as a serious and highly sectarian mistake, to say no more than that.

Liberalism of course takes a very sunny view of contemporary gender theory, since far from threatening the social order, it is thoroughly aligned with the ideology of liberal modernism – among the freedoms which modernity has conferred is freedom from the inconvenient particularities of one’s own vertebrate, mammalian human body. (Compare Engels’ profound and highly dialectical observation that freedom entails the recognition of necessity.) And the good modern liberal feels a certain flush of righteous self-congratulation with every deployment of a suitably woke pronoun.

We might usefully ask ourselves to what extent the substantive political content of activism on the sex front in general isn’t adequately subsumed by a general claim for individual autonomy, privacy, non-interference and non-discrimination, which het as well as gay, cis as well as trans, might embrace without hesitation. Indeed, the highly fluid alphabet-soup acronym – LGB plus a rather unstable series of suffixes – suggests as much. After all, the social experiences and social praxes of – for example – lesbians and gay men aren’t, in any obvious way, very similar. Similarly, trans people are very interested in gender, and strongly prefer to be one gender rather than another; while gender abolitionism apparently seeks to liquidate the concept altogether. The purely negative commonality seems to be that none of the identities subsumed by the acronym is stolidly cis-het. Which is, of course, the double reification of a negative – not being something which itself consists of not being anything else.

In the Left context, an insistence on individual autonomy and privacy often seems rather shocking, as if one were espousing a kind of radical individualism, or rather atomism: the individual monad, arithmetically summed, as solely constitutive of society. But it’s not necessary to make that kind of sweeping (and rather vulgar) claim about the foundations and constitution of human society in order to recognize that the human individual is a thing; that there really is, within the polis, a legitimate private sphere, which has been envisioned and created by the historically specific unfolding of our actual human social world; it is a valuable gift from those who went before us, and lies among the things which we Lefties ought to promote and defend.

There is no reason on earth why socialism need be run by nosey-parkers. That is the fascist’s canard – and also, of course, the liberal’s, who is very much a nosey-parker himself, and would very much like to run the show. Here as elsewhere, the Left needs to purge itself of the contaminating influence of liberalism.

The hell with modernity and progress

Modernity presents itself, ideologically, as freedom, and freedom in a negative sense: freedom-from, that is, more than freedom-to. Freedom from ignorance and superstition, because modernity is enlightened; and freedom from want, discomfort, and disease, because modernity has better tech than people formerly had. Freedom from history, because history is over.

More positively, modernity does offer freedoms-to: freedom to travel easily and quickly, because modernity has jet planes; freedom to post pictures of your lunch on the internet, because modernity has the internet; freedom to consume fresh avocados year-round, no matter where you live, because of the jet planes again, and because modernity has created a global economy; freedom to go to bed with whomever, whenever. Modernity makes us free to change our sex, or to become some sort of aetherial being who has no sex at all. To choose not to do any of these things is nevertheless also an exercise of freedom, the freedom conferred by modernity. Modernity compels us to be free – on its terms; to choose from the options it presents. And, to be fair, these options are many; the bewildering variety of footwear alone defies inventory.

Stephen Daedalus famously observed that “history is a nightmare from which I am striving to escape.” Modernity claims that this escape has been consummated. At some point in the relatively recent past, a line was drawn under history, and contingency, path-dependency, and material constraint were left behind with it; or at any rate, such remnants of these obsoleta as persist are merely vestigial, adventitious annoyances, like the vermiform appendix. Mankind, now collectively outfitted with godlike powers, confronts the material world as a blank slate on which we may write what we will. Elon Musk’s nutty project of colonizing Mars, or perhaps even the whole Galaxy, or the whole cosmos, is in fact the blurted-out, imbecile, but perfectly logical, conclusion of Modernity’s fundamental axioms.

Of course a look round the modern world – perhaps from the perspective of some dispassionate, analytical, though not malicious, space alien – paints a few shadows into this shining picture. For one thing, it seems clear that modernity, through the agency of climate disaster, is poised to exterminate a good part of the human species, if not all of it – not to mention all the other species lost to the world every day. And even before the looming extermination of mankind, modernity has already killed a lot of people, and maintains a good many more in a state of shocking – and ever-worsening – misery, deprivation, and oppression; a state in which modernity’s face looks more like a death squad than a well-stocked supermarket.

