Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday links, 225/04/24

A review of Orality and Literacy. We translated batspeak and they love to argue (only increasing my admiration of these noble creatures.) Science as neoteny. Astrobiological implications of Margulis. From the folks who brought you breast cancer awareness fighter jets.

Probably ought have posted this earlier. Maybe the dime novels were onto something. Bannon's ideology. No such thing as the white people.

"Historians for Obama" vs. the history of Obama. Nature vs. labor. Even the cold war liberal NYRB thinks the Russia scare (not just pissgate) hot air. "When you’ve been out of power for as long as the left has been... your perception of other people’s emotional investment in certain positions takes on inflated importance."

Secular stagnation, productivity, and inequality. (More in secular trends.) Mismanagerialism. Neoƶppenheimerianism?

"You might as well say that children couldn’t paint the upper half of Gorky's 'Year after Year' because they’re too short." Book recommendations from Africanists, hatcheries, materialist feminists.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

disambiguating "the West"

One assumption shared in common by white nationalists and by many of the more confused sections of the social justice left is that there is some coherent cultural entity called "the West," that is both long-standing and racially "white," and that we ought support or oppose this entity. This set of common assumptions, however, is at odds with the facts.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday links, 225/04/17

Bond market reversals, the last 800 years. Would UBI harm dignity? (IMO, maybe in the short run, but we need to create a culture of dignified leisure.) "In one instance, one of the Google Homes declares itself God while the other reveals that it is actually a human." If the nightmare is capitalism falling to ultranationalism, perhaps we should also worried about its being saved by banal nationalism.

Fascist social media vigilantism in America and Thailand. Antifa reading list that admittedly could be a little better curated and is certainly not "complete," but don't let that stop you from clicking. The outside view (and premonitions from earlier in this round.) Framing the intellectual history (more on this later.)

Company towns as part of both American capitalism and the American utopian tradition. The "white working class" standing in solidarity with the whole working class, seizing the means of social reproduction, and staying home from the polls (see also.) Trump's actual social base.

RIP Joyce Appleby, John Berger, Derek Parfit. Mainstream science on race. Millian agreement and difference gives way to critical realism. "Institutionalism" "just a placeholder for 'we care about organizations as non-rational structures?'"

Why bother with old philosophy? Since I'm such a monomaniacal hedgehog should I suggest that it's to protect us from fascism? (Even if Arendt was only ever accidentally right about anything?) Real answer: it's fun so at least start listening to Adamson's podcast and then do actual reading on whatever interests you - it would be a shame to cede the field.

A statement of orthodoxy (as in "endorsed.")

Thursday, January 5, 2017

how fascist was Fascism?

There is no generally recognizable and evocative term to bundle together ultra-right radicalism, and in particular the regime family that emerged in the interwar period, than "fascism." This is unfortunate in two respects. First, scholars (like anyone else) want to use evocative and recognizable terms wherever possible, and so different conceptualizations will converge on the same terminology, resulting in polysemy - a problem that crops up in many contexts. Second, the particular term here derives from a proper noun - the Fascism of Mussolini - which makes it easy to think of that case as the prototypical example, or a central example, and certainly at the least an example of whatever the generic term is used to designate. It pushes those who emphasize the particularity of the Italian case, and its distinctions from other states/movements/ideologies commonly called "fascist," to to deny generality more broadly rather than simply view it as a case that had many of its own particularities. Insofar as "fascism" is taken as the furthest right a modern regime can go, it advises typologies where the Italian case can be included among the most extreme category - such that, if someone classifies Spain during the Franco period was merely traditionalist authoritarianism rather than "fascism," while Hitler's fell into the extreme category of a new kind of dictatorship to be assigned such a term, then it's left as a fait accompli to classify Fascism as fascism and thus to be more naturally grouped with the German than Spanish case.

These are all subtle errors, generally far from fatal to the theories they infect, and careful (that is, less natural) language can and often does keep them in check even more than that. However, I suspect that the effects may be especially pervasive because the way we typically hope to employ constructs in social theorizing - bundles of necessary and sufficient conditions - diverges from how we intuitively employ concepts in everyday life, by clusters of more and less central examples. For instance, taxonomists want a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a "bird," but for the rest of us there's just a "region" of things with robins and sparrows at the center and penguins at the edges. And this is not just a matter of classifying convention but can affect our intuitions about real causality. Some of this is tempered by the fact that the most prominent extreme rightist regime of the period was an entirely separate case, meaning that the Italian case is not the sole central example - one has the advantage of name and the other the advantage of immensity. But this only further centers within the concept some of the unusual features they had in common.

all birds are birds, but some are more bird than otherbirds
So what follows are, first, some features that make Italian Fascism somewhat unusual among regimes, ideologies, and movements most likely to also be classified as fascist, by whatever metric, but most especially common usage among scholars; and then, how I think we might be inclined to broadly taxonomize if "fascist" were not the default word we used.

