Not So Fast, Nichols

Published at 11:27 on 29 September 2021

A recent study has detailed just how much rising affluence has apparently created ideological polarization in a number of Western societies. Because this is somewhat similar to Nichols’ decadence theory of democratic decline, it has already caught his notice and elicited an approving tweet.

Well, not so fast. It is still the case that democratic decline is not everyplace proceeding according to affluence. It is happening in the USA (more wealthy) and Hungary (less wealthy), but not to any appreciable degree in Scandinavia (more wealthy) or Portugal (less wealthy).

Boris Johnson, for example, did attract a record amount of working-class votes for the Conservative Party, but a Johnson prime ministership is simply not the sort of crisis for democracy that the Trump presidency was. Whether you personally like Mr. Johnson’s brand or politics or not, his party did win a clear majority in the most recent election, and he is governing primarily on the basis of having won a democratic mandate, not on the basis of “real Britons” (who constitute a minority of voters) being cheated out of “their” country by various interlopers. Not all right-wing populism is equally noxious and authoritarian.

So yes, the study shows some interesting data which illustrates how much the world has changed since when Marx and Engels first penned The Communist Manifesto. But no, it’s not so simple as all that. Ideology (a far better term to use here than morals) becoming a widely-affordable luxury good does appear to be a trend, but it is hardly the only thing going on, and this trend alone is insufficient to explain what is currently happening in the USA.

How Close Are We to Breakdown in the USA?

Published at 09:11 on 28 September 2021

I will start by noting that this post, like many of my posts, is conservative-obsessed. There is a reason why I pay so much attention to anti-Trump conservatives. Several reasons, actually:

  1. As an anarchist, it is my duty to care about what others of different camps think, and try to understand their motives. It can make for good propaganda at times to wave it all off as “bourgeois garbage,” but it is the duty of the thinking revolutionary to go beyond mere propaganda. How can one hope to change the world if one does not understand it?
  2. Anti-Trump conservatives are particularly interesting to me. They are facing an ongoing and demonstrable falsification of their core and life-defining beliefs. There are basically two avenues for individuals faced with such a mental crisis: to retreat from reality (the typical response), or to retreat from their prior beliefs (the atypical one). What we have in anti-Trump conservatives is a self-selected set of individuals for whom honesty and principles take precedence over ego.
  3. The anti-fascist camp cannot prevail without anti-Trump conservatives. First, the numbers game: if it weren’t for such individuals, the suburbs would not have flipped to the Democrats, and Trump would have probably been reelected. No, their numbers aren’t great, but when two political camps are of roughly equal strength, one doesn’t need many votes to shift the balance of power. Second, anti-Trump conservatives offer hope for remedying the shortcomings of the Democrats; unlike most Democrats, most of them actually do know how to campaign and wield power effectively. A huge part of the reason for the Democratic Party’s historic underperformance is due to that party’s own political incompetence.

On that latter point, when Winston Churchill (another conservative) looked back on how the world got embroiled in World War II, he wrote: “…the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous…,” a summary of affairs eerily similar to the present moment.

Gerson’s Latest

Of course, the weakness is not all on one side. Such sentiments should not be a total surprise, however:

  1. Gerson is a conservative and like all conservatives fears sudden change.
  2. Gerson does have something of a valid point here: violence exerts terrible costs, and is only justified as a last resort. Moreover, premature or poorly-coordinated violent resistance is just like any premature or poorly-coordinated resistance: likely to fail, and fail badly. Witness how the assassination of Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath was used by the Nazis as a pretext for Kristallnacht.

More of interest to me than any of Gerson’s arguments is the general tenor of the Left’s reaction to them. When I click on the comments link and read the most liked ones, they are universally of the sentiment that pure nonviolence is likely to be a foolish strategy against the evils of fascism.

Now, this is largely my own sentiment, too, but I have been operating under the assumption that I am part of a tiny minority on this. What is interesting to me is that this assumption of mine is apparently incorrect.

Kagan’s Latest

This is something of a rambling and self-contradictory piece. In one place, Kagan excoriates the flaws of his own camp, flaws that led directly to Trumpist fascism:

It was no surprise that elected officials feared taking on the Trump movement and that Republican job seekers either kept silent about their views or made show-trial-like apologies for past criticism. Ambition is a powerful antidote to moral qualms. More revealing was the behavior of Republican elder statesmen, former secretaries of state in their 80s or 90s who had no further ambitions for high office and seemingly nothing to lose by speaking out. Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. Again, this is not so unusual. German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis, who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices [emphasis added]. As for conservative intellectuals, even those who had spent years arguing that Woodrow Wilson was a tyrant because he created the Federal Reserve and supported child labor laws seemed to have no concerns about whether Trump was a would-be despot. They not only came to Trump’s defense but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his nonexistent ideology with an appeal to “conservative nationalism” and conservative populism. Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but certainly since Trump took over their party, many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.