Everyone knows these things, of course, but still, to invert George Costanza on God, we believe in modernity for everything but the bad stuff. Modernity is the good stuff. The bad stuff comes from somewhere else.

But suppose history does not in fact offer us an a-la-carte menu. Suppose it’s a package deal. Suppose Voltaire is the grinning, mirthful face of the chainsaw in the Amazon basin.

In that case, modernity gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. The avocados in my supermarket owe their presence (and their amazingly low price) to the immiseration of the men and women who picked them. My freedom is their un-freedom; I can buy or not, but they must pick or die.

Is modernity, in fact, the specific social and cultural form of mature, full-blown, triumphant Capital? Not an escape from history at all, but merely the latest contingent, path-dependent turn of its screw? And if so, what are the implications for us modern people?

Consider the thirteenth century, an amazing period, when people were able to do lots of things that are utterly beyond our powers now. Even so, nobody, of course, including admirers like me, would want to bring it back, even if that were possible – and it’s not; every historical moment is unique and un-recoverable, un-reproducible, as is every human being and indeed every snowflake. So forward is the only way to the egress.

But forward needn’t mean “further motion in the same direction” – and in fact, in history it never does. I suppose most of us Lefties, on the intellectual plane, have given up on the grand narrative of progress, or think we have. But it remains foundational to our culture – the culture of liberal modernity – and I suspect it lurks unacknowledged in the background of much of our thinking. For example, people who think they’re Lefties are frequently to be heard using the term “progressive” – and in a positive sense, believe it or not.

On the other hand, those of us who try to embrace and practice dialectics also don’t believe that history is just a random walk; we believe that it has a logic, though a logic that emerges from within, rather than following some ascertainable or inferrable pre-existing frame, and emerges and exfoliates over time; a logic in which genuinely new categories emerge that aren’t simply novel combinations of what has gone before; a logic whose very axioms and premises and indeed rules of inference evolve.

And of course, we believe in the negation of the negation – the way forward is simultaneously, in a sense, the way back, and vice-versa. To move forward is to discover something entirely new, and also to recover old things that we had thought were lost.

On a more positive note

Nothing is more important to build than solidarity among the victims of Capital. With it, we are invincible (there are a lot more of us than there are of them). Without it, we are doomed. The outcome of what has come to be known as “identity politics” is the subversion of solidarity in favor of silos of oppression where each constituency is implicitly the competitor and perhaps even the enemy of the others: men are the problem for women, straights are the problem for gays, whites are the problem for blacks. (And recently, it seems, Boomers have been identified as the problem for Millennials.) But the fact of course is that Capital is the problem for everybody – or rather, just about everybody.

Nothing is more important to seek than equality. And the hell with merit. We saw earlier how inequality in general tends to perpetuate inequality along racial and gender lines. By the same token, every egalitarian development disproportionately benefits those at the bottom of the heap. Levelling up, even if it raises the fortunes of downtrodden white people, will raise the fortunes of black people even more, and tend to eliminate or at least reduce the invidious deltas that give rise to conceptual megrims like “white privilege”.

The liberal and the fascist should be friends

It’s conventional to view fascism and liberalism as antithetical, and to some extent this is true. Their respective social bases, and imagery, and language, seem very different, and their policy preferences seem to be opposed – Build A Wall, for example, versus… versus what? Are liberals for open borders? Not exactly. On closer examination, the liberal turns out to have a different, more tasteful design for the wall, and proposes a staff of civil-service clerks to sift those who seek to pass through it, and decide who’s meritorious and who’s not.

In fact, liberalism and fascism are like the two heads of that marvellous mythical beast, the amphisbaena, a serpent with a head at each end of its body, both equally venomous. In this case, the amphisbaena’s belly, and heart, and lungs, and spine, are our old foe Capital.

Of the two, perhaps the one whose fangs call for a bit more examination is the liberal one. After all, we already know what fascists are about, right?

The liberal believes in social hierarchy, as long as it’s meritocratic – that is, based on standardized tests and where you went to high school; and as long as misery is equally shared – it’s important that the bottom 10% of black people not be worse off than the bottom 10% of white people. Opulence and power, of course, must also be equally shared – there must be an even balance between the male and female mass murderers around the big table in the War Room, and ditto for the corporate boardroom.