  1. Mussolini was an unusually opportunistic, unprincipled, and ideologically incoherent leader. Oftentimes the supposed ideological "amorphousness" and "incoherence" of fascist ideology is founded in the common mendacity of the two most central fascist movements: Mussolini lied, Hitler lied. But most politicians lie, and if Mussolini and Hitler both lied especially frequently, they did so in ways that are relevantly different for assessing the question of ideological incoherence. The Nazi elite had an extremely "coherent" and elaborate internal ideology, as far as such things go; they simply lied about this as well as well as their long-term plans (though they told the truth to other audiences.) The Fascist elite featured a number of different theorists and absorbed elements of other movements, each with their own more-or-less coherent ideologies, but these cohered with each other only minimally, and there was little concrete long-term agenda. Its component tendencies were bound together by the lowest common ideological denominator of nationalism, but what this could mean varied. Other ultra-nationalist movements tended to have a more concrete and inflexible set of proposals about what their nationalism would mean.
  2. Italian Fascism was unusually "aesthetically" modernist. This point is generally appreciated, but affects how we see the aesthetic sensibilities of "generic fascism," to the extent that we can make generalizations. (In this case I think the effects of the association are actually salutary for the literature, because otherwise we might breezily associate political reaction with aesthetic traditionalism.)
  3. Italian Fascism was unusually secularist. This is another feature it shares with the other "central" example. Both make sense in their context - the growth of the Italian and German national states, which nationalists of all stripes naturally hoped to continue, was bound up in a struggle for authority with the Catholic Church; and in neither case was confessional identity a relevant ethnic marker against the most immediate rivals. This is not just a case of the Catholic cases sometimes seen as "traditional dictatorships" muddying the waters - we can see the same in almost all cases where confession was relevant to ethnic identity, from the UstaÅ”e to the Ossewabrandwag to of course the (recognized outlier in the other direction) Iron Guard. (This is another case where I would say that the effects are accidentally salutary, but again, only accidentally.)
  4. Italian Fascism was unusually non-racist, at least prior to the late 1930s and if we are restrict ourselves to a more narrow definition of fascism that excludes the Catholic-identified dicatatorships - but as noted above, when scholars seek to distinguish traditional authoritarians from "real" fascists, Fascists of course end up in the latter, while the Catholic dictatorships of the period are generally not. ("Unusually non-racist" here should be by the standards of "normal" liberal European civilization - there was genuine ideological racism towards, for instance, blacks in Ethiopia, but this was nothing to which the Giolittian centre-"left" had not given its stamp of approval for decades. In some respect the Italian commitment to nationalism actually made it less racist than the status quo ex ante, as in its rejection of various ideas which ascribed the underdevelopment of the South to its inherent racial inferiority.)
  5. Italian Fascists were usually likely to be ex-leftists, something shared in common with France, but almost nowhere else. If you are Ze'ev Sternhell and take France and Italy as your prime cases, then your tremendously influential thesis writes itself.
Do these tend in any particular direction? It seems to me that - to an extent stemming from (5) and to an extent from "geographic" features, and probably also just as a matter of coincidence - all of these exaggerate the "break" which fascism makes from the political right, more broadly conceived, and the possible commonalities it had with leftist movements. If the generic term for fascism were not taken from the eponymous Italian movement, I suspect that it would be much harder to treat the right-wing status of the general phenomenon as at all contestable - that, rather than denying that fascism is right-wing, your typical center-right disavowal of fascism would condemn it as "extreme," much as center-left social democrats do respecting dirty communists. 

this nonsense is your fault, Benito
Although this particular narrative might not exist if we did not have Italian Fascism as a central example, it is not as if it is the sole or even the dominant narrative. What is dominant, especially among nonspecialists, is to view fascism as a single regime type which has its first, model-providing case in Italian Fascism and spreads thereafter, with of course different adaptations to particular national traditions - and I think this, though it has fewer obvious ideological consequences and depends less on the particular ways in which Italian Fascism is an outlier, is the real legacy of the name-based contagion. 