Then later, he basically argues the contrary, pleading that conservatism should not be blamed for Trumpism:

It takes two, of course, to form a national unity coalition, and Democrats can make it harder or easier for anti-Trump Republicans to join. Some profess to see no distinction between the threat posed by Trump and the threat posed by the GOP. They prefer to use Trump as a weapon in the ongoing political battle, and not only as a way of discrediting and defeating today’s Republican Party but to paint all GOP policies for the past 30 years as nothing more than precursors to Trumpism. Although today’s Trump-controlled Republican Party does need to be fought and defeated, this kind of opportunistic partisanship and conspiracy-mongering, in addition to being bad history, is no cure for what ails the nation.

What this all means is that Kagan is still struggling to assimilate all the unpleasant facts that political reality has shoved into his face in recent years. But in other areas, he seems to be struggling quite less. The first nine paragraphs or so of that article constitute a very convincing argument that we are further along in the process of political decay and fascist ascendancy than many realize.

The Weakness of the Virtuous

Although there have been a few encouraging signs recently, such as the Democrats’ ability to use negative campaigning to drive a big turnout of their side in the California recall, the Democrats still seem awfully complacent about it all.

Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised (I sure hope I will be pleasantly surprised), but I just don’t perceive it as likely that the Democrats rise to the occasion enough to prevent a fascist takeover of Congress, the scuttling of the ongoing Congressional investigations of the January 6th coup attempt (which seem to be happening at an awfully slow and relaxed pace), and a fascist retaking of the White House in 2024.

And then all h-e-double-hockey-sticks breaks loose.

An Unsatisfying Theory

Published at 09:02 on 25 September 2021

I have not read his most recent book, but I do follow his Twitter feed, so I have some idea of what Tom Nichols’ underlying theory is for the current fascist political tendency in the USA. Namely, it is a theory of decadence, decadence fostered by decades of progress and affluence: many people are bored and want something exciting and edgy, like a president who is a boorish real estate huckster and reality TV star.

I find this theory unsatisfying. Why are the problems of democratic decline so much worse here in the USA than in, say, Scandinavia, where there is even more security for the masses, thanks to decades of social-democratic-inspired policies? Should not there be even more “boredom” and its resulting decadence and growing support for authoritarianism there? Yet there is less!

Part of it is I think that the theory is personally satisfying for Nichols to propound. Part of his self-image is of a curmudgeonly conservative (he even lists “curmudgeon” as one his personal attributes on his Twitter profile), and this theory is great for such a self-image.

This is because the theory does a great job of trolling liberals and leftists, whom Nichols can then school. You see, despite our problems with sharing the gains of our economic growth equitably, there still has been a tremendous amount of it since the end of World War II, so much growth in fact that even those on the short end of the stick have seen their material affluence rise. So lefties slip up and say “nuh-uh, it’s worse now!” and Nichols can rattle off a near-endless supply of statistics and anecdotes that demolish the objection. And virtually nothing feels better than continually seeing oneself proven correct.

The correct challenge starts with a more nuanced and factually correct objection. Thankfully for Nichols, badly-made arguments outnumber well-made ones online. So the warm fuzzies keep on rolling in.

I don’t mean to be bad-mouthing the guy here. I am merely pointing out that he is human, that is all. One could probably quite easily find instances where Yours Truly has done similar things, for similar reasons, with arguments that I have made. Everyone likes the warm fuzzies of seeing one’s pet beliefs affirmed.

If anything, Nichols is a pundit of higher than average moral integrity, since he has in recent years allowed evidence to convince him that the political cause he devoted most of his life to up to this point, conservatism, has seriously rotten aspects which he allowed himself to be blind to, and has as such started revising his beliefs to accommodate the new evidence. Most pundits in such situations just deny the obvious and cling to their pet beliefs.

What do I think the cause of our decline is? I don’t think there is any one single cause. Rather, I see it as the nexus of a number of causes that have built over the years.

  1. An incompetent establishment center-left party that values weakness and timidity over firm commitment to principles.
  2. A ruthlessly competent establishment right-wing party that values winning over propriety.
  3. A subcultural radical left that values pursuit of in-group status over engaging and convincing society as a whole.
  4. The contradiction of being a nation founded by the act of, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, drivers of Negroes making yelps for liberty.
  5. The general tendency for any new forms of media to present challenges to the existing social order.
  6. The particular tendency of electronic social networking to foster bigoted, authoritarian, right-wing movements.

Dear Biden: Do It

Published at 13:33 on 23 September 2021

Release the names of those responsible and what they did.

To hell with precedent. Precedent is dead. No other president has tried to instigate a coup, either.