Liberals believe in institutions and loathe what they call “populism” (a thing which might more accurately be termed “democracy”). They love the Supreme Court, as long as their guys have a majority, and don’t mind the Electoral College, except when they lose an election there. They tend to consider the US Constitution a remarkable achievement of the human intellect, and they think Hamilton was a great show (and what a brilliant stroke to blackwash the Founding Fathers!). The institutions are sublime and flawless in conception, except that the wrong people have the helm. If the libs themselves were in charge, all would be well.

For American libs and fascists alike, the history of the US is fundamentally a happy history of promise and progress and triumph, besmirched, to be sure, by a few regrettable episodes. And both libs and fascists postulate a recent decline, though the fascist says “Make America great again” and the lib says “Take back our country.”

Both liberalism and fascism are authoritarian, but fascists personalize authority – the Strong Man – and liberals impersonalize authority, which is to say they locate it in mechanical, supra-human, bureaucratic institutions.

The fascist is counter-oedipal – he protects himself from the monster-father by identifying with him; the liberal is oedipal – he wants to kill the monster-father and replace him. The leftist, I would argue, is neither oedipal nor counter-oedipal, but inimical: He wants to kill the monster-father and not replace him.

Liberals are great incarcerators, as are fascists. The history of mass incarceration in the US exhibits this identity of outlook very clearly: it’s been a solidly bipartisan project for the last forty years or more.

Libs are always complaining that somebody’s punishment wasn’t severe enough. And they love defining new crimes, or aggravated versions of old crimes – consider the odious concept of “hate crimes”. Assault and battery and murder have been crimes ever since there was law; why exactly does the motive make them worse? The answer, of course, is that libs want to discourage hatred of the Other by punishing it. Severely. The more severely you punish a thing the less of it there will be. Obvious, right?

Libs are great believers in due process, except when the offense in question is something they particularly dislike. In that case, accusation must always imply guilt. Fascists are more consistent; they have no use for due process at all.

Libs in the US and, even more, in Germany and France, are very happy to write laws defining advocacy for Palestinians as “hate speech” – and here again, the covert connection with fascism becomes rather overt, considering that the beneficiary of such initiatives is a manifestly fascist, but much-coddled, unpleasant little statelet in the Levant.

“Left” is not just farther in the same direction as liberal. The space is not one-dimensional. “Left” is orthogonal to the axis that connects liberal and fascist, in another dimension.

Both the liberal and the fascist are thoroughly modern. The liberal fictionalizes and abhors the past, the fascist fictionalizes it and appropriates the fiction. Both the liberal and the fascist see the outcome of history as the apotheosis of the state, though the liberal revels in this fact and the fascist denies it. The liberal and the fascist both adore technology and see it as the ultimate answer to all the questions history poses, though the liberal sees technology as the midwife of the post-biological trans-human and the fascist sees it as the means for conquest of the Galaxy.

It is not always easy to tell the liberal and the fascist apart. There’s an old Commie joke: Scratch a liberal and a fascist bleeds.

What things can do things?

The critique of categories brings us to another idea, that of collective agency. Obviously a non-thing can’t be an agent – there’s no them there, you might say. But even though men are a thing, and women are a thing, does either act as a collective entity?

“Men”, we were told by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was an important person and a judge, who wore a solemn black robe to remind us of the fact, and who every day had the fate of ordinary, unimportant men and women in her hands, and who was much admired by many – this important Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously told us that men “should take their foot off our necks.” Do we men have a collective foot? Do women have a collective neck for our collective male foot to be on?

Of course the averages speak for themselves, so there are feet on necks. But whose feet? There’s the notorious pay gap. Just how big this gap is depends strongly on how you measure it; but nobody doubts that it’s real. If median husband and median wife both work in a meat-packing plant, for example, the former on average pulls down a cool $30,576 per year, the latter $23,3761. When both can find work, of course.

But clearly the men meat-packers aren’t exactly rolling in dough. They’re not quite as impoverished as the women, to be sure. But do the men meat-packers have their collective foot on the collective neck of the women? Or is it the boss, exploiting some difference of situation, possibly even some contrived and arbitrary one, for his own advantage?

Bad abstractions, continued. Privilege

Now let’s consider “privilege”, in any of its avatars — white privilege or male privilege, for example. This may be the most obfuscatory concept, or pseudo-concept, of all we have considered. First of all, of course, in the case of “white privilege”, it is the reification of a negative: the fact that “white” people aren’t treated, on the average, quite so badly as black people is, as it were, multiplied by -1, and turned into some sort of fictitious accounting asset supposedly possessed by the former. (Actually it’s the doubled reification of a negative, since it builds on the reified negative of “white people” in the first place.)

Consider a thought experiment: A society in which some arbitrarily chosen group – tall people, let’s say – are able to become doctors and lawyers and short people are not.

Now it seems obvious that in any rational egalitarian society, anybody who wants to be a doctor or a lawyer and is willing to put in the time ought to be able to do so (assuming that you need lawyers, but that too is another essay). So what the Talls have is the capacities that everybody ought to have; and the Shorts are unjustly deprived of them.

In a case like this, to speak of “tall privilege” seems to turn the thing upside-down; what the Talls have is not something unearned and special; what they have is in fact the common birthright of mankind, a right and not a privilege at all. Rather, the problem is that the Shorts are unjustly deprived of this right – not this “privilege”; this right. In other words, the problem is a problem of deprivation, not a problem of privilege. And of course the solution is not to deprive the Talls of their “privilege”; the solution is to stop depriving the Shorts. Right?

Even on the purely lexical plane, it’s preposterous to speak of unemployed former miners, say, dwelling in the postindustrial hellscapes of North America, without means or hope or medical care or useful public services, as the possessors of “privilege”, however rarefied and abstract and relative. It makes nonsense of the word.

But as we know, every theory implies a praxis, and it’s the praxis implied by this very bad theory that constitutes its really disastrous aspect – going far beyond its intellectual incoherence. It subverts solidarity. So-called “white people”, however downtrodden, are in effect told that they have too much – that they possess an unearned privilege, which by implication ought to be stripped away. In other words, the clear entailment of “white privilege” is, quite simply, levelling down. White people may be downtrodden, but they are not as downtrodden as black people, so they need taking down a peg or two more. Especially the deplaaarable lower orders. It would be difficult to devise a more suicidal turn for any kind of Left politics worthy of the name.

Which is probably why it’s a notion greatly beloved by affluent liberals, who loathe the deplaaarables, and lose no sleep over their dismal situation. It also provides endless opportunities for virtue-signalling by means of privilege-checking, and, at the same time, slyly, complacently registering one’s possession of privilege in the first place. The human fact is that nobody minds having privilege, and nobody minds other people knowing that one has it. Checking one’s privilege doesn’t mean it goes away; at the end of the evening, one retrieves it from the checkroom, perhaps with a nice tip for the attendant.

Unreliable abstractions, continued. Racism & white supremacy

Armed with the canon of specificity, let’s look at “white supremacy”. This was certainly an explicit ideology (with an associated praxis, of course) at various times and places, including the American South during slavery and the Jim Crow era.

In recent years, however, the term has come to be used in a more broad-brush way, and the canon of specificity ought to make our Spidey sense tingle. For example, one sometimes now hears people say, or imply, that “white supremacy” is somehow foundational to our existing political and social order – as if the FBI and the cops were gunning people down, and the US war machine running around the world blowing people up, to maintain “white supremacy”.

This is, as they say, wrong in so many ways. First of course there is the posited existence, as a thing, of “white people”, and further, a posited collective agency attributed to this chimaera. But even worse, this formulation ushers our old arch-villain Capital out of the spotlight and into the wings: as if all this lead were flying because “white people” believe they’re better than non-white people, rather than because Capital is worried that the billions of people he exploits might come after him with torches and pitchforks, or because Capital wants to extend the sphere of his control, or because various factions within Capital’s managerial cadre are fighting among themselves.

Then let’s consider “racism”. Here again, the term has a perfectly clear, concrete, and useful core meaning, which might be summarized as the theory that there are such things as human “races”, and that some are better than others.

This theory has a history and, of course, a praxis. It constituted respectable science – the latest thing, in fact – in the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, and there’s no question that though it’s been thoroughly debunked intellectually, it continues to haunt Western and particularly American culture and thought, not so much in the form of explicit ideological commitments, for most people, as in the form of unarticulated assumptions and unexamined conceptual categories. (In fact the only form of explicit, unapologetic, ideological and practical racism that’s still marginally respectable, in good society in Western Europe and North America, is Zionism; but that’s another essay.)

In its subliminal form, racism certainly continues to exist. It may be an unconscious theory for many people; but it still has a praxis, which operates in the material world. Among its more notable practitioners, of course, are cops – many of whom, it seems, also embrace it consciously as theory, though being un-respectable as such, this theoretical commitment mostly remains unexpressed, except perhaps en famille.

As with the other concepts we’ve discussed above, “racism” has been broad-brushed. It’s applied to everything from ethnic stereotyping (an absolutely universal human activity, and not entirely irrational) to ethnic jokes (which are often very funny, because as good jokes always do, they contain a kernel of scandalous unmentionable truth). Indeed, in some circles it’s simply become a signifier of disapproval, attached to anything execrable: one hears phrases like “America’s racist wars”.

Let’s be clear: The US doesn’t start wars for the sake of the “white race”, or because it dislikes other “races”, or even because it is institutionally racist (though there’s a good case that it is). It starts wars for the usual old geopolitical reasons, the kind of reasons which long antedate the invention of race theory. (Of course racism, conscious or unconscious, often does play a role in justifying wars, even when it has nothing to do with the real reasons why they are embarked upon.)

Any term too broadly applied loses all useful meaning and simply becomes a noise that people make when they’re angry, and most unfortunately, the terms “racist” and “racism” seem well on their way to this kenosis of significance. I say “unfortunately”, because, as noted, the thing itself, properly so called, survives, and continues to do harm, and needs a name.

Racism is also frequently deployed as an explanation for phenomena which can actually be accounted for by more general principles. In these cases Occam’s Razor might usefully be exhibited. Consider, for instance, the notorious income and wealth gaps between black and white households. Unquestionably, the creation of these gaps in the first place was the result of slavery and Jim Crow. But is it necessary to postulate ongoing racism as the reason these gaps endure? Or even widen?

Let’s do an exercise in arithmetic. Let’s say the average white (or rather, “white”) household brings in $100,000 a year (I’m making these numbers up). And let’s say the average black household brings in $50,000. That’s a $50,000 per year income gap. Now let’s say the country is prosperous and a couple of years later every household’s income has increased by 5%. The white households are now averaging $105,000 and the black households are now averaging $52,500, and the income gap has grown from $50,000 to $52,500. Just because average income has grown, on top of existing inequality, not because racism has become worse.

This is not of course to deny that as a matter of fact racism still exists and still plays a role; it surely does. It is, rather, to point out that other and larger forces are also at work. The implication, of course, is that even without racism the back-white income gap would not only endure, but widen, simply due to the “normal” workings of the great American inequality machine, absent some levelling mechanism. Let me repeat that: absent some levelling mechanism. This motif will recur.

The American ideology is, of, course, that the levelling mechanism is meritocracy (and its sidekick, “diversity”). Without racism, the smart black people would be as likely to become CEOs as the smart white people, and the dumb black people would be as likely to end up sleeping on heating grates, or shot by cops, as the dumb white people. Meritocracy is the great winnowing fan, the Sorting Hat, that ought to distribute misery and opulence equally across racial (and gender) lines. After a few generations, of course. Or maybe more than a few. But certainly in the long run. The long run, perhaps, in which as Lord Keynes dryly observed, “We’re all dead.”

But of course we know, as a matter of empirical fact, that the heritability of wealth and earning power from one generation of a family to the next is extraordinarily high. Here again, there’s no need to postulate a racial dimension; it operates across the board. So even without racism, the gentle breath of meritocracy’s winnowing fan may be working against a downright gale of inherited inequality.

This is not to deny that racism still exists and is practiced and affects events. But if, even without racism, the black/white income gap would predictably persevere and even widen, then if we want to do something about that gap, is it sufficient to decry, or even to do away with racism? Consideration of the other factors at work might suggest otherwise.

I don’t personally think these gaps will ever go away, in the foreseeable future, absent a levelling mechanism that actually works, unlike meritocracy – that is, absent a commitment to equality, defined much more generally and much more radically and much more immediately (no more of the Long Run, please). Of course this implies an activist, interventionist, political mechanism; we can’t rely on the laws of nature here. And it implies a levelling which has nothing to do with merit – a levelling which falls, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike.

(To be continued)

Bad abstractions, continued. Patriarchy

Let’s consider some other abstractions we often hear about. Take ‘patriarchy’. A great deal of feminist theory since the 70s has postulated the immemorial existence of patriarchy – dating, in the usual account, from the time when humans ceased to be hunter-gatherers. At this point, for some reason which does not clearly appear, the collective male foot was solidly placed on the collective female neck. A great deal of history then took place – Assyria, Persia, Athens, Rome, ancient slave society and mediaeval feudal society – but these were all just fiddly variations on the ground-bass of patriarchy. Finally, in the 1970s, this ancient and foundational institution was called out and taken on by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem et al. Of course patriarchy still survives, though under siege; Harvey Weinstein, on this view of the matter, is just a louche, déclassé version of Abraham.

Might one tentatively suggest that this is all a bit… broad-brush, and even a bit culturally provincial and grandiose? One important question, surely: If patriarchy has been an oppressive force for millennia, why was there never a women’s liberation movement until quite recently (and locally)? Even in the ancient world, where slavery was a normal and accepted institution, there were slave revolts, as there were in the American South and the Caribbean. But there has, so far as I know, never been a women’s revolt, or even a feminist movement, until we arrive at more or less the modern world. And in all the hunter-gatherer societies known to ethnography, specialization along sex lines is universal, though it takes interestingly different forms from place to place. (The “interestingly different” part, of course, rightly gives the visionary imagination a lot of wiggle room.)

Perhaps a more parsimonious view of the women’s movement in our time is that it is historically specific to a particular time and conjuncture of circumstances: it seeks an adjustment – quite in order, of course – of sex roles to the greatly changed conditions of life that have taken place recently in the so-called “developed world” (meaning, primarily, Western Europe and North America, with some extension of cultural and economic influence further afield). In that milieu, hardly any family scrapes out a living on the farm anymore, or spins its own thread, or weaves its own cloth, or cuts its own wood, or needs to have lots of children in order to survive; and people – considered as “human resources” – are pretty much interchangeable, like Lego blocks. In that milieu it becomes perfectly natural and obvious to ask why a woman shouldn’t be a doctor, or a judge, or a bishop, and there’s no justification whatsoever for answering in the negative.

Indeed, one wonders whether the contemporary women’s movement isn’t perhaps a bit more specific even than that. Is it inconceivable that the “second wave” feminism of the latter half of the last century wasn’t merely a matter of picking up where the first wave left off, but was, rather, at least in some important part, a specific pushback to a specific repression – namely, the bundling of women back into the home after World War II, accompanied, of course, by a heavy-handed apparatus of blockhead ideology and indoctrination, and the engineering, by the ad-biz, of adventitious wants, to be satisfied by consumption? If so, then perhaps we can detect a certain analogy between the historical specificities of the gay movement and those of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. To say that the latter was characterized and inflected by the immediate circumstances of the postwar period is not, of course, to deny its organic connection with the earlier phases of feminism, dating from the 18th century. That’s the larger context – the context of industrial revolution and bourgeois hegemony in general, and the consequent irrelevance of sexual differentiation.

The Communist movement came up with a term that might arguably be more useful than “patriarchy” – namely, “male chauvinism”. The nice thing about this idea is that it doesn’t wave vaguely at some vast, looming, ancient – perhaps innate? – reprobacy. Rather, it concentrates attention on how people act and think in the here and now, in their dealings with comrades and spouses and children; with their unexamined assumptions and sometimes oafish behavior. “Don’t be a chauvinist” is actually more helpful advice than “don’t be a patriarch” – because in fact few of us have the opportunity to be patriarchs, but anybody can be a chauvinist.

To speak of chauvinism focuses on the beliefs and perceptions and thoughts and behavior of actual human beings in their actual setting. To be a chauvinist, after all, is to believe one’s own group better, in some way, than everybody else, and to act on that belief. To convince a male chauvinist that he’s simply mistaken – that is, that men in general are not smarter or more resolute or more suited to the conduct of human affairs than women are, though on average they’re a bit bigger and stronger – must surely go far to undermine the praxis of male chauvinism. No praxis without theory, and no theory without practical implications.

Is it premature, at this point, to suggest, as a canon of method, that the starting point of our analysis ought always to be historically specific phenomena and structures, and that we should be slow to posit the immemorial and the global, and avoid the use of such broad-brush categories in the description of what is in the world and our program for changing it? I suggest that it’s not only not premature; it’s long overdue.