What is another way to view the kinds of rightist regimes that emerged in the inter-war period? I think it would be most accurate to speak of two distinct waves of regime formation, which could be cumulative or not, consisting of a first wave in the early 20s and a second wave in the mid and late 30s. What features do we see in this first wave?
  1. They are typically weak on ideological coherence, drawing on religious, national, or aristocratic loyalties, but without any strong claim about how they will transform society. 
  2. The racial elements that will later become prominent are less emphasized - partaking of racism, certainly, but in most cases no more prominently than did liberalism. (The importance of antisemitism would grow over the course of the 1920s in almost all cases, as literature like the Protocols circulated among rightist elites.)
  3. They have a clear ideological unity instead around anticommunism, and in a number of cases are established in the immediate consequence of a defeated communist revolution. Networks of demobilized veterans, especially officers, were prominent in their founding.
  4. They cooperated with pre-existing liberal and conservative elites, who in many cases maintained a degree of political freedom and ability to debate policies. They also cooperated with the international liberal order, which saw them as a valuable anticommunist development - even though most of the leadership and activists behind them were generally not "doctrinal" liberals.
More can be articulated, but in general, examples of this can be seen in the postwar regime consolidation in Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Spain (the de Rivera regime), Japan, and elsewhere.

By contrast to the first wave, which was a form of non-liberal anti-communism, the second wave can be characterized as distinctively anti-liberal anti-communism, where rejection of the liberal international order led by Britain and the United States opened the door to radical militarization, ethnic cleansing, activist economic policies, and the replacement of prior bourgeois and aristocratic elites by party activists. And this second wave of regime development frequently occurred within regimes that had gone through the first wave, as in the mid-30s radicalization of Japan and Italy. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

when is virtue signaling bad?

Although it originated among the most vice-signaling corners of the right, the concept of "virtue signaling" has spread, in part because it usefully describes some behavior. However, it tends to be packaged with an assumption that this behavior is a bad thing that ought be discouraged, or at least lamented. On the contrary, most virtue signaling is good, and we should try to foster a culture that provides more of it in more effective ways, even if a subset of it is bad and should indeed be discouraged.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

the labor trilemma

Any two of the following things can persist together: private ownership of the means of production, full employment, and nonpolitical disciplining of workers. Liberal, social democratic, and fascist attempted solutions to the problems posed by capitalism all illustrate this, as well as the unique political problems posed by each.

Monday, January 2, 2017

disambiguating idpol

"Identity politics" can refer to two distinct things: issues relating to race, sex, &c.; and to the abandonment of material for symbolic concerns. Confusing these leads to bad politics.

Especially in left-liberal spaces, but also in left spaces as well, "identity politics" has come up as a subject of disputation without as much becoming an object of analysis. This is unfortunate, because I believe this is a paradigm case of a fake disagreement rather than a real one - or, at least, a real one that is being avoided to have a fake one. At best, I believe, the "identity politics are the problem" and "we cannot afford to abandon identity politics" are both affirming truths that are obvious on reflection, given what they explicitly or implicitly mean by "identity politics;" at worst, they proceed by elision into a motte-and-bailey switch to imply the falsity of the other obvious truth. If the former case is bad because it implies a lot of wasted words, the latter is especially bad, as it would commit us either to an economism that refuses to acknowledge and address real oppression other than class oppression[1], or to a liberalism that treats language use and top-level representation as a substitute for addressing those real oppressions. Neither has any place for the existence of movements like Black Lives Matter - or even such a mainstream fixture as the reproductive rights movement - and so I think the majority of both leftists and left-liberals would unhesitatingly reject both on reflection.

This failed discourse involves confusing the two "identity politics" in two ways. The first, shallow, way - one common to many failed discourses of this sort - is for one side to attack all X being Y, while the other defends some X being Y. It is simultaneously true that our politics should, say, correct bigotry, and also that a politics which offers nothing but the correction of bigotry is deeply impoverished.

The more interesting confusion is, I think, the connection of class with the material, and race, gender, &c. with the ideal. But these latter are, in contemporary America as elsewhere, real social relations organizing the real division of labor and authority - just as much as the real social relations of class produce felt identities that are often appealed to on purely symbolic lines that fail to affect their real basis. In other words, whether politics is about "identity" or not can be about the kind of social distinction that is addressed - class vs. other things - or it can be about whether these things are discussed at the level of interests or of symbolic respect, affiliations, &c. To illustrate with a crude schematic:

material ideal 
class card check politicians wearing hardhats 
sex  abortion rights  manspreading 
race  police brutality cultural appropriation 

Lest this division appear excessively dismissive towards the realm of the "ideal," four caveats.

First, things straddle the division in practice, and even if they did not, we can mistake one for the other. Derogatory epithets and bathroom access can appear superficially all about symbolism if you don't have the right - to use the "idpol" term - "lived experience," but if you do, in the right context using the wrong bathroom or hearing the wrong word can put you in justified fear of very concrete violence. (Since I not only demographically but personally tend towards deep cluelessness, I am really not in any position to pronounce any particular thing purely symbolic.)

Second, even if something were to only matter insofar as it hurts or elevates people's feelings, that's still a form of mattering. (Indeed, feelings are arguably the only thing that matters in the first-order sense, although of course we have instrumental reasons to care about a great many other things as well.) If someone says something hurts their feelings that's a prima facia reason not to do it, even when their explanation of why they dislike it confuses you. We can of course ask questions about countervailing reasons to go through with it anyway, and of what to prioritize, but: at this juncture, with almost everybody trying to perform a certain kind of insensitivity in response to perceived oversensitivity,[2] it perhaps actually has to be said that making people sad is bad, all else being equal.

Third, symbolic politics in the broad sense is an ordinary part of human interaction. We want to signal affiliation with those we want to ingratiate ourselves with, we want to see prestigious people symbolically affiliating themselves with us, and we trust people more when they show signs of such affiliation, and everything flows more smoothly when there is a baseline level of cultural simpatico. This is not an excuse for everything causally entangled with it - from the bad kinds of "identity politics" to exclusionary ethnocentrism - but it does mean that we ought be realistic about the inevitable communicative role that symbolism is going to play. Politicians are always going to wear hardhats, or study accents, or reference your favorite band, or whatever, and that's fine. The problems, again, arise when this substitutes for the material side of the equation.

Fourth, the constriction of the political to the symbolic, ideal realm (which was never total!) is not the result of individual bad choices by liberal politicians and intellectuals, but concomitant with the neoliberal transformation of the role of politics (which itself has deeper roots in the response to the last major crisis period of capitalism.) If the allocation of resources is to be legitimately performed by a combination of technocratic management and the free interplay of market forces, then politics will increasingly resemble shadow theatre about individual scandals, group prestige, and symbolic respect. Thus, as we seek to expand the sphere of politics, we should not operate on the assumption that the only thing standing in the way of our doing so is the bad consciousness of the political class.

[1] I hesitate to use the term "class reductionism" here because that itself invites another elision: between the claim that racial, sexual, etc oppression are causally traceable to class relations, and the claim that only those oppressive relations that exist or matter are those that directly show themselves as class. I am not in a position to say whether the first is true of false, only that, in addition to the second being false on its face, it is also false on its face that the first implies the second.

[2] You know, the  protesting-too-much "HAHAHA ARE YOU TRIGGERED YOU SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE, WANT A SAFE SPACE YOU BABY???" stuff? Yes, like many bad things, this came out of the right, but now I see it all on the time on the left, especially if it can be thrown back on its originators, or people associable in some way with the same.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Welcome to Vulgar Material!

This is a blog of political, mainly Marxist, analysis. As there are many such things, almost all published by people smarter than the author of this one, it perhaps behooves me to state my areas of imagined comparative advantage. I hope to focus on:
  • Analysis of the historical far right, in all its aspects. (As this overlaps with my areas of professional interest, this technically counts as an academic blog.)
  • Analysis of the contemporary far right, and in particular of contemporary far right thought.
  • Interventions into contemporary left debates, especially where I suspect people are talking past one another. While my critique of rightist thought exists to better help leftists understand our enemy (and, where applicable, benefit from their real insights), the point of the critique of leftist thought is to improve the quality of our own debate. There are many places where we disagree with each other over real questions of fact and value, and the rectification of names does not allow us to cut past this - but it does allow us to pinpoint where the real disagreement lies, and, sometimes, to find that it may not be very great.
  • Bridging the inferential distance between interested liberals, especially those trained in a bit of neoclassical economics or analytic philosophy, and some concepts common on the left. At this moment, it seems that many liberals are becoming both more disillusioned about existing liberal institutions and more interested in socialism and other forms of radical social change, and it would be a shame if this curiosity were stymied for reasons of presentation. (Of course, I do not pretend that my own way of presenting things wouldn't confuse, alienate, or bore other people as well; I just hope that there's a subset for whom it is actually enlightening.)
It is sometimes said that fascism is not to be debated, but smashed. I would instead say that fascism is to be smashed - and, in particular, its street presence ought consistently be met with greater intimidating force - but that the "is not to be debated" often cedes the field to far right ideas in the world of debate. Their ideas need to be countered, and to be countered, they need to be taken seriously and understood. As a result - and as a result of my own stylistic habits - this is likely to appear more dispassionate on the subject than many other places with similar antifascist commitments. If this were a Serious Publication with an audience of many people without serious political commitments, this could be argued to carry the danger of legitimation. As it is, I do not think that a danger at present - though on this and every other subject, I welcome criticism.

Despite its title, this blog is not dogmatically devoted to a merely vulgar form of materialism. Indeed, sometimes its devotion to a merely vulgar form of materialism can be downright heterodox.