Moreover, the whole concept that the president must be above the law is stupid, dangerous, and unfit for any society that would call itself free. Presidential immunity helped pave the way to where we are now.

There are fundamentally only two options here: hold the guilty accountable (and naming names is part of this), or set the precedent that what Trump and his supporters did on January 6th is a valid political tactic.

That those way lower down, the rubes who fell for the instigation of those on top, are being prosecuted means in the overall analysis very little. There is a near-endless supply of rubes for higher-ups to instigate. In order for accountability to be effective, none must be exempt from it.

Norms mean nothing if they are not upheld.

The Rottenness of the Right Has Long Been Evident

Published at 21:54 on 18 September 2021

Just take this story as an example. In 2015, a Seattle capitalist adopts an egalitarian pay scale at his business, and he gets raked over the coals by right-wing voices for it. Rush Limbaugh all but wished for the guy’s business to fail.

Capitalism is the economic system of classic liberalism. Under classical liberal doctrine, what sort of pay scale Dan Price chooses to adopt for his business quite literally is not Rush Limbaugh’s business. A properly pro-capitalist opinion would be to basically have no opinion, other than that it is within Dan Price’s property rights to do that.

Clearly, there is some motive operating here other than one of defending the individual rights of the capitalist. There is evidently a positive wish for society to be unequal and unjust, with the few enjoying luxury while the many struggle.

The standard defenses of capitalism are only being made because those making them assume capitalism will work out in such a way. The instant it fails to do so, what a capitalist does with his own business ceases to be a mere issue of personal freedom and suddenly becomes a matter of concern for society at large.

This is in fact one of the things John Dean (a conservative, by the way) discussed in his 2006 book Conservatives Without Conscience. The conservative ideology, based on skepticism about human nature and the complexity of society, often leads conservatives to oppose efforts at changing society. The opposition is because one firmly believes said change to be risky and likely to be ultimately counterproductive to its stated goals.

That is one reason for opposing change. The other reason is because you actively like a world of privilege and injustice, because you believe that you or the group you are a member of will end up on the privileged side of the deal. That’s a pretty ugly set of beliefs, and one that is difficult to argue for as such. Far easier to get the outcome you want (an unchanged and unjust society) by professing to be a concerned conservative. Conservatism is thus intrinsically vulnerable to being hijacked by authoritarians.

It goes a long way to explain how the Republican Party got to where it is today.

Yet Again: No Major Violence in DC

Published at 17:07 on 17 September 2021

The protests tomorrow will fall far short of the worst fears. The reason is precisely the same as the one why there was no significant violence at Biden’s inauguration. Re-read that post in case you need a refresher on basic insurgency dynamics.

The one exception is that there might be clashes between the fascists and counterprotesters. Even if there are, things will fall far short of the assault on the Capitol we saw on the 6th. The Capitol is going to be very well defended.

Not a Surprise Re: Milley

Published at 09:48 on 16 September 2021

Look, we already knew that Milley had conspired with Pelosi against his Commander in Chief. That he also instigated contacts with China to help forestall a war between two nuclear-armed superpowers thus falls squarely into the Not a Surprise category.

And yes, there are real questions about the constitutionality of it all. But, that serves more as an indictment of the entire system than it does any of the actors in it. If the system’s own mechanisms actually worked to limit the abuses of the presidency, Trump would have either been convicted and removed from office after being impeached, or his Cabinet would have invoked the 25th Amendment against him.

In the face of neither thing happening, can anyone really blame Milley for engaging in constitutionally dubious conduct? Can anyone argue with a straight face that it would have been better to have a nuclear war than it was to bend the rules?

It all goes to show how difficult it is to maintain good conduct when inside a fundamentally rotten system.

Blame the system, not the actors. Yes, this goes for Trump as well. He deserves blame for whatever he did, but what he did is nowhere near as concerning as the fact that the system failed to use the formal mechanisms that it did possess to restrain Trump and hold him accountable.

Hope for the Dems Next Year?

Published at 07:57 on 15 September 2021

I am in general not optimistic about the Democrats’ chances next year. My rationale is rather simple: in recent decades the party that took the White House always does badly in the immediately following midterms. Couple that with Democratic-leaning voters’ tendency to show up poorly for midterm elections, and the conclusion seems foregone.

Newsom’s unexpectedly strong victory against the recall in California offers the Democrats some hope, however. It shows that the Democrats can learn how to campaign based on fear of what the other side might do. Like it or not, negative campaigning works and fear is a powerful motivator.

Democrats’ historic refusal to employ both tools is part of the reason why they tend to underperform in elections. If they can copy on a nationwide level what was done in California, add that to how we are in unprecedented times and something unprecedented (in recent decades, anyhow) might just emerge as a midterm election result.

If so (and it is important to note that qualifier, this is all far from certain), this would likely serve as a stinging rebuke of the GOP’s strategy of embracing the principles of fascism.

On September 11th and Lost Unity

Published at 10:34 on 11 September 2021

There have already been a number of observations from Establishment sources comparing the lack of unity today to the unity of twenty years ago, and bemoaning this fact.

Inasmuch as the current state of affairs is undesirable because it prevents responding to a national crisis, they have a point. Just look around at the current mess being caused by the inability to unite around the clear facts of COVID-19 as proof.

It is not nearly so simple as that, however.

The unity of a generation ago was badly contaminated by an imperialist mindset that the ruling elite had spent decades cultivating, for purposes of mustering public support for the Cold War. That period of history had clearly ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, resulting in a politics that was largely drifting and looking for a purpose.

Cold Warriors found the prospect of a demilitarized USA alarming and were busy strategizing how to prevent it, even so far as concluding that their project would likely be a difficult struggle “absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

Well, twenty years ago today, they got their catastrophic and catalyzing event, and they exploited it to the max. They were quite successful in ginning up public support for a robust military and a muscular foreign policy, to the point of launching two wars.

The first war had an insufficient casus belli: It was not necessary to invade and occupy Afghanistan in order to apprehend Osama bin Laden, who at any rate was not even in Afghanistan when he was dealt with. He was in Pakistan, and he was dealt with via measures that fell short of subjecting Pakistan to a wholesale war and occupation.

The second war was launched on a total pack of lies, and served to help distract attention and resources from the first (as it was always obvious it would).

So much for the Establishment’s right wing. The Establishment’s left wing might not have much liked what the right wing was doing, but they didn’t really do much to oppose it, either. It was the standard Democratic Party playbook of bringing knives (butter knives at that, we wouldn’t want to hurt anyone) to gun fights.

So, as is typically the case, the right wing was allowed a needlessly easy victory, and its view of what to do in response to 9/11 prevailed, despite what a poor response it was.

There is a funny thing about inconvenient facts: they don’t magically go away if you ignore them and try pretend they don’t exist. The wars were doomed to go badly from the get-go, and the one in Afghanistan went particularly badly.

That which was intended to secure the place of the American Empire in the 21st century has ended up weakening it, quite possibly fatally. Perhaps more pertinently for the present moment, none of the above process made the Establishment look very good.

In a pre-Internet world, that might have provoked a very beneficial moment of political reckoning. But this is a world of information bubbles, and such bubbles have proven to be beneficial to the rise of fascistic, right-wing populism.

Add the media-bubble problem to a right-wing base upset at its own Establishment, and here we are. The current lack of unity that George W. Bush bemoaned today at Shanksville is thus not completely his fault, but he is far from blameless in it all.

A Quick Personal Update

Published at 09:20 on 11 September 2021

Not been posting here much recently because I have been preoccupied with the upcoming move to Vancouver, BC. Or should I say, the potential upcoming move.

You see, my potential employer had been operating under what I call “the child’s conception of NAFTA*.” Which is, upon hearing that the “FT” stands for “free trade,” to conclude based on its name alone that one knows all there is to know about the agreement. In this case, it means assuming cross-border hire is only very slightly more complex than hiring someone from another Canadian province. Just tell the hiree to apply for a work permit under that agreement, wait a few weeks for perfunctory approval, problem solved.

Um, no, that’s not how it works. Back in the day, I remember right-wing, ultra-capitalist libertarians whining about how NAFTA was false advertising because it really didn’t usher in complete free trade. Well, from their standpoint, they had a point, because it did not. National borders still very much exist and they still very much matter. Yes, there are easy-to-get work permits under that agreement, but they are limited to 63 quite narrow and precisely defined job categories, and a software developer is not among them.

So the intervening weeks have been a process of educating first myself, and then transferring that knowledge to my potential employer, who to this day remains of the general belief that they do not want to get super heavily-involved in the process. Which makes the outcome uncertain, because as Canadian immigration law is written, the employer basically does have to be quite heavily involved in my situation.

One can argue that this should not be the case, given the shortage of software people in Canada. That, however, is a policy advocacy position and not a statement of political fact. The fact is that hiring developers from abroad is not currently so easy or simple.

So this whole exercise may well come to naught so far as they are concerned. It won’t be a total loss from my standpoint, however, as going through it has enabled me to learn about which Vancouver employers are willing to be involved in the process of hiring from abroad (due to the software developer shortage, there is a motive for them to do so). Those are going to be my focus from this point onward, of course.

* And yes, the agreement is no longer officially called NAFTA. It is, depending on what country one resides, USMCA, CUSMA, or T-MEC. (Note how each acronym puts one’s own nation’s name first. But of course. Ah, nationalism. But I digress.) People tend to remember the fact that it’s basically a renegotiated NAFTA, however, and still judge the overall nature of the agreement by its original